A most Latin American Latino

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Poema establishes the Colombian-born Maurice Kilwein Guevara as the most ‘Latin American’ of Latino poets in the US, argues Francisco Aragón

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Poema
Maurice Kilwein Guevara
2009, University of Arizona Press
96 pages

Reviewed by Francisco Aragón

FEDERICO GARCÍA LORCA titled his first book Libro de poemas. Luis Buñuel frequently filmed insects. To see POEMA, therefore, in plain white against stark black, hovering above leaf cutter ants hefting their green cargo — as book cover’s go — evoked and telegraphed what one might find in Maurice Kilwein Guevara’s latest volume of poems.

For Guevara’s collection relies on a number of aesthetic “springboards”—from literature to music to the visual arts, including a poem that appears to offer a guided view of a painting. A third of the way into “Poema cubano con cara vieja” (p. 26), something recognizable emerges:

Face note
Net of creases
Come come
Comes
Comes out
Crops up
A stogie
Sprouts
A brown stump

One senses that this visual work reveals itself in stages, that it borders on the abstract and the figurative, that viewing it—like reading the poem itself—is a deliberate process of discovery, though there are a couple of lines that seem to function as crutches lest the reader not grasp what is being depicted. The very last line seems to wrap things up, perhaps too neatly:

A brown face comes out of the white plaster, stump of puro in his mouth

More challenging, but no less a pleasure to puzzle through, is “Two Poets This Morning and Me in My Red Boxer Shorts” (p. 12), where a pair of literary artists—one living, one dead—are inserted into a scene that seems to announce a banal task in the first line:

The gray-brown hare I carried horizontally at the end of the spade

The speaker’s about to dispose of a small animal, perhaps bury it in his yard. And yet Guevara’s carefully chosen line break serves to jar, but also embodies another layer of inquiry (How did this animal die?). The poem continues:

was headless,
the dark,
jewel-red opening
of the chest
was summery with larvae.

But before one has a chance to decipher this tableau of carnage, we’re told:

Elizabeth Bishop was weeding in our garden in a sienna blouse,
scrutinizing an archipelago of tiny, light-green thistles.
She was singing um pouco de português
when Bernadette Mayer said C’mere
and pointed into the hole.

Marianne Moore’s “imaginary gardens with real toads in them” come to mind—in this case, a one-page poem where two unlike poets inhabit a plot of poetry. Had Guevara been reading Bishop and Mayer round about the time this piece took shape? And what to make of certain enigmatic lines such as:

The night before my wife smelled fish.

Or, towards the end:

Could it hear the micro-sonic frenzy of diaphanous wings?

Might this suggest the circumstances of the hare’s demise—a bird of prey swooping down with claws at the ready? It’s a poem that progresses within its own narrative logic—and therefore easy to “follow”—all the while playing, or working against, what one might call “the real,” or “the believable plot.” A lot of the poems in Poema function this way, including pieces with such titles as “Against Metaphor” (for Santiago Calarava) (p. 5), “Click” (p. 7) and “Mr. Berryman Has Injured His Foot Putting Out a Fire” (p. 13). There are also four other works that use the term “poema” in their titles which, one realizes, doesn’t conjure Lorca but rather the Catalán artist Joan Brossa who, in many respects, is an apt motif: Brossa, in addition to practicing his visual and plastic poetry, was wonderfully promiscuous in his cultivation of various art forms. His figure and multiplicity surfaces early in the collection in “Joan Brossa as the Emerald Moth Discharging Energy” (p. 10). Here is the closing passage:

This is the strophe starring Joan Brossa
as the panicked emerald moth,
Joan Brossa en España, ensnared,
Joan Brossa being eaten by a wet strawberry,
Joan Brossa writing POEMA on a clear lightbulb,
Joan Brossa swimming the butterfly,
Joan Brossa a shape of color balancing
on a blush orchid in tierra caliente,
Joan Brossa at twilight staring up at Gederme,
Joan Brossa’s statue with mountainous feet and legs,
genitalia and twising torso transparent liquid glass
with buzzing filament.

What wakes you
just as you begin to dream of Heidegger
in a clouded field of summer chives?

Indeed, what appeals throughout Poema is this extended dialogue with a rich roster of artists and thinkers alike. There’s a poem called “Filching Freud” (p. 28) and another, in prose, that centers around the vocal talents of a singer, but which also—because it’s titled “History” (p. 25)—ever so subtly conjures the complicated past of a continent. It opens:

In the early days of the last century a Jesus Christ lizard ran out of my great-grandmother Policarpa’s pink, almost cerise, vagina and across the wide Guayas River.

And so the reader is plunged into a “magical realist” scene. But it’s mostly a poem about memory and how memory works, where the speaker comes upon a “reptile egg” on the banks of a river in Nicaragua: crouching towards it, he closes his eyes and sees (remembers):

antique loudspeakers, crackling. The leader had just entered the balcony where a man was singing a bolero.

“History” reveals, then, a politician (dictator?) who has on his payroll an artist who entertains the masses, but also a pol who has peculiar talents of this own:

The leader released a ruby-colored lizard from his left sleeve, and it zipped down the side of the building. There was a roar of approval.

But the poem returns us, at the end, to the speaker’s present—still transfixed at river’s edge where a

mosquito was removing blood from my ankle. Still, I couldn’t stop listening.

How beautiful it was: the bolero, the guitar, the orchid-pink voice of Julio Jaramillo.

It’s work, then, that engages history and politics through art. “The Sound of Glass is Unmistakable” (p. 54), another emblematic piece in this vein, reads like a metaphorical micro history of South America, where Bolívar’s dream of a united continent ends, shattered:

Sisters, brothers, cousins, uncles, even my mother who normally avoids the atomic sunlight like a movie star, scurry out of a hundred holes to witness the splintered cart and mangled horses, the twin condors circling, the shards of blue sky everywhere.

The range of artists and eras Guevara engages is admirably ample, and the sensibility throughout—its engagement with what I’ll call more avant-garde techniques in that they resist facile narrative, and the allusions to various events in the history of the region— places the collection, in my view, within a tradition that is arguably as Latin American as it is American. Put another way, Poema establishes the Colombian-born Guevara as the most “Latin American” of Latino poets in the United States, if not simply one of our most cosmopolitan poets, period.

And yet: if the city of Pittsburgh was a more predominant presence in Guevara’s earlier volumes, the city of steel and bridges, where Guevara was raised, continues to hold an indelible place in his imagination. “Bright Pittsburgh Morning” (p. 17) begins:

This must happen just after I die: At sunrise
I bend over my grandparents’ empty house in Hazelwood
And pull it out of the soft cindered earth by the Mon River.

Even here, though, his method insists on a narrative logic of its own—divorced from a more conventional reality.

Guevara’s various subject matter is matched by the plethora of styles and methods he commands. It’s no accident that among the writers he sends up is Gertrude Stein (“What Baby Gertrude Heard,” p. 30), who is a useful point of reference when surveying the array of poetries that nourish Poema. “Little people sitting around roasting little elephants” (p. 47), whose lack of punctuation and fluid syntax reminds one of passages in Joyce, above all Molly Bloom’s monologue, winds down with a passing reference to 21st century gadgetry:

I can see a face can you see a face I see a million stars from the other world no it’s a face you’re right it’s got a pimply forehead the furry oaf I see it too see the pores that open and close see the streaky blue tusks I think it’s frowning should I get the digital camera

In short, there’s much in Poema to relish. If it weren’t for the book’s all inclusive title, one could argue that—as a cohesive sequence of poems—the net Guevara casts might be too wide. For example, “Red Brow of Moon” (p. 41), an arresting poem inspired by the violence of the Khmer Rouge (and dedicated to a Cambodian flutist) and “Long Time Ago in Chicago John Prine Used to Be My Friend’s Mailman” (p. 50), the poem whose execution engaged me the least, didn’t add to, or enhance the collection’s arc. Nonetheless, it’s a minor quibble in the context of this gesture that fleshes out Guevara’s skill at deploying whatever mode or technique a particular poem requires, whether in prose or verse. Here he is, to close, handling something as timeless as the passage of time, a depiction of light:

this moment of a dozen breaths
when the desert light is crushed
between lavender and auburn
( “Cholula,” p. 76)

Francisco Aragón is an author, editor and educator. He directs Letras Latinas, the literary program of the Institute for Latino Studies at the University of Notre Dame, where he edits Latino Poetry Review. He also edits Canto Cosas, a book series out of Bilingual Press for Latino and Latina poets. Visit his website.

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