Books

Like Drawing Blood

You may already be familiar with Eduardo C. Corral or have heard of his debut collection, Slow Lightning, published by Yale University Press this past spring. If you read poetry blogs or follow the parlor talk on Facebook, maybe you’ve come across Corral’s name in the context of a controversy that erupted last April surrounding comments Corral made about a certain queer poetry salon. Or maybe, if you’re like me, you’ve followed his blog, Lorcaloca, for years, getting to know and rely on his sweet and biting online persona. This is why I nearly gleeked with excitement after hearing his book received the Yale Younger Poets Prize, having followed the book’s journey the way one might watch friends trying to conceive. Finishing a book is not easy. Finishing a book as perfect and visionary as Slow Lightning must be like drawing blood.

Begin with the book’s cover: a suggestive coil of oily and luminous snakes, three heads moving in opposite directions, indifferent to one another yet deeply entangled. Dangerous and seductive. This could be a frame for the collection in many ways. One might say the book is about desire and language, how both estrange and strangle as they tether, as in the poem “Poem After Frida Kahlo’s Painting The Broken Column,” a gorgeous meditation on the painting and and museum gift shop lore around Frida’s legacy:

Once a man offered me his heart and I said no. Not because I didn’t love him. Not because he was a beast or white— I couldn’t love him. Do you understand? In bed while we slept, our bodies inches apart, the dark between our flesh a wick. It was burning down. And he couldn’t feel it.

The lines implicate a confession and prophesy: what we attach ourselves to in the end will consume us. Spanning twelve sections, the poem’s response to the painting doubles as an interrogation of form and authority, pulling light and blood out of the image, allowing what is fixed in the painting, or in Frida’s souvenir images, to move and refract. The poem serves as a spine for the collection that often deconstructs narratives around race, immigration, and language. The referencing of Frida can be read as a self-conscious act of devotion. Corral seems to position her as a patron saint, creating a kind of meta-transparency, revealing the collection as a made object. Like Frida’s work, it is self-portrait and mythology, while at the same time he addresses how the image has been misused and distorted, the only way in which an image is ever truly two-dimensional.

The theme of breaking open the cage of representations and liberating characters from their stereotypes is present throughout the collection. Corral conjures icons, heroes and myths from all the corners of popular American culture, giving them unexpected voices, or using their words to tell new stories. Jose Montoya, Cesar Chavez, and Bugs Bunny are summoned, as well as stories from the news. In the poem “In Colorado My Father Scoured and Stacked Dishes,” Corral gives us the mythology of his father as a creation of cultural stereotypes as well as his own:

Frijolero. Greaser. In Tucson he branded
cattle. He slept in a stable. The horse blankets

oddly fragrant: wood smoke, lilac. He’s an illegal.
I’m an illegal-American.

In addition to humor, there is a hyper-consciousness of language used to create the image of the father, how flesh and blood can be made cartoon. We also see how flimsy the cage of language, how pathetic the systems used to assert dominance, how naming is the only way into and out of these boxes.

Beyond the ideas about language and identity, exciting for how honestly and refreshingly they are retold, I fall in love with the lyricism and layering of imagery. It is the muscularity and confidence of syntax as well as the open heart and swoon-worthy beauty of the line that keeps Slow Lightning at my bedside table, next to my notebook where I might hope to summon the same breathless energy. Poems such as “Watermark,” an elegaic piece about his mother, reveal Corral’s mastery of metaphor, a winding of the figurative and surreal:

The first man she saw naked

was the rain. The dark of her knees

a watermark.

Socorro, Socorro.

If I dream I’m cupping her face

with my hands, I wake up holding

the skull

of a wolf.

What I love about Corral is that he doesn’t stay stuck in any mode. Master of tonal shifts, he can maneuver us from a sincere and simple metaphor to a narrative punchline, as in the poem “Temple in Tea Pot (Aqui Esta el Detall)”:

In a photograph she is a scattering of jade.

~

I said: Oh
the things that
come out of your mouth.

She said: Oh
the things
that go into your
mouth.

These moves steal my heart completely. Both modes are authentic and add to one another rather than diminishing the sense of trust created through disclosure and vulnerability. Some poets’ cleverness often repels, revealing a fear of intimacy rather than a welcoming wink. Corral’s wit includes even as it scorns.

The beauty and virtuosity of the collection is how it arrives whole, symmetrical and swerving, the themes, characters, and images circling and reconnecting. The book itself is interactive, poems sprawling across the page vertically, forcing us to angle are necks as we are made aware of the book as an object in our hands, that is at once static and fluid, that the text has a life that tells us how it wants to be handles like a lover who tells us how he wants to be held. And like a good lover, the collection stimulates at every level, from the physical to the cerebral and spiritual. There is always a sense of reframing and plunging into the image, revealing what shadow or song seethes underneath, as in the poem “Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome,” which arrives near the end of the book:

Once
I tore into the torso of my cello
& discovered

its heart: a pair of horse shoes
caked with red clay.
The mules surround me:

necks bent,
nostrils pluming out different lengths
of breath.

I toss off my robe. A mule
curls its tongue around
my erection. I throw
my head back,
& stare at the slowest lightning,
the stars.

The collection succeeds in so many ways but mainly in its seamlessness. It is restless and searching, the result of what the book itself praises: patience and allegiance to one’s own shadow.

So indulge me in a fantasy. If I had to choose any contemporary poet to get stuck with on a shuttle bus or take shots with at the bar, it would unquestionably be Corral. I imagine he would tell me if I had something in my teeth, call me out when I said something ignorant. He might even dare me to make out with the bartender. Most importantly, the conversation would wander from the poetic to the profane, the personal and unbearable to the hopeful and beautiful. Reading Slow Lightning will have to do for now. Swoon.

Kendra DeColo received her MFA in poetry from Vanderbilt. She lives in Nashville.