- An Onion of Wars by Tony Medina
Tony Medina, like his predecessor and coeditor the recently deceased Louis Reyes Rivera, can easily be described as a people’s poet. His poetry collections—No Noose Is Good Noose, Sermons from the Smell of a Carcass Condemned to Begging, Committed to Breathing, My Old Man Was Always on the Lam, Broke on Ice, An Onion of Wars—offer a wonderful glimpse into the mind of a poet who doesn’t make easy distinctions between external and internal worlds, drives, and impulses. Or, as Jonathan Scott notes, Medina’s work is “pluralistic and multivalent because the reality he lives in is pluralistic and multivalent.” Medina’s poems demonstrate an adroit, politically conscious, stylistically inventive hand in reflecting upon and depicting an ever-shifting (slightly) political, economic, and racial landscape, and are as subtle, manipulative, dangerous, hilarious, cocky, and dynamic as the worlds he invites readers to hear and see. No one is released from this poet’s often scathing and deeply compassionate pen. We’re all on the line, all visible in this poet’s global gaze.
Ironically, Medina’s poetry does not often seem to be read as globally relevant. Searching for reviews and criticisms of this poet’s significant output, I was surprised to find very few essays or interviews that lay bare not only the politics of Medina’s work but also the stylistic and formal choices he makes.
A quick flip through Onion reveals a variety of visual choices, from the skinny, one-stanza, center-of-the-page poem, to the step-down triplet, to prose, to qua-trains, to couplets. There are sonnets, blues poems, terza rimas, rhyming couplets, and a formal and thematic response to Gwendolyn Brooks’s “We Real Cool.”
Two examples in Onion that reveal Medina’s formal skill and inventiveness are “Bread” and “Quartering Time.” “Bread,” a ghazal, strictly adheres to the formal scheme; however, it marks its own territory by refusing to call upon the self, subtly connecting the couplets, and creating an internal rhyme scheme. Medina’s use of images is complex and very carefully orchestrated through a series of echoes and reinterpretations. In “Bread,” for instance, we see the way images of bread and bullets recur in multiple ways: the “bullets of bread,” “bullet casings resembling bits of bread,” and the “time without shooting.” Later, we see the same linguistic play with children and birds: “[c]hildren [who] flock like pigeons,” “children that pluck,” and “the long beak of death.” And finally, we shift to cracked skulls: “tiny skull[s],” “clear hole in the skull,” and the “cracked teapot skull.” The narrative is clear, and if couplets were to be taken out of context or rearranged, they would lose their emotional energy. Medina’s skillful ghazal [End Page 168] changes the form, makes it his own, and uses the ideology of the ghazal to craft a truly globally political poem. For example, if I read each of the eight couplets as autonomous, I can relocate the atrocities, placing them geographically in eight different countries, neighborhoods, and eras.
“Quartering Time” also deviates from the original idea for the form, this time a terza rima. This is a beautiful, searing, and quiet poem that is, perhaps, a response to the Quartering Acts of 1765 and 1774. Something is at war in this poem, and the body (that of the baby, mother, country, and countryman’s desires) is embattled. The form is often sliced into; the established rhyme gets wrenched from the right to the left, and the verbs jarringly appear perfectly aligned in the middle of each line. The baby who is first “released from the womb” is later “plucked / Fledgling from its nest, with ravenous intent.” The players are victims and victimizers (a too-easy structure to which Medina’s poems themselves often fall victim). The deepest pain in this poem is that question which often gets asked but for which there is no easy answer: what’s worse, being born to live in an utterly oppressive state or to die early and forego the trials and...