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  • Invocations of the Body
  • Bryon Dickon (bio)
Museum of the Americas
J. Michael Martinez
Penguin Books
112 Pages; Print, $20.00

In his third collection of poems, Museum of the Americas, the speakers of J. Michael Martinez tell a narrative in the language of trans-historical bodies. Each poem in the collection is an exhibit, rich in allegory, and coalesces narrative and history to display the sociopolitical realities of colonialism and the immigrant experience. In addition to combining history and story-telling, Martinez also expertly incorporates literary arts with visual ones, with a photograph, a casa painting, or a postcard opening each section. These various ways of telling come together in Museum of the Americas to communicate the historical and transnational rigors associated with the bodies of immigrants.

In the poem "Instructions for Identifying 'Illegal' Immigrants", the speaker invites the reader to "Consider moving through / the preface to home." Although this poem does not open the collection, its invitation begins to shape the narrative of what is to come. In Museum of the Americas, the body is the magnetic center of the poems, representing both historical and national identity. Even as those boundaries are crossed, the body remains in sharp focus throughout the poems. In this poem, the speaker says, "the immigrant will be / dried leaves amongst owl eggs / & cradles / of lacquered oak." The speaker here strikes a bargain between transcending national boundaries and maintaining a sense of self. The speaker accomplishes this through frequent invocations of the body and flesh throughout the poem. In what started as a set of instructions for identifying immigrant bodies, the meaning of the poem morphs into a manual for identifying and understanding the intersections between their bodies and identities.

Martinez's collection offers a profound reading of the body through poems and photographs. The second section is accompanied by a postcard by Walter H. Horne entitled Execution in Mexico. The rest of the poems are in dialogue with this and other postcards published by Horne, depicting the violence committed against Latinx bodies during the Mexican Revolution. In this way, Martinez's speakers depict a history of violence by engaging with images of battered bodies across national and historical boundaries. The speaker in "The Mexican War Photo Postcard Company" prefaces the poems that come after by providing a brief history of the Horne post cards without sacrificing the writer's magnificent talent for rich allegory and lyricism. The speaker takes on the function of a docent, describing the images, often in vivid detail. This section does much to show off Martinez's poetic talent for incorporating vibrant imagery, bringing life to the photographs and casa paintings throughout his well-crafted collection. By the end of the section, the reader truly gets a sense that the subjects of these poems (and the postcards they describe) are anchored to "the dialectic between Self / as Subject & Self / as Object."

The penultimate section of the book largely features the work's titular poem "Museum of America." In this poem, the speaker recounts the narrative of what is assumed to be General Lopez de Santa Anna's wood and cork leg. The poem combines historical narrative with wartime mythology, making the wood and cork leg become larger than life, representing "where the migrant body . . . gains political / currency only insofar as it is also a nationally unanchored art object." The leg of General Lopez endures a journey through and between trans-historical narratives as it passes from [End Page 23] Mexico across trans-historical borders vis-à-vis an Illinois sergeant, who exhibited the leg "at county fairs and festivals for 'a dime a peek.'" Through various means, the prosthetic leg appears among the exhibits of P.T. Barnum's American Museum. General Lopez's leg finally meets its final resting place at the Illinois State Military Museum.

The way in which the leg is treated as an exhibition speaks volumes about the voyeuristic way in which transnational bodies are viewed. This poem showcases Martinez's skillful alchemy of poetry and creative nonfiction by demonstrating how the removed prosthetic of a Mexican body grows to almost mythological proportions. On the other hand, the exhibition of the...


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pp. 23-24
Launched on MUSE
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