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Reviewed by:
  • Guillotine by Eduardo C. Corral
  • John Wall Barger (bio)
Guillotine, by Eduardo C. Corral (Graywolf, 2020), 72 pp.

Federico García Lorca—in his famous lecture "Theory and Play of the Duende," which he presented in Argentina in 1933—describes duende as a goblin that "will not approach at all if he does not see the possibility of death, if he is not convinced he will circle death's house." Duende was Lorca's way of broaching the heightened emotion, grit, and struggle implicit in his favorite artwork. Duende, he said, is not an angel or a [End Page 142] muse—both of which are far too polite!—but rather, "A mysterious power that all may feel and no philosophy can explain." "All love songs," says Nick Cave, "must contain duende. For the love song is never truly happy."

Poems with duende can trigger us. They are impolite. They surprise us with their capacity for pain. They shock us with a "sting, speck, cut, little hole," as Barthes described the punctum in his favorite photographs. Although the word duende is not mentioned specifically in Eduardo C. Corral's Guillotine, his poems are rife with it. Corral's images disturb, smeared in the blood and mud of real-world struggle.

Before I'd read Guillotine, I heard Corral recite "Around Every Circle Another Can Be Drawn" at a little bar in San Antonio (at AWP 2020, an off-site reading). Suddenly, right there in the room, I felt "the possibility of death." The poem begins with a flamenco-stomp of an image which I think would have made Lorca proud:

In tenth grade, I kissed a guy who called me a faggot once or twice a week.                                        I still see his voice:six hummingbirds nailed to a wall.          In an olive grove, outside of Fuente Grande, in 1936,a teacher, two bullfighters &   Federico García Lorca were shot to death by fascist soldiers.                                    During the Reagan years,I sweated out new language.          Kaposi sarcoma. Febrile. Oral candidiasis.                              Last summer, in Sevilla, I flirted with a stranger.He pinched my belly, walked away, laughing.                                                      Later, along Calle Arjona,a remix of "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" poured out of a passing taxicab.                                                            "Shut the fuck up, Cyndi Lauper!"I yelled. Mala copa. Joder.      The soldier who shot Lorca bragged he fired two bullets into his assfor being queer.      For years, I desired a man who didn't desire me.                                                   He was gentle with my lust.(I never thanked him. I'm thanking him now.)                But once, in a splinter-rich booth, he held my hand.A kindness I can't forgive.

The poem juxtaposes the speaker's painful experience of growing up gay in the 1980's and the story of Lorca, murdered by Franco's soldiers during [End Page 143] the Spanish Civil War. After describing Lorca's death, the speaker confesses, "For years, I desired a man who didn't desire me." Corral often flashes, without warning, back and forth from violence to tenderness. So "Circle" links the personal and the public, demonstrating the violent repercussions of being gay in our world.

Duende is a useful panhandle (way to pick up an unwieldy thing), I think, for talking about art. When we discuss duende, the conversation moves away from the talent or genius (or lack thereof) of the poet, to what the poem gives off, as if of its own accord. The conversation moves from psychology to myth: the poet did not force the poem to happen but waited (through many edits) for the goblin to catch a whiff of what the poet was laying down. If the goblin wasn't drawn to the poem, then it would simply creep away toward the next house. Duende doesn't care who the poet is or what the poet believes, but only that the poem reeks of human struggle (and if that entails the images Lorca cherished—the wolves and horsemen and honey of Andalusia—all the better!). Corral's first book, Slow Lightning (Yale University Press, 2012), already contained this "deep song," as Lorca called the Roma tradition from which flamenco and bullfighting and duende emerged. But...


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