Johns Hopkins University Press
Reviewed by:
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 where some poems in Slow Lightning show glimpses of duende (in "Caballero," the speaker describes a lover: "Once a year / he eats a spoonful of dirt / from his father's grave"), duende has made itself at home in Guillotine.

Guillotine is made up, roughly, of three sequences: first, an epic 30-page poem called "Testament Scratched into a Water Station Barrel"; second, a drop-house sequence (describing immigrants held hostage in houses); third, unrequited love poems. To me, the centerpiece of Guillotine is "Testament," which (after the preludial "Ceremonial") ushers us into the book. "Testament" begins with a play on John Berryman's "Dream Song 14" ("Life, friends, is boring"): "Apá, dying is boring. To pass las horas, / I carve / our last name / all over my body." But instead of a middle-aged white man (Berryman), we have a Latino "body." From there the poem spirals outward and outward in a cacophony of desperate voices. And what we think of as binaries—sacred and profane, personal and general, inner and outer, Spanish and English—Corral winds together and makes whole.

"Testament" is a song for Mexican and Central American immigrants crossing the desert, who "Run / for the border" into America. The voices are "wetbacks" ("tu Trump / god / is god touching me // ay México / bom / ven por tu gente die wetbacks / die") whose lives are violent, full of struggle: "there's a harmonica tattooed on my collarbone / I can feel death's mouth on it lips wiry & hot." "The coyote was the third to die. / Your money / is still in his wallet." The duende hovers near such images, sniffing them, fascinated. Corral, in his generous endnotes, explains that "Testament" is ekphrastic, responding to a photograph by Delilah Montoya, "Humane Borders Water Station," depicting water station barrels in southern Arizona, placed there by humanitarians to save the lives of dehydrated immigrants after their journeys across the desert. "I kept [End Page 144] imagining," Corral says, "stories, rants, wishes & confessions that might be scratched into the blue of the barrels . . . in my mind, this one water station barrel morphed into a three-dimensional communal space, a lyrical expanse scored with human utterance."

Corral—originally from Casa Grande, Arizona, part of the Sonoran Desert—knows his deserts. The deserts of Guillotine are both real and imaginary, horrific and visionary. Corral paints a vivid blood-spattered portrait of coyotes smuggling humans across the border: "In México, bodies / disappear. Bodies, in the Sonoran desert, / are everywhere. / A headless corpse / sporting a T-shirt / that reads: Superstar. / A severed hand, / black yarn around / the thumb." Equally, the desert is the psychic stage for Guillotine. A dream space. A bizarre, impossible, inward space, where "I drop my rosary / it scurries away like a scorpion." Its rules are distinct from the outside world. In "Sentence," the persona escapes his cruel lover (who "likes it when I bleed") into the desert: "I flee now & then alone in the desert for months / a nomad in a kimono of pressed-together dust."

Sometimes Corral seems to appear in the flesh ("I can still feel / his thumb—/ warm, / burled—moving / in my mouth"), but more often he is the spectral kimono-wearing witness in the desert, among the mesquite, the scorpions, the corpses. The second part of "Circle" begins, "Diminished but quick / I sprint into the desert / toward / a dust devil." As if the speaker were retreating from homophobic violence, toward a comforting loneliness: "a circle / whose center is / everywhere / & its circumference / nowhere." In the desert of "Testament," the speaker has a terrible vision of America and his own corpse: "Taste / the feeling. / Siempre Coca-Cola. / America's / real choice—I gathered & smashed bottles. / Apá, follow / the glass / snaking from / the barrel to a mesquite to find my body. / Lips blue, / skin thick / with scabs." The deep song of Guillotine emanates from the desert.

And there is even, in the desert, a horrible humor. Corral frequently plays with immigrant jokes: "if you see / a Mexican // walking down / the road & // hit him / just right // you can grease / your truck"; "If you think I look good naked wait until you see me dead." Do the incorporeal personas speak with venom, or in a tongue-in-cheek moment of comic relief beside the life-giving water barrels? Corral sometimes places consecrated images in a vulnerable human context, creating a sense of ludic surprise: "Before fleeing Toluca I left a glass of water / in front of a tarnished mirror my favorite pietà." The irony built into Corral's lines (headless corpse with "Superstar" T-shirt) is biting. The kind of morose humor which makes us laugh because the contrary is unthinkable.

Other contemporary poets, like Javier Zamora, write powerfully about the immigrant experience. Zamora's Unaccompanied tells the story of a nine-year-old boy on a terrifying journey alone from El Salvador to the Texas border ("officers yelled / on your fucking knees"). It's a riveting book. But where Zamora's story remains personal and homogenous, Guillotine depicts a haunting theater of the desert, transcending personal experience. [End Page 145] Corral's terrible desert, like Shane McCrae's metaphor of the zookeeper in In the Language of My Captor, resounds beyond his own story. He points out for us, as Lorca said, "the mystery, the roots fastened in the mire that we all know and all ignore," in the desert of America.

John Wall Barger

JOHN WALL BARGER is the author of four books of poetry, including The Mean Game (Palimpsest, 2019). His poems have appeared in American Poetry Review, Cincinnati Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Poetry Ireland Review, and elsewhere. He lives in West Philadelphia, and teaches creative writing at the University of the Arts.

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