by José Angel Araguz
In an interview, the essayist Richard Rodriguez tells a story about Edward James Olmos visiting a high school in California. In the story, Olmos turns to the room full of young Latin@ faces and asks: “How many of you are proud to be Indian,” to which the young crowd applauds and hollers in approval. Olmos then asks: “How many of you are proud to be Spanish?” Here, the young crowd responds with an awkward silence.
Olmos’s questions and the youths’s two different responses play out the crucible in which many Latin@s must work out ideas of identity for themselves. In working out one’s sense of latinidad, a person must reconcile not just the history of the oppressed natives that fell under the conquistadores, but must also learn to reconcile the history of the oppressor, and how that too makes up part of the identity and history of Latin@s today. I share this story as a way into discussing the poems of Juan Morales’s The Siren World, a collection unafraid to reckon with both personal and cultural history.
There are places marked by no plaque.
No committee petitions for historical status,
but something happened here –
These lines, from the poem “New World Map,” point to the central engine of The Siren World. These poems engage with memory and identity in order to mark down what “happened here.” In the section The Mountain, the poems delve into the poet’s Ecuadoran background, embodied by stories of his mother as well as stories plucked from the history of the Spanish Conquest. The opening poem, “A Good Education,” layers the narrative of the mother’s childhood upbringing in Ecuador, where she “recited saints, prayers, and science formulas,” with his own childhood in the United States. In detailing the routines and curated knowledge shared in school, the speaker of this poem makes clear how “The world’s violence [can fall] from the minds like pencils dropped under ancient radiators.” By layering the history of not only the mother and the speaker, but also of countries, the poem evokes a sense of what is at stake in documenting and establishing what “happened here.” This layering also allows the speaker to end on an image familiar to anyone educated in the United States, an image charged further given the meditation of the poem:
And I put myself there too,
getting a good education, oblivious to our country’s failings, saying the
pledge of allegiance and gawking up at the flag with my small hand on
my heart, about which
I knew nothing.
This section ends with the poem “Downtown Ambato, 3:14 AM,” in which the speaker and the mother share a room during a visit to Ecuador. This meditation on insomnia highlights the poet’s ability to dwell on details; amidst counting exhalations and the intermittent barking of stray dogs, the speaker is possessed of a quiet urgency. The room for the insomniac becomes a kind of conscience, the speaker alert to each movement around him. This quiet urgency symbolizes the collection’s theme: as it does during the restless toss and turn of the speaker, the material of what “happened here” continues to move around us, fleeting, resisting to be marked down. Still, the poet tries:
I capture every town sound
and convince myself that I understand
my mother’s hunger for sleep after so many years
without. Then I multiply it. I wish I could wake her
and ask how to say insomnia
in Spanish except hope
she’s in the midst of peaceful sleep.
The second section of the collection, The Island, takes the poems to Puerto Rico to explore stories of the poet’s father. Where the poems in The Mountain lived in moments of meditation and reflection on what the past might mean, here the poems present the past in a tougher tone. In “Passport,” for example, a poem whose “passport” structure and conceptual framework reflect Adál’s “El Puerto Rican Passport, El Spirit Republic de Puerto Rico,” the reader is presented with the following:
Sexo (Male) When I turned 18, my father gave me a machete. When I
turned 21, my father gave me a shoe shine kit.
The clipped and straightforward execution of these lines underscore the emotional atmosphere of The Siren World. For a moment, what “happened here” is marked down in two pseudo-official statements whose juxtaposition of violence and pathos strike a direct and exact(ing) note.
The theme of violence as a background element is returned to in “Garter Snakes.” Here, the reader is presented with the memory of killing of snakes as a childhood game. The speaker’s sensibility is established as the poem moves forward, describing both the violence done to snakes as well as to the speaker’s unspoken disgust and disapproval. The reader then learns:
When I threw rocks, I missed
on purpose. In the arroyo with the shallow
creek and the broken bridge,
I watched free snakes
ripple atop shallow water
with their heads level –
a holy incident
we did not yet know
What is powerful about this ending is the inaction of the speaker. In the awkward silence of childhood moments like this one, a certain kind of character begins to develop. A child’s reckoning before natural life is later followed by the revelatory understanding of the poet.
The father narrative is developed over the course of the second section. As with the first section’s stories about the mother, these poems find the poet able to use history as a way to feel out both personal and cultural present. In “Revising Scars,” the effort to work out what “happened here” is stretched in a way that tests its limits. The poem begins:
I bait my father with questions about his history
like the tattoos of two birds inked on in 1952
that I already assigned the meaning of young love
and longing and preservation of him as a man…
The self-awareness of these lines is meaningful. In this scene, the reader is presented with a symbol of what the poet’s task consists of; essentially, to push and question against a world of “assigned” meanings, even their own. This imposed narrative on the part of the speaker is followed down further, until the father responds:
[ ] and he challenges family myth
when he tells me he was too drunk to remember
how those damned tattoos got on him in the first place.
There is a sadness to the humor of this ending, and a lightness to that sadness; the speaker’s invented narrative is deflated, but what deflates it is a clear evocation of the father. The speaker is thrown back onto his imagination; in this instance, what “happened here” is made of the kind of sharpness and elation found in the best poetry.
Indeed, the need to work through the sharpness and elation of one’s life is at the heart of The Siren World. Poet as chronicler of what “happened here.” Poet at the heart of the awkward silence between two inseparable sides of history. These poems by Juan Morales again and again take us to the heart of reconciliation with the personal and political. The ending of the poem “Guaman Poma, Writing By Candlelight,” turns the speaker’s meditation on the Quechua noble into a statement on the poet’s task; it also serves as a call to readers and writers alike to open their eyes to what “happened here”:
Where will my words about Guaman Poma be lost?
Maybe an attic, a thick folder in a desk,
or a garage box, but still confident
in the risky release of poems
into the hands of a comrade
who will carry each sacred word,
chancing the indifferent someone
who will never bother to read.
Buy it from Lithic Press: $17.00
José Angel Araguz is a CantoMundo fellow. He is a PhD candidate in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Cincinnati. Author of six chapbooks as well as the recent collection, Everything We Think We Hear, he runs the poetry blog The Friday Influence.