Declan Ryan reviews Eduardo C. Corral

Guillotine (Graywolf, 2020)

Guillotine is published by Graywolf (2020)

Eduardo C. Corral has always been a poet of heartbreak, but in Guillotine the personal is co-existent with the body politic. There’s something of Whitman’s desire to use the self to sing America, and what it has become. There is also something of the votive, the ex-voto; Corral’s is a highly visual, image-led poetry, and perhaps his greatest talent is for an almost biblical fashioning of symbol and sight, part New Testament parable-teller, part Song of Songs eroticist. The opening poem, ‘Ceremonial’, sees the narrator “Delirious,/touch-starved” while an act of self-harm sees a pulled mole on the skin become a rosary, that transformative gesture typical of the sort of alchemies which occur throughout. These are poems in a shifting, transformative state, exploiting the lyric’s possibilities for conjuring and generation. They are a means of clarifying, of tightening vision, rather than disorientation – the poem progresses in this sort of hyper-real mode but its effect is visceral and immediate: “His thumbnail/a flake/of sugar/he would not/allow me to swallow.”

Corral is the son of Mexican immigrants to the U.S., and the violations and inhumanity occurring at the US/Mexican border is the source for several of the poems here. Through thrown voices, collage and found text, the sequence ‘Testaments Scratched into a Water Station Barrel’ mixes his skill at image selection and cutting vocalisation with a generative rage; the dark humour and more visual/concrete moments where the text shifts size and font to mirror graffiti or other interventions are counterpoints to the despair and abjection of those desperate to survive the trip. There are moments of arresting beauty of a death’s head kind, the “Patron saint/of smugglers” a no-less glowing icon, “Nuestra Señora de la Santa Muerte” “a skeleton/shrouded/in black flames” is the altered vision of the Virgin; no consoling blues, no devotional, adoring stare. As so often with Corral, individual moments and images sing out for the quality and surprise of their perception: “there’s a harmonica tattooed on my collarbone/I can feel death’s mouth on it”; “I never let go / of my right breast: an urn heavy with my own / ashes, an urn / I’m lugging God-knows-where”; “a graffitied boulder flickers/like a neon jukebox”. The sequence has its own cumulative power too, its un-translated/glossed Spanish a minor act of defiance to a monoglot, Imperialist culture, the forlorn pieties of those trying to flee and finding themselves at the mercy of the less-than-benevolent, still clinging to hope, the notion of America, and of its commerce, an alternative sort of deity towards whom aspiration might be flung: “we’re tired / but our cellphones / are charged // hola America hola”; “Have it your way. / Home of the Whopper”.

Much has changed since Corral’s debut Slow Lightning, published in 2012, and he becomes here a willing exemplar of the changes wrought across our own low dishonest decade. A subtle nod towards this occurs in the Water Barrel sequence: “After my mother’s death, I found, in a box, / her wedding dress. / As I lifted the lid, a stench corkscrewed / into my nostrils: / the dress had curdled like milk”. In Slow Lightning, ‘Watermark’ saw a bride “Too poor to afford lilies,/she walked down the aisle holding a glass of milk”. More broadly, however, in the ‘personal’ poems Corral goes further, deeper and is more skinless than his younger self, the state of being “touch-starved” as per ‘Ceremonial’ and of a disgust at hunger, for food and for sex, becoming a touchstone for a poetics of anti-erotics, of un-eros. It’s no surprise that someone as gifted as Corral is at analogy is able to paint this state of unbearable yearning in such vivid colour, but what does surprise, given the restrained, elusive notes of his debut, is the candid freedom with which he imbues his narrators to hymn the torture and despair of the withholding of touch. Once again, a language steeped in religiosity, a devotional tone, is Corral’s means of gesturing towards the nature of this type of apostate, the lapsed lover, the shunned desirer: “what a saint said/about God / I believe about / loneliness / a circle / whose center is / everywhere / & its circumference / nowhere”.

This new freedom feels irrevocably tied to the need to use touch, and the body, in other ways – just as the Water Barrel poems have at their back the sense of the disposability of the Mexican immigrants to their captors, traffickers or oppressors, Corral amplifies the ways in which in a seemingly ‘safe’ state it’s possible to be frightened or denied, not only through the withdrawal of tactility, but through the lasting spectre of AIDS: “Thinness, / in my mind, equals the gay men / on the nightly news” and an inherited sense of transgression: “I don’t touch mirrors. It’s wrong, / my father always said, // to touch a man”. All of these senses of the danger of loving the wrong person, in the wrong way, or of nurturing the wrong sort of aspirations, whether trying to get to a new Promised Land or of trying to move past unrequited desire, are as powerful as they are because Corral never forgets the need for balancing empathy. The greatest example of his unwillingness to lurch into solipsism comes in the book’s finest poem, ‘Border Patrol Agent’, a monologue in the voice of a character charged with thwarting, or at least inhibiting, so many of the desires of so many of the voices contained in Guillotine. Rather than a cartoon villain, Corral creates a tenderly memorable character, “I only speak Spanish with my father. / He often mistakes blue parakeets / perched / on the stove for gas flames”, his own family life and desire to have a child made impossible by the sights he endures operating at the other end of the border war and resolving in a characteristically visceral pieta of the death of love: “There are things I just can’t tell her. / Sometimes only body parts remain. / They’re buried / in baby caskets”.

Declan Ryan was born in Mayo, Ireland and lives in London. His debut pamphlet was published in the Faber New Poets series in 2014. Fighters, Losers, his second pamphlet, was published by New Walk Editions in 2019. His reviews and essays on literature and boxing have appeared in the NYRB, TLS, New Statesman, Boxing News, and elsewhere.

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