José Antonio Rodríguez—“Backlit Hour”—The Poem Listening To the Community and Speaking with the Voice of Memory
In the opening of Backlit Hour, José Antonio Rodríguez writes an ars poetica, specifically a poem about writing a poem—not any—but that particular poem itself. The self-reflexivity is not meant here to express postmodernist skepticism and detachment, but quite on the contrary, to voice some of the deepest concerns of the poet and, to quote the title of another poem, his true “allegiances” (family history and communion, the immigrant’s condition, and community’s indelible stories—“I’ve never met the granddaughters,/ but how do you forget stories like those”). Moreover, the poet follows the poem together with the reader as a performance presented ‘live’ before our eyes—“Anyway, the poem begins with wanting the juicy peaches/ but moves into the way they bruised so easily, how they fell [etc]”—, a work-in-progress. But again, this does not play out (only) as a demonstration of the inconsistency and ‘unsacredness’ of poetry, which would be old news, but it also (re)defines the poem as a place and state of mind connecting us to “the quiet,” to those beyond ourselves who need to be heard (and who, while being heard within and by the poem, get a voice). Therefore a poem-performance that rather listens than speaks.
Rodríguez is not afraid of recycling rich traditional (Anglo-American) literary motifs as he actually manages to render them so fresh that an unsuspecting reader may even miss the reference and still enjoy these accomplished poems nevertheless. In the first section, dedicated to the childhood and early school years, a poem tells the story of a selection of presentations for a science fair (while the title is shrewdly reversed as “Fair Science”) and the speaker remembers coming up with a drawing of a blue whale whose belly the kid would fill with all sort of (impressive) data related to the creature. But the boy keeps erasing and redrawing the outline trying to get more and more info in till the paper starts to flake off and the sound it thus makes therefore becomes more evocative of the mammal’s actual life than the biological data. The dialectic of whiteness/erasure and drawing/remapping articulates an apt metaphor for the alternatives (or cycles) of inclusion and minority (or why not, Whitmanesque) ‘untranslatability’ attitudes both on the part of the outsider and the system—the boy is for instance aware that his “drawing” into the activity is “something/ to shore me form the playground/ of ruined homes/ where children shoulder an anger”—while of course it also ‘draws’ not only on the tearing paper but also on Moby Dick and its numinous white (paper) mask(s), as well as Melville’s encyclopedic and cross-genre inclusiveness, now reinterpreted in a (self)ironical manner: “As if everything worth knowing could be/ chaptered into a bound page.” The irony is not only literary, but, given the word choice—“chaptered”—political, just as the color of the whale symbolic of the ‘blues’ of somebody lost in the new world ocean, “[t]hrumming/ [their] song to find the other in the dark.”
A more subtle palimpsest is “Figs,” where D.H. Lawrence’s explicitly erotic metaphor is rewritten into an account of sexually coming of age. Or so the reader would think, up to a point, and starting actually from the very first line which could be very easily read as sexually explicit, charged as it is with the common periphrastic and urgent syncopated syntax—“She told me to do it, said”—but in fact it is not, as it goes on with—“it would look better in the school photo.” The story of the teacher getting the speaker to take out his undershirt for the school photo is indeed galvanized by an emerging sexual awareness (“I’ll hold it until after school,/ she said, her finger around,// that which had hugged my body”), and the Freudian reference to the mother coming after that would total make sense in the context. Only that it is not just a passing reference meant to reinforce the erotic crescendo, as Rodriguez actually chooses to stick one more time to the familial and the political. The long tradition of the fig as an erotic fruit (Lawrence himself draws on Graeco-Roman traditions) is now politically deconstructed becoming “the fruit my mother loved, the fruit/ she never held in her hand// because it wasn’t hers, she said.”
Rodriguez subtly equates the (again, Anglo) literary tradition with a monopoly of the metropolis even over erotica, to which the marginal speaker opposes the family and the community (“we,” “ourselves,” etc) that would paradoxically be dismembered if remembered in the system’s cultural code. Thus the magic spell of the alluring teacher is cast away when the young “I” (re)discovers the “we” that would be entrapped in an eroticism of domination and registration: “[…] stolen form ourselves/ only to be re-membered into something/ worthy of a camera, all smiles and naked necks.” All of a sudden, the deceitfully erotic first line of the poem reads, on second thought, more credibly as actually the master’s orders…
The second section seems to consist of most likely older poems, since the voice is not as strong as in the first one anymore, and the purpose far from clear. Memories from childhood are now interspersed with surreal images, some of them mysterious—like the hen dragging the TV between its legs in “Tethered” or the “throbbing classroom” with its “shivering windows” in “Starving”—others just puzzling or even irrelevant, as the “stars I have stored in my underwear” of a boy who is apparently past the age of wetting the bed. The mother is evoked in almost all of the poems, but there is hardly any portrayal or any eye-catching detail—except for the “beads of damp dirt pooled// in the crook of your elbow like remnants of a rosary” (“Ant Farm”)—and she is far from triggering the powerful multilayered discourse in the first section.
The sequence is all of a sudden interrupted by the strong gay confession of “Ache of Pupils” where the surreal finally falls into place as it backs up the blurred images and the tense reticence of the narrator shocked by his own outburst. Within the section, it radiates like an oasis of very good writing, reminding one of Rodríguez’s real potential:
The splinters of the plywood dig into
my fingers until I unhook the latch and scurry,
whisper an apology that I hope reaches
him who stands silent somewhere back there.
Rushing through a hallway with doors half open,
television images flashing, I conjure
an image of light bouncing off clouds,
how it must overwhelm the surface of things,
almost bleach them out of particularity.
When I step out, sunlight floods my pupils
that, for a second, ache.
In the third section, the deconstruction of Anglo-American symbols continue, with sometimes a shift from the literary to the historically-political. The iconic image of the minuteman becomes a patrol officer cynically pursuing illegal immigrants across the Arizona desert, and Mount Rushmore is seen as a symbol of marginalization for a speaker obtusely labeled as “Ethnic,” and whose “only currency here [is] silence.” Unfortunately, again, the voice is weaker and significantly less convincing than in the first section, the surreal and introspective effects simply seem mislaid in the context—“his [the minuteman’s] arm a threatening reach,/ hand splayed under a night/ that has turned its face today/ […] all that his mind won’t hold/ won’t utter in the light/ of a star that is also the sun”)—and the bombastic ironies misfire—“all I can think of is the half-million tons/ of rock blasted off [Mount Rushmore] by dynamite—a love/ so overwhelming it broke a mountain.”
Some of the ‘nature’ poems and pastels conjure once in a while passing lines or images of certain interest—“[I] wonder if the song/ of this scorched world comes to them [jackrabbits] as a roar or as a chorus,” “All of them [sunflowers] like halos/ without saints to weigh them down,” etc.—which are most likely accomplished exercises (when not loosely versified everyday jottings) from a poet’s notebook, but rarely anything more than that.
Although it contains only four poems, the fourth section may make up for the shortcomings in the second and the third. The major themes of the book are revisited here in a strong voice—coming of age as an immigrant in a foreign language, powerful memories from the family’s past, coping with one’s irrepressibly emerging homosexuality and, to a lesser extent than in the first section, the life of the community (within another community).
In “Cows and Bonnie Tyler,” fore instance, the speaker starts out to write something inspired by a “poem about cows” by Matthew Dickman, but something on the car radio—Bonnie Tyler’s “throaty voice/ howling through that orchestra” the way Rodríguez’s voice becomes strongly audible in spite of the American poem he promised to rewrite—makes him remember how he would listen to Tyler’s music in his teenage without getting much of the lyrics and how he watched a video on an “old man’s” TV through the latter’s window, as the man was “[s]ipping beer—up to his lips, then down, then up—/ like an oil well.” The political critique is there deftly intertwined with both popular culture as well as vivid memories from a young age.
Enter community. And the local environment! A masterful shift of focus allows the speaker to zoom out and come up with the overwhelming image of the region in the wake of April’s tornadoes (an ironic echo of Eliot’s “cruelest month”?):
Out by the road is the aftermath of April’s tornadoes
felling a small town. Would you judge me if I said
the trees pained me the most?
Their twisted limbs damaged past repair.
The pile of lumber—what used to be a house
of already dead wood—making a mockery of them.
And among the debris, the cows mowing away.
[José Antonio Rodríguez. Backlit Hour. Nacogdoches, TX: Stephen F. Austin University Press, 2013]