Review: Guillotine by Eduardo C. Corral

“Oh Lord,/here I am,” Eduardo C. Corral announces at the end of Ceremonials, the poem that opens this collection. Where is here? Maybe, as a later poem states, here is “the cagada”, the shit place. It is fitting beginning in a collection set around the US-Mexico border, full of people trying to arrive, many not surviving the journey, and those who do finding the destination wanting. These are brutal, bruised poems, like desert storms, lit with lightning strokes of beauty.

After Ceremonials comes a cycle of 20-odd poems, Testaments Scratched into a Water Barrel Station. As Corral, a son of Mexican immigrants, explains in a note, this cycle began as ekphrasis, a response to a photo of the water barrels deposited near the Mexico-US border to help thirsty migrants travelling north (the collection is dedicated to “the caretakers”, perhaps those people who attend to the barrels). The poems do what they say: they are graffiti scratched into one of the water barrels. Some are foully xenophobic: “if you see/a Mexican//walking down/the road &//hit him/just right//you can grease/your truck”. Others are the kind of profound nonsense you find scrawled on the toilet walls of seedy pubs: “If you think I look good naked/wait until you see me dead”.

In others, Corral imagines migrants who may have stopped by the life-saving barrel on the way, layering their voices atop one another. Some speak in a series of what seem like broken sonnets spread through the cycle, tagged with tally marks like someone marking off the days, or counting the dead. They are fleeing all sorts of situations, from all sorts of places in Central America. In the desert they are haunted by hunger, thirst, wild animals, death, carrying little but memories and faith. Body parts litter the desert, discarded by smugglers: “Bodies, in the Sonoran desert,/are everywhere./A headless corpse/sporting a t-shirt/that reads: Superstar.” Sometimes they have become vessels the drug trade, like the person in the poem on page 24: “I remembered the inside of oyster shells/lilac shuddering through ivory deep in/my guts there’s a delicacy dozens of condoms/crammed with cocaine Mexican caviar”.

A second cycle of poems, 1707 San Joaquin Avenue, documents the experiences of migrants crammed into a drop house in Phoenix, Arizona. In one, a smuggler brags of ransoming migrants to relatives: “If they haggle,/I drag a blade across his rippling face. Slowly. Sweetly,” and later, “You should see/their eyes when I pull out the icepick”.

The two cycles are surrounded by a looser series of standalone poems, but most find their centre on the border. This may be the guillotine of collection’s title, the blade that severs literally and metaphorically. I thought of the parents of 545 children still missing after they were separated at the border; of Denis Villaneuve’s Sicario, which begins with bodies holed up in walls in a drop house; of Australia’s own inhumane border policies. The violence of the smugglers and drug traffickers reminded my of Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season.

The characters in Corral’s poems also have fraught relationships with their bodies, with their weight, sexuality, masculinity. They scratch away at themselves, with razor blades, with finger nails. In Autobiography of My Hungers the poet is told by a man, “I don’t love you,/but not because I/couldn’t be attracted to you”. “Liar,” the poet writes, “Even my soul is potbellied,” before admitting:

Thinness,

in my mind, equals the gay men

on the nightly news.

Kissed by death and public scorn.

The anchorman declaring,

“Weight loss is one

of the first symptoms.”

There is little respite to be found with lovers in these poems, they come with insecurity, the threat of violence, the spectre of HIV/AIDS. “He likes it when I bleed,” the poet writes in Sentence; a man is likened to a wolf in Black Water; or the love is unrequited, as in the man in To a Straight Man.

Other relationships offer something more nourishing, as in the beautiful poem dedicated to Chicano poet Francisco X. Alarc√≥n, who teaches the poet Nahuatl words, that “Spanish/is a colonial tongue”:

you burned sage, greeted

each of the four directions

with plumed syllables.

These poems are a tumultuous, visceral mix of Spanish and English, and a sprinkling of Nahuatl. I learned various Spanish slang for gays, Mexicans, and Death. Other poems, like Song of the Open Road, use the language of bureaucracy, the language used to exclude and dehumanise. Above all, the words in this collection feel alive, as if they’re attempting to writhe of the page like the rosary that a character drops and “scurries away like a scorpion.”

Despite the horrors of the border, there is great beauty in the desert environment. In one of the water barrel scratchings, the guillotine is the “coolness” that “fell through the heat,” and you can imagine the relief that evening brings, even as it promises life-threateningly icy nights. The poem Saguaro is gorgeously strange ode to the iconic cacti of the borderlands:

monsoon accordion,

long-legged

hitchhiker thumbing

by the interstate,

summer relic,

wind-broken, wind-

borne, Sonoran

pictograph ablaze

in cloud shadow

And even on the perilous crossing there are moments of relief in the desert sunsets, “Coral alighting/on gold, yellow/alighting on rose”, in the lightning that “climbs a hillside like a stilt walker.” As brutal as the desert can be, its timelessness is comfort, a reminder that we’re just passing through.

Gay rating: 3/5 for queer themes and some suggested gay sex.

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