In the introduction of Brazos, Carry Me (Kórima Press, 2013) by Pablo Miguel Martinez, Alicia Gaspar de Alba writes, “Pain is a constant in these poems, but so is wonder, rendered in sharp lines and simple images that startle in their clarity.” These poems indeed are largely about loss, persistence, place and culture.
Interestingly Martinez quotes Plato as the book opens, “You have shown me a strange image,” and here one cannot help but think of Plato’s allegory of the cave where one can see only shadows their whole lives without leaving the cave. Only those who leave the cave can return with stories which are often disbelieved by those who have never left. For Martinez, seeing clearly is of high importance, and these lovely poems find beauty despite hardship and peace despite turmoil. Martinez captures the Chicano experience in Texas that often goes unseen and unheard by Anglos. These poems also elicit sexual hunger and tension and celebrate the perseverance and brotherhood of Gay Latinos.
The first section of the collection is titled aptly after Plato, “The Wild Caves.” In “Departure” the speaker comments on his father’s death with elegant imagistic language:
My father is already hurtling toward infinity—
Going home, the priest said.
I am on a runway, the lights
Flashing: red, blue—
loud and lewd.
The poems in this collection often present stark images of poverty: a Mexican woman sobbing with gnarled hands, a thin Puertorriqueña whose name is stitched on a uniform. She has just returned from a sweatshop. In “Song,” Martinez writes,
The lines of the psalm follow
a starving mother across
the Sahel and another
No one will hear the lines
rumble in her belly.
No one will rescue the song
clinging to her brittle lips.
The poem which follows is where the title of the collection stems, and it is like many of the poems in this stellar collection as it pays tribute to the speaker’s many ancestors and his people. It is titled “Baile de La Gloria/ Elegy for Manny.”
Brazos, carry me there,
To that place where every squeeze
of the accordion
is an urgent hymn to mi raza,
and la orquestra keeps time
to the beat of angel wings.
La Gloria was a building on San Antonio’s west side, and many of these poems celebrate San Antonio, Texas, nature, history and love. There are a number of poems that celebrate the beauty of nature with lush lovely language.
Martinez’s skill with metaphor, linguistic play and musicality is evident throughout the collection. He writes of an
Abluelo’s biceps—veiny, watery,
angled by a pack of Camels—
ripple: a cool river working
at the peel of an apple.
Overall, the collection expresses an elegance which is wild yet simultaneously controlled. Martinez writes,
Here I am dutiful, sure—as if the things that sting
had not yet set foot on this thorny, hard-plated earth,
as if we’ve traveled back to a time before music was tamed,
before storms were measured, before ache had its name.
Brazos, Carry Me is a stellar debut with everything from a full moon rising over Juárez, to “people dancing mambo/to the music of Pérez Prado,” but always the poor and the nameless are unforgotten in these poems.
Gay men, ancestors, abuelos and abuelas, the poor and downtrodden all receive a welcome enunciation here. For example, in “Protocol” Martinez pens,
Down on Hudson Street two men scrub
Graffiti off a wall: “Die Fags,” it reads.
A constellation of swastikas swirls
Around the imperative.
Crazy, ain’t they, the fucks who did this,
One of the men says as I walk past.
The terse language and surprising turns in the collection show Martinez has studied his craft long and carefully. His word choice, imagery, musicality, rhythms and narratives make for a fulfilling read. They are a call to pay attention and to have empathy for the poor and marginalized, and they show what it means to leave home, in this case San Antonio and to return with new insights. Martinez is an avid storyteller and lyricist. Brazos, Carry Me is Pablo Miguel Martinez’s mark on the Chicano literary canon, and it is the mark of excellence.
Sheryl Luna’s first collection, Pity the Drowned Horses, received the Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize and was published by the University of Notre Dame Press. It was a finalist for the National Poetry Series and the Colorado Book Award. Her second collection, Seven, was just published by 3: A Taos Press. She is a Canto Mundo fellow.