Catrachos, by Roy G. Guzmán. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Graywolf Press, May 2020. 112 pages. $16.00, paper.
Not too long ago, I described to a friend that the poetry of B.H. Fairchild was “muscular,” a word that I wasn’t too fond of—mainly because it felt a bit unnatural to assign bodily characteristics to poetry, not to mention that it implies a certain masculinity that might be unwarranted—but one that I used to convey to him the narrative voice, the long lines sprawled across the entirety of the page, and the poems that if didn’t span two or three pages, then read as if they did. There is indeed a “muscularity” to Roy G. Guzmán’s Catrachos, but the poems—as I suspect readers would agree—are better described as “complete,” as opportunities to reflect on memory, identity, the politics and social complexities of the body, and how one comes to terms with the hard realities of the world.
Catrachos, as Guzmán notes at the end of the collection, refers to Honduran General Florencio Xatrucho’s defeat of William Walker, an American who attempted to take over all Central America in the mid-1800s. The book, therefore, is one that’s partly centered on resistance, of questioning the status quo, and attempting to forge a new path. “Queerdoctyl” (the first of many poems with the same title in the collection) echoes these sentiments fully:
Our mothers neared their lips to our dirty claws,
as we swayed them in man’s holy, unshaven catastrophes,
prayers so lit you’d think they went out to find a job. We
no longer searched for food on the ground or in the sky.
Knew border by its shame. Plunged our bodies into it
the way a father’s hand might twist, tighten, rip a rosary.
Have we ever told you what else we felt when the earth’s doors
betrayed authority—when wind unfurled wig, crystal
beads, the sacrament in our hands? Had mercy shown up as mercy,
we might have stopped the idealized throttle. Picked
our hips from the humid ground. Fashioned ourselves a new savior.
The “we” at the beginning of the poem refers to those who feel the need to fashion a “new savior,” since the old one (whether they come from social, political, or even religious spheres) is not enough to carry them forward. As the speaker in “Queerodactyl” claims a few pages later, “History is who buries / whom first,” and they—along with everyone else who feels as they do—don’t want their history dictated by others.
Some of the most memorable aspects of Catrachos are the narrative poems, especially those that ruminate on childhood and the understanding of cultural differences. In “Arthur’s Spelling Trubble,” the speaker realizes that they had an uphill battle just to be recognized as capable in competing in the school spelling bee:
I am not expected to win; to everyone’s
knowledge, I don’t speak sufficient English. Arthur advances to the finals,
but he doesn’t want to represent his class at the school-wide SPELLATHON.
Mr. Ratburn thinks I can do it, he shares with his family over a simple dinner.
If only all brown children had similar mentors.
For the speaker, it is more than just language that they seek, but guidance, reassurance, and ultimately acceptance, and although it may be found in those closest to them, it is not given by the world at large. The indifference, however, is not just relegated to the present, but it’s well established in the past, and there are times when the speaker finds themselves at the crossroads of the two. From “Payday Loan Phenomenology”:
we sit in my stepfathers 2000 Nissan Altima with a broken
AC me in the backseat my parents in the front of a pending storm
sweating reciting our overused interior monologue this must be
the last time we’ll take out a loan we’ll have no use for future loans
Mom & I get two weeks to pay the loan my stepfather a whole
month because he’s retired has five credit cards left to resolve he
used one to come see me graduate their first time in New England
& I place my hand on my mother’s shoulder I can feel the behemoth
of impotence stomping inside her a familiar trespasser if her anxiety
kicks in her stomach upset she falls from a cliff of what if I hads
like glowworms during nights when the Honduran government
coordinates a series of power outages & we break tortillas
by the candlelight drinking blowflies in the water
The indifference is strained by economic uncertainty (as all things are), and the speaker, as well as the speaker’s family, find themselves in situations such as the one above. The old country and this new country have, in perhaps more ways than one, left the speaker and people like the speaker to fend for themselves, and they have become aware, once more, that they are in this alone.
Perhaps the most necessary poem in the collection is “Restored Mural for Orlando,” whose mix of personal narrative, matter-of-fact statements, and lyrical phrases are rendered into profound meditation on the 2016 mass shooting at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida:
Seconds before the shooter sprays bullets on my brother’s and sister’s
bodies / the DJ stops the record from spinning / & I am interested
in that brief dazzle of pink light / how it spreads on iron-pressed
shirts until they turn purple / how a gun is a heart that has forgotten
to sing. The rapture in a stranger’s eye / a candid take on resurrection.
You visit Orlando to fantasize about the childhood you didn’t have /
even though I grew up in Florida the trip was a luxury because I grew
up poor /
The tragedy that resulted in 49 lives lost, and 53 wounded individuals, is a subject that is difficult to write about no matter the genre, but Guzmán enters into the events with empathy and an understanding that what occurred isn’t something that is apart from the speaker (or for anyone for that matter). It may be easy for some to see this senseless attack as something that has no bearing on them, but the speaker knows that it is essential to connect this with their life because if not, then those who suffered might be forgotten. Every gun, unfortunately, is a “heart that has forgotten / to sing,” but every life deserves to be sung, and if there is an opportunity to give praise to those no longer with us, then it must not be taken for granted.
Nothing in Catrachos is meant to be taken for granted. Poems speak candidly to each other, the subjects explored add to larger conversations about societal issues, and the language always reflects both the bravery and vulnerability of the human condition. In these times of uncertainty, it’s reassuring to look to a book that attempts to carve out space for its readers, one where they can laugh, cry, ponder the beauty and injustices of the world, and where they, most importantly, can feel free to be themselves. Guzmán may be a “new voice” on the literary scene (in the sense that this is their debut collection), but theirs is a voice that if we listen to, will undoubtedly shine light on what better paths lie ahead.
Esteban Rodríguez is the author of Dusk & Dust (Hub City Press, 2019) and the micro-chapbook Soledad (Ghost City Press, 2019). His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in The Gettysburg Review, New England Review, Shenandoah, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. He lives with his family and teaches in Austin, Texas.