Some poor fellow jumped from the Golden Gate Bridge. “Mid-air,” says Iliana Rocha, “his bones split & feathered—he was lightness. His bones were braided wheat. Bones collapsed like a birdhouse of Popsicle sticks. He said his hands transmuted into doves, in a constant state of ascent like an apology.”
These irresistible lines are but a taster of Iliana Rocha’s virtuosity in elevating even the most despairing aspects of humanity. The lyrical inventiveness is typical of a poet whose skill is equal to her imagination. In this, her second collection, we are presented with a series of highly original poems recounting the personal tragedies of real victims, current and past, and setting them against a background of national decline. It seems entirely fitting that it should be dedicated to her murdered grandfather, Inocencio Rodriguez, and his wife Isabel, considering the injustices and defeats that populate these pages like a plague.
Incidentally, when he was saved, the failed suicide was found to have a note pinned to his collar, reading simply “Burden.” It’s the kind of detail which assaults the senses and brings you up against the reality of an almost mundane catalogue of horror revealed daily in the media. Here, the poet insists on the individuality and worth of all victims. Nearly a third of the poems share the title of the book, which is a nice conceit that honors not only the memory of a family member, but each of the casualties of criminality, decay and despair; the numbers recorded and forgotten by officialdom.
We get to know a good deal about the experience of Latinos in the land of soured milk and honey, including the many instances of unthinking cruelty and humiliation resulting from incomprehension and fear. Then there are the historic killings, like the one in San Antonio where the authorities “peel the bodies away from where they lie, but they can’t remove the wreckage of their faces”; or a lynching where the mob wasn’t satisfied “until they couldn’t tell his body from the bark.” Hard to stomach.
Somehow, even more distressing perhaps, are the subtle, the almost tangential details of an individual case. A particularly haunting piece is the prose poem “Texas Killing Fields,” referring to an area between Houston and Galveston. Over the years, many women have gone missing from, or have been found dead there. One such is an unnamed girl with an anchor tattooed on a wrist and an ankle:
… We knew her by the dress, the field says, smelled sweet like almonds. We knew her by her overbite.
… There’s no delicacy in
faith, the field says, just in the way the scavengers rearrange the bones.
This supremely written and quite devastating bit of work is representative of Iliana Rocha’s collection as a whole, which is as expansive and fascinating as it is beautifully composed. I hope I have not given the impression that the seriousness of the subject matter necessarily precludes the lyrical or the benevolent. Far from it. There are numerous instances of a light touch being employed to illustrate contrast, and a delicacy which serves to intensify a poem. Her seemingly effortless ability to summon the simile that surprises, the metaphor that sticks, is the mark of a natural poet.
One of the incarnations of “The Many Deaths of Inocencio Rodriguez” begins with an almost Prufrock-like stillness:
The street hangs from the sky, held in suspension
by summer’s dark hair lazily in a braid
And in “Still Life,” Rocha sees her Aunt Carmen sorrowfully tapping her finger on her margarita glass, claiming “the antihero for holiness is inside.” On it, “El Diablo no duerme” is
… written in red lipstick on the edge
of her cup stuck with salt, & the clouds on hangers are like
my grandfather’s blue satin Houston Oilers jacket, oil derrick
These few lines, to me at least, encapsulate the poet’s artistry—her gift, really.
I was much impressed by “Interrogation,” in which Jodi Arias, waiting for a detective to question her about the killing of her abusive partner, is scraping the label off a water bottle “like the way he used to undress her.” Having seen photographs taken at the scene of the murder, the narrator tells us that each digital camera flash is “a match ignited into fantasy, & for a moment I cradle, very close to me, violence.” It’s an intriguing piece, a little like a chapter of pulp fiction, elegantly distilled. And “Love letter to Scott Peterson” is a doleful, but rather touching poem, about a man receiving the first of many marriage proposals whilst on Death Row. He had killed his wife and unborn child. At the end of the letter, the woman confesses “I too am hated by the world—I’m a cat on fire in a metal drum. No one’s looking for who put me there.”
The author’s personal experience allows her not only first-hand knowledge of the dark currents surfacing across the continent, but also the authority to speak of them. That she succeeds in doing so with these remarkable, almost daring poems, is proof of her considerable awareness and keen eye. Her sure handling of difficult content is complimented by inspired imagery, and by a solidarity; an empathy, like flowers left at the scene of a crime. Often, on reading of shocking brutality or bleak desperation, it feels as if we are trespassing on a stranger’s grief. But surely, coming up against the sometimes sordid, often heart-breaking reality is like an Act of Witness, and is no more than these victims of fate deserve.
In the poem “Bird Atlas,” Rocha has Our Lady of Guadeloupe saying that she thought humanity:
… was more like the stubborn laughing
chihuahuas, not like
Mexico City canaries & their stupid wistfulness.
Which, after wondering at these accomplished and affecting poems, somehow feels appropriate.
The Many Deaths of Inocencio Rodriguez, by Iliana Rocha. North Adams, Massachusetts: Tupelo Press, February 2022. 116 pages. $19.95, paper.
Robert Dunsdon is a British writer whose poetry and reviews have been widely published in both the UK and in America.