Ancestral Throat, a chapbook of poems by Danny Rivera, reviewed by Shannon Nakai

“Dis–”, a prefix of negation, but also of an absence or removal, serves as the backdrop of Danny Rivera’s debut chapbook Ancestral Throat, an ecclesiastical elegy to his father and primal hymn to human origin. Discharged arias, dismantling chapters, discolored diaries, distended crowns, a dismissed choir: Rivera sings the pain of impermanence as the dying are torn away from this world. Fathers are consigned to deathbeds, children’s bodies are caught in shellfire, slave ships carry the precious cargo of stolen lives, and generational trauma follows. Throughout the collection beats a steady soundtrack of drums, bells, a chorus of elders, and a mythic panther who beckons the poet, a man in crisis and in need, despite his lack of faith, of penitence. Rivera’s speaker thoughtfully considers the currency of death and dying, the indignities of suffering that strip us of all the extraneous. What we are left with is the primordial composite of our origins. “Farewell, cantata through emptying rooms,” the speaker bids in “Litany.” “Farewell, though you tire and long for speech.

The collection opens with a return to a native language; in the titular poem the speaker’s elders bear witness to his metamorphosis, “I hear your skin darkening.” Rivera’s primal theme hinges upon returning: the panther, emblematic of one’s nature; and the elders, both mythological and genealogical. “Ancestral Throat” begins and ends with elders teaching the poet words, recalling the return to darkness, the return to dust. Bookending their words are newspapers with stories of spices and spires. In the center of everything is a plaza, a capital and a caravan, snare drums which echo the punctuated percussion of artillery shells. It’s a regal procession of drums and cymbals, yet the speaker is not celebrated, but castigated as “the man that you have failed to become.” So launches Rivera’s introspective journey into this indictment.

Following the chorus of voices in “Ancestral Throat” is instrumental music in “Permanence,” which contextualizes death in a living world. The conception of an infant, the anticipated return of a daughter, migratory thieves, dust, echoes, floods, closing doors–these shortlived signs remind us that life and everything in it is fleeting, but pain is constant. The same Earth that couches sleepers on the ground has also held standing battalions. Its testimony is an ancient song, as Rivera references concertinas, arias, “El último descanso que me trae su voz es lo que no me aguardo negar.” From the singing of an ancestral throat the speaker anticipates the last song, the blues that remind him of “all I have come to know of Heaven.”

His post-flood thirst heightens his search for all things spiritual: goat sacrifices, children’s prayers aimed to the sky, traveling pilgrims, fishermen’s need for forgiveness. In death arises an inherent need for penitence, and throughout the poems Rivera documents each moment for both speaker and sufferer (when not the same). In “Notes for an Epilogue,” the poet recounts the invasive movements of death (like mortar shells and tripwire) upon a cancer patient, gowned, sheared, and stripped of all agency, now kneeling in a forced call to prayer in preparations for a final display. Rivera unflinchingly testifies to what the body becomes when death comes. “Upon Receiving a Second Opinion” offers instructional language releasing the sufferer from the shame, both of the indignities of dying and of sin. At the bedside, the site of holy suffering in one’s beginning (birth) and ending (death), the speaker offers a bold alternative:

The bed (spare as marrow, it crushes grams
            and last reaches to the womb)

is the chosen site for anointing:

sign another cross on this forehead,
            center without faith: sin fe no hay salvación

(rush of oil, scream of ash).

The speaker cannot completely divorce himself from religion, the balm for his inherent need for atonement. Instead of resisting, he explores this need in “A Brief History of the 21st Century”:

I have learned to reclaim our blood-borne
history. Prior to interment the body must be cleansed in a ritual bath.
Is there another name for hunger, a taste for the sacraments?

The question remains in “Upon Receiving a Second Opinion”: “What will be left of you to pronounce?” Rivera responds in “Lamentation for Two Voices,” a poem sustaining musical and biblical motifs in the juxtaposition of two voices, one perfunctory and one testimonial. On the second floor in “Oprime dos para Espanol,” the father is instructed to continue to hold and to answer. Rivera writes, “you answer presente, I am here, / I am still here,” but later asks, “How do we respond to the body’s / repeated failure to answer for itself?” The man the poet has failed to become, the failure of safety protocols or of memory, the preparation of a last will and testament or of a new language between father and son: here the son boldly asks for a new refrain, a new connection, and will not hold indefinitely to wait for one with the next available representative. Instead, the poet, who wanted the father and who was not (originally) wanted by the father (the only other permanent subject Rivera offers is the father’s description of the son as a “momentary mistake made permanent”) must assign new meaning and connection for them both. Intensely introspective and confessional, Rivera details allegorical visions of a boy’s dreaming for a future wife, a memory of a grandfather’s compassionate response after surviving a mugging, a ten-part nocturne encompassing the complexities of a cherished father who “was a terribly difficult man.” In “Ghazal,” it is to the confessional Father that the speaker also must locate the necessary language to give an answer:

You christened me Daniel–he who is judged by God—but will your
Savior question or smite me—strafe the earth, extinguish His own
son crossing the desert?

In “A Brief History of the 21st Century,” Rivera returns to the plaza and uncovers the starkest primal fears surrounding mortality: “Did you want to be left alone?” In a fast-paced, three-lane lifestyle that carves out “an anxious necessity,” the poet returns for his belongings, those which are left of him to pronounce. For Rivera’s speaker, it is the quiet, desperate plea: “please tell me that I am wanted.” Without waiting for the response, he offers us the heart of this profoundly spiritual journey, uncovering the inherent desires of the dying and the bereft, the mysteries of death and the dead that shape us, the living.

Ancestral Throat, by Danny Rivera. Georgetown, Kentucky: Finishing Line Press, December 2021. $14.99, paper.

Shannon Nakai is a poet and book reviewer whose work has been featured in Cincinnati Review, Atlanta Review, Tupelo Quarterly, Literary Review, Cream City Review, Image, Gulf Stream, Midwest Review, and Sugared Water, among others. A Pushcart nominee and Fulbright scholar, she lives with her husband and son in Wichita, KS.

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