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Death of a Mexican and Other Poems
By Manuel Paul López
Bear Star Press
96 pp. (paperback),
GUEST REVIEW BY DANIEL OLIVAS
Founded in 1996 by Beth Spencer, Bear Star Press has committed itself to publishing the best poetry it can attract from the Mountain and Pacific time zones, as well as Alaska and Hawaii. Each year, to assist it in its mission, the press awards the Dorothy Brunsman Poetry Prize ($1,000 and publication) to a writer from the region. This year, the winner is Manuel Paul López from the border town of El Centro, California, for his debut collection, “Death of a Mexican and Other Poems”. And no wonder: López surprises and moves the reader with poems that are filled with great humor and playful imagery. All the while, he displays a deep understanding of our never-ending quest for self-invention.
López offers a prologue with “The Poet and the Tía,” which sets the tone for the collection:
That boy of yours, Consuelo,
he sure is sensitive.
What’s wrong with him?
Every time he leaves the house
he comes back wet:
puddles on the floor,
clothes a sopping mess,
tosiendo como un burro enfermo.
We live in a desert for godsakes!
How does he get so wet?
Where does he find such sad-looking rain?
Many of the pieces that follow are prose poems, mini-stories with protagonists, no matter how silly and self-absorbed, fighting to assert themselves culturally, artistically and emotionally. In “Mi Cantito,” the teenage narrator suffers taunts from his peers because he cannot speak Spanish as well as they do. Even his family is embarrassed by this boy’s tongue-tied attempts to articulate the simplest of Spanish phrases:
“My nana used to massage my sluggish tongue with warm hands, / thumbing, pulling, wringing out the Spanish. / It was the antidote, she’d say, for Parkinson’s, cancer, and / Tío Chuy’s twelve-pack-a-day drinking problem.”
López fearlessly plays with poetic form to tell his stories. For example, “Tres Generaciónes” begins with a section entitled, “Discography of a Brown Boy” which delineates the music that made the narrator’s heart sing:
“Abbey Road / Thriller / Bach / José Alfredo Jiménez / Marvin Gaye / Stevie Wonder / José Feliciano.”
The poem’s next section, entitled “An Incomplete Chronology,” covers the period of 1975 to 2002, and is a lament for his grandmother’s ill health. Unable to relieve her suffering, he turns to the work of the late author of the classic “The Iceworker Sings and Other Poems” (Bilingual Press):
“I read Andrés Montoya’s poems as if / his words from the other side could somehow soothe her pain like the nopal she used on my / childhood knee-scrape.”
From art comes comfort and maybe even healing. López possesses an uncanny ability to create absurd characters who, nonetheless, invite us to share and even sympathize with their angst. In “Go, Nijinsky, Go,” the narrator introduces us to his Tío Rally, a temperamental choreographer whose wife has abandoned him and their daughter, Lola. Tío Rally focuses on shaping Lola into a true dancer, an artist, frantically training both her body and mind:
“’Así, así, así!’ Tío spit out, as he rehearsed with his daughter, his movements a / moving origami of limbs.”
And again, the late Andrés Montoya offers solace, a sense of hope. Tío Rally writes a letter to the poet, first singing his praises (buttering him up, one might surmise), and then offering a little postscript revealing his true purpose: “Please pass on to God that Lola needs an extra lift in the second act.” “Death of a Mexican” is filled with sly humor and comes at the reader with a lyrical intensity usually not seen in debut collections. No doubt it is a book that López’s muse, the late Andrés Montoya, would have joyously welcomed.
Daniel A. Olivas is the author of four books including "Devil Talk: Stories" (Bilingual Press, 2004). He is the editor of "Latinos in Lotus Land: An Anthology of Contemporary Southern California Literature," forthcoming from Bilingual Press in 2007. His Web site is www.danielolivas.com and he may be reached at email@example.com. This review first appeared in the El Paso Times.