Reviewed by Valerie Lawhorn
Eduardo C. Corral, author of Slow Lightning and the first Latino winner of the 2011 Yale Younger Series Poets award, is back and his newest work is cutting edge, visceral, and not for the faint of heart. Sliced into various voices and languages, Corral’s GUILLOTINE sings, howls, and prays from the Mexico- United States border. Brimming with the perspectives of immigrants from Central America and Mexico, this collection is a cross section of culture pressed against the harsh background of inhumane immigration policies and an unforgiving desert. In a political climate rife with racism and xenophobia, GUILLOTINE is not only relevant, it is salient.
“Dusk, here, is stunning. Yesterday, I woke to ants crawling
over my body,
to ants crawling
the body on the cross on my neck.”
The stakes of the poem are never lost on the reader, as bodies are scattered through the lines and on road sides. Corral keeps his poetry sharp by mirroring the cruelness of reality. Be it the desert sun, racism, homophobia, or self-hatred, the antagonistic elements of this collection do not require much imagination in today’s climate. GUILLOTINE leaves the reader restless, breathless, and grasping at a scratchy throat. The ending of the collection comes perhaps too abruptly. The conclusion feels unfinished, and I had to search around to ensure it was in fact over. This lack of resolve perhaps delivers the most devastating truth in this collection: there is no resolution. Corral will not provide the reader with closure. The horrors manifesting at the Mexico- United States border are ongoing. That is not to say this is not a situation without possible resolution. Instead, Corral allows his reader to be haunted by its continued existence. Their own silence would be a deafening backdrop for the powerful voices Corral constructs. When the reader closes the pages, the voices should not leave their ears.
And what kind of whispers remain when the pages stop rustling? Part of what makes the many voices of GUILLOTINE so enduring is their tangibility. Yes, Corral is no stranger to abstractions. Even the words on the page lose their sense of position in this experimental collection, as lines bleed into each other and fade. Yet these voices are anchored in Catholic imagery, folk song allusions, and perhaps most obviously, conflicts beyond immigration. Body dysmorphia may not be the issue the average reader would consider when facing rattle snakes, but Corral forces the reader to reconcile the humanity behind people caught in a tragedy often reduced to numerical statistics. Perhaps the cold indifference of the blade is not the enemy in GUILLOTINE. The guillotine is a release, severing the callous mind and giving autonomy to the heart.
The reader will feel the pounding of their heart in this collection. And not just from the sheer horror of reality. Corral’s work will enchant the heart with beauty. This collection explores some of the ugliest truths and monstrosities in this world, but it is beautiful. The unrelenting desert acts as a fountain for imagery. Even the most barren and deadly places, Corral proves, can be lovely. Guillotine serenades the reader with disjointed stream of consciousness lamentations and song allusions. These enchanting multilingual lyrical versus capture the imagination and are sonically appealing. Moreover, the experimental forms and text compositions Corral expertly ties to his themes are visually compelling. The content of this poetry, as discussed above, is vital to a greater cultural discussion. The deft skill apparent in this collection also carries its own merit. In combing these elements, Corral created an incredibly compelling collection. The beauty of GUILLOTINE will lure you to the blade.
Corral’s newest work is unflinching in its execution by refusing to cater to the white gaze. Verses written beautifully in Spanish are not translated, and they often have deeper cultural allusions that would elude the uninitiated. This allows for a critique of society’s treatment of minority groups while empowering the voices of minorities within the greater conversation on immigration in the United States. This places GUILLOTINE in conversation with collections like Citizen by Claudia Rankine and American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin by Terrance Hayes. The works of Rankine and Hayes are both unwavering explorations of racism in America while maintaining a strength from within a black perspective. Corral, like these poets, has curated a bold collection that is unapologetically Latinx. As with Citizen and American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, all audiences will be locked into GUILLOTINE.