Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry: Poems by John Murillo (Four-Way Books, 2020).
Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry: Poems, John Murillo’s second collection, is constructed in the vein of a craft-book, and nearly every poem can be read on several levels—as literary criticism, as social criticism, or as fictionalized autobiography. The table of contents lists poems with titles that suggest a handbook on poetics: “On Confessionalism,” “On Magical Realism,” “On Negative Capability,” “On Lyric Narrative,” “On Prosody,” and “On Epiphany.” In these, we see Murillo’s experience through the lens of poetic theories and devices, expanding the reach of these tools and techniques across time and geography, race, and language.
“On Confessionalism” opens this book in the middle of an almost-crime:
Not sleepwalking, but waking still,
with my hand on a gun, and the gun
in a mouth, and the mouth
on the face of a man on his knees.
As a confessional poem goes, the poem does not try to convince us of anything or excuse the speaker by putting a sympathetic spin on the circumstances that precede the opening. It does reveal private circumstances that are the root of confessional writing (even if the events narrated in the poem are fictionalized). But if we read the poems in this volume in the context of a revised view of “Kontempory Amerikan Poetry” (as the title and the contents of the book suggest we do), we see that this poem expands what we know as confessional poetry. Here, and in so many other poems, Murillo’s speaker is a complicated black man; in this poem he’s got a gun in the mouth of another man, a man who, we soon learn, “like me, is really little/more than a boy.” The idea of being a mere boy, or at least boy-like in his lack of financial resources, is underscored a few lines later when the speaker describes how, “having gutted my piggy” and pawned “all my gold,” he was able to buy the handgun.
Even the sentence construction of this poem is reminiscent of the nursery rhyme, “The House that Jack Built,” or “There’s a Hole in the Bottom of the Sea,” in which there is no clear moral offered, and no way for anything to be otherwise than the conditions dictated by the inexorable rhythm. No one dies, and that’s a good thing. But even this good thing isn’t without anxiety, as the speaker tidies up behind him:
Cold enough day to make a young man
weep, afternoon when everything,
or nothing, changed forever. The dead
rapper grunted, the bassline faded,
my spirits whispered something
from the trees. I left, then lost the pistol
in a storm drain, somewhere between
that life and this. Left the pistol in
a storm drain, but never got around
to wiping away the prints.
Those prints that were never wiped away haunted this reader throughout her entire reading experience, and continued to do so after I had closed the book. In Murillo’s “confessionalism,” the stakes are not merely metaphorical or personal, but change the domain of “confessional” poetry from the private—of the church confessional or the therapist’s sofa—into the civic sphere that is controlled by law. The speaker has just confessed to failing, through no fault of his own (the gun jammed), to commit a murder.