Kontemporary Amerikan Love Song: Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry: Poems by John Murillo

Marcela Sulak
| Reviews


Another way of saying all of this is that the speaker is multi- dimensional: victim and bully, cruel and loving, hopeless, but persistent, and, most of all, lucky. My favorite poem, “Upon Reading that Eric Dolphy Transcribed Even the Calls of Certain Species of Birds,” opens with the speaker confronted by two birds, one of which has its foot slammed in a door, and the other is desperately seeking help from the speaker. He notes:


They called to me—something between squawk and chirp,
something between song and prayer—to do something,

anything. And, like any good god, I disappeared. Not
indifferent, exactly. But with things to do.


And after much digression, he continues:


Anyway, I’m digressing. But if you asked that night—
did I mention it was night?—why I didn’t even try

to jimmy the lock to spring the sparrow, I couldn’t say,
truthfully, that it had anything to do with envy, with wanting

a woman to plead as deeply for me as these sparrows did,
one for the other. No. I’d have said something, instead,

about the neighborhood itself, the car thief shot a block
and a half east the week before. Or about the men

I came across nights prior, sweat-slicked and shirtless,
grappling in the middle of the street, the larger one’s chest

pressed to the back of the smaller, bruised and bleeding
both. I know you thought this was about birds,

but stay with me. I left them both in the street—
the same street where I’d leave the sparrows—the men

embracing and, for all one knows (especially one not
from around there), they could have been lovers—

… Let me try this another way. Call it 1977. And say
I’m back west, south central Los Angeles. My mother

and father at it again. But this time in the street,
broad daylight, and all the neighbors watching. One,

I think his name was Sonny, runs out from his duplex
to pull my father off. You see where I’m going with this.

My mother crying out, fragile as a sparrow. Sonny
fighting my father, fragile as a sparrow. And me,

years later, trying to get it all down. As much for you—
I’m saying—as for me.


This is not yet the end of the poem, but already one can see that any act of witness is an act of complicity, no matter how involuntary our witness may be. This strange but simple idea opens the speaker’s life of involuntary witness to these acts to us, and we understand that the way what we also have seen and experienced will now shape the options we have for response.


Marcela Sulak’s fourth poetry collection, City of Sky Papers, is forthcoming; her new lyric memoir is Mouth Full of Seeds. Sulak is Associate Professor of Literature at Bar-Ilan University, where she teaches American Literature and creative writing.

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