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

Marcela Sulak
| Reviews


We see Murillo’s (and the world’s) spiraling complicity in the cycle of violence and despair most clearly in the sonnet cycle that comprises the book’s second section, “A Refusal to Mourn the Deaths, By Gunfire, of Three Men in Brooklyn,” which borrows a Dylan Thomas title (“A Refusal to Mourn the Death, By Fire, of a Child in London”). In this poem, the speaker admits to sympathizing, at times, with Ishmael Brinsley, who murdered two unarmed police officers out of revenge for the dehumanization of African-American males by American society, and in response to America’s unjust and unethical institutions, which are embodied for him in police officers. Murillo has noted that he came of age as a poet during the Rodney King beating, and later, during the “riots” in the aftermath of the court’s verdict. And these riots, these protests, have not stopped. The book’s middle section directs our gaze to crimes and heinous acts that spur BLM protests, receive news coverage, and galvanize us as a nation. This powerful sonnet series contains multiple voices in the form of quotes and epithets.
Newspaper headlines carry a sort of currency—they convert the personal into the political—that Murillo doesn’t necessarily privilege, given that sections I and III concern events that no one knows about except the speaker and the reader, and bear witness for those who cannot be saved in any sense of the word. The poem “Dolores, Maybe”—the speaker cannot be sure he remembers the protagonist’s name, though he can recite (here and elsewhere, the book abounds in) dates—is filled with dead animals and unbridgeable gaps. “I’ve never spoken to anyone about this. Until now, until you,” says the narrator by way of an opening. The details are simple; her periwinkle dress printed with flowers of the field, their viewing a dead coyote together, her flinching when he brushes something from her face, her suicide by hanging, and her father’s subsequent suicide. There must be something salvific in poetry, the poem wants to argue, some reason we are compelled to witness. The poem ends with a possible answer:

I’ve never spoken to anyone about this. Until now, until you.
I gathered a handful of my coyote’s bones, his teeth,
and strung them all on fishing wire—
a talisman to ward off anguish. A talisman I hold out to you now.
Please. Come closer. Take this from my hand.

In fact, what Murillo is offering is a new kind of currency demonstrated in how the speaker always addresses the reader— how the reader calls out to the “you,” without any coyness. I have never felt so much like I’ve just had a conversation—or lots of conversations with various interlocutors—as I did at the end of this book. Each “now I know you’re thinking,” is always right on, so that it feels less like a rhetorical move and more like a genuine conversation. In this sense, the book feels as if it were written for a listener or an interlocutor, and less for an audience. Thus, not only is the speaker a complex character, but he allows me, as the reader, to be a complex character, too. That is an act of love and generosity; it is a gift. I would say that being addressed as a complex person who is complicit and victim, who is imperfect, but willing to confess, is a relief, and a gift, as well as a burden. This is really what poetry of witness is for, and in this sense, it is transformative. Not just as for the individual self, but for how we approach each genre of poetry today, which here stands for how we approach our culture and its unspoken assumptions about justice, truth, and character. The book is, therefore, both a critique and a love song of/to American Poetry and the people who read it, write it, and live it.


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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