Two recent collections from queer poets of color put into stark relief the challenges and cruelties of contemporary America. Both collections are elegiac, though in formally different ways.
Cyrus Cassells’ eighth collection, The World That the Shooter Left Us, presents a roaring protest against gun violence, racism, sexual exploitation, political corruption, and the intersection of all of these subjects. C.T. Salazar’s debut collection, Headless John the Baptist Hitchhiking, brings a quiet sense of reclaimed prayer and reflection to the heavy pall of life in the American south. The former of these titles shows the importance of a civic-minded poetics; the latter reveals the power of an internal reckoning and resolve to find an adequate language for sorrow. Both of these collections of outstanding lyric poetry show the clarifying perspectives that marginalized writers can bring to far-reaching social issues, whether playing out publicly or privately.
Cassells’ collection, typical of elegies, is composed entirely of couplets (save for the heartrending prose-poem second section of “Icebox”) and urges readers repeatedly to “beware” of “our hate-laden republic” and the vein of hopelessness it can open: “We can’t go on living like this / & then we go on living like this.” A righteous rage fuels Cassells’ collection: The author confronts a world in which a revered Latino attorney is murdered over a disputed parking spot, young boys are trafficked and raped, immigrant children are recast as “daunting beasts” worthy of “borderland cages,” and students are “[s]plattered all over our classrooms.”
Underneath all this rests coiled America’s violent history of slavery. Its current manifestations indicate few lessons learned and a future that will be defined by more of the same:
The spirits of restless slave-catchers are still
Roaming among us,
The spirits of slave-catchers are still…
It is from this place of sustained, generational harm that Cassells speaks with “[t]he whole truth burning in my voice.” The poet’s rage, though, sounds and signals something deeper, something beyond anger. His voice is one of “Grief as roaring artifact / Cha- os as cascading history.” Cassells focuses the unrelenting loss that defines the American experience for so many as nightmare rather than dream.
The most evident intersection of Cassells’ themes—the unfathomable collision of cruelties—comes in the prose-poem embedded in the six-section “Icebox,” an extended meditation on detained immigrant children. Section II, “Those ‘Return to Senders’ Children,” presents a scene wherein:
Separated, the borrowing, the castaway children were blessed with standard American scraps or Chiclets stale cookies wrapped little sweets or hectored, quiet as it’s kept, to caress the penises & vulvas of strangers or for their own to be inspected: Can you keep a secret, Miguel, Maria?
In breaking from his couplet form, Cassells draws particular attention to this scene. It is one in which violence, enslavement, corrupt governments, and the broken promise of American opportunity come together. Rather than explore these wholesale injustices theoretically or even politically, Cassells shows their collective inhumanity on the individual level:
Look, here’s a tasty-servant-girl-in-training, a surefire ten. Here’s a little cherub—a pouty, long-lashed boy, perfect for a secret movie…
It is in “Icebox,” the penultimate and longest poem in Cassells’ collection, that the three major sections of his intertwine. Section I addresses gun and physical violence, slavery included; Section II takes on exploitation and sexual violence; Section III eviscerates the corruption and ineptitude of politicians leaving historic problems unsolved. These themes live brutally upon the bodies of children—allegedly the future of America itself—in Cassells’ prose-poem.
Cassells ends The World That the Shooter Left Us with a “Courage Song for Scott Warren,” the immigration and humanitarian activist prosecuted by the US government for working to prevent migrant deaths in the Arizona desert. “Your at-the-ready compassion / Is the rescuing sip // & the heaven-sent gourd required / At all our desperate crossings.” It is another kind of “desperate crossing,” that of intersectional violence and injustice, that is, in the end, the world that the shooter left us and that Cassells so boldly documents.