The Knock of the Blade: Until We Are Level Again by Jose Angel Araguz (Mongrel Empire Press, 2018) and Hard Child by Natalie Shapero (Copper Canyon Press, 2017)

Valerie Duff-Strautmann
| Reviews


The pervasiveness of a father’s ghost in José Angel Araguz’s Until We Are Level Again reminds us that old memories that threaten our equilibrium also provide, in poems, breakthroughs for the haunted. The ghost for Araguz is twofold: his father was incarcerated when he was a young boy, and has disappeared again, now, in death. Araguz finds himself constantly interrupted by a sensation of likeness to the parent he scarcely knew. Until We Are Level Again attempts to capture the father and at the same time shows how his absence has trapped the son. One thinks of Rilke, in his “Letters to a Young Poet,” addressing the writer’s search for a subject: “even if you found yourself in some prison, whose walls let in none of the world’s sounds—wouldn’t you still have your childhood, that jewel beyond all price, that treasure house of memories” to construct poems? Araguz uses those memories, fleeting and painful, to stabilize the present, freeing himself and his father in the process.

When childhoods are marked by a missing parent, Araguz tells the reader in “Gloves,” what stands out are moments of longing, and the way imagination kicks in:


I made up a story for myself once,
that each glove I lost
was sent to my father in prison;

that’s all it would take for him
to chart my growth without pictures
without words or visits,

only colors and design,
texture; it was ok then
for skin to chafe and ash,

to imagine him
trying on a glove,
stretching it out

my open palm closing
and disappearing
in his fist.


The poem intricately layers the missing father and the missing glove (the missing son), and the thought of the glove’s continued existence works to repair their rift.

There are several similar attempts to form connection, namely through the “Letter” poems that are scattered throughout, as if Araguz can’t quite finish speaking to his father directly. Araguz addresses him at the end of each with questions neither father nor son will ever be able to answer. The son, contemplating a crucifix, admits “it is you I see, come back into this world as I last saw you: shirtless, all ribs and outstretched arms, halted behind the prison courtyard’s chain-link fence,” or in the reflection of the moon in a moving river:


White ripples to white waves, to white that keeps turning away.
Father who never grew into your white, tell me:
How many fathers in this water?

While childhood, even a devastating childhood, is the recognizable Rilkean “jewel” for Araguz, there are others. Many of the poems are influenced both by cultural and Catholic experiences; he mines his life for the ecstatic and enchanted, the poems creating a sacred space, as in “Theology at Work”:


If there is heaven
I will buy my way in
with slices of tomato,

with acts like this one,
separating this body from itself,
bringing down the knife

without thinking,
my hands working
in a silence

broken only by the knock
of the blade...


In terms of poetic influences, debts to writers like Li Po and Pedro Miguel Obligado are announced, but it is hard not to acknowledge what feels like a powerful echo of Neruda in Araguz’s “Hell’s Kitchen,” which trades streets of South America (where, in Neruda’s “Walking Around,” the poem’s inhabitants “enter clothes shops and theaters, / withered, impenetrable, like a swan made of felt / sailing the water of ashes and origins”) for New York and the streets of Hell’s Kitchen, filled with “Men with rags for hands. /Men with hair of fallen elm leaves / who stop to watch faces / roll by in the windows of taxicabs.” Araguz leans into the last surreal but true moments of the visitor, the one who doesn’t have to live there, who will “never have to taste the mix of gutter and exhaust” and finally “never have to follow the light of streetlamps, / their broken mouths swollen with moths.”

The magic of Araguz’s poems happens through the obsession and transformation of memory that occurs, along with the movement forward into metaphor, which Araguz articulates clearly in “Bird Hunger,” an archetypal poem that calls to mind the images from the nursery rhyme “Sing a Song of Sixpence,” yet casts a different light in its ethereality, in the actions of the bird, and in the subsequent change:


And what makes up ever after?
Birds flying free from the rubble.

One, the bird before the pie goes in the oven
clawing at the crust, unable to get out.

Another, the bird possessed by intuition
knowing exactly which wicked sister’s eye to gouge.

My mother and father became strangers;
their silence became the waters of my memories.

I am the bird flying out of the waters
singing of everything that has happened.

My flight is hunger; my song is questions. I have no choice
but to keep on in a tale in which I can never go home.

Valerie Duff-Strautmann is the poetry editor of Salamander. Her poems have appeared recently in Poetry, The Common, and Cortland Review.

After Innocence: Good Bones by Maggie Smith (Tupelo Press, 2017) and The Amoeba Game by Tara Skurtu (Eyewear Publishing, 2017)
Refuge: Said Not Said by Fred Marchant (Graywolf Press, 2017).