Esteban Rodríguez’s latest poetry collection, Dis(placement) (Skull + Winds Press, 2020) is a vivid, disturbing portrait of violence against immigrants. Although never explicitly stated, the collection’s project is the men and women who cross into the United States as refugees. Suffering becomes inescapable, as the journey out is just as brutalizing as the conditions back home.
Rodríguez’s language is biblical and apocalyptic, and at times suffused with a savage painterliness. Startling, surreal images fill the poems, from doll heads hanging off cacti to a man frantically trying to rejoin his shadow. Severed limbs are everywhere, and the body is constantly penetrated, whether by maggots, snakes, or desperate thieves. Boundaries elide with a frightening viscerality. As one country becomes another, one body becomes just another corpse.
Although Rodríguez’s narration is ripe with these images, the poems resist a metaphorical reading. In “Landscape with Tree and Leg,” the speaker finds a human leg dangling from a tree and says, “You make yourself believe the leg / is an installation, an avant-garde attempt // to say something about captivity.” However, the speaker is aware that their framing of the leg as art is only a pretending. The leg is simply a leg, the result of some unknown horror.
Similarly, in Part III of the long poem “Diaspora,” the speaker says,
…But not every death translates
into a preconceived notion of what death is,
and instead, your body merely lies there,
secreting its tissue back inside itself;
no passing tumbleweeds to offer this image
a sense of closure, or to add a symbolic
element beyond the elements of exposure—
how your flesh coagulates into an object
patrolmen stumble on, photograph, haul out
and leave, with a numbered tag hanging
from your toes, on a cold, steel table.
In Rodríguez’s powerful hands, death turns the body into a thing, and beyond that, its transformative powers end. Death has no truck with symbolism and offers no merciful imagery to soften its blow.
Still, Rodríguez’s poems are determinedly lush. These are elegies, at times fabular and elemental. They can have a before-time-began quality, populated with grieving elders and weeping mothers against the backdrop of unnamed villages, with the devastations of wartime on endless repeat. The fathers, mothers, daughters, and sons are always already missing.
This universality is emphasized by Rodríguez’s choice to use “you” as the primary character of his poems. “First, they will take your goats, / display their heads and flayed skin / on clotheslines, fence posts,” the opening poem warns. “They will find you face down, / half-clothed, skin blistered // into hieroglyphs, limbs twisted // like roots unearthed ” describes another. This direct address refuses the reader who mentally siloes off this kind of exodus and violence as that which only happens to other people.
Many of the poems in the collection are heavily enjambed, often with a poem consisting of just one or two sentences. This structure results in a build-up of energy until a final blossoming, sometimes of hope, sometimes of further horrors. As this structure recurs throughout the collection, it can seem like every story, or perhaps every prayer, is beginning all over again. Even as rituals go awry (soldiers throw grenade pins and shell casings at a wedding instead of rice, a mother shakes a jar of baby teeth in place of a lullaby), a dogged instinct to survive persists in these gorgeous, necessary poems.
Esteban Rodríguez is the author of Dis(placement) (Skull + Winds Press, 2020), In Bloom (Stephen F. Austin University Press, 2020), Dusk & Dust (Hub City Press, 2019) and the micro-chapbook Soledad (Ghost City Press, 2019). His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in New England Review, Shenandoah, The Rumpus, TriQuarterly, The Gettysburg Review, The Acentos Review, and elsewhere, with poems also featured as part of Poetry Daily. He is the Interviews Editor at the EcoTheo Review, Assistant Poetry Editor at AGNI, and is a regular reviews contributor at PANK and Heavy Feather Review. Rodríguez received his MFA from The University of Texas-Pan American and lives with his family in Austin, Texas where he also teaches.