“These poems ache and plead and yearn, and never forget song. Never forget song.” —Ross Gay
Roberto Carlos Garcia
Publisher: Červená Barva Press
Publication Date: 12 October 2016
Contemporary poets like Danez Smith, Claudia Rankine, Nicole Homer, Patricia Smith, and a bevy of other brilliant minds have written (and continue to write) poetry about the neo-American subjugation and murder of brown and black bodies. How simply living is a political act, an act of rebellion. Roberto Carlos Garcia has added to the conversation, but in a new mode.
In his first full-length poetry collection Melancolía, Garcia examines a brown man in a post-Trump world who “…can no longer make a fist—neither to hit nor to hide things.” In poems filled with jarring juxtapositions and bold natural imagery, the speaker sits in suburbia peeling back all of our national ills: injustice, racism, war, death, loneliness, poverty, and ignorance in a way that only a poet can: through beautiful, stark speak and pulsing images. However, to call this “poet’s poetry” is to do it a disservice; indeed, Garcia’s language and lines are deliberate, controlled, and involuntarily haunting, challenging us to reconsider and reimagine beauty and love and its abilities for redemption in a world where the only bodies that “matter” are white, privileged, and melancolía-free.
Garcia’s holistically brute but compassionate treatment of masculinity and the objectification of black/brown bodies by the media and institutionalized racism grabs readers by the throat. In language both harrowing and healing, Garcia leaves tongue-in-cheek politics by the wayside, aiming straight for America’s cold, dark heart, striking at it with bold capitalized statements that read like headlines we are becoming numb to and gut-punch wordplay reminiscent of when hip-hop was one of the earliest forms of contemporary poetry. Such viscerally aching poems like “Self-portrait in American black,” “In white silence,” and “A riot in images” detail black pain at the hands of white supremacy:
I am that I am what
America’s narrative makes me:
A STRUGGLE ENSUES
A BRIEF ALTERCATION
& I stand as death’s bride
Arms raised—arms wide,
for your mind’s white eye/I
& all the while black bodies—dandelions
breaking in quiet breezes
Our black bodies—dust peeling
Off America’s skin—
in white silence—there aren’t even shadows
A riot in images
A hooded sweatshirt
hung upside down,
flag at half-mast
Through Garcia’s purposeful repetition and striking use of metaphor, these three poems not only testify to this aforementioned pain but give readers a play-by-play of the black/brown American body in its many states: malleable, brittle, decomposable, symbol.
In Melancolía, Garcia also inspects masculinity, and how it serves as both harness and hole, that which keeps the speaker tethered to this world, and void within it. This is stunningly demonstrated in both “No currency” as well as in the first of two poems titled “Melancolía.”
In “No currency”, the speaker is in profound reverie about the space he occupies in the world— physically, socially, spiritually: “I’m a father of three, growing fat Meanwhile/ hunger is killing nations/ gluttony is killing nations, I wear floppy feet…” The exhaustion of occupancy lending itself to complacency is beautifully detailed in the rhetorical questions presented to an ostensibly deaf universe: “Kids, what should we turn into / what will become of us? Pass me the remote control”. Through direct diction, the speaker questions how (in)action within the universe brings us deeper into “Melancolía”, the next poem, where he as “Husband, father, son—” cries “… easily/ Like a child lamenting a fallen ice cream cone.” In this “fine line between caring & catatonia”, the speaker is present, but absent; there, but somewhere else— an existence that those affected by systemic injustice feel thick as marrow in our bones. It is in this state that the speaker processes, feels, and “…wander(s) from light to dark” within the body, the soul, and the very collection itself.
Melancolía ebbs and flows in this way, in its understanding of the male body, and the brown/black body. There are rushes of raw, unbridled rage as well as slow currents of reprieve. The speaker carefully tackles the mundane, insufferable aspects of life while troubling the mythological narrative of suburban splendor by allowing the emotional state of melancolía to run its course. A gorgeous model of these movements is seen in “Keeping on”, where Garcia presents us an American sonnet that doubles as an ode to survival.
In this poem, the speaker’s body relentlessly faces a “new day” that “open[s] like a horrific crash/ I can’t look away from, & the hope/ that there are survivors becomes the thing/ dragging me to the shower & hot water.” In these waves of ferocity and trauma, we can’t help but treat melancolía as dulling, virulent, much like “life’s conveyer belt” as it “accelerates”. Nevertheless, the body recognizes its purpose, to charge forward through every crash and break without crashing and breaking itself, as seen in the haunting lines that follow:
…now it’s about
keeping up, as the little voice grows louder
& louder until I am sitting in the car, weighing
all the options, the infinite variations of doubt,
& what scares me most is …
careening through space and time decaying
as quickly as the paths I choose not to travel
The brown/black body, in the midst of turmoil, locates resistance in the site almost every revolutionary does: the voice. It “becomes a song” where instead, or perhaps in spite of, letting prejudice puncture and pull apart, is humbled to hope: “Obey it, close my eyes, & give thanks.”
It is in this spirit of gratitude that Garcia calls out his country and how it betrays, destroys, and re/invents him, how his story changes alongside the stories of other bodies like his, how there is no such thing as a “safe space”, not even in suburban America. Paternity, then, becomes a condition that adds another layer of distress to the story. In the era of Tamir, Aiyana, Mike, Rekia and Trayvon, what parent of a black or brown child is able to live in any other state than perpetual melancolía? Nevertheless, the spirit moves and bears witness in a lighthearted and grounded manner in “Drive”, where melancolía touches down on the inconsequential happiness and profound appreciation that comes with fatherhood:
I’m listening to Vampire Weekend
On my drive home, & I wouldn’t know
What a Vampire Weekend is except
That my daughter made me a playlist
For my fortieth birthday; & I am grateful
we listen to so much music together
Within these litanies, there are moments of reckoning. Despite frustration, vulnerability, and disillusionment, the speaker manages to smuggle in a novel sense of (self) love. These moments are showcased in “Mirror”, where the speaker low-key praises himself/his body and the journey it makes: “These days my face in the mirror is a brown galaxy—/ I am becoming more earth than man.” In an age where self-care has become more hashtag and meme than actual physical and psychological care, this poem strips the secular modes of self-love to the bare minimum, bringing the very fiber of being safe and grounded back to a supernatural, almost divine state. When the speaker says he is more “earth” than “man”, we are reminded that we are products of a natural order, beings fleshed from soil, air, and water and not man-made materials and ideologies. Like in many of the poems in Melancolía, Garcia masterfully employs natural elements as both reminders and resources, those which make us up and keep us together.
In “On a good day” and “Belief system”, we see love operate as salvation. As two of the stand out poems in the collection, Garcia reels us in by the heartstrings without the overbearing sentimentality of both traditional and contemporary love poetry. In “On a good day”, the speaker measures the matter between the mind and the heart: “…the distance between love/ & madness is an eyelash”. Even on the brink of melancholy and lunacy, the brown/black body is redeemed as a harbor for love in all of its courses and ships: the crazy-in-love love, the unrequited love, the God-love, the father love, the love of country, the love of self.
If there is any doubt of this, the speaker in “Belief system” lets us know just where his faith is placed: “I believe in the magic of kissing, / Of low-cut dresses, too much wine, /& slow dancing… I believe I love to the point of being/an imbecile.” It is not a faith that saves, but like love and melancolía, carries and holds and pushes us through. And like all of Melancolía’s quixotic, tender, and lush prose, it remains difficult, if not impossible, to define what melancolía’s purpose or project is. Perhaps its mission is to stay undefinable, to allow melancholy to be whatever driving force it desires upon the desired, like “…a nightingale who sits in darkness and sings.”
“At the heart of all great art is an essential melancholy.” Like Lorca, Roberto Carlos Garcia is a miner of this art, the kind that invites saudade, madness, and ecstasy in and outside the body, spaces that try to make sense of an existence that is, for many, at many times, nonsensical. Thus, Melancolía is and does. It opens and shuts, allays and obscures, destroys and reconstructs. Like joy, it helps us find ourselves, and celebrate, mostly in quiet devotion. Like anger, it fuels us forth against the forces that make existence= resistance. And like love and melancholy itself, Melancolía serves as reminder that “[i]f nothing else it/must be beautiful.”
Roberto Carlos Garcia's book, Melancolía, is available from Červená Barva Press. His poems and prose have appeared or are forthcoming in Academy of American Poets Poem-A-Day, The New Engagement, Public Pool, Stillwater Review, Gawker, Barrelhouse, Tuesday; An Art Project, The Acentos Review, Lunch Ticket, and many others. A native New Yorker, Roberto holds an MFA in Poetry and Poetry in Translation, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. His second poetry collection “black/Maybe” will be published by Willow Books in 2018. He is the founder of Get Fresh Books, LLC, a cooperative press.
Marina Carreira is a Luso-American writer and artist from Newark, NJ. She holds a MFA in Creative Writing from Rutgers University, and is curator of "Brick City Speaks", a reading series in Newark. Marina’s chapbook, I Sing to That Bird Knowing It Won’t Sing Back was published May 2017 by Finishing Line Press. Her work is featured in Paterson Literary Review, The Acentos Review, Pittsburgh Poetry Review, Hinchas de Poesia, among others. Her visual artwork centers/explores intersectional feminism, religion as cultural force, the female body/sexuality, and being first-generation urban queer Luso-American. She lives in Union, NJ with her two daughters.