Alejandro Escudé: The Book of the Unclaimed Dead (Main Street Rag)
Alejandro Escudé is a poet, teacher, husband, and father living in L.A., but also an immigrant from Argentina, and so a liminal figure, with a body and a life here yet so many memories back there. The poems in The Book of the Unclaimed Dead often have the city as a backdrop or a living landscape, which I expected, but some poems take place in Argentina, either physically, or in the poet’s or the speaker’s family’s memories. There is the air of exile in these poems, often a feeling of dislocation, a longing on the part of the speaker for home—or simply to be elsewhere, as he looks, in a couple of poems, to the heavens—and to make sense of lineage and geography, which for him, means having family on three different continents. The poems that recollect his former country are some of the most striking in this collection, as in “Father Remembers the Military Dictatorship,” a bank robbery by guerrillas delivered as an unrhymed sonnet—unrhymed, save for the last five lines. The rhyme scheme here ties together an execution with a scene of the speaker’s father finishing his story, pouring or sipping red wine, and kissing his grandson, as the speaker’s mother asks once more that the family move on. It’s a deft bit of juxtaposition, that of the past violence in the old country with a touching domestic scene in the new. “Breathless” begins in a memory of an evening in Buenos Aires, during a dinner in which the speaker is on the cusp of marriage, and taking close note of how his father acts and what he says, even as sirens wail and the speaker hears “the fading death-pulse of the military junta.” The poet’s complicated relationship with his father is another strand of this book, explored further in a number of poems such as “Stir,” along with poems that explore the nature of fatherhood and marriage, and poems that venture into political territory. The title poem is certainly a stand-out in the book, for its poignant subject matter and for its precision of details, as well as the way it functions as kind of counterpoint to the poet’s longing for home: here is a place where the dead who have no one are collected—devoid of family, and, in a sense, ultimately stateless as well.
In “A Bird, A Prowler,” the speaker asserts that “the mighty are mighty / because they avoid asking / the essential questions, such as / where will this road take me?” This is a poet willing to take a political stance on behalf of the working class, the destitute, the poor, etc, and yet he rarely does it in a heavy-handed fashion, and often veers off into dreamy or surreal imagery and/or humor-tinged speculation, as he does in this poem: “I recall waking once to the sound / of a scratching window, a bird? A prowler? / The sound was a language, / and I interpreted it to be the hand-claw of a god.” The speaker will go on to complicate—and cast aspersions upon—this sort of metaphysical speculation, when he responds to the sentence, “Time is mathematical milk suckled / from the teat of star-cows” (yikes, I remember thinking upon my first read), by undercutting the speaker’s thoughts with a joke and a light-hearted ending: “It figures, / I remember thinking, and then / went about my open-mouthed snoring, / a religious mood shifting over me / as if I were a pirate or a priest.”
“Almost no one can write political poems worth the time or trouble,” William Logan recently wrote in a review for The New Criterion (https://newcriterion.com/issues/2019/12/truth-or-consequences). There are a number of reasons for that, but one of the ways a poet can offer a political poem worth reading is through surprising and inventive figurative language, in which the reader is knocked off-balance, and his or her expectations overturned. This is one of Alejandro Escudé’s biggest strengths. In “To Eat and Leave the Night an Empty Plate”: “Do we recall the Isis terrorist in his jeep / happy to drag five corpses? Five corpses / hanging from the moon, five corpses loaded like bullets / into the chamber of a gun…” In one poem, Escudé mentions an editor who rejected his work because he never gets off the subject, which astonished me, because just in the poem I quoted, he moves from those corpses and into a direct address of someone—it’s not apparent who at first, but then one slowly realizes that is, in fact, Donald Trump, a use of apostrophe that comes out of the blue—then retells a variety of moments from both world and American history moves, albeit one the poet twists in an interesting fashion: “…you oversexed missile, / you Roman fop, you Towers burning, one man leaps / from a window of the World Trade, martyr man, / L-man, J-woman, moon feces in the shape of Trump, / in the shape of Mar-a-Lago, in the shape of Chris Christie, / piles in the cemetery where Lorca’s body lies forever / falling….” The poem continues on to have Trump’s foot soldiers take away Lorca at dawn, then Washington, Hamilton, and Burr make appearances, until the national anthem itself begins to sing—all in the same sentence. It’s a bewildering cascade. A good deal of political poems being published today are indistinguishable from the sorts of anti-Trump rants one reads on Facebook (though the poem is dated Nov. 6, 2016). This poem is certainly at risk of straying into the self-indulgent, but the twisting syntax and the inventive language keep it from doing so. This poem also arrives at the end of the book, as the fourth last poem, and Escudé has already charmed us with his sense of humor, and his willingness to be vulnerable, to be less than completely certain, and even to be wrong. In other words, to be human, and to be complicit, as he admits in the final line: “We, it began, we, it finishes, we.” This mixture of complicity and violence delivered with a surrealistic flourish is something a poem entitled “Each Man” accomplishes as well: “Each man drags himself / across the executioner’s table / as he sharpens his blade. / The table is full of stars. / the executioner has no name.”
Another way to write a good political poem is to do so until you surprise yourself. Say something no one else is saying—and that’s something Escudé is doing in this book. Do you know another poet writing about guns? Not mass shootings, and violence, but about the ins and outs of gun ownership, and what purchasing a gun might do to one’s sense of self, and to the self itself, and how it feels. I’m not a gun owner, so I don’t know that feeling, but one of the sections of this book charts the speaker purchasing a gun, and chronicles repeated forays to the gun range—once with his ten year old son!—a landscape that is certainly uncommon in American poetry. One of the pleasures of this book—and there are many—is witnessing Escudé fumble his way (at least at first) through the mechanics of firing a gun, and the surprising sense of camaraderie and pride that the range might offer a person—such as being someone who has fired a .50 caliber Desert Eagle (and this is a speaker who has worried throughout the book about the kind of husband and father he is!). Not to mention encountering some of the characters there, such as the employee who suddenly rants about teachers—to a teacher, unbeknownst to the ranter. When Escudé does, as I think he must, wrestle with the issue of mass shootings, he turns to the surreal, and to an adept use of synecdoche: “Pairs of cowboy boots / and trucker hats turned to angels, / thick hinges like wings busted open, / hell unseen through a peephole / like a raging forest fire, long guns / like thin, black crocodiles…” (“Hell Unseen Through a Peephole”). The poem implicates the reader with the first two lines: “Hot after eating our better halves / who surrendered to bullets that came / like piglets sniffing at knee caps….” This combination of surrealism and an odd—very odd, yet striking—simile is unnerving, as is the suggestion of cannibalism, or at the least, that of consumption. It is also one of the most profound and memorable conveyances of this type of horror that I’ve encountered, this too-common horror, which feels, at this point, distinctly and unfortunately American. And the fact that it was written by an immigrant gun-owner—well, I’m not aware of a similar confluence anywhere in the world today.
So much of Escudé’s music is subtle. “Scavenger Sonnet,” for example, begins with a triple internal rhyme: “The wrentit fits inside the bush’s pocket,” if you count the slant rhyme of “pocket,” and I do, but “wren-“ and “in” dial up the total rhymes to five. Escudé offers a memorable simile in the next line, yet also manages an internal rhyme along the way: “and like a scarf made of meteor she knots her way…,” then several more internal rhymes in the following lines: “The phainopepla is a gray comb, her breeches / are her niches. She is not at home. / While the sycamore succumbs, a treble clef / in the stone smile of the birder with the bad hip.” In “The Other Me,” in which a speaker is listening to a D-Day vet, rhyme closes out five A-B-C-B quatrains, with the direct rhyme so close in the final quatrain that it risks a singsong quality, one that would undermine the haunting sentiment, except that it acknowledges the kinship between the vet and his German counterpart: “His enemy. / The man he shot dead, / whom he called his other me.” Escudé manages one last marriage of form and content, so that the final direct rhymes are, in a way, the two soldiers, each an echo, a sonic ghost, of the other.
There are a few poems—as in nearly every collection published in the twenty-first century—that are delivered in long disheveled lines that defy every attempt at scansion—or any attempt, really, at guessing at the principle behind the organization or structure of the line. “The Miracle of Life” is one of these, “Green Felt Pants” another. And at time his language is stale—bullet casings, for example, have a “lingering scent / of fresh fireworks and liberty”—which, especially when Escudé is in documentary mode, or when he offers shopworn insights (“Rubberized, the world cries in sync. Cycles of money. / Even if you were to grant them wash basins / full of gold coins, they would want to know the growth.”), can produce a tired poem, or simply an unremarkable poem. But these moments and those poems are few and far between, and soon, Escudé offers a phrase like “ha!, so immigration is a punk-rock song / played in the grayness of a relinquished city,” or a father is recalling a military dictatorship, or Adam and Eve and the angel that guards the gate of Eden are each reimagined, Adam “clutching his balls in the rain,” the angel too terrifying to look upon, and there is a “strange scissoring sound, as when / a tornado approaches and it’s too late to take cover.”
Mark Wagenaar is the author of three prize-winning poetry books, most recently Southern Tongues Leave Us Shining, selected by Afaa Weaver for the Red Hen Press Benjamin Saltman Prize. His fiction and poetry appear widely, including The New Yorker, Tin House, Southern Review, Gulf Coast, 32 Poems, Cincinnati Poetry Review, and River Styx, among many others. He is an assistant professor in English at Valparaiso University and Contributing Editor to Valparaiso Poetry Review.