Review by Ethan Milner
The landscape in Eduardo Corral’s Guillotine (Graywolf, 2020) is a perilous terrain of shattered glass, arid heat, and spiny saguaro. Across the entire volume, poems appear in dialog with one another through violences large and small; but like blood seeping into desert sand, they always return to the body. From Guillotine’s epigraph to the last couplet, the body is the bearer of suffering that is rarely named: blisters on the feet of migrants making passage, corpses with sunburned skin, sexual impotence amid complicity. The body is violently earthbound, tied by cruelty as much as gravity.
Guillotine is framed by two sequences that haunt each other from distant vantages. The first, ‘Testaments Scratched into a Water Station Barrel’, offers prismatic glimpses of the common brutalities facing migrants who attempt to cross the border from Mexico to the United States. Corral writes in Guillotine’s notes that he envisions a singular water station barrel as a ‘three-dimensional communal space, a lyrical expanse scored with human utterance’. The reader experiences this as a range of evocative imagery, from crude humour to Norteño choruses, slitting a rabbit’s throat to root memories of shame; the reader is made to feel the grim laughter, nostalgia, fear, and grief. It is a particular act of empathy to humanise those that are stripped of their humanity by both policy and culture, and in doing so, Corral’s empathic voice allows us access to their interiority. Corral embodies the interstitial survival of these imagined migrants with an ever-shifting form, integrating the Spanish language through idioms, inner monologues, often in entire stanzas or even an entire poem.
‘Testaments’ begins with an address to a speaker’s father in which a morbid sweetness is felt: ‘Apá, dying is boring’. The statement is immediately followed by an act of simultaneous self-harm and self-preservation, as the speaker carves ‘our last name / all over my body’. It is an expression of forbearance, knowing such self-harm is the only way for the name to survive— the body a testament unto itself. Echoes of such sentiment reverberate as Guillotine progresses, sometimes tinged with dark humor: ‘If you think I look good naked wait until you see me dead’. This kind of motif enhances the feeling that throughout Guillotine, the poems speak to one another, sometimes in reverence, but sometimes simply taking the piss out of each other. The compositions are interlaced in a manner that rewards multiple readings as one assembles this imagined communal space.
Consistent with Corral’s previous work, the queer experience is centred throughout ‘Testaments’ and beyond, offering a framework through which the experience of migration is too rarely portrayed. Queerness in Guillotine is most often bittersweet, negotiated through layers of shame. The collection’s opening poem, ‘Ceremonial’, makes merciless statements of hopelessness about the speaker’s perceived obesity and the consequent obstacles; in ‘Testaments’, a cryptic reference to the ‘taste of Pablo’s sweat’ gives a mournful sense of being restrained, of queer love’s impossibility. In another poem, a speaker notes: ‘I regret training my mind / like an animal it never bared its fangs / it never instinctively leapt to tenderness.’
In ‘Autobiography of My Hungers’, named after the book by Rigoberto Gonzalez, the poem’s speaker maintains this sense of doomed love: ‘I starve myself by yearning / for intimacy that doesn’t / & won’t exist’. Here Corral again weaves together themes of shame, self-harm, and the body, as the speaker notes that ‘even my soul / is potbellied’. Childhood shame is then transposed into painfully overeating to the point of vomiting. To emphasise the suffering that love brings, the poem begins and ends with the lines ‘His beard: / an avalanche of thorns, / an avalanche of honey’. Similar themes are elevated in ‘Around Every Circle Another Can Be Drawn’, where the speaker yearns for ‘a guy who called me a faggot once or twice a week’.
Perhaps no piece in Guillotine evinces the interconnectedness of these poems more than ‘Border Patrol Agent’, an inverted gaze in which the poem’s speaker is an agent of Mexican descent. Notably, the only word of Spanish the speaker utters is ‘Puta’ (whore), the language itself reduced to the purview of ‘spic speakers’. The reader is again presented with a cinematic movement of imagery entwining the violence of land, body, and border. A corpse gnarled in barbed wire; a ‘rape tree’ with ‘torn panties draped on branches. / The tree a warning / a way for smugglers / to claim terrain’. The last phrase bears particular weight as a succinct expression of the cruelty that allows such violence to multiply, through policy and practice. As Corral returns to the body, the speaker dwells on the carnage—how it stays with him, how it stays in the ground— to which he regularly bears witness:
My dick useless.
There are things I just can’t tell her.
Sometimes only body parts remain.
in baby caskets.
Guillotine’s ending sequence is shorter than ‘Testaments’, but its impact is considerable, deftly placed after the reader has spent time in the communal space of the collection’s ongoing cross-talk. It focuses on the experience of crossing the border as a captive, a painful irony consistent with much of the collection’s sense of dread. As many make a biblical pilgrimage across the desert in hopes of a new life, others are kidnapped and imprisoned for ransom. Details of the horrific conditions—toileting in a bathtub filled with cat litter, disfigurement, torture—offer a bleak contrast to the America of sanctuary sought by others. The starkness of the border, its immutability, further begets the extremely violent reclaiming of land and body.
If there is a moment of missed opportunity in Guillotine, it is found in the more visual pieces, all of them meant to evoke ideas that fit seamlessly into the collection, but are experienced as strangely mechanical in their execution. There is an oddness to seeing something meant to represent graffiti conveyed using computer-based fonts, as their flawless symmetry is a departure from the spontaneity that makes such expression unique. There may have been a greater sense of humanity found in those visual pieces were they to have been made by the author’s hand. Though these pieces do not come to full fruition, neither do they prove a distraction or demerit to the collection itself. The power of Corral’s empathic craft is untouchable, and the visual pieces leave the reader wanting for more of it, to be closer to Corral’s voice rather than distanced by technology.
In the poem ‘Saguaro’, the eponymous cactus is referred to as ‘rockbound’ and ‘barbed’, a weapon-like protuberance sticking out of the earth. Elsewhere the saguaro pinpricks skin, is riddled with bullet-holes, is ‘triste’ (sad) and uncurious. But the saguaro is also known to ecologists as a “keystone species” that plays a crucial role in supporting its entire ecosystem. From ants to white doves to gila woodpeckers to wrens, the saguaro provides nectar, shelter, and fruit to pollinating species. The saguaro is a central cog in a clockwork that relies on its steadfast presence. Is it tragedy that to survive such land, it can only be touched in certain ways, its body sharp and coarse to ward off predators? Or is the saguaro’s connectedness to its ecosystem a testament to the genius of survival? It seems likely that some voices in Guillotine’s imagined community would see the bleakness and cruelty, and some would wonder more wistfully about the circling vulture that is God. Some would laugh at the pregunta chingada and say a saguaro is a good place to take a shit in the shade.
Of course, there are no real answers to any such question. That one can hear the voices of Corral’s community respond in the full bloom of their grief, wit, anger, and shame is Guillotine’s most necessary achievement. The reader is left with an imprint that’s painful but lasting; a scar of a stranger’s name that will forever remain.
Ethan Milner is a US-based writer and a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in Oregon, practicing psychotherapy at a school for youth with special needs. His work has most recently appeared or is forthcoming in Yes Poetry, Memoir Mixtapes, and Cotton Xenomorph. He can be found on Twitter @confident_memes.