Book Review

Rodney Gómez’s Arsenal With Praise Song offers a world of bones and horns, of rivers and deserts, of lungs, chests, hands: Gómez’s arsenal is elemental. The collection mines histories and performances of violence, with sources as varied as news stories, films, photographs, and Frances Glessner Lee’s dioramas of crime scenes. The opening poem, “Warbler,” moves like a prose litany, launching us into the visceral mythology of the book: “Another body & another body slipping like tongue from the river’s lip.” Through the mythic imagery of an ark, with a father “emerging like two stag horns where rags could be hung for drying” and a mother “carrying me in her armpit like a third breast,” the penultimate line of the poem brings us to the brother, “gunned down body draped over a pillow, his face a gourd I could no longer drink from,” and then lands us in the voice of the speaker, “You could have been almost anyone.”

What can one become within a violent world? How does one survive? The shapeshifting images throughout the book reveal how violence moves through us and shapes us. The knife and the gun are ubiquitous. The poem “The Knife” begins, “What can you say about the knife that hasn’t already been said?” Gómez then proceeds to shapeshift the knife through history, moving it from what “carved yokes into brown bodies” into an animated figure that moves through bone, baby, woodpecker, tree, until landing in concrete, “jutted like a mouse tail” awaiting an almost Arthurian release: except here, violence is revealed to be anything but heroic. The knife returns often throughout the book including in “The Horrible Burden of Consciousness,” where internal rhyme carries the emotional resonance: “you are neither / the knife nor the notch on the body / where the knife rests, but you expect / obliteration.” Thus, the poet connects violent act and wound, the speaker forced to be “reliquary”: “No rest for the second body / that inherits the first/ And some would say invader. / And some would say reliquary.”

Accountability is at the heart of “Then the Hand in the Act of Violence,” which begins: “I spoke / even with my throat / cut,” weaving and leaping toward this mid-poem evocation: “Call the people who lose / all connection to their violence / as if an alien hand // suddenly took root at the wrist / and plucked out all the responsible nerves.” Violence is not something apart from us, and these poems push us to inhabit the world we make, the world that makes us.

This collection moves in song, as the title promises. The prose poems are as rich in music as the sparer poems that sing across the page in few word lines. But Gómez’s history with the visual poem in his previous book, Geographic Tongue, and his ongoing work with ekphrasis, drives an imagery that expands across the senses, such as in the opening of “Snowflake,” when the language and tools of violence can be tasted, felt within the mouth, the body:

In the dark you asked
about the mouthfeel of a bullet.
The same as any other instrument
of failure.    A broken neck,

lips that telegraph their need
for clay or salt.    I thought my gift
was turning gunpowder into snow,
erasing every unsafe thing

from vision. . . .

Gómez unearths the bridge between atrocity and language, mining the metaphor at its most powerful: everything that is a figure is also real, for it is impossible to “erase every unsafe thing.” Rather than erase, Gómez stockpiles violent histories, with nearly every poem containing active violent acts or weapons; he reminds us that violence is ubiquitous, that “a person is a collocation / of strikes / not of mercies.” There is power in invoking such accumulation. In “Apotheosis of the Wound,” the speaker says, the wound “keeps an inventory of all the people who have wronged it, but this list is not made of maliciousness but of necessity.”

Yet Gómez is a visionary as well as a storyteller. “No one can foretell the future,” he tells us in “The Impression of the Animal,” “We are all holy smoke / governed by the universal law.” This line brings to mind, in this moment, the work of Nelly Sachs, as the poems work to both testify and document, and to transform. In Gómez’s “Testaments,” the speaker says of his child, “We are told to move out of the way // or be remade. I warn her / there is nowhere to go // except the light: make a pillar out of anything, / every good deed is arsenal.” These poems are themselves such pillars, arsenals built with the power of imagery: the move toward the light, he demonstrates, begins with the acknowledgment of the darkness which has shaped us, and within which we live. If the portrayal of violence is painterly in these poems, it is their music that opens the door to transformation, to the praise song of survival, captured in the final line of “Apotheosis of the Wound” which ends, “The wound is disarmed by the sound of waterfalls.”

About the Reviewer

Rebecca Morgan Frank is the author of four collections of poems, most recently Oh You Robot Saints! (Carnegie Mellon, 2021), and her poetry, prose, and reviews have appeared such places as The New Yorker, Los Angeles Review of Books, and American Poetry Review. She is cofounder and editor of the online journal Memorious and she serves on the board of the National Book Critics Circle.