Book Review

Paul Hlava Ceballos’s debut poetry collection banana [ ] was selected by Ilya Kaminsky as the 2021 winner of the Donald Hall Poetry Prize. The title does not mislead; the collection’s opening poem “Genesis” asserts “The banana had its own small gravity / and pulled the world when it fell.” Bananas pull the world of this poetry collection into focus as Ceballos contemplates the banana as sustenance and commodity. Bananas appear as backdrop and centerpiece, in unrhymed sonnets, in found language, in persona poems, and in autobiographical narrative. The structure of the collection progresses counterintuitively: rather than opening with autobiographically driven poems, Ceballos begins the collection writing with a social and historical conscience. As motifs gradually accumulate and intersect, the effect is unexpectedly moving–the camera zooms out, pans, and the frame narrows into close-ups–through the parts, we begin to stitch together the broader tapestry alongside the poet. Divided into three parts, the sections include 1. “Elegido,” 2. “Banana [ ]: A History of the Americas,” and 3. “Irma.”

In “Elegido,” Ceballos introduces many of the collection’s motifs: racism, exploitation, class, and the challenge of maintaining dignity in the face of hegemonies that deny it. For example, Ceballos writes an elegy for Sergio Adrián Hernández-Güerca, a fifteen-year-old boy who was shot and killed by US Border Patrol in 2010. In the elegy, Ceballos offers a searing rewrite of a US Customs Border Patrol press release detailing the incident, employing editor marks, blackout, and marginalia, shedding light on the US Border Patrol’s lack of human compassion and remorse. In poems like “Sonnet to the Country Club Ladies at a Madison Park Cafe,” Ceballos ends with a reclamation of dignity, writing “Tonight, I’ll sign my name with a wet mop / until I make the floor below us shine.” The section finishes with Ecuadorian history through persona poems from Atahualpa’s and Huáscar’s perspectives, the two Incan half-brothers and heirs who went to war with one another and faced off against Spanish invaders, which sets the stage for the second section: “Banana [ ]: A History of the Americas.”

At the heart of the book, this forty-page poem pushes poetic conventions. It is composed entirely of found language, with each source repeating the word “banana,” collaging the voices of labor organizers, agricultural pamphlets, and media describing the banana. Interspersed with text are broken up images of bananas and banana pickers. Each line or series of lines includes a footnote with the source that ranges from scientific and agricultural (“Black Sigatoka, also known as black leaf streak, is the most economic / important leaf spot disease of bananas5”), to reportage (“Víctor Gálvez, a well- / known community leader and human rights advocate, is among the organizers who have // been murdered in the banana zone of Magdalena, while he was sleeping56 . . .”), to more laconic fragments (“corky-scab banana250 / the banana251 / nation- banana252”). While some notes from this poem are included in the back matter of the collection, a more extensive list of the 296 citations can be found on the author’s website, providing helpful context.

The final section “Irma” begins in a similar vein to “Elegido,” but rather than concluding with historical context, Ceballos shifts to the personal. This last eighteen-page poem, also titled “Irma,” describes the poet’s relationship with his mother. The poem begins “The lie my mother told me / took decades to see. See?” beside a photograph of Irma. This conversational directness feels typical of Ceballos’s style throughout banana [ ] as the poet urges his readers forward; the “lie” itself feels open to interpret and multivalent—in the black-and-white image the question points us towards, Irma wears a dark blazer emblazoned with roses and looks to the right of the frame and toward the text; she has fair skin contrasting her dark hair and outfit. Further on, Ceballos says “I am who I am, / minus a language.” In addition to photographs of places, the poet also includes a scan of Irma’s petition for naturalization. This scanned document exists in tension to a fear of deportation the speaker expresses and Irma’s apparent denial of possibly being at risk of deportation. Irma reads as a reticent but determined caregiver, denying the racism, the sexism, and the extent of the difficulties she overcame during her immigration.

This final poem can be seen as a keyhole to reexamine and recontextualize the collection as whole. banana [ ]  moves from a hybrid of reportage and history into a reclamation and exploration of personal identity and heritage that was either denied or unknown and brings me as a reader to question the stories we tell and the shakiness of memory, as the speaker claims his own place in history and society. When lines like “How did I not notice her accent? / Finally, I have an answer: fuck you. / Forget your good intent” arrive, the anger feels righteous and powerful. As Ceballos revisits himself, his memories, and what schools taught and failed to teach him on the page, we readers are invited to do the same.

It’s as if these disparate pieces almost fit together, and it is exactly that space of almost that invites imagination: we see a history based on a commodity and how exploitation of the commodity inspires resistance; we see an individual witnessing and reckoning with their place in history; and we see, perhaps, how this deep and personal relationship shapes their perception and their call to write it. At last, we witness the writer claim it and understand it anew. banana [ ] is a heavy read, reporting violence and atrocities, most often against banana workers and also placing the voice and lives of these organizers and activists on the page. Ceballos’s polyvocality, thematic focus, and kaleidoscopic vision make banana [ ] unique. Through a litany of primary sources, art, persona poems, and more, Ceballos’s voice emerges in this intriguing debut.

About the Reviewer

Mike Good lives in Pittsburgh. Some of his recent poetry can be found in or is forthcoming at Bennington Review, december, Five Points, Ploughshares, Prolit, Puerto del Sol, Salamander,, Waxwing, and elsewhere. Find more at