Book Review

In Juan Calzadilla’s The Roof of the Whale Poems, translated by Katherine M. Hedeen and Olivia Lott, readers encounter an emotional landscape where one walks in a dreamlike state through urban and personal environments and revolutionary forefronts. The poems in this collection are not shy. They address personal discomfort, social displacement, and radical interpretation of Venezuelan modernization. Threading them together, too, is a strange spiritual thread, which makes each of the collection’s poems read like a surrealistic prayer offered to a god who may or may not be listening.

In poems like “hitting the abyss,” readers encounter a forthright speaker who is aware that freedom of speech comes at a high price in a country like Venezuela. Facilitating the emotion in the poem is the speaker’s reliance on run-on sentences that create a frantic tone: “my minutes are written up raised the walls of a luciola thickness / which i admit to not knowing like the violent tissue of chromosomes / the bland abysses being embedded in my body.” Geological references merge with biological ones as the speaker reflects that their body is “made of cosmogonic lava matter and nerve.” Other words like “tumor,” “crater,” “corpuscles,” and “pulsation” establish the speaker’s clinical self-awareness, and the speaker confesses, “i am aware of this equilibrium daily.” Clinching these emotions, however, and creating a deeper sense of paranoia, is the poem’s final line: “to which i am sentenced by an idea on the verge of being shot.” Confusion reigns, and the lack of capitalization of the first-person pronoun “I” communicates a lack of self-worth while simultaneously cementing the poem’s overall emotional and psychological chaos.

Geology becomes imperative to many of Calzadilla’s poems, especially poems like “the magma must return.” Images of volcanoes and lava permeate the poem. They counter the speaker’s moral statements such as “i have killed my angel / i have killed it with a clumsy knife unwashed.” These lines enforce a sense of evil, and this sense of evil becomes more acute as the poem continues and the speaker develops a sense of isolation: “what is invisible has blinded me / in silence i bear my research only / concerned with the flesh that goes alone through a desert.” The line “concerned with the flesh that goes alone through a desert” is an astounding one, potentially an allusion to Saint Anthony, who cast aside worldly comforts to reside as a solitary monk in a desert’s sands. Again, the lack of capitalization of the word “I” establishes a sense of self-doubt, self-ridicule, and a lack of self-worth. As the poem concludes, the speaker develops a transcendental awareness: “i become aware of a return that is nothing more than / a descent of jackknives along my cranium / a playing card hovering above the eye of a guilty one.” Thus, the speaker embraces the idea that a return to nature is imperative to finding and understanding one’s true self.

As readers delve deeper into Calzadilla’s collection, they discover poems like “always jonah.” An intensely personal poem, it opens in a confessional manner: “like jonah full of doubt / i dwelled in the belly of the city.” The speaker relies on words like “somberly,” “banished,” “desperately,” and “incomparable.” The reliance on enjambment and run-on sentences swirls these words and the speaker’s emotions together:

i desperately searched for
happiness i did not find it beneath a clumsy sky
hearing an order to leave i waited at the ports
i imagined incomparable adventures with no reason to.

An inescapable hopelessness also emerges, but the speaker develops resolve while facing seemingly insurmountable circumstances:

the more i opened my eyes the more the world seemed smaller
and that’s how i will live beneath a stagnant sky no desires
hating the word the feeling
the return letters
the cacti silence.

Here, form and structure serve the poem’s tone and function. The tapering lines mimic, and ultimately solidify, the speaker’s resolve—making it even more noticeable and even tangible for readers.

“You Take Pavement as the Precise Shape of Your Skin” portrays living as a profession. Brief in form and line structure, Calzadilla displays an admirable adeptness once more for using form to elevate poetic and linguistic function. The poem’s first line creates a sense of unbelonging and strangeness, even emotional displacement: “You live too inside and outside the city.” The speaker defines the “profession of living” as “a profession you carry out in the best way instead.” A dissatisfaction forms in these lines, facilitated by the repetition of the word “profession.” Both the emotional displacement and the dissatisfaction develop more psychological weight because of the speaker’s reliance on the second-person pronoun “you.” The speaker’s deference to using “you” as a direct address causes a momentous shift in the poem. The phrase “the inside and the outside” repeat as the poem concludes, forming a cyclical consciousness, and in the poem’s final two lines, a inevitable futility forms: “so that you cannot in any way fully / achieve it.” Thus, the poem ends with an unsettling realization, one that jars readers, but echoes poems like “always jonah.”

Juan Calzadilla’s The Roof of the Whale Poems is existential, gritty, and brutally realistic. However, the translations—thanks to Katherine M. Hedeen and Olivia Lott—are testaments to the linguistic magic which happens during collaboration.  The Roof of the Whale Poems holds and reveals the unexpected, and this dual-language edition of Calzadilla’s poems will both shock and awe readers—in the best ways.

About the Reviewer

Nicole Yurcaba (Нікола Юрцаба) is a Ukrainian American of Hutsul/Lemko origin. A poet and essayist, her poems and reviews have appeared in Appalachian Heritage, Atlanta Review, Seneca Review, New Eastern Europe, and Ukraine’s Euromaidan Press. Nicole holds an MFA in Writing from Lindenwood University, teaches poetry workshops for Southern New Hampshire University, and is the Humanities Coordinator at Blue Ridge Community and Technical College. She also serves as a guest book reviewer for Sage Cigarettes, Tupelo Quarterly, Colorado Review, and Southern Review of Books.