John Murillo’s second book, Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry (Four Way Books, 2020) includes poems that are both captivating and technically strong. The work is passionate and politically-charged as Murillo explores racial violence, poverty, love, familial relationships, and masculinity through a personal voice that is deeply honest, finely-tuned, and at times, almost erotic. This collection pays tribute to the literary and musical traditions that have influenced Murillo, helping him to carve out his own space as a poet who excels at both the narrative and lyrical voice. The poems in Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry are deliberate; they take their time winding down the page, gently pulling the reader across each precisely-composed line into landscapes that are full of depth and dimension. In this book, readers will become enamored with a voice that is both dark and meditative, politically-conscious and utterly heartfelt.
Murillo, at his core, is a political poet. Many of the poems in this collection deal with disenfranchised states of being due to racism and inequality. “A Refusal to Mourn the Deaths, by Gunfire, of Three Men in Brooklyn” is a sonnet sequence that directly addresses how systemic racism leads to violence. These poems serve as the centerpiece of the collection and are worthy of closer analysis on their own. However, masculine desire is another topic that appears throughout the collection and operates as an interesting counterbalance to the more politically-charged work. These are places where the speaker opens up more, becomes more vulnerable and contemplative, and immerses himself in complex emotions dealing with sexual desire. “Dolores, Maybe.” is a poem that combines both the narrative and the lyric as the speaker addresses his audience in a more personal way. It begins: “I’ve never spoken to anyone about this. Until now, until you.” This first line sets up an intimate connection between the speaker and the person being spoken to. “Dolores, Maybe.” is about two things: a young woman who kills herself as a result of sexual abuse by her father, and the speaker’s psychological state in regards to the event. The poem begins with the suicide of the girl and zooms in on a memory of an afternoon the speaker shared with her:
And on our walk, I remember, we cut through the rail yard,
and came upon a dead coyote lying near the tracks.
A frail and dusty heap of regret, he was companion to no one.
Stone still, staring. Our shadows stretched long and covering the animal.
She told me something, I want to say, about loneliness.
Something I’ve since forgotten, the way I’ve forgotten—
though I can see her face as if she were standing right here—her very name.
Let’s call her Dolores, from dolor. Spanish for anguish.
The speaker then describes an uncomfortable moment: he attempts to touch Dolores’s hair and she runs away from him. This is all that happens between them. She flees from his touch and he never sees her again. The poem tracks the speaker’s state of mind after Dolores’s suicide:
I spent the rest of that summer in the rail yard
with my dead coyote, watching the trains loaded and leaving.
All summer long, I’d pelt him with stones.
All summer long, I’d use the stones to spell the girl’s name—
Dolores, maybe—in the dirt.
All summer long, fire ants crawled over and between each letter—
her name, now, its own small town.
A season of heat and heavy rains washed my coyote to nothing.
Only teeth and a few stubborn bones
that refused, finally, to go down.
Here, the poem opens up into a lyrical moment that is both beautiful and heartbreaking as the speaker attempts to deal with Dolores’s suicide. He isolates himself in the rail yard—a spot that is inhabited by both the civilized and natural world—and fixates on the dead coyote and the ants crawling over the stones that he pelts at the dead animal and uses to spell her name. The speaker explains how later the father commits suicide in the same way his daughter did as a result of intense guilt, but the emotional power of the poem centers on the speaker—his mourning and obsessive desires that are not explicitly stated, but exist just below the surface of the poem. The concluding lines are especially poignant in the way the speaker attempts to articulate these feelings:
I’ve never spoken to anyone about this. Until now, until you.
I gathered a handful of my coyote’s bones, his teeth,
and strung them all on fishing wire—
a talisman to ward off anguish. A talisman I hold out to you now.
Please. Come closer. Take this from my hand.
In the ending lines of the poem, the speaker acknowledges the fact that he has held onto this difficult experience for many years (Dolores’s suicide occurred in 1983) and here, he enlists a “you” to assist him in easing the emotional burden of having to endure feelings of loss and obsession. The dead coyote is “my coyote” and the bones are all that are left, serving as a way to protect the speaker against feelings that already appear to be deeply embedded within him. The speaker believes that by telling this story, he will be freed from his personal pain. But it is about more than just telling, it is about who he is telling it to, a “you” that is more than just a listener. It is a “you” that is capable of sharing this emotional hardship, a “you” that the speaker trusts enough to relinquish his talisman to as a way to heal past wounds. This is where the magic of the poem lies, in the speaker’s desire to surrender to the “you” as a way to ultimately strengthen their intimate connection.
“Distant Lover (Or, When You’re Teaching in Amherst and, While on a Late Night Walk, Your Wife Calls from Brooklyn to Say Goodnight)” is a poem that deals with masculine desire using intense lyricism and wonderfully specific images. The speaker describes the landscape from a distanced perspective (using “you” instead of “I”), giving more weight to the music, images, and the speaker’s feelings of sexual need. Here is the poem in its entirety:
The dead of February, and everything sexual.
So sexual the icicles skirting the barn.
Sexual the animals huddled inside, shivering.
Sexual the cloud disappearing, appearing
again, from your half-open mouth. The moon
swollen bright. Sexual the trees, stark
naked, all their branches spread and undulating
in the wind. Sexual the tundra. Sexual
the blackest snow by the road, made blacker
by the city worker’s plow. Sexual, the snowman
leaning in a midnight yard. So sexual
dead February, the small town windows lit
from inside, fogging, watching you burn.
This poem is a song in the way it uses repetition (“sexual”) and stimulating verbs (“skirting,” “shivering,” “disappearing,” “appearing,” “undulating,” “watching”). It also contains masterfully crafted images and threads them with metaphorical meaning: “icicles skirting the barn,” “the cloud disappearing, appearing / again, from your half-open mouth, “the trees, stark / naked, all their branches spread and undulating / in the wind.” Here, everything becomes sexual, including “the road,” “the city worker’s plow,” and “the snowman leaning in a midnight yard.” Additionally, the poem ends with a brilliant turn as the town itself becomes the observer: “…windows lit / from inside, fogging, watching you burn.” This is a stand-out poem in the collection because of the way it focuses in on a single moment and draws it out intensely. Murillo is always sharp with his language, but here, he is exceptionally sharp. This poem is a superior combination of language, image, music, eroticism, and nature.
Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry is a political book. Murillo uses his poetic talents to articulate what it means to be racialized and oppressed, to be frustrated and militant, and how these tensions manifest themselves in a society that still operates on a system of inequality. But, Murillo is also a deeply sensual poet. His poems are about the devastating effects of racism and inequality, but they are also about male desire—what it means to be oppressed and in love, and how love translates into a state of being that contains its own political elements. Murillo is also a nature poet; the speaker of his poems observes it in the harshest environments and gives it its own space. Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry is a mature collection; it shows that Murillo has many more poems to write in regards to the subjects he meditates upon so well using his strong, cultivated writing style. It will be interesting to see how his work develops from here.
September 14, 2020