Slow Lightning by Eduardo C. Corral

The Empty Frame

reviewed by Jan-Henry Gray

Eduardo C. Corral’s Slow Lightning (Yale University Press, 2012) is a small, ambitious book with some of the most powerful poems I have ever read. The book is comprised of 31 poems: one long poem flanked by fifteen poems on either end. The centerpiece poem begins with an epigraph from Lorna Dee Cervantes which reads: “only symmetry harbors loss.”

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Corral writes poems unafraid of their own open wounds. There is something ecstatic, dangerous, and sexy about how Corral renders his images onto the page. In “Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome” Corral writes:

I toss off my robe. A mule
curls its tongue around
                         my erection. I throw
my head back,
           & stare at the slowest lightning,
                        the stars.


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In 2011, Carl Phillips awarded the 106th Yale Series of Younger Poets Award to Corral’s Slow Lightning. In the introduction Phillips writes: “Corral’s refusal to entirely trust authority wins my trust as a reader. Intimacy, humor, outrage, longing, fear—and have I mentioned, with no irony whatsoever, the sheer heart of these poems? I love the range here—psychologically, emotionally, but also in terms of mode: narrative, lyric, elegy, homage, the anti-ekphrastic ekphrastic.”

Corral references visual artists, writers, and musicians that construct a particular constellation of aesthetic influences: Félix González-Torres, José Montoya, Frida Kahlo, Ester Hernández, Julio Galán, Tino Rodríguez, Arthur Russell, Gwendolyn Brooks, Jorge Luis Borges, Toni Morrison, and Robert Hayden.

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More symmetry. In “Se Me Olvidó Otra Vez,” Corral writes a fifteen-line poem with a chiasmic structure. The line “You’re asleep inside your old guitar” appears at the center, beginning, and end of the poem. The poem is bookended with the phrase: “I sit in bed, from the linen your scent still rises.”

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The first time I read Slow Lightning it rained. It was a late-August rain that came down hard, all-at-once, disappeared quickly, and left the air thick with the uncertainty of being in between seasons. I was in the lobby of a building at Columbia College Chicago during the first week of school. A then-stranger and now-friend, Evan Kleekamp, pulled out a copy of the book from his tote bag eager to show me a poet who was “like Richard Siken, but better.” Sure, there are some easy surface similarities: they both won the Yale Younger and they both speak to the contemporary gay male experience with intimate and vivid language. And while Crush is the Live Through This for many younger poetry readers, Corral’s Slow Lightning only has a small legion of sycophants.

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Corral’s thin collection is full of many shapes. “To A Mojado Who Died Crossing the Desert” takes a serpentine shape on the page while “Want” is a distinct rectangle of a poem. Reminiscent of the rhetoric of call-and-response, “Watermark” takes a left-side-vs-right-side appearance on the page. See how the spatial relationship on the page stutters and delays the meaning in the poem:

Rain pierced her womb

when she was six months pregnant. Rain

singed

the face of her child.

The burn marks turning

into beauty marks. Beautiful flaw.

Terrible ornament.

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In an interview with Michael Laurenty for Barn Owl Review, Corral says that “Subject matter is secondary. This freed me as a Latino poet. For years I worried about subject matter. Was it too Latino? Not Latino enough?” Later in the interview he says: “I follow language. I don't lead it. I no longer worry about subject matter.” Content is form.

Corral addresses his own anxiety about the Latino-ness of his book with his deft code switching. The multilingual poems reach a kind of linguistic crescendo in the book’s centerpiece poem, “Variations on a Theme by José Montoya.” At times, Spanish and English are woven together in this long poem and other times they collide with one another. In these seven lines, notice how Corral plays with the slippages in language:

          His grito: La revolucion no nos hizo iguales.
                                                               The typos he found in menus.
Girled cheese. Trench fries.
                                  Saturday night pachangas.
                                                         Western Union
patron.
           Drinking piss but dreaming of Patrón.

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Although Corral has referred to himself as the “love child of Robert Hayden and Federico García Lorca” I would venture to say that Anzaldúa’s seminal work La Frontera/Borderlands is the mother text of Slow Lightning. Anzaldúa’s book, over 25 years old, serves as the foundation for queer, multilingual Chicano writing. As the first Latino poet to win the prestigious Yale Younger, Corral has already woven himself into the fabric of the American Canon.

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If the book has a blind spot or weakness it is that its concision gets in the way of some messy and necessary exploration. The seven-line poem “The Blindfold” is an exemplar of poetic craftsmanship The poem begins plainly, as if in a state of dreamlike passivity: “I draw the curtains.” Quickly, the crescent moon becomes a reflection that becomes a cloth which is used as a blindfold. The speaker looks through “a crack in a wall/ revealing/ a landscape of snow.” This brief tableau is striking. But, does the poem do anything more than render something beautiful? Is a painter’s beautiful brushstroke enough? The image of “a landscape of snow” is fraught with meaning. It evokes winter, paralysis, whiteness, virginity, and erasure. For a book so deeply concerned with the desert and all of its mythic implications, the rare appearance of snow seems like one of the few missed opportunities in the book. Of course, there are plenty of reasons why this contrapuntal moment, the fourth poem in the collection, is important in terms of arrangement, but I wonder if there isn’t something else living outside its tidy frame. With his next book, tentatively about an under-recognized Mexican painter, I hope Corral lets a little asymmetry enter his book so his readers can re-envision his gorgeously rendered poems once again.

-7/3/2015