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Bicycle in a Ransacked City: An Elegy by Andrés Cerpa
Alice James Books, 2019. 65 pp.
Reviewed by Jonathan Maule


In her essay, "Lost Vocabularies: On Contemporary Elegy,"* poet Anna Journey defines an elegist as “a lover and mourner of people and things that vanish” (347). Elegy is the space for both grief and reclamation, where what has been lost might return, and where the dead speak, but it is also potentially fraught with anxiety and guilt—memories are inevitably augmented, refreshed or dulled by the very act of bringing them to mind.

While the elegiac poem was established thousands of years ago, its relevance has not flagged in more contemporary poetry. In fact, Journey argues that, “the poet's struggle to find adequate language for the agony of mortal loss seems both more difficult and essential than ever” (347).

At the center of his new book, Bicycle in a Ransacked City: An Elegy, Andrés Cerpa elegizes the loss of his father to Parkinson’s, a pernicious disease that turns the mind into a fog bank, slow and dense, its memory gradually evaporating. In the smoke, light, and shadow of his past, the speaker tries to grasp and hold the memory of his father; he runs with outstretched fingers through fog:

the father I hold onto in order to care for his shadow never gets old—

he is kind and clear, he rises each morning & lifts me onto the back of his bicycle,
he pedals while I glide above the city in wonder.
(2)

Cerpa’s poems also engage with the act of remembering itself, which has its own gravitational and emotional pull, where “a thread like the broken stars / keeps hauling me back” (61). In the process of remembering, the speaker’s efforts to process his grief manifest in surprising ways. In a series of interludes titled, “Notebook: The Kairos in Chronos,” the speaker contemplates his writing practice, providing a self-aware reflection on self-sabotage, drugs, sorrow, and isolation:

Now I write each night in the morning,

The moment before becomes an expanse. After, I find my face in the mirror.

A face like a room with one chair. (15)

There is much honesty to be admired in Cerpa’s poems. In “Fear of Intimacy,” the speaker acknowledges how the loss of his father has rendered the possibility of connecting with anyone else nearly impossible:

When my father’s mind became the small wheel in my chest, I didn’t want to love anyone

I didn’t already love & those I loved I hid from. (16)

Falling deeper into his father’s decline, the speaker considers his own existence:

All that I am heir to: hubcaps, carbon,

cardboard & pavement; my father’s body

his crown of fog… (39)

Such honesty leads to further vulnerability and an evaluation of guilt, as the speaker confesses to having acted violently toward his father:

I remember taking my father’s throat

in my left hand, while my right hesitated, made snow of the Sheetrock beside him. (28)

In Cerpa’s work we see the best of elegiac possibility—the piercing grief of having watched his father disintegrate, the reclamation of his memories through verse, the honesty to admit that no amount of time will mend what has been broken:

I wouldn’t say things get better. I’d say, We learn to live,

that, human beings can get used to anything. (42)

Cerpa has given voice to agony and loss with language rich in humility and poise. He remains willing and able to slow down, to look at his hands, to breathe and move through pain and memory with integrity. His sight is powerful, his heart immense. Here is an exceptional poet eager to learn from life’s most bitter lessons and what they require us to relinquish, recognizing at last how “the currency of love is self-sacrifice.” (16)

 

Jonathan Maule is the winner of the 2014 Academy of American Poets Contest at Cal Poly, SLO, an MFA candidate at the Rainier Writing Workshop in Tacoma, Washington, and co-editor of Aperçus: www.apercuslitmag.com. His first book of poetry, Dog Star, was published by Big Yes Press. His poetry and reviews have appeared in AskewTalking River, Rain Taxi, and Phoebe. A former PEN America Prison Writing Mentor, Jonathan is currently teaching English and Reading courses at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms, CA, as well as Crafton Hills College in Yucaipa, CA.