Brother Bullet by Casandra López
University of Arizona Press, 2019, pp. 92
Reviewed by Emily Pérez
Brother Bullet, Casandra López’s debut, is born from tragedy: a brother’s unsolved murder. Yet the mystery this collection probes is not the how or why of the crime, it is the how and why of life after unspeakable loss. Emblematic of the relentlessness in this collection, the word “brother” appears on almost every page, used as adjective, as proper noun, as mourning chant. In addition to telling a story of personal loss, López, who identifies Brother’s ethnicity as “Cahuilla, Luiseño,” invites the reader to consider the socio-political context in which brown boys are murdered, the ways in which the speaker’s brother’s death indicts our nation.
The opening poem, “Where Bullet Breaks,” invites the reader to witness the crime and its effects on the speaker and her family:
See where Bullet broke
Brother, see where I break
where we split into before
Beginning with authoritative, left-justified stanzas, the poem starts to scatter into disjointed half-stanzas on the right hand side, ultimately disintegrating into a final stanza fractured by caesuras.
My Bullet is in the sky
blue door, in the metal
in a moment, It hangs there,
that hook in me, to you.
“You” is no longer the reader; it is Brother. The line break places the bullet in the sky, overseeing all, as well as in the door it pierced on the night of Brother’s murder. By calling it “My Bullet,” the speaker seeks to wrest some control back from the thing that shattered everything.
Midway through the collection, the poem “Refugio Beach” dangles the possibility of a respite from mourning by turning in present tense to a day at the beach with Brother before his first son was born. Too soon, the spell breaks, as the speaker becomes desperate to avoid the future: “I want more of this, to wolf down a place, the blue / inside of me. Hide in the slope of this crescent // beach, far away from Bullet. We can keep / our secrets here.” The speaker wishes both to devour and to hide, predator and prey in a time before tragedy. Later in the poem, she, Brother, and his pregnant girlfriend “fall / asleep to waves but awaken // to the rude sounds of the metro link reminding us this // refuge is only temporary.” The sleep, the memory, the moment of peace in the collection—all is fleeting.
A handful of love poems provide a seeming departure from Brother’s death, but even these question how sweetness is possible in a world stained by bitter:
thighs hum from the trace of his fingertips. I feel soft
about what his almost white hands find there,
want to welcome him in, but instead I wonder if I can
love someone who can never know what I’ve lost.
Each of the love poems suggests a racial difference, here denoted in the lovers’ skin tones. Race may cause strangeness between them; however, loss compounds the chasm.
Near the collection’s end, the poem “Some Boys” looks at the tragedy of Brother’s murder as a microcosm of the tragedy of American racism. Mother warns Brother’s son not to wear his hoodie or walk alone at night. The speaker wonders,
Are these the warnings Brother would have given his son,
knowing that sometimes it is not enough because some boys,
some brown boys are never just boys to some.
Implicit is the idea that it is not enough for Brother’s son to be “good,” that murder may come for him also just because he is brown on the streets of America.
Throughout the collection the speaker likens her brother to others; he’s the “37th homicide” in San Bernardino that year; he reminds her of the other “brown bodies/… done made dead” on the A&E show The First 48. The speaker tells her nephew “the truth,” about his father’s death, but she cannot speak it without the “weight of witness, a wild gunshot ricochet[ing] in [her] // throat.” Her call to him is her call to us, a warning both personal and political, an alarm and a knell.
Emily Pérez is a CantoMundo fellow and the author House of Sugar, House of Stone. Her recent work has appeared in Copper Nickel, Fairy Tale Review, and Prairie Schooner. Her new chapbook, Made and Unmade, is available from Madhouse Press. www.emilyperez.org