Ceremony of Sand by Rodney Gomez
YesYes Books, 2019. 82 pages.
Reviewed by Donna Vorreyer
Rodney Gomez’s, Ceremony of Sand illuminates the duality of life in the borderlands - two tongues, two spiritual lives, two ways of seeing the world. Reality battles faith. Abandon is tempered by belief. Identity defies labels. And this duality is its own country, full of beauty and uncertainty, even meriting its own Baedeker’s guide in one poem. Gomez draws on a variety of forms: prose poems, lineated free verse, a reimagined ghazal – to paint a portrait of a fragile existence in the looming shadows between countries.
The book is written in sections, beginning with one called “Greasewood,” a title that carries an echo. Not only is greasewood a desert shrub, but its name reverberates with the tone of typically arboreal names that are given to gated subdivisions (e.g. Arbor Lake, Shady Acres, Greenwood Estates) yet the first poem directs the reader to the path these poems will pave. These are poems that live and work far away from any type of sheltered suburbia. “The Hand,” shows us that appendage severed then sought for, the speaker knowing “how much a good hand is worth.” In the search to reattach, “a highway of hands flowed, swollen and tired. My true hand was there, struggling to pull a time clock into a tattered showbox.”
One of the dualities explored in the collection is that of transformative spiritual paths: the Aztec gods and goddesses living inside and alongside Catholicism, and the constant desire to be something other. In “Riot,” a man who wears the feathers of Toranrztín to a tree bearing the likeness of the Virgin Mary is attacked for his sacrilege. In “Self Portrait as Coyolaxahqui,” the ability to transform and separate oneself from the body is delineated –”After a while, I grew tired of bruising./I shoved a nightjar down my throat. Instead of a larynx/I grew hungrier and hungrier. I had to diaspora//to survive, otherwise I would’ve been an apron string./ Then you wouldn’t have loved me.”
In “Edgar Santibañez Says His Mother Despises Strings,” the titular character explains the importance of being able to change one’s purpose and identity:
“He says, Crea lo que crea, yo quiero ser bandolín. He’s magic markered vertical
lines from his clavicles to his hips. ...He goes into possession when he plays,
spinning on the floor like Angus Young channeling Dowland. The poor strings
hold up as well as seedlings in a hurricane. Every week he needs to make them
anew since they fade. Why don’t you just tattoo them? I ask. Why would I do that? he
replies. One day I might want to be a tuba.”
Gomez delivers a pastiche of different dangers that lurk here–dangers of disappearance, connectedness, poverty, and identity. In “Serape,” the speaker unwittingly creates a doppelganger who takes his place, learns “how quickly a man without belief will disappear.” In “La Llorana,” the interdependence of the community, both in its kindnesses and its curses, is displayed in an ouroboros of events where a kindness becomes a suffering becomes a release becomes another kindness. The dangers of living in the shadows of the border wall are woven throughout the book. “Sisyphus” becomes a border guard pushing a cart that is never empty of bodies, one that becomes forged of bone as it rolls its territory. Water appears as a source of life, power, and obstruction. Two poems, “Speaking River” and “The Crossing is a Fragile Wedding” directly address border crossings in vivid lyric imagery. In “Frenulum,” code-switching reinforces the two-sided universe Gomez has so deftly created. And in “Meditation on the Captured Body,” demands are made of the water itself: “River, disgorge/all bodies./When the damned/question you/answer innocence.”
Surreal in some moments, sparse and tender in others, Ceremony of Sand bears numerous readings. Gomez has created a world where discovery is both desired and feared. Spend some time discovering his gifts.
Donna Vorreyer is the author of Every Love Story is an Apocalypse Story (Sundress Publications, 2016) and A House of Many Windows (Sundress, 2013) as well as eight chapbooks, most recently The Girl (Porkbelly Press). Her reviews have appeared in The Rumpus, Quarterly West, Sugar House Review, Cider Press Review, Tinderbox Poetry, and other journals.