Revelations by Ruben Quesada
Sibling Rivalry Press, 2018. 33 pp.
Reviewed by Emily Pérez
The title Revelations and the cover’s detail from Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights signal that Ruben Quesada’s new chapbook will travel in and upend religion. While the collection eschews Bosch’s lewdness, it blooms with the inversions in his garden. In Quesada’s poems, the lyric bursts unexpectedly in the narrative; holy and mundane morph and intermix.
The book comprises numbered poems interwoven with four of Quesada’s translations of exiled Spanish poet Luis Cernuda. The translations—all of poems written in a time of Cernuda’s spiritual crisis—undergird the feeling of unease in this chapbook.
In the opening poem, “Angels in the Sun,” Quesada’s speaker waits alongside the beings of earth, watching the approach and departure of a spaceship of angels. This scene prefaces a series of poems in which the speaker has encounters with the holy, only to depart bereft.
Two striking examples occur in poems I and III. Formatted as justified, punctuation-less columns, the poems have a prose-like feel and momentum that carries off the page. The first opens with disillusionment:
Christ was never more than a man nailed to a
cross but from him I learned that an entire life
fits into a person’s palm like a book of poems
Just as Christ’s life is transfigured to a book of poems, the speaker himself is sanctified by poetry. He is walking in San Francisco’s Dolores Park, admiring radiance when he realizes: “I too must have / been radiant having just listened to a poetry / reading.” In an inverted Annunciation, the speaker encounters a fortuneteller who reveals:
…last night it was quiet as your
mother died a haze of zinnias hushed in the rain
This ending, haiku-like in its use of an image from nature, is reminiscent of Cernuda, and is emblematic of the breathtaking juxtaposition of life and death, darkness and vibrancy, that suffuses Quesada’s book.
The speaker’s mother appears again in III, in a dream, supporting a girl named Mary: “her eyes roll as she falls into my mother’s arms / soon her mother will be found in their garage the / car running.” Here, Quesada creates a reverse pietà, in which the speaker’s mother—“back from work / where she is part of an assembly line sorting letters / to places she’ll never know”—cradles Mary, a child, whose mother has killed herself. The holy is human, in the figure of the working class mother who cannot save the child from the cruelty of life.
The poems in this collection are haunted: by old lovers, by those who have died of AIDS, by dreams, by ghosts, and by the speaker’s own wish for death. Though the book is not hopeful, it retains a glimmer of beauty even in the darkest moments.
…I sit at my desk take a rosary
of metal from the drawer I cradle the barrel like a
clarinet against my mouth the quick rhythm of the
second hand clicks and already the jacarandas have
started to push their tongues against the window
Religion, figured in the rosary-gun, provides no release. Just like the speaker in the Cernuda epigraph who casts aside “sad gods” in favor of “that ardent earth that made you and undoes you,” this speaker remains in a purgatory, both made and undone by the glorious, mocking tongues of the jacaranda.
Emily Pérez is the author of House of Sugar, House of Stone, and the chapbook Backyard Migration Route. She earned her MFA at the University of Houston, where she was poetry editor for Gulf Coast and taught with Writers in the Schools. Her poems have appeared in journals including Poetry, Diode, Bennington Review, Borderlands, and DIAGRAM. She teaches English and Gender Studies in Denver, where she lives with her husband and sons.