Teeth Never Sleep by Ángel García
University of Arkansas, 2018. 89 pp.
Reviewed by Emily Pérez
“This is the poem I’ve always wanted to write about a dog, a puppy really” begins “A Dog Poem,” the first prose poem in Ángel García’s, Teeth Never Sleep. In loose syntax we glimpse happiness: dog and boy playing together at the beach. As they head home, the syntax tightens. We were foolish to relax. The dog is flattened by a van, its “innards pushed through its mouth.” The speaker reveals the poem’s new purpose: “getting home and telling no one.” Tenderness, happiness, boyhood—these are crushed over and again in García’s debut. In their place come darkness, silence, and hunger: breeding grounds for the toxic masculinity that this book confronts.
The title poem marries song and silence, swallowing and hunger. “Teeth Never Sleep,” is a garish lullaby, suggests that teeth grinding against teeth “sing,” “a music made crudely from bones.” But notes do not emerge; instead: “What spills from your lips into your palm / —blood puddled—are all the words you’ve / swallowed: a constant quiet, dying of hunger.” There is music here in the consonance of “spill” and “lips,” the assonance of “blood / puddled/ swallowed.” But the ultimate product is voiceless, hungry.
Relationships are sites of starvation. In “Broke,” an anti-aubade, the lover returns to bed with his beloved at dawn. Once there, he can feel:
the creature between us,
its breath ragged and difficult—not a child, but a shadow
a space growing between us, wider and deeper because
what little we have left, we’ve worked too hard for
The poem ends with his hope that this manifestation of their brokenness “will scurry into the dark.” Their offspring is not a child, but “a shadow / a space,” vermin “scurry[ing].” Similarly, in many poems portraying father and son, the two cannot speak of their needs, such that in “Piss” the son learns to pee on himself rather than asking his father to stop the car. In “Conversations with my Father,” the father comes to the speaker’s room to confess “Your Mamí doesn’t want to be with me anymore.” He cries, and the speaker “couldn’t believe my father was crying, this man who I’d never seen cry before, and didn’t see cry that night, because we sat and held one another in the darkness of what we couldn’t understand.” This rare intimacy can only be demonstrated in darkness.
The two sections devoted to the beasts inside of men feature the most alarming and deftly wrought poems in this collection. Of these, “Alebrije,” (an imaginary creature from Mexican folk art) reads like the origin story of toxic masculinity:
Then this: from my father’s belly, I’m spit out—horned, hooved, and
halved. I give up prayer for prey I devour, bloodthirsty. I weave lyrics
into all my lies. Listen: I can tell you any goddamn thing you want
to hear. I love you. I love you….
…Drink wine from my porous nipples. Come
deeper. You have nothing to be afraid of. When you’re ready and
waiting, I’ll tear you in half too.
The devil-like man born of man sings a siren-song, using seduction as a gateway to brutality. The sustenance he gives intoxicates rather than nourishes. His reassurance that you have “nothing to be afraid of” ends in a promise of destruction.
While this piece gestures toward harming the beloved, other poems in this collection, like “Domestic Disturbance” and “Giving It,” name it explicitly. The speaker beats and breaks his lover, “her cheek bruised in blues.” Drunken violence ends in sex. “When we make love, because we always make love, I apologize for everything I don’t remember doing, everything I never remember saying. Hating, always, the moment when I’ll turn on the light.” The speaker does not make excuses nor downplay his guilt; rather, this collection is interested in remembering, naming, and shedding light upon abuse.
While the poems point to reasons beasts grow inside men—cultural and familial inheritances of silence and violence—only the alter ego of the collection, El Esposo de La Llorona—La Llorona’s husband—seems to seek forgiveness. As the collection progresses, he owns his responsibility but is never absolved.
The speaker also seeks to break the cycle. In the penultimate poem, “Cages,” he references attending a self-help group and notes that he has refrained from loving a woman for six years. “I don’t let myself. I sit, instead, in a circle of mostly men and attempt to name the beasts running through my blood.” But change will not come easily. He has spent a lifetime cultivating the beasts inside him, and the poem ends with only tentative control: “I pray I won’t let loose what lurks inside. The beasts are hungry for my return: the king of animalia.”
Just as racism must be dismantled by white people, toxic masculinity must be dismantled by men. In Teeth Never Sleep, García has begun this work through painful, self-indicting song, through “turn[ing] on the light.”
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.