Ugly Music by Diannely Antigua
YesYes Books, 2019. 99 pages.
Reviewed by Emily Pérez
Religion, sex, abuse, mental illness, suicide attempts, praise for the impure, and a fierce drive to make it all sing drive Diannely Antigua’s crackling debut, Ugly Music. In her insight-filled interview with Adroit, Antigua says “My book really should have a disclaimer or a trigger warning” (and perhaps it should), but more jolting than the subject matter is the liminal space in which she holds the reader, somewhere between wanting and not, between desire and devastation.
Sex, in its sugar and spoil, is at the heart of Ugly Music. “Suggested Sad Songs for Broken Hearts” opens with the speaker’s central conflict: “I need to teach myself / that not everything is about sex. / But I am at this desk to make money / so I can pay my rent, so I can afford / a room to have sex in.” The poem wryly pokes fun at the speaker, but even her focused desire cannot remain uncomplicated, and by the end she is “pushing sex / headfirst out a tiny window.” Though sex is largely sought after and celebrated in this collection—deliciously so in poems like “When Booty Call Turns into Love”—reasons for wanting its defenestration also emerge.
In “Picked,” sex is stained by childhood abuse—“Maybe he touched me to reruns // of The Brady Bunch, how I never trusted the father / in a room with them, girls, especially.” In “Diary Entry #4: Atonement,” Jesus becomes a groomer—sitting at the “computer chair,” about to “graduate this year” and the young speaker notes “He’s not / a virgin.”
When he kisses your panties through the nylons,
he explains the heavens—
he tells you the name of each color
before it was named, how stars bloomed
from trash. You make his problems yours.
Depending on the reader’s religious views, the sacrilege here may feel hilarious or distasteful (If the latter, this is not the book for you!). But even for those who enjoy the satire of religion’s seductive power, there is no denying the discomfort in the way the poem manages to make Jesus both a magical knowledge-keeper and the creepy, violating older cousin at the family party. “He says / if you write this down, / you put him in danger.” This complexity—a mix of reverence and critique—typifies Antigua’s views on both sex and religion. Even when detailing abuse, she finds the “stars bloomed / from trash”—both the ugly and the music.
Pregnancy appears as another liminal desire, both wanted and not. “Re-education,” the second poem in the collection describes
the time I took Plan B, then
the other time I took Plan B. I bled
for two months. There could’ve been
a mother in me. I told no one,
except the man at Tacos Lupita
who asked what I wanted in my burrito
and I think I said baby.
Antigua is a master of surprise. Here is the one-two punch. First, the narrative sets us up to expect the relief of no pregnancy—Plan B, twice—and that what “could’ve been” is a child. Instead, after the line break, it’s the lost opportunity of motherhood that she is mourning. Second, the break after “no one,” leads us to believe this is a secret to be confessed to the reader, only to find the secret came out to “the man at Tacos Lupita” while placing a burrito order. Is this funny or sad? Antigua serves both in a single dish.
Mental illness, suicide attempts, and hospitalization form another focal point in this book. Antigua does not treat mental illness as spectacle or site for pity; rather, she lets readers into its logic. The speaker in “Afterward” explains her skin care routine to the nurses and then assures the med student at the psych ward that she could live without seeing her favorite color again because “There is green / after death.” In “There is Nothing” the speaker informs readers that nothing is “comparable to masturbating in a psych ward, / in a room with a bed nailed to the floor. / There are only / 10 minutes to get it done, / until they open the door.” The idea of taking power over pleasure while at the mercy of one’s demons makes this dark poem celebratory. As in previous pieces, these juxtapositions—beauty tips and masturbation meet the psych ward—make the scenes utterly surprising and utterly real.
By blurring the lines between holiness and danger, self-sacrifice and self-preservation, humor and heartache, Ugly Music pushes boundaries and asks us to re-examine what we think we know. But reflection only comes after setting the book down; to hold it and read it is to be swept along in its thrilling, disquieting melody.
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.