TWO PUBLICATIONS by ERNESTO PRIEGOJOHN BLOOMBERG-RISSMAN Reviews
The Body Aches by Ernesto Priego
(ExPressoDoble, Mexico City, 2005)
Not Even Dogs by Ernesto Priego
(Meritage Press, San Francisco & St. Helena, 2006)
Ernesto Priego is theoretically and historically informed. He’s written and published essays in at least two languages, on topics ranging from Don Quixote to Mexican Indie Comics to postmodern culture. His work is contemporary. He knows what he’s doing. And -- his poems are as naked as language will allow. That’s not easy. It requires a tremendous amount of focus to keep from being overwhelmed by intellection when one is an intellectual. Not that poetry and intellection are opposed, of course. To quote Creeley:
In his preface to A Test of Poetry (1948) Louis Zukofsky notes at the outset, “The test of poetry is the range of pleasure it affords as sight, sound, and intellection. This is its purpose as art.” In his long poem “A” he qualifies its occasion as “Out of deep need . . .” … It is a sense that proposes poetry to be evidence as to its own activity, apart from any other sense of description or of a convenience to some elsewise considered reality of things.
Nothing in what Creeley calls Zukofsky’s proposal specifies just how poetry is to “be evidence as to its own activity”, nor how necessary it is that that evidence be foregrounded. In Priego’s work, line break, form (e.g. hay(na)ku) and concision and precision of language , as well as music, serve as evidence. But these elements are not foregrounded. Rather, his “considered reality of things” is. (If one prefers to think in terms of persona rather than person, I believe that Priego and his persona are pretty much the same.) And it’s our shared reality that forms his “subject.”
There’s a drawing of a person in t-shirt and jeans, a torso, rather, on the cover of A Body Aches (a portrait of the author?). At first glance, one might think the head is missing. But I don’t think so. It’s either buried within a wall, or it’s poking through that wall to see what’s on the other side. In any case, the body is the focus. From the title poem:
How difficult it is, the body tells you, to keep a promise:
To say, painlessly, j’accepte, and keep your word.
The word becomes embedded in a book, “The first page” of which “quickly became the last”, a book that can’t be read -- yet:
How come the book is still here, unread,
Waiting patiently for the ache to go away.
(“A body aches”)
This is a love poem, and what the body tells is that when love doesn’t last, when it passes too quickly, well … is there one among us who doesn’t know the rest? Sometimes poems tell us what we don’t know, sometimes they tell us what we do, and can’t and shouldn’t forget. I have no preference, as long as the ride is good.
Most of the poems in The Body Aches are written in relation to the absence of the beloved, and the same ache. In a sense, then, this book is a sequence. I don’t think it’s a narrative. At least I don’t sense a resolution, an end to the aching.
About half the poems here are hay(na)ku. This form offers room enough and formal tension enough to both allow and force a writer to get what needs to be in in and to leave what needs to be out out. Of course, as with any other form, a lot depends on the compatibility of sensibility and constraint. There’s no question that Priego and hay(na)ku were meant for each other.
Not Even Dogs, the other title under review, is entirely hay(na)ku. This lends a formal coherence that unifies the book somewhat the way the feeling-tone of lost love unifies The Body Aches. This coherence allows the poems to encompass a bigger world. But not an entirely different world.
Some of Priego’s more theoretical concerns appear in Not Even Dogs, without his abandoning the body:
a simple premise:
I don’t know
say, who I
is, in writing
yet absent, nowhere,
found only precisely
(“[This / begins with / a simple premise]”)
Note how the hay(na)ku tercet and the thought-unit are one and the same at the beginning, and how the thought-unit expands as the poem goes on, and how even as the tercet and the thought-unit cease to correspond the breaks between them continue to serve a dramatic purpose. That’s craft.
Though some of his concerns are expressed theoretically, or what looks like theoretically, I’d say that at heart Priego is a love poet:
to an Other:
(“[One / word leads / to an Other:]”)
And when an Other is present … look out. And when the Other is not:
I could write
than my ghosts
(“[How / I wish / I could write]”)
But we can only write what we can write. That’s not romanticism speaking through me, that’s just fact. For unfathomable reasons, and no matter how much they might try not to, every poet sounds/reads/whatever just like her or himself.
Sometimes the Other isn’t a person. Take the 10-part sequence “Cities”, in which “you” is a city. I don’t think it matters much if the beloved is a person or a city:
Beauty, wounded, …
if in dreams.
sing these blues.
I like these poems, am moved by them, am enabled by them, encouraged to feel my own life more deeply. To not shy away from pain. To not shy away from ecstasy. To live in love, obviously.
it’s a joy
(“[In / this case / it’s a joy]”)
Witness is withness, if you know what I mean.
In closing, perhaps it should be noted that some of the poems in The Body Aches reappear in Not Even Dogs. That doesn’t mean both books aren’t worth having.
John Bloomberg-Rissman’s most recent publications are World Zero and No Sounds Of My Own Making. He is one of four collaborators on the recent “Four Skin Confessions”, which can be found at http://chainedhaynaku.wordpress.com/. His current project is called Autopoiesis. He’s completed 35 parts and has no idea how many there will be when it’s done. Perhaps 35. Perhaps 1,000,000.