The late Chicana poet Gloria Anzaldúa, one of my favorite postmodern philosophers to date, once wrote, in 1999’s Borderlands/ La Frontera: The New Mestiza: “Do work that matters. Vale la pena,” which translates to “the pain is worth it.” In this masterful work of poetry and nonfiction, Anzaldúa traverses the U.S.-Mexico border, both literally and metaphorically, surveying the languages, cultures and bodies of those trapped in the opaque dust storm separating “American”from “Other.”Without this book—and without this quote, perhaps—Eduardo C. Corral’s exquisite book of poems, 2012’s Slow Lightning, may not have been possible, at least in its current form. After all, in my mind, Borderlands is the text that cemented the creation of Ethnic Studies programs all over the U.S., specifically in the southwestern region, and gave visibility to those living in between cultures; it introduced me to the term “code-switching,” though I have been accustomed to the linguistic blending of English and Spanish, at least on a conversational level, for most of my life.
Corral, an Arizona native with degrees from both Arizona State University and the Iowa Writers Workshop, is concerned with many of Anzaldúa’s themes: he is gay, of Mexican ancestry and, as he says in Slow Lightning, “an illegal American,” for his father was “smuggled into the States” in a car trunk. He also braids Spanish with English in his poems, giving a voice and a path to those muted by the complexity surrounding place, language and culture. This Columbia University professor’s meditation on the legality of being—whether through race and ethnicity or through queer sexual identity—is both sobering and hopeful. With our nation’s current political climate as alarming as ever, especially concerning border walls and DACA legislation, Corral’s first book is as relevant today as it was back when it won the Yale Younger Poets Prize in 2011.
Early poems like “Border Triptych” and “Immigration and Naturalization Service Report #46” use the language of visual art and government to humanize, rather than objectify, the immigrant and his/her body. In the former, a narrative of three border experiences dedicated to Anzaldúa, Corral uses images of inspection to communicate both the astuteness and the quiet desperation of those who cross from Mexico to the United States. In one part, a border patrol agent looks for contraband in a young man’s bicycle; in another, a woman “slip[s] through a fence like mice” thanks to gelatin powder before being assaulted by bandits; in the last section, two men, after “three days in the desert,” deliberate over whether to “walk to the highway [or] thumb our way back to Nogales…still close to Mexico, still so far from God.” Just as a picture triptych unites three panels of art to show how different parts make up the whole, Corral speaks of three distinct border experiences to nuance the often-oversimplified issue of immigration without papers. In the latter, a short and surreal piece, two border cops review a crime scene involving a dead body and a “patch of [coyote] ears,” which prompt them to call out the names “of our fathers and mothers.” Unlike “Border Triptych,” which centers on eyes, this poem’s ghostliness asks readers of all backgrounds to listen.
The “illegal” father’s sacrifices are a prominent feature of the book as well. For example, “In Colorado, My Father Scoured and Stacked Dishes” chronicles the labor performed by the speaker’s father—both physical and emotional—in a Tex-Mex restaurant. As the father sleeps “in a stable. The horse blankets/ oddly fragrant,” his coworkers, “unable to utter his name, renamed him Jalapeño,” while others call him “Frilojero. Greaser.” The father “learned English/ by listening to the radio. The first four words/ he memorized: In God We Trust.” He faces the reality that “Bugs Bunny wants to deport him,” suggesting that even kinder images of America do not extend their hands to him. As the speaker confronts his father’s past labors, he remarks: “When I walk through/ the desert, I wear/ his shirt. The gaze/ of the moon stitches the buttons of his shirt to my skin.” This line, one of the most powerful in the book, demonstrates the timeless connection we have to our ancestors.
Corral writes of lovers without restraint, showing that the same desire one has for ethnic and cultural acceptance is also present when it comes to sexuality. In doing so, he also illustrates how estrangement can unite and devastate a romantic relationship just as it can complicate a father-son dynamic. Motifs of an eagle pouncing on a snake, the same image on the Mexican flag’s coat of arms, populate many poems as a way to reiterate the necessary balance between smothering and separation, it seems. The title of the collection—slow lightning—could not be more appropriate. Though Corral’s truth comes gradually, it lights up the darkest patches of the desert, where “the arms of saguaros strike down the hours/but the sun refuses to set.” It’s safe to say Anzaldúa would agree that though Corral’s words are often painful, he is certainly doing work that matters.