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Reading Next Extinct Mammal (Greenhouse Review Press), the debut collection from Ruben Quesada, is like sifting through a box of small, rare gems. The poems, which range from tight sonnets to plainspoken prose poems to free verse, blend Western traditions and delicate prosody with refreshingly bold subject matter.
The opening poem, “Store,” sets the tone. A loosely rhymed sonnet about passing East LA street gangs on the way to an Asian supermarket, it boasts lines like “As if nobody dared pass through the glass double doors, / not for a gallon of milk, nor a suitcase of Coors,” and is probably the only sonnet whose heroic couplet ends with, “Yes, we cash checks!”
Despite its unabashed embrace of the formal, there is nothing stodgy or hidebound about Next Extinct Mammal. Most of the poems, though contained in small, single-page packets, breathe with fresh imagery and seem bent on extending sentences as far as their syntax will stretch. “Mornings in Cudahy,California” begins this way:
After a breakfast of rainbow
Lucky Charms, after swallowing
half an hour of Felix the Cat, the butter
of morning light melted over the barrio
of burnt adobe where every Maria and Jesus ran
loose dodging sprays from serpent hoses …
The surprise of lines like these lies not just in the culturally specific references, done so well by poets like David Trinidad and Michael Montlack, but also in the clever enjambment—the surrealist “breakfast of rainbow” pouring into a mundane cereal bowl, the butter of light, the “swallowing” of cartoons instead of Lucky Charms.
In this way, each image does double duty. Maria and Jesus are neighbors running hoses, but they are also running; they even contend with sinister Biblical serpents. Quesada is a master of this kind of intentional ambiguity, demanding balletic agility from the reader, keeping us on toe point the whole time.
Quesada, a former Lambda poetry fellow whose work has appeared in The American Poetry Review and Palabra, revels in the grounded, specific names and places of his California childhood, and invites them to join Zeus and Aphrodite in the pantheon of poetic allusion.
But what of the title? It’s a captivating phrase, but unlike many authors who announce the name of their book, summer blockbuster-style, with a title poem on page 1, Quesada waits till the last line of the last poem to unleash the image, a fresh way of describing his sense of isolation and cultural displacement on a train inDes Moines:
[…] the patina
of my black hair moving past snow
flurried storefronts might be mistaken
for the next extinct mammal in America.
To wait till the last line to tell us what the book hints at—it’s as if Quesada were saying, “Were you paying attention this whole time?” That Quesada dares this winking transgression, this stubborn risk, is the only thing that’s not surprising about this very surprising debut collection.
Next Extinct Mammal
by Ruben Quesada
Greenhouse Review Press
Paperback, 9780965523998, 62pp