‘Slow Lightning’ by Eduardo C. Corral
So much has already been said about Eduardo C. Corral being the first Latino poet to be honored by the Yale Series of Younger Poets, and his book Slow Lightning has received enthusiastic responses from critics and readers alike. (A 4.3-stars “Goodreads” rating based on 111 rates and 24 reader reviews is as impressive as rave write-ups in The Kenyon Review and Publishers Weekly.) In some ways, then, one more review risks repetition, particularly when praise for Slow Lightning is largely justified by the quality of its poems. However, having come to the book later than most, I will try to proceed as if ignorant of its already considerable reputation. By any standard, Slow Lightning is an impressive debut, a gathering of powerful and often defiant poems that are paradoxically realized through formal control.
Nowhere are raw energy and aesthetic refinement juxtaposed more effectively than in “Border Triptych,” three sonnets connected by theme. Part I is the monologue of a weary border patrolman edging towards retirement:
For the past fifteen years, six days a week, at half past eight,
Jorge has biked into my checkpoint station. He hawks
over his papers, allows me to examine his lunchbox,
then wheels off to his twelve hour shift at pallet & crate
factory. I’m close to madness. I suspect
he’s been smuggling contraband, prescription or illegal. (12)
In this passage alone, there is ample evidence of Corral’s iconoclastic use of closed forms. He retains the enveloping end rhymes while forgoing iambic pentameter in favor of more natural speech rhythms.Line six in particular demonstrates that Corral understands what many would-be formalists never learn: choices in lineation are as crucial in traditional forms as they are in free verse. His sense of the line as a unit of integrity independent of the sentence is evinced in his conflation of “factory” with “madness.”
But the poem works on several levels, and it is perhaps in Corral’s irony that part I achieves its greatest moments. A few days from retirement, the patrolman promises Jorge he will not arrest him if Jorge admits what he’s smuggling. The answer has been in plain view all along: bikes.
Positioned as the triptych’s centerpiece, part II digs more deeply into the poem’s theme. Based on an INS-transcript of a woman named Sofia, this sonnet tells the story of ten women raped by bandits when crossing the border. Sofia is “saved” from harm because she followed her mother’s advice and sprinkled gelatin on her underwear. But she is also charged with the burden of witness. In the tradition of Charles Reznikoff, Corral’s use of her testimonial is stark and direct, without editorial intrusion or comment .
Meanwhile, part III mirrors part I in its use of playful yet biting irony. Two Indios flee the Mexican border and are still days later ensconced in desert. The persona’s friend Sapo “shits behind a cluster of nopales / and shouts” their favorite joke: “No tengo papeles” (14). Though uncertain if they will make it out of the desert, they refused to be cowed by adversity. Sapo’s scatological pun on immigration papers clarifies the young men’s views about confinement and man-made boundaries: they do not see themselves as victims. Humorous, horrifying, understated and resistant, the entire three-part poem should be required reading in high schools across the country.
If Corral often turns to traditional poetic forms to tell contemporary stories, he just as often conceptualizes his poems by way of visual art. Throughout Slow Lightning, Corral responds to individual works by Tino Rodríguez, Ester Hernández, Frida Kahlo, and Gabriel Orozco. In all cases, Corral’s responses are more than ekphrastic descriptions; each specific work becomes both a porthole into other worlds as well as a vehicle for self-portraiture. In part 10 of “Poem after Frida Kahlo’s Painting The Broken Column,” Corral writes: “Under the cold scaffolding of winter my love took for a walk through the desert. My breath crumbling like bread” (27). To what extent this is Kahlo’s or Corral’s admission is unclear—and unimportant.
The presence of gay sex is never so distant it can’t be sensed. Although pleasurable and worthy of celebration, Corral also sees sex between men much in the way he sees borders: the embodiment of promise and danger. In “Self- Portrait with Tumbling and Lasso,” one among many of the book’s gay-themed poems, Corral corrals sex with risk and death: “dissipating. I’m a ghost undressing. / I’m a cowboy / riding bareback” (22-23). On the other hand, in two collection-bracketing poems called “Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome,” the lovely, lyrical dream-like imagery appears to take on allegorical significance—without the title I would not have made the connection.
Maybe that’s part of the point. Titles—like borders and poetic forms—are hierarchical constructs that shape and inform our understanding of reality. Throughout Slow Lightning, Corral delights in exploiting such constructs to counter traditional narratives. He could have come crashing through the gates, but Corral’s resistance is slyer and arguably more effective.
by Edwardo C. Corral
Yale University Press
Paperback, , 9780300178937, 96 pp.