Judge’s Comments: Poetry (2013)

Poetry
Brazos, Carry Me by Pablo Miguel Martinez
shortlisted: Begging for Vultures: New and Selected Poems, 1994-2009 by Lawrence Welsh (University of New Mexico Press)

Judge: Dallie Clark

T. S. Eliot said that “genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.” And so it is with the poems of Pablo Miguel Martínez in Brazos, Carry Me.  Even before construing the full import of Martínez’s work, the poet’s generous, affective language springs from the page, both startling and lulling the reader with a journey of words, an ancestral river, a back and forth sway between brokenness and bliss.

After reading, and then rereading, Brazos, Carry Me, our first impulse may be to reach inside his writer’s heart to query him about the natural world – how a born tejano is able to reconcile and fuse placid, boyhood memories of his tía’s summery, firefly-filled yard with the cacophony of the “needle’s-eye slits of Manhattan streets.” Effortlessly, it would seem, Martinez, with his attention to the earth, allows us to wander as his willing shadow into a “gulfstream of sparrows,” a “sweetgrass summer,” and “sunset flounces of marigolds.”  Yet, just as quickly, we wince at his keen, acute descriptions of human want and hopelessness such as seen in the poem “Destino,” with its clinging “tres hijas” whose “Mamá digs deep for change” on an urban bus—or in “Protocol” when he pulls us into an antiseptic-laden ER room, the result of “the brutish knot of fist,” a fist, the writer is convinced, will later open, “easy as dove wings, into the warm, fluttering caress” of a lover.

Throughout Brazos, Carry Me, Martínez also shares his bilingual heritage and how, through the fluidity of time and space, the English of his childhood readily morphs into the “soft, doughy words” of Spanish “rising like warm Sunday biscuits” as he transitions from one self to the other.  As an example, in the poem “Translation,”  he lovingly invites us to ride “west on Guadalupe Street  in [his] Dad’s ’56 Chevy Bel-Air” on the way to “the cemetery, el panteón,” during which Martínez and his family are “mystically transfigured, block/by Block…,” as Dad and Mom become Papá and Mamá, the writer and his sister become niños, and they are reminded that the “abuelas, abuelos, tías, tíos—are waiting/to receive la visita.”

At times, we may wonder how Martínez writes, wielding certainly at times a poetic restraint, without his own heart shattering into a million inked words on the paper before him.  He is, after all, a highly perceptive observer and scholar of our human frailties and common history, whether that involves a sorrowful lynching in Texas or the beauty of a long-held mythical tale.  But how can any of us pretend to know the minds of the poets we read?  Yet, we must admit that the mere endeavor to do so stretches and challenges us.  Martínez’s work expands our humanity when he asks us to remember our own awkward passages – just as he has.  He asks us to wade in an ever-flowing river of sweet adolescence, “rattled” spirit and religion, crisscrossed geography, sensual love, split-selves, and cultural stigmas.

Above all in this book, Pablo Miguel Martínez reminds us of our need for the arms of the Brazos to carry us too.  Although many of his poems are punctured with pain, through his chosen words we may also remember “as if we’ve traveled back to a time before music was tamed,/before storms were measured, before ache had its name.”

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