It’s not uncommon for poets to reinvent their writing with each new collection. The late James Tate constantly pushed the boundaries of his work, and his debut book, The Lost Pilot, was vastly different than his last, The Government Lake. This isn’t necessarily the case with J. Michael Martinez’s third collection, but the introspective, abstract lens of his sophomore book, In the Garden of the Bridehouse, turns outward toward the world’s historic and current injustices in Museum of the Americas. Martinez’s unique language, style, and sharp lyricism remains consistent, but the themes and subjects he explores work in ways that render Museum of the Americas as a catalogue that bears witness to the social complexities and atrocities of the past as much as it does to those of our current moment.
The four sections of the book interweave familial, regional, societal, and political history. The first largely focuses on the casta system, in which mixed-race people in colonial Spanish America were classified based on lineage, place of birth, and the color of their skin. The sections of the poem “Casta Painting, an Erotics of Negation” can at times read like a historical document, clinical in its observation:
In the 18th & into the 19th century, casta paintings were employed in New Spain to validate racial identity (“whiteness”) in the legislation of land acquisition & in determining civil rights.
However, while structuring the poem like the panels of the paintings he describes, Martinez occasionally breaks the prose into lines and couplets, sometimes in the middle, sometimes towards the end.
At a distance, an “Indian” woman carries a basket of corn; the man beside her in a serape holds a bag of squash; their child, between them, gazes up
beyond both mother & father.
Of such fertile I’s,
this Gold discerns
a portrait wrapped
the worlds through us.
The poem itself attempts to resist the colonial policies of categorization, offering glimpses of nuance and hope (the “fertile I’s” representing the possibilities an individual is born with). Nevertheless, the individual remains trapped in that system, and those of future generations are still subject to the oppression that has merely be reformulated in a slightly less conspicuous manner. In the poem “Instructions For Identifying “Illegal” Immigrants” (which appears earlier in the section), we are prompted to “Consider skin’s nature/ [and] departure’s hue”, and to see ourselves as a “homeland/ & formal choice”, casted into “a room whose edges dream themselves/ into shapelessness.” “Illegal” bodies are designated as existing outside the borders of fluidity, and Martinez reminds us that not all bodies are historically privileged to move so freely.
What makes Martinez’s Museum of the Americas so timely is precisely its ability to navigate a complicated and often brutal past while simultaneously highlighting the continued use of oppressive social structures in our present day. The third section, we see the body as spectacle. The decapitated head of Joaquin Murrieta (considered the Robin Hood of El Dorado, and admired by many for avenging his white aggressors) parades around California. As the speaker so aptly puts it, “the lifeless head became indicative of uncontainable animality,” and the same goes for the prosthetic leg of General Antonio López de Santa Anna (of the Battle of the Alamo fame), albeit with less gruesomeness and a bit more prestige. I’m reminded here of Cortney Lamar Charleston’s collection Telepathalogies, which examines the manner in which black bodies in America are a battleground, constantly used by different entities as means to an end. The setting and time period might be different (Charleston focuses on contemporary, urban America, although his work is highly aware of the consequences of the past), but the idea of the body as a tool for others to use to justify their biases and beliefs still holds true.
This idea is present throughout the collection, and in more ways than one it affects the manner in which individuals see themselves. In the poem “Brown I See You, Brown I Don’t,” the speaker, in the left side of the poem, recounts his time with a Latino coworker at a fast-food restaurant. He, like his coworker, has a white complexion, and although this might confuse the white waitress they work with, a group of “frat boys” the speaker runs into on his way home later that night is not convinced he is anything other than a “spic,” repeatedly taunting the speaker in a Spanish he doesn’t understand. The speaker is embarrassed not by the fact the frat boys speak Spanish, but that he himself can’t use the language to respond.
My mind races: I want his tongue.
To slice it, cut out as if I were
circumcising. I want to circumcise
his tongue, remove it like foreskin.
Foreskin. Before skin. Before flesh.
Before flesh there was the word
and the word was God. I want to
cut out his tongue and swallow the
foreskin of God.
On the right side of the poem, the speaker details, again textbook-like, the Other-Race Effect (OER), which posits that people tend to recognize more easily faces belonging to the race they are most familiar with. The juxtaposition between both columns exemplifies what Martinez accomplishes with this collection, the idea that the personal is always attached to truths others claim as empirical, even if those truths are morally objectionable in all their forms (i.e the casta system, bodies as spectacle and entertainment, etc.).
Martinez’s engagement with the migration of people, cultural practices, and beliefs creates a unique poetic narrative that seeks to examine and question what we think we know about the world. Direct, unapologetic, and ambitious in its scope, Martinez has written a collection that although is challenging and at times uncomfortable, is one that should be visited and revisited for years to come.
Esteban Rodríguez is the author of six poetry collections, most recently Ordinary Bodies (word west press 2022), and the essay collection Before the Earth Devours Us (Split/Lip Press 2021). He is the Interviews Editor for the EcoTheo Review, Senior Book Reviews Editor for Tupelo Quarterly, and Associate Poetry Editor for AGNI. He currently lives in south Texas.