According to some psychological studies (like the Adverse Childhood Experience study), Ben Garcia should probably be dead. And where one poet might compartmentalize their individual pieces of adversity into separate collections, Garcia, instead, tackles all of it head-on in an intersectional brush that breathes its full life into Thrown in the Throat, his debut collection chosen by Kazim Ali for the National Poetry Series. We first meet Garcia’s family in a poem consisting of three prose blocks, “On the Slight Cruelty of Mothers”:
And when I watered her roses, she snuck up behind me, slipped a stem between her middle and ring finger, like a wineglass, stroking with her thumb the near open bud: wouldn’t you like to have a dress as wonderful as a rose petal? Well, not you, digging her thumbnail into the flesh.
These lines foreshadow an impending violence. The maternal figure in this poem becomes the signifier of this violence as it functions to create expectations for the speaker—among them, labor, good looks (You want to be a handsome boy)–all within the violent destruction of a child’s gift of watering his mother’s flowers. The mother, too, simultaneously engenders her son with a final expectation to “be a boy,” whatever that means to us queers. Rather than unconditionally supporting gender identity, or more to the norm, ignoring her child’s nonconformity, the maternal, here, exacerbates her child’s gender queering, which is its own violence.
In “Heroine with an E,” Garcia addresses a familial relationship further as he unpacks the effects of substance abuse:
your mother in the kitchen
waiting & waiting measuring her life // in cigarettes
and coffee spoons she burns // the slender neck of a poppy
it’s the incense smoking in the hallway // praying
the myrrh might pry you from // whatever traphouse
you’re calling home tonight
In the final section of this three part poem, the pronouns shift from you to I:
when I slept on the floor of a street // mother called
rock bottom // when I thought I couldn’t fall deeper
I rolled into the gutter
Garcia, then, argues a familial inheritance to substance abuse. This relationship is heightened by an epigraph stating that the Hope Diamond became the Hope Diamond because it survived “all these things that had to have happened.” These sharp edges of survival, then, are a product of this family.
Still, more familial violence in the form of abandonment enters this collection through the paternal. In “A Father’s Portrait in Styrofoam” Garcia meditates on his father’s absence as almost cliché, comparing it to the adage of going out for milk. He summarizes, “he made a nice life / out west, in Vegas I’ve heard,” then resolves, “If / Hidalgo means the son of something, / then I am the son of almost nothing–Styrofoam.”
Even in the chaos of familial neglect, abandonment, and abuse however, Garcia’s family unit remains enmeshed as we see in the poem “Warrior Song”:
Undocumented is our status, resistance
is our cause. Because we cannot sleep
we dream with open eyes.
Both the pronoun selection of we/our, along with the tercets, here, communicate to us a different kind of familial, one which is omnipresent and necessary to survival, despite the clear emotional and physical toll it also presents. The title, too, suggests our tribal chorus to bond in order to survive.
This need for bonding in the face of the violence that is U.S. white supremacy is echoed in the prose poem “To the Unborn Sibling” where, upon recounting how a food store owner in Texas refused his Spanish-speaking family service, Garcia’s father withholds stopping for anything except for gas: “And as for me, I have been left behind before, and that’s all it takes to know what those little Texas flags mean, that white star like cotton breaking the pod, the open throat of a cottonmouth.” As a tie to one’s culture allows one a thread into the community, the community has the ability to enhance one’s agency. But again, to be left behind, neglected, severed from the community, results in a violence toward the subject in the form of overt and historical racism; the communal therefore necessitates the survival. But further: What happens when the communal offers abuse and suffering? And what happens when the communal bond must be broken through a shattering of cultural taboo?
Garcia explores this break in “Conversations with My Father // A Poem in Closet Verse” which is framed as ten couplets, dispersed on either sides of the page:
When was the last time
you took a girl to the movies?
It’s been a long time
since I’ve seen a movie.
While the dissonance is communicated in the form, the questions and commentary attempting to engage the opposite side of the page are met with bored, avoidant, sarcastic responses, a change of the subject to the direct object, a language of evasion, a language of the closet.
And while my Spanish is still between Beginner and Intermediate College Spanish—and therefore, spoken nowhere except college—I do speak closet. The language of camp, too, has been normalized for me as a queer man.
One of the more prominent examples is in “Ode to the Corpse Flower,” a poem written in couplets peppered with caesuras—two backslashes. Garcia’s choice of caesurae can also operate as a communication of lonely monostiches, or one line stanzas—readers of poetry are traditionally expected to quote poems by inserting a backslash for a line break and a double back slash for a stanza break:
I won’t be anyone’s nosegay // this Mary is her own // talking bouquet
I prefer to think of myself // & this may sound vain // as a goddess
fuck Whitman fuck Pound // give me Emily D
speaking of which have I ever told you daddy // sun gods get me hard
This poem feels performative, an attempt to shock. I know the speaker well, and I don’t like him. But, then, what is camp, but a piece of armor? Much like “Warrior Song” we attach ourselves to our tribes as a protective quilt. The poem, here, argues more than simply to fuck Whitman and crown a queen. It functions, in its couplets to communicate a joining between the speaker and this queen, while also, within Garcia’s signature caesurae (//), to highlight a fragmentation, the loneliness of this inherited persona. The internal dissonance wars against the chosen form.
What, then, is Garcia’s argument about language? The topic is buried in multiple poems:
all on their own tongues do things / without us when we aren’t looking
–“Averting the Gaze”
But where is your family / really from? What’s your native tongue? / I ate it—
–“Eye of the Hurricane”
In his opening prose poem, “The Language in Question” Garcia asserts that “the tongue desires // the language acquires // the language in question likes conquest // moves west.” He further tells us:
only a lawyer could make sense of it // and sell it to the highest bidder // like a snake that ate a parrot whole // spits out the bright feathers // without a bird to hold them together
This poem offers us a critique of colonialism, of the exploitation of color and beauty and cultural appropriation—the language in question “warms itself at the fire made from other people’s scrolls”—language’s uncertainty is personified and queered from the ways in which, when words were not yet available, they persisted, along the same way that desire persists. The poem melts into French, into Spanish, into the body by means of tongue.
What is the purpose of the tongue then? Communication? Offense? Sex? The tongue, once inhibited, here slides through the codes, unleashing the bodily complexity of identity: the internalized racism within colonial English, the camp and candor of queerness, the abusive household of his native Spanish, and a blurring of all of the above.
So yes, by all accounts, Garcia should be dead. Or at least his speakers should be. But rather, Thrown in the Throat acts as a counterargument, a this is what you do with pain, and therefore, as a model of resiliency, even in the collection’s most maladaptive poems. Poverty, familial abuse, racism, addiction, immigration status, and queerness all factor into pieces that dialogue in and out, through and between these larger thematic impulses. Despite it all, this sex positive collection’s arc nears its ending on a love poem, or at least an almost-love poem, a tribute to domesticity in “Keeping Home.” Love, here, or at least the kind of love that fosters domesticity within a queer relationship, despite neglect, despite what the neighbors say, can, with the right nurture, with the right naming, become “kind of pretty.” Here’s another thing about trauma: love can rewire the brain. It doesn’t cure our damage, necessarily, but enough love and nurture, enough time inside of safety, can quell the amygdala, can ease the hypervigilence.
I know the concept of Lorca’s duende is old hat to any poetry scholar at this point, but such is the offering of Garcia’s collection—a searing slice into the core of a young poet, ripped then howled from the gut. And if this is what the studies tell us, perk up your ears and give a listen.
A Pushcart and Best New Poets nominee, John Bonanni serves as founding editor for the Cape Cod Poetry Review. He is the recipient of a scholarship from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, grants from the Arts Foundation of Cape Cod and the Massachusetts Cultural Council, and a residency from AS220 in Providence, RI. His poems have appeared in CutBank, North American Review, Verse Daily, Seattle Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Hobart, Washington Square Review, and Prairie Schooner, and his literary criticism has appeared in Rain Taxi, Tupelo Quarterly, and Kenyon Review.