by Caron Andregg
“Surely, there’s something beyond this” is the last phrase in Joanne Diaz’s Brittingham Prize-winning collection My Favorite Tyrants, and as fitting a last line has probably never been penned. Diaz’s finely-rendered poems are at once deeply personal narratives and meditations on the larger universal forces molding the self. The intimate is revealed as infinite. “77 Porter Street” begins with the memory of a trivial apartment fire and ends at the threshold of death “when, as bodies do, ours break down to mere traces of life,” and asks, “Will you remember those days of fire/when we burned to touch and be touched by all things?”
Throughout the collection, the mundane and the mythic occur in shared space. In “Motor City,” a disaffected Vulcan haunts the bowels of abandoned, decaying Tiger Stadium, forging his golden net. In “Demeter’s Last Stand,” a greasy elementary school janitor stands in for Hades as he cradles the Camp Fire Girl-cum-Persephone in his lap, until Queen Bee descends, snatching her away from “a lifetime of winters.” Meanwhile, a distilled evocation of Larry David has a recurring cameo as a form of spirit-guide for outrage and indignity, as when he mediates on the imperialist significance of a pre-war Philippines tennis court (“Larry David on Corrigador”).
As the title would suggest, Diaz is concerned with tyrants and tyrannies of all kinds. Yes, in these pages we encounter historical tyrants: Franco manufacturing a nation of orphans “living up to the Latin archaeology of that word, dissedere,/to sit apart, to be foreign to one another, to never know/the other’s truest name” (“Archaeology”); Lenin incubating “more mold over the years than Ussuriysky Forrest” (“A La Turk”); Stalin when he was still little Soso at the observatory in Tblisi “astonished by the dignity of stars” (“Little Terror”). Political ghosts emanate from the grainy Super8 film shot one Halloween during the height of the Cold War when her Cuban-American parents dressed her little brother “as baby Castro, complete with greasepaint beard, the already-heavy//eyebrows of a brooding Spaniard, the olive green military uniform/and tiny plastic cigarillo” (Cuba Libre).
But so, too, Diaz illuminates life’s other tyrants, the ones that hold us in thrall almost without our knowing: race, family, desire. Her mother, both alive and after death, plays a key role in this exploration. As the robust and exacting Queen Bee, she was “one of the people on whom nothing was lost… /and she had, through these things, become white in the America that would have counted her people as a separate, squalid race” (“Queen Bee”).
Queen Bee even has her way with death—perhaps the ultimate tyrant—revealing it instead as the ultimate liberator:
Days after her death, my mother didn’t hide
in that place that was no place. She busily thrived
as the starling that stared at Nila all afternoon;
as the falcon that hovered above Alonso’s boat;
as the sparrow that scratched the top of Jay’s head
twice on his jog along Lake Shore trail;
and once, as a kinglet, ruby-crowned, bobbing
and floating as a pugilist at our front window.
(“Visit to Fox Hill Cemetery”)
Queen Bee expresses the death’s largesse in body as well as soul when the hospital harvests her skin. “Queen Bee, mother, wife, no longer a tightened knot…. Now just epidermis: expansive, generous, promiscuous,/so capable of protecting the body of another.”
If the dead escape the tyranny of the body the living are not so emancipated. “We are prisoners of our bodies,” Diaz writes, “No metamorphosis/for living humans, not even for a little while” (“Visit to Fox Hill Cemetery”).
So many tyrants, so many tyrannies; so much to hate and so very much to love in this complex, captivating collection.
Published in Cider Press Review, Volume 16, Issue 2.
Caron Andregg is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Cider Press Review. Her poems have appeared in print and online journals, and in the anthology Line Drives: 100 Contemporary Baseball Poems (2002, Southern Illinois University Press). In her non-poetic life, she owns SeaCliff Media Marketing, a Web design, eBook and marketing company, with too much help from office cats.
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