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Open Wounds, Truncated Lives

Yagnishsing Dawoor

Eduardo C. Corral
Guillotine
Graywolf Press
2020
82pp
$16.00



‘The U.S Mexican border es una herida abierta where the Third World grates against the first and bleeds. And before a scab forms it hemorrhages again…’, Gloria Anzaldúa wrote in Borderlands/La Frontera decades ago. In Guillotine, his sophomore collection, Eduardo C. Corral limns the present contours of this fraught border, tracking the ravages, both small and big, that crossing into the United States entails for undocumented border crossers. Set largely in the Sonoran Desert and written in his characteristic blend of English and Spanish, Corral’s poems document the hopes, confessions and injuries of migrants as they funnel down through the waterless North American desert that American policy has turned into a graveyard. As in his incredible debut, the Yale Younger Poets Prize winner, Slow Lightning, the poems in this new collection are welted by Corral’s own very personal tussle with the border. The son of Mexican immigrants, Corral lives and teaches in the United States, where he has grappled with questions of identity and belongingness all his life. Abjection permeates his poetry, motors its politics. ‘He’s illegal. I’m an illegal-American’, Corral writes in ‘In Colorado My Father Scoured and Stacked Dishes’, a moving poem from his debut about a father’s hardscrabble days in the U.S after he was ‘packed into a car trunk […and] smuggled’ across the border. The border is omni-present in Corral’s poetry: it is as much material bulwark as it is way of life, a state of being.

In Guillotine, Corral continues and refines his exploration of the border, figuring it as a blade cutting at the bodies and aspirations of migrants. The traumas and pain of crossers are fittingly registered as epidermal sensations, as they move and are literally marked as bodies ‘out of place’, to crib critical verbiage from Sara Ahmed’s Strange Encounters. In the long, multi-part poem, ‘Testaments Scratched into a Water Station Barrel’, the body, like the poem’s ekphrastic object — non-profit water barrels incised with migrants’ (and racists’) graffiti — is an open wound, a palimpsestic site of renewing lesions and lacerations. A whiff of rust rises off every other page: ‘Skin thick with scabs’ is peeled in the shade of trees; blisters are lanced; feet are cut with glass; sneakers overflow with blood; sores fester and are doused with nail polish remover; arms and thighs are notched and scored; and ‘cacti needle pinprick skin/a kind of rain’. Occasionally, the damage is bigger, rendered in jarringly simple, un-sublimated language, as in the harrowing poem, ‘Border Patrol Agent’, in which a Mexican-American border patrol agent lists his horrid discoveries while idling in his jeep: ‘…a body./ Legs gnawed to the knees, barbed wire tight/around/the throat’; ‘…a rape tree: torn panties draped on branches’; isolated body parts that are then ‘buried in baby caskets.’

Elsewhere, the collection’s defining object, the guillotine, stalks and saturates Corral’s images: ‘bodies in the Sonoran Desert are everywhere. / A headless corpse sporting a T-shirt that reads: Superstar. /A severed hand, black yarn around the thumb.’ To describe a shift in desert weather, Corral writes, ‘coolness fell through the heat. /Guillotine.’, reprising Dr. Guillotin’s extolment of the gentleness of the eponymous machine — the ‘slight coolness on the neck’ one is supposed to feel as the blade drops, slicing head from body. Corral excels at the unexpected jolting metaphor; here, it comes at the reader, like a blade itself, a shock begging for analysis. Referencing Corral, the Vietnamese American poet Ocean Vuong made a similar point on Instagram when he recently proclaimed that metaphors are sudden ‘detours’. Detours in search of an ‘elsewhere’, language hurtled down a bypass to improve what is already there on the page. While Corral is not known to belabour the symbolic values of his metaphors, undertaking, as Vuong acknowledged, very risky detours, here, he does let his recurrent deployment of the guillotine pique the reader’s curiosity enough to hone her critical agility. How did this object from the Reign of Terror, this ghastly memento of the bloody excesses of the French Revolution, land onto Corral’s Sonoran Desert landscapes?

In his Death Penalty papers, French philosopher Jacques Derrida calls attention to the origin story of the guillotine: its primary function as ‘humanitarian machine’, offering the comfort of painlessness to the victim, even as it transforms the victim’s body into a site of spectacle and an unintentional source of entertainment for watchers. There is a sense, as we read Corral’s poems and consume their rather graphic contents, that our attention is being called to the very visual ways in which migrant and refugee bodies reach us, and to the dispassion we are capable of as we sit in our homes and partake in these tragedies routinized by the media. Through his multifarious invocations of the blade and sighting of truncated bodies, Corral establishes a chilling nexus between the guillotine and the US-Mexico border ‘crisis’, implicating both lawmakers and the reader in the spectacular ‘necro-politics’ of migration, to use Achille Mbembe’s phraseology. Constellated around these border-poems, are ones about thwarted queer desire, characters grappling with their unloved bodies, masculinity, sexuality. They, too, engage the guillotine. In the titular poem, we watch the narrator, his mouth open, his hands clutching the edges of his bed, as two scorpions ‘dark green, dank — reach in, pull out/ [a] razor blade/under [his] tongue’, and like ‘a little guillotine’ slowly make their way down his body. ‘It’s my task to stop yearning/for as long/ as it takes them/ to carry [the] blade/ across my skin,’ the narrator tells us. What is ours? In this poem, like in so many others in this extraordinary collection, the narrator, definitely queer and presumably caught in the cold exclusionary logics of the state, is given to us as spectacle, accusation and ultimatum — ‘the blade/ [stilled] high in the air./ For now.’ For now.

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Yagnishsing Dawoor [1] studies English Literature at St Antony’s College, Oxford.