Tomás Q. Morín
Knopf, New York
Kindle, Audiobook, Hardback, ISBN 9780593319642, 96 pages
October 12, 2021
Tomás Q. Morín is a contemporary American poet and assistant professor of creative writing at Rice University. His body of work includes several poetry collections and a memoir. He has co-edited a book of essays on Philip Levine and has translated work by Pablo Neruda, Luisa Pardo, and Gabino Rodriguez. In Machete, his latest collection of twenty-two poems, Morín leaps from idea to idea, surprising and delighting readers at every turn.
The title of his first poem “I Sing the Body Aquatic” parodies Whitman’s “I Sing the Body Electric.” Morín pokes fun at his acute hyperhidrosis (sweaty hands and feet) while his images bounce from red-faced missionaries riding bicycles to the splayed fins of evolutionary relatives “when the earth was all aquarium.” Throughout the collection, he reflects on his heritage from “the land of Montezuma” into a life far from the Atlantic or Mediterranean, where “shame and fear are still the coins of the realm.”
“Whiteface” is a list of things men of color need know to survive, especially when driving in the dark. The writer wonders if they should paint their faces white, like happy clowns. The poem begs to be read aloud to give each of the ninety-eight statements time to breathe, a privilege many have been denied.
“Weather” is another example of Morín’s originality. Lines can be read left to right or in two columns. Both convey the painful history of police brutality, those days when
hope doesn’t rise like bread
drink the sunlight to stay fed. (2021)
It’s impossible to read a poem by Tomás Q. Morín once. He plays with words, goes off in so many unexpected directions that readers wonder what they’ve missed. The title poem “Machete” is no exception. One image that screams, however, is the speaker sharpening the edge of his smile when faced with those who fear “this face, this hair so unlike theirs.”
“Extraordinary Rendition” jumps from jazz singers to CIA agents “staring at computer screens.” It is hard to keep up with Morín’s mental agility, but many of the images are searing, like “death when it comes from the sky makes a music so hypnotic you’ll never forget it.” This poem leaves readers with profound feelings of loss and many questions without answers.
“A Sigh,” however, is a romp through wordplay, greatly enhanced by the “Notes” section at the end of the book. A tongue-twisting read-aloud, the poem contains fifty different translations of the opening three lines of Dante’s Commedia and ends with the very last line as the only one written by Morín— “and we, we hardly knew the difference.”
To the writer, nothing is off-limits. “Duct Tape” is written from the point of view of duct tape and introduces readers to a woman who took five inches of his life. He concludes he “felt like a coat/of armor for the only bird to ever learn/that running could be flying.”
“Sartana and Machete in Outer Space,” dedicated to actors Jessica Alba and Danny Trejo, doesn’t resonate as much for those unfamiliar with the Machete movies, but readers can infer that even in a violent world, love rises from the confusion. In “Life Preserver,” the next poem, Morín adds, “And if nothing will free us from death/at least love will save us from life.”
“Vallejo” captures the isolation and grief of the pandemic. The author describes poet Cesar Vallejo looking “like a young Abraham Lincoln/in the sketches of Picasso.” Readers, however, will agree with Morín; we don’t want to see “the planet this sad.” One single line in “Tried and True” could be a poem on its own: “pain is the anchor on a ship with no sails.”
Reading Morín’s anthology is like going on a joyride with him, his mind going to funny, unexpected places, even when he’s diapering, feeding, burping, and rocking his baby. Who else thinks of word etymology while listening to OCEAN on the sound machine and watching Twilight Turtle stand guard? In “Royal Silence,” he reflects on fatherhood.
As a new father, I am not that pyramid
of fish: my body is all eyes and eyes.
Some of them watch for you in the west
Where the lion sun yawns and shakes off
its sleep before it purrs, and hungry,
dives deep in the deep of the deep.
In the end, the poet returns to “Machete” with an explanation of his earlier poem. He talks about “weaponizing my smile/by giving it a sharp blade/to slice all the white/supremacists/inside that poem.” He admits that he forgot to put laughter in the original poem, that anger can also be funny. The author encourages readers to embrace that “wild/inner-something” we once had.
Kudos to Morín for his originality, for leaving all his windows open to the diverse ideas/words that come his way, and for crafting them into literary art.
TOMÁS Q. MORÍN is the author of the memoir Let Me Count the Ways, forthcoming from University of Nebraska Press, as well as the poetry collections Patient Zero and A Larger Country. He is coeditor, with Mari L’Esperance, of the anthology Coming Close: Forty Essays on Philip Levine and translator of The Heights of Macchu Picchu by Pablo Neruda. He teaches at Rice University and Vermont College of Fine Arts. Morín lives with his family in Texas.