blackbirdonline journalFall 2018  Vol. 17 No. 2
an online journal of literature and the arts
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Review | Paraíso
Jacob Shores-Argüello
University of Arkansas Press, 2017

spacer Paraíso (University of Arkansas Press, 2017)

So often we speak of grieving before we speak of grief itself. We highlight, in the verb form, doing, process—distance traversed, beginning and end. In doing so, we impose parameters on this suffering. Grieving is grief confined. And contrary to grieving’s implied action, grief looms stagnant, intangible—an idea best known by the shape of its metaphors: grief is a thing with tendrils, claws; grief is an anvil tethered to the body. Jacob Shores-Argüello’s under-celebrated second collection, Paraíso, knows these metaphors—this work—too well. Shores-Argüello’s closely hewn poems are steeped in (and spring from) the vacillation, nostalgia, and dislocation of an all-too-familiar transnationalism, tracking his return to his mother’s titular Costa Rican hometown following her death. But throughout this exacting collection, Shores-Argüello’s poems defy the readily available and reductive definitions of loss. The collection asks us to consider, section by section, what do we do when metaphors fail us? When we must live in grief, what—if anything—will suffice?

From its opening pages, Paraíso pursues a freshly cerebral—rather than corporeal—invocation: the poet resists dispatches from a graveside service; he speaks out of and beyond “the heart / of [a] once-rural country.” Thus absorbed, Shores-Argüello’s speaker roots the grief-stricken self within the bare-bones, prose poem “rules” that make up a set of introductory games. And while the rules begin predictably in “1. Joke, Fact, Anecdote,”—“For this game you need at least three people”—they soon reveal a clear-eyed narrative arc: “I have spent half my life growing up in the United States  . . . the other half in my mother’s home country of Costa Rica. . . . People have been left behind. People have left me behind.” Equivocation thus banished, the stark truth remains: in his grief, Paraíso’s speaker is an island even to himself.

Particularly in these opening “game” poems, syntax divulges intent. Amid the aftershock of death, the speaker pedestals identity and experience as fact, as laudable and necessary reminders of the self’s existence. His creation (and implied enforcement) of these rules thus serves as an invitation, an attempt to forge connection with others. Healing, Shores-Argüello insists, cannot happen in a vacuum. He splits open what would otherwise sequester the imperiled self: “It’s important to make little connections with anyone you can.” Self-preservation materializes for Shores-Argüello’s speaker as grief hovers and remains; in turn, these games—the speaker’s proposed diversions—banish our received notions of mourning and contemplation. And it’s with immense gravity that the speaker then offers, in “2. Pantone 292,” a resounding truth, a revelation, and an admission: “The country that I had was her.”

Paraíso gleams in an ultimately singular way, not quite an extension of or response to the received tradition of grief poets (ranging from Tennyson to Levertov and Hirsch). Rather, Shores-Argüello’s timely collection commands an expansive, intersectional approach to grief as a moment of emotional and intellectual upheaval. For Shores-Argüello’s speaker, the usual questions of self-reckoning compound. He begs, faithfully, the typical questions of mortality, as in “Dove”—“It’s only when the animal flies into Lucite / and falls like a bullet casing onto the floor / that we claim him as our beloved thing.” But he wrangles, too, fundamental questions of identity. To write “we / want to be in a crowd of us” in “‘Dependiendo Del Tráfico’ Es El Nuevo ‘Si Dios Quiere’” demands an insertion on the part of this speaker, a claiming of the second-person plural, and a view of hybridity as an indeed expansive—not halving—force. Shores-Argüello’s grief, therefore, remains universal and reveals itself as markedly more specific. His poems extend a reminder that we are all outsiders to the mechanizations of the universe—“There’s only so much a passenger, ” that any of us, “can know”—and our uncertainties bind us to a degree. But while our questions may echo, Shores-Argüello reveals the chasm between questioning and the seeking itself. His speaker seeks out witches, cures. He shoulders his mother’s last calf across her farm. Out of the would-be usual suspects—grief and desperation—he writes a cross-culturally specific playbook, games and all.

As the remaining three sections unfold, Shores-Argüello delivers on his initial promise to readers: this is not a book of answers. These are, fittingly, poems of sorrow and seeking—a simultaneously physical and conceptual journey. In time, the speaker finds solace in the confining kinship of a bus journey, treacherous roads and close quarters, the shared experience of a landscape that has changed drastically and yet remains so much the same:

We lean out so children can sell us empanadas
de chiverre, green mango with lime.
In the jungle, heavy birds reply to one another
with the glassy instruments of their throats.

And in the face of such splendor, the speaker argues, “we feel chosen because we have so much.” In Costa Rica, our speaker finds it possible to believe, even for a moment, that one can be “too loved to be hurt” by a place referred to as home. But by the collection’s closing poems, Shores-Argüello’s speaker confronts death’s inevitable foil—the inherent complications of living. The speaker returns, he traces the outlines of his late mother’s life, but he does not discover a resolution. No miracles befall him; his catharsis is one of acknowledgement—gleaned wisdom—rather than resolution. He returns to find the game roils on, and it is never so simple as hurt or “too loved to be hurt”—“humans go wrong when they think only in twos.”

It’s to this notion that I ascribe Paraíso’s arresting quality, even a year after I first encountered the collection: these poems not only challenge the easy metaphors for grief, but they also offer an anguished and timely take on the yes, and paradigm. Home can be home and not, a culture can be yours and not yours entirely. But—embroiled as he is in the liminal realities of his transnationalism—our speaker’s experience of death astonishes. Yes, of course—the loss itself echoes too. But death is definite. With striking care and diligence, Shores-Argüello proves that, here, both the literal and figurative rules do not apply—“grief is a medicine that the dead don’t need.”

In a book so concerned with the philosophical—a book so accomplished and intentional in its approach—Shores-Argüello’s formal approach drives it home. For all their ideological reckoning and rhetorical examination, Paraíso’s poems shine in their remarkable precision. Each line reads as a product of excision: the quiet, meticulous extraction of essential image from the wider world, finespun metaphor from clunking sorrow. And because Shores-Argüello’s approach is so exacting, each image is both blade and honing steel, a clear bell resounding through the collection, often transformed: in “4. A Howling Game,” the coin in the wall of his grandfather’s adobe house becomes “a coin / under the foot of a hospital bed.” The bird hitting a bus window in “Dove” becomes a flashlight-lured moth in “Paloma.” Ultimately each image, so clearly and undeniably rendered, reminds us—this is the reality of loss. These are the corporeal things to which the speaker is tethered; these are the things that remain.

Paradoxically, this precision ultimately dismantles the familiar, would-be conceits that haunt Shores-Argüello’s collection. In its dismantling of grievinggrief’s container—Paraíso denies all easy summation, all easy resolution. Instead, it offers us the thud on a bus window over the bird on a branch. It offers us a coin shining on cold tile over a candle’s memorial light. In Paraíso, ultimately, there is no conceit of grief. There is only the grief itself. Defying Emerson’s angel—divine inspiration from above—Shores-Argüello puts Lorca’s dictum into practice: “duende, then, is a power, not a work.” And at its core, Paraíso is just as much an exhibition of this power as it is a reckoning. As “Cure #4: For Grief,” the collection’s closing poem, argues, “It is important that you have walked. It is important that you sit and drink. That you believed.” The poems’ abiding testament: grief is a gravity, not a weight.  

Jacob Shores-Argüello is the author of two poetry collections: Paraíso (University of Arkansas Press, 2017), winner of the inaugural CantoMundo Poetry Prize, and In the Absence of Clocks, winner of the 2011 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award (Southern Illinois University Press, 2012). He is the recipient of the Dzanc Books ILP International Literary award, a fellowship from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, a Djerassi Resident Artists Fellowship, a Fulbright Fellowship, a Princeton University Hodder Fellowship, and an Amy Clampitt residency. His work has appeared in Guernica, The New Yorker, and Poetry magazine.

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