Catrachos, by Roy G. Guzmán
Graywolf Press, 2020
Paperback, 112 pgs., $16.00
Review by Daniel Miess
In 1856, William Walker, a Southerner from Tennessee, annexed parts of Mexico, and “laid siege upon Nicaragua,” according to History Detectives. Central American troops rallied together to fight Walker. The Honduran faction was led by Generals Florencio and Pedro Xatruch. The term “Catrachos” came from the last name of Pedro Xatruch. This is a term of “solidarity and pride” among the Hondurans, according to Graywolf Press, the publisher of Guzman’s new poetry book, Catrachos. By giving the book this title, Guzmán emphasizes Honduran pride and defiance against a White Supremacist society, not unlike the Hondurans who were defiant against William Walker’s desire to occupy their country over a century ago.
Their poem “Catrachos” explores both Queer and religious themes, as they do elsewhere in their book. Guzmán’s first line says, “Time blunts the crooked / to savage pews.” The reader might be curious why it is time that “blunts the crooked.” What’s noteworthy here is that this line suggests that previously “the crooked” were sharp, but repeated blows softened their vitality. The use of “crooked” also seems to reference Queer people. The use of the word “savage” here points to what Europeans thought about the Indigenous peoples of the Americas. “Pews” obviously hints at the Church. By putting these words together, Guzmán is referring to the “taming of the savage” to use racist white terminology, and the loss of Indigenous culture and the role of religion toward that end. What I also find significant in this poem is the way that Guzmán uses language present in their other poems too. They have an ability to combine the colloquial with the eloquent and spin them together to create a kaleidoscope-like affect that leaves the reader pouring over every single word. Some of my favorite phrases include “befuddlement sloths on their tongues,” “pataste rapunzelled with dollars,” and “this appetite is now scratching muted aqueducts,” which make my mind spin with a collage of images. Therefore, Guzmán’s poetry is best savored over, sipped, read over repeatedly to gather meaning over time and to allow each poem’s language to unfold as you gain its trust.
Scattered throughout the book are thirteen persona poems which are all titled “Queerodactyl.” Guzmán’s wit is apparent here, as this portmanteau both conjures up the image of a “Queer flying dinosaur” in the mind of the reader, while also referencing the dactyl or the poetic “foot.” Quite cleverly, Guzmán combines both popular, contemporary imagery with that of the Jurassic period. As an example, in the second “Queerodactyl” poem, they write, “don’t break your nails on that triceraTHOT,” and “Raptorhole. Tyrannohole. YouAintFly-LikeMehole,” alongside language which reminds me of a dinosaur drag show saying, “werk that bill, werk that bill, werk that bill.” At other times, these Queerodactyl poems include Latinx cultural references such as “bidi bidi bom bom,” which comes from Selena’s song and appears as a refrain in the fourth “Queerodactyl” poem.
Guzmán uses a variety of forms in this collection including prose poetry, couplets, tercets, free form and centos. The form that I found the most intriguing was that of a Chinese menu in the “[Colores/Drones]” section of “Self Portrait According to George W. Bush,” which appears like a menu at a Chinese restaurant. The narrator in this poem is chastised by their madre for eating out at another restaurant, something that I could find to be easily relatable. This poem is written in Spanglish, with phrases such as “Estás caught otra vez que comer today” or “you are caught eating again today” and “Tantos knots en la garganta como en los zapatos one can’t stop to loosen because one has to return,” or “As many knots in the throat as in the shoes one can’t stop to loosen because one has to return,” which highlights the bilingual nature of Miami, where Guzmán was raised. Also, it seems apparent that Guzmán used this form, because it was as if the narrator was thinking of the words of the poem while reading the menu at a restaurant.
The final poem in this collection is the last in the “Queerodactyl” series, which might be read as an epilogue. Instead of a poem about something in the past or present, it is written about an imagined future. In this future, Guzmán’s “Queerodactyl” persona’s fossils are excavated by paleontologists who “locate & excavate” the Queerodactyl’s “wing fossils.” The reader gets the sense of a detached gaze, of remains which are to be scientifically analyzed and therefore, objectified. Later, they write, “’This one might have outlasted all the others,’ they’ll say. ‘Might have even seen each one disappear behind a bolt of fire blasted from who knows where.’” What is particularly skillful about these lines is that while Guzmán references the asteroid which was responsible for the mass extinction of dinosaurs, the choice of phrasing “behind a bolt of fire” seems to suggest a bullet which is “blasted,” rather than an asteroid which falls.
While doing this, Guzmán is referencing the Pulse shooting massacre, a subject that they reference earlier in the collection, “I am afraid of attending places that celebrate our bodies because that’s also where our bodies have been canceled when you’re brown & gay you’re always dying twice.” While Guzmán explores a wide variety of other themes such as the immigrant experience and religion, the vulnerability of BIPOC Queer people in a society (including a White Queer Society) that often objectifies them is a theme that calls for extra attention. This collection is an articulately written archive, which is determined to maintain a vibrant record of Latinx Queer lives and makes visible their lives in the face of forces that seek their erasure.