Taking On Life, by Antonio Sanchez-Day
Coal City Press, 2019
84 pages, $10.00 paper
The Hauntology of Hope: A Review by Tyler Robert Sheldon
Poet Antonio Sanchez-Day is an unlikely sort of folk hero: the kind that emerges from under the weight of tall odds to conquer something for themselves, and through that action, betters the whole of their circumstances. Taking On Life, his debut poetry collection, chronicles that hard journey—beginning with the fact that Sanchez-Day is incarcerated in Kansas’s Douglass County Jail. Mike Hartnett’s forward to this volume spells out that circumstance, and the ramifications it carried if Sanchez-Day didn’t find a way to sort himself out: “During his second term in prison, [Sanchez-Day] decided enough was enough. If he maintained his gang-related lifestyle, he’d end up spending his life in jail—or die at a young age. Besides, he was tired of the life.” Signing up for writing classes with poet and KU lecturer Brian Daldorph, Sanchez-Day began to compose a concrete version of who he’d been, who he was, and who he hoped to become. Taking On Life is the fruit of that work, and it crystallizes both moments and emotions on the page for the rest of us.
The poem “Into the Night” shows Sanchez-Day’s easy facility with the feel and sound of language, situating his mindset and showing how for him, everything is chained—and perhaps this is the actual truth. He writes, “The sun has settled, anchored below the / horizon. Darkness has overcome light, giving / birth to the full moon.” If life is comprised of struggles against, for Sanchez-Day’s narrator they contain beauty and promise nonetheless. Victories give rise to beautiful creations, this early poem argues, and the poet adopts this idea as a keystone belief that informs his actions.
Even so, Sanchez-Day doesn’t shy from relaying those daily struggles as they are, often metaphorizing them in plain language. “Dark Confusion” lays out the harder side of the poet-narrator’s life, locked up as he is at times in multiple ways: “In the deepest, darkest / corners of my mind / dwell my demons . . . futile attempts at prayer / to a God that failed.” Several poems in this collection tease the possibility of release—from prison, from suffering—and many carry these same twilight notes of uncertainty and hurt. They bear both a cautious hope for what might come and resignation to how the future, like the horizon or Derrida’s ghost figures, is constantly just in view and simultaneously receding, always out of reach. Hence, for Sanchez-Day prison is quite often a hauntology of hope: though often nowhere to be seen in his daily doings, hope works upon the world even in its absence. The poem “The Cutting Edge” shows this interplay concisely: “Just like a bolt of lightning, the intrusive / thoughts strike, illuminating the dark clouds of / my mind. Thus begins the downward spiral into the / vortex of madness.” This poem also shows how the narrator seeks relief in this early time through self-harm, and how, for just a while, he believes it might just do the trick. Luckily, poetry is ultimately a more potent analgesic.
“Penitentiary Protocol” lays out the rules of the narrator’s life. Unyielding as the word, they both wall him in and empower him to work toward personal empowerment—for as we know, rules and their breaking provide both structure and something to climb, a ladder to a better self. Sanchez-Day recounts them with both gravity and slight humor, perhaps already aware of how he should proceed. “[A]ll you have or had . . . will only / Distract you and you’ll become prey to the lions / In this jungle. Trust no one, everyone is out for something,” he writes. “Have respect, don’t let no one disrespect you. Don’t gamble / Or run a debt you can’t pay.” Sanchez-Day susses out the nuances in these rules, and his narrator knows just when (and how) to gamble: not for any chips a prison could provide but instead against the house, believing that he can win against society, and against himself. The speaker too is out for something, and that something is any proof that he can succeed.
Some poems in this collection are celebrations of poetic elements, weaving together alliteration, metaphor, rhyme, and a keen vocabulary of sound. “Sinister Lullaby” is such a piece, capturing cell doors closing—a psychological and literal bookending, a caesura that surely has repeated more often that the narrator would care to relay. He recounts it in clear terms:
The slam of cold steel
rattles the brain
while sending shivers
down the spine
repeated thunderous slams
pierce the eardrum
and echo in the corridors
of the mind.
The rhymes and slant rhymes here in particular (brain, spine, drum, mind) provide structure, and they alternate through this partial stanza like steel bars, or else (more optimistically) the spaces between those restraints, letting in light and even a bit of hope.
Later poems in Taking On Life show an uptick in the narrator’s perception of the world: he begins to take control of himself, and to a degree, of the extra-self world that seeks to undermine his way. The poem “Shadow Boxing” reintroduces us to the speaker’s demons, but in a very different light. Sanchez-Day (and/or his narrator) has found the reason and means to hope: “old habits die hard / [but] when it’s all said and done / survival of the fittest,” he writes. It becomes easy to fit his words against a backbeat, as the speaker finds his rhythm. “I’m still breathing / pacin’ in my cell / shadowboxing demons.” At the collection’s close, “Busted” flips the narrative entirely, subverting our expectations—and maybe even those of Sanchez-Day himself. In the poems’ final two lines, he writes, “now I’m heading for success / or bust.”
Readers can purchase Taking On Life from Coal City Press at the University of Kansas, as well as online and at some regional and national booksellers.
TYLER ROBERT SHELDON is the author of five poetry collections including Driving Together (Meadowlark Books, 2018) and Consolation Prize (Finishing Line Press, 2018). He is Editor-in-Chief of MockingHeart Review, and his poetry, fiction, artwork, and criticism have appeared in The Los Angeles Review, Pleiades, The Tulane Review, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, and other venues. A Pushcart Prize nominee and recipient of the Charles E. Walton Essay Award, he earned his MFA at McNeese State University. Sheldon is currently a PhD student in English at Louisiana State University. He lives in Baton Rouge. View his work at TylerRobertSheldon.com.