Maurice Kilwein Guevara is part of the poetry problem in America.
As state-funded creative-writing programs continue to expand across the country, and as the economy spirals downward, more and more people believe it's worth taking on massive student loans in order to attain an graduate degree in—get this—crafting poems.
Of course, given the limited number of positions for writing professors and the dearth of companies hiring poets these days, few of these graduates go on to do anything poetry-related. Instead, they end up in the ever-dwindling fields of journalism and public relations, bitterly depressed yet smoking the pipe dream that, one day, they'll somehow find the time (and money) necessary to finally write all those great books of poems they've got in them.
Or maybe the previous paragraph is just sour grapes over the fact that I'm not a respected professor at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee and have not written a collection as radiant as POEMA. This effort is that rare literary experience in which each poem surprises, making you look forward to the next.
First, let me quickly touch on one of the many beautifully narrative yet imagist poems here, the snapshot of rural Venezuelan life, "Blue Dress of Chiquinquirá":
The women took turns
scrubbing her only dress in
a metal basin,
the room lit by forearms
and fists pressing into the
ribs of the washboard.
Whiff of vinegar.
The hem finally stopped leaking its blood
Her hair rinsed with water from a white
The elegant catholic violence of this excerpt, however, turns blackly distressing once you realize the poem is about a miscarriage or stillbirth:
Can't say where they took the infant
body on the spade,
the purpled head and torso sweated
to the dish towel.
Outside the day was bright and with wind.
The cordillera in the distance pine-dark,
charcoal above the dress
wanting to fly backwards from the clothesline.
That image of the dress yearning to break free from its tether is absolutely haunting and enough to confirm that Kilwein Guevara is a master. It's amazing to see how the simple washing and drying of a dress tells a grim tale in compressed, powerful fashion. Cinema or fiction can't match it.
Not every poem is heart-stopping, though. There's also a more demanding, cerebral side to Kilwein Guevara's work. According to the publicity sheet, the book is informed by Spanish artist Joan Brossa, who once wrote the word POEMA on a light bulb. The gesture inspired Kilwein Guevara to rethink "the interconnectedness of form, context and meaning in a poem." It's this rethinking that allows readers to savor each poem on two different levels: first, for what a poem is doing, and then for how the poem accomplishes this. Take the dialectical "Against Metaphor," which zanily deconstructs Plato's call for the censorship of poetry (since Plato thought verse threatened philosophy):
Chair is not Mine Sweeper
Chives not Tympani
Sweet Potato not Chimes
Tortoise-sell in Heat not the Port of
Milwaukee at Quitting Time
What initially reads like gibberish is a premeditated assault on Plato's reliance on metaphors—the cave symbolizing ignorance, the sun representing intellectual illumination, and so on. Kilwein Guevara makes it clear that language breaks down the moment we accept that metaphors are corrosive abstractions. Which leads us to accept that, without metaphor, poets could never create beautiful nonsense, and never:
explain to you the Undetonated Woman at once on the banks of Lake Michigan and Texcoco who is my Sailing Ship and White Bird and Kiss and Blowing Huipil Embroidered with Orange and Lime Threads?
Poets are often categorized as lyric, narrative or "experimental," but Kilwein Guevara blurs these labels effortlessly, an effort that, in less talented hands, tends to confuse readers. POEMA's speaker is disembodied and deeply intimate, abstract and straightforward, offering a tension that fills every page with subtle, rewarding fireworks.
The UA Press has published plenty of exceptional poetry, including Juan Felipe Herrera's Half the World in Light, which won the 2008 National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry. But POEMA is as good as anything the press has brought out in the last decade. Though he may or may not play a role in the inflation of writing degrees, Kilwein Guevara proves himself to be a bright and shining bard.