Next Extinct Mammal

By Ruben Quesada


Greenhouse Review Press
August 2011

Reviewed by Tory Adkisson


Ruben Quesada is, without question, a poet of place. His debut collection, Next Extinct Mammal, identifies and explores the places the poet has been; whether the Los Angeles of his childhood, the expansive American southwest of his present, or the imagined Costa Rica his parents emigrated from. The exploration of place, particularly as a way of exploring the self, is a tried and true subject for poetry, and Quesada smartly alludes to poets such as Elizabeth Bishop and Carolyn Forché in the objective way he maps out a different physical and psychological landscape in each poem. This emotional distancing in the book's first two sections is meant to convey a sense of the speaker's ability to apprehend and misapprehend the world that surrounds him—Quesada often employs a childlike speaker who views the world through an analytical lens because not doing so might lead to real danger. The first poem of the collection, "Store" opens with an account of the walls:

Each morning, I discovered those sea green walls
which had been painted and repainted, again
and again, to conceal tags by Chancellor or Thirteenth
Street gangs. Inside, a toothsome smell—
googols of dust and incense—as if ashes of locos
and homies had been put to rest on the countertops and floors.

The specific locations of Quesada's poems are, in some ways, not as important as the cumulative landscape they produce. In the case of this poem, we are introduced to a speaker whose daily routine is marked by an awareness of gang violence and his community's attempts to hide it from him (as much as themselves.) The green of the walls does little to conceal the reality of gang violence, a reality the speaker is only too aware of, and in recalling the scent of these men, elegizes. He laments the loss of these men in their ashes and dust and incense, subtly elegizing his own childhood among them, and perhaps even a time before this level of awareness was a part of how he related to the world.

Quesada also elegizes loved ones, as in "Tamale Serenade," a poem memorializing the speaker's grandmother. The subject matter of the poem could easily lapse into the sentimental and the familiar. To Quesada's credit, he frames the poem by announcing that he's "begun to lose faith/in the continuum of time and space". These lines demonstrate a resistance to the sentimentalizing effect of nostalgia and an engagement with memory and death as a suspicion of scientific facts. This is an educated speaker, aware of how the passing of time works, but he sees flaws in this cool logic when he and his Abuela are ignored by "James Dean's bronzed head," leading to a description of tamale construction. The poem concludes with what seems like a sweet description of the speaker's Abuela's face "shaking as she mouths/lyrics to 'Eres Tú'" only for the reader to learn, in a deft suturing of sense and tone, that her lips are "covered in terracotta" while the "simmering husks overflow." The poem starts with a confession of doubt, and ends by confirming it—the reader is given much to intuit, including whether the husks are the husks of the tamales or of the Abuela's lips. The Abuela seems to haunt the speaker in the end, and, while the poem is largely steeped in references to the speaker's Hispanic upbringing, her final, material image recalls the golem. Quesada doesn't give the reader answers, which is admirable. The images of the poem wouldn't haunt the reader as much as they haunt the speaker if the emotional terrain were obviously parsed.

Landscape, family, and memory are only a few of Next Extinct Mammal's myriad subjects; another subject that receives ample treatment, primarily in the book's last section, is homosexuality. In "Esta Noche," which translates to the plaintive "tonight" Quesada writes:

My sister's laugh sent a chill
through my body, the same way
it felt to bite aluminum or scratch
fingernails against a blackboard, transforming
the tarred sky into beaten half-dead
metaphors […]

The poem begins with a laugh that immediately sends a chill down the speaker's spine—this feeling is amplified by the language, morphing twice before moving further out into a realm of pure figuration. Before we've even seen what the sister is laughing it, we are inclined to view her laughter as unpleasant and threatening—Quesada evokes this seamlessly through his imagistic layering. The poem continues:

[…] My sister shouted,
Maricón, every time
Jack Tripper went limp-wristed. What happened
to the sexual revolution of the 1970's?
Maybe I was expecting my sister
to have a conscience? I was thirteen.
And then, in the warmth of our living room,
sitting across from her, I wish she could
understand the loathing I felt, not for her, but
for myself and the caricature I knew I'd become.

Quesada realizes brilliantly the turmoil of a young boy recognizing the symbols of his burgeoning homosexuality and the way the culture that surrounds him has constructed, and will continue to construct, his hatred of it. The speaker's sister derisively refers to Jack Tripper, a character from Three's Company, as a "maricón," which is Spanish for "faggot." The fact that his sister views Tripper, a character not explicitly labeled as gay but whose effeminate behavior nonetheless implicitly identified him as such, with such mocking scorn foreshadows how the speaker is likely to be treated by his family. Quesada builds the bridge from pop culture representation to self-identification, furthering the ache of that identification through questions heterosexual boys are likely never to need to ask. The speaker fears that he will be viewed the way his sister views Tripper, and in that fear he internalizes both a hatred and acceptance of what he will become—"a caricature" whose affectations will be seen as inherently funny, whose sexuality will be marginalized as a joke (at best) or imperil his ability to make a living (at worst). This is a poem that elegizes a loss of innocence while subverting the coming of age narratives familiar to boys—that they enter into a more masculine role, that they become men. This speaker knows, as a gay man he's not fated for that kind of life. Television has made it painfully clear.

For a book that seems largely suspicious of nostalgia, it seems appropriate the book should end on a poem titled just that. After all, nostalgia is necessary for elegy; one must have something one holds dear, placed on some sentimental altar, so one can sacrifice it in the act of remembering it. The something in Quesada's poems is, of course, memory itself, the past as a precursor to what is presently true, the how did I get here? to the where am I now? "Too much time has passed," Quesada writes, "and I've almost lost this freight/of memories […] failed to preserve the slow sea-roar/ in my lungs, expanding against my breast/bone." The speaker's regret is imminently palpable in these lines depicting memories as "freight," and his inability to hold onto them, to live once more in them, as an elemental roar defusing through his body. The poem, along with the speaker on his train, hurdles inevitably toward its conclusion in which "the patina/[of the speaker's] black hair moving past snow/flurried storefronts might be mistaken/for the next extinct animal in America." The poem is about America the way Whitman is about America—self and community are one, present and past are the same—only here, it is essentialized in the biological "mammal," and rarified in the ambiguous temporality of "next." The speaker is going somewhere, and is not seen as clearly human (not even by himself) as he travels—the act of travel, the pieces of himself that he's left here and there, have stripped him of that identity. His rushed-by image resembles something more akin to a wendigo or yeti, something mythical, as yet undiscovered. What's remarkable about Next Extinct Mammal is how Quesada transforms the personal into the public, the political, the natural, suggesting that, whatever our divergent backgrounds, each of us could still be next on the endangered species list.