by Ángel García
70 pages—University of Arkansas Press, 2018
Review by Katie Schmid
‘Con Mis Propias Manos’: Violence & Masculinity in Ángel García's Teeth Never Sleep
At the exact center of Ángel García’s debut collection, Teeth Never Sleep, there’s a horror story about a boy and a lion. The boy, screwing up his courage after staring for days at the supposedly “tame” lion, sticks his arm through the bars of the cage, and loses a limb forever. The poem is remarkable for its pacing, for the way it slowly drives the reader toward the center of the loss of the boy’s arm, revealing the wound to the reader and forcing them to look. Hearing it read, I held my breath throughout and gasped at the moment the boy, “who, one day, for reasons / no one knows, reached his arm inside and pulled back absence.” Holding a copy of the collection for the first time, I flipped toward the center of the book, seeking the poem out again, in anticipation and a kind of fear. The poem is so slow, and the dread builds so carefully—during my second encounter with the poem, I found myself, though I was at a party and in the center of a crowd of people, falling into it again, being called to the wound again, and gasping again like I had the first time.
That the poem exists in the center of the collection and takes up so much space in the book is an argument of a kind, and it’s tempting to point to the lion—dirty, pitiable and mad with neglect—as a metaphor for the lost wildness of masculinity, a story often told about men, and a story that’s filled with a kind of common, easy nostalgia for an essential maleness that is composed of brute force and strength. Readers of poetry might be familiar with that brand of masculinity from Robert Bly’s Iron John, but American culture tells that story a lot: it's the story that Men's Rights Activists tell, and it hearkens back to a fictitious shared history where "men could just be men," presumably fighting bears and conking mastodons on the head and dragging them back to their women. This mythologizing of manhood is also part of what Gloria Anzaldúa and many other Chicana feminists have critiqued in their reading of machismo culture. But it's not, finally, the story that García tells in Teeth Never Sleep, which is instead an elegy for tenderness, an ode to the softness of men, and a history of how that softness gets forced out of the bodies of men, through neglect, through violence, and through self-denial.
At the center of this collection is violence towards women too, from the kind of careless barbs a child might say to a parent to the physical violence that men inflict on their lovers. Rather than offering an excuse, the collection excavates the origins of this violence, returning to the myth of La Llorona, the weeping woman, who, spurned by her lover, goes mad, kills her children, and is cursed to wander the earth searching for their souls. In another series of poems central to the book’s project, La Llorona’s husband speaks of the poison of his love masquerading as a balm, love that pretends to soothe the violences and faults of the lover, but can’t:
“When I told you I loved you, I fed you all my dark creatures.
This is no metaphor, no dream. To remember is your lifelong penance.
In the morning, I find on the floor your puddled footprints. Walk into
the waters of your memory—not baptized, not cleansed—unforgiven.”
Here, the violence is not glorified, but grieved over, inflicted in drunkenness, thoughtlessness, and, sometimes, with nauseated premeditation: “When you’re ready and wanting, I’ll tear you in half too,” the speaker says, in “Portraits of Beasts.” The retelling of the La Llorona/La Malinche myth adds an important narrative to the retellings of the myth done by Chicana feminists: in García’s version, the husband’s guilt lives in his body—here the sin is not original sin, living forever in the woman’s body, but a patriarchal sin—an inheritance of violence passed down from man to man, placed carefully in the bodies of boys when they are young. The translation from the Spanish here is mine:
“Lo que te culpe por haber hecho, con tus conjuros y serpientes,
tus caracoles y la magia negra de tu sexo me lo hice a mi mismo
con mis propias manos.”
(“What I blame you for having done, with your spells and snakes,
your snails and the black magic of your sex, I did to myself
with my own hands.”)
The collection’s strength is its depiction of the costs of this harrowing violence, not only to the women who receive it, but also to the men who inherit it. García has done something essential in his exploration of the costs of masculinity, something that feels necessary to this particular moment, when many women I know crave an honest reckoning with the origins of the violence they’ve suffered at the hands of men without equivocating, without excuses, with honest grief. And for all its darkness—and it’s a thorny, brittle, aching book, a wound of a book—the book’s primary project remains the excavation of tenderness. What lives in the cage, finally, isn’t the man, but the boy—locked away for his own safety, locked away to preserve something of what was most soft about him. It’s those soft, quiet moments, written no less adeptly than the violent ones, that I’ll return to again and again, when the speaker turns to a lover or a brother and can rest, for a moment, as he does at the end of “Elegy for what once slept in a cage,” when the boy that García was wakens from the nightmare of a boy screaming, to find that he, himself is screaming:
“I would hear him cry out again, the boy’s small voice, at first
faint, growing louder until it was my own voice I heard,
crying out in the night, feeling a brother’s hand on my face
covering my eyes, as if he knew, in my dream, I was looking
at that which could not, maybe never, be unseen and I would
wake, his arm around me, his fingers running through my hair,
telling me in the dark to open my eyes so I’d no longer be afraid.”
In Teeth Never Sleep, these moments of protection and affection always seem to come too late, after the teeth have rent the flesh and the body has seen and felt too much. Even in my second reading, I read the affection in these lines as being born out of exhaustion and fear, almost self-serving: an attempt to heal something that can’t be healed, to solve the terror of the boy. But now I’m not so sure. There are different kinds of tenderness, and a tenderness that seeks only to heal, only to say “Open your eyes, it can’t hurt you anymore,” is the pragmatic, problem-solving kind. But that other kind of tenderness—that of the hand in lines three and four that comes to the aid of the boy knowing that it’s too late, that the violence can’t be unseen—that is something else altogether. The brother’s hand hovers over the boy’s eyes, and, witnessing the boy’s terror, tries to shield him from it. His hand, at least, has entered into the dream with the boy. That kind of tenderness is the kind that comes from witness, from believing the cries of a body in pain, responding to it, even trying to be with it at the baldest point of suffering, and it’s the project of this book.
Katie Schmid's chapbook, Forget Me, Hit Me, Let Me Drink Great Quantities of Clear, Evil Liquor, is available from Split Lip Press. She lives in Nebraska.