Fittingly, David Shook’s debut collection of poetry, Our Obsidian Tongues (Eyewear Publishing, London, 2013), starts with a quote from Whitman, that kosmos who channeled the voices of the Americas entire; the collection then opens with the title poem, referring to both the tongue and weapon used by the ancient Mexicas: “the knives priests use to sacrifice.” The premise that language is blood, meat and transubstantiation, reappears throughout the poems. Shook, a student of endangered languages, as well as a translator of poetry written in Spanish and the Isthmus Zapotec, is keenly aware of how the poet must cannibalize and “carnivalize” the act of writing a poem, of reading others, of gaining strength and insight.
Moreover, as someone who lived for years in Mexico City, and who currently resides in the stew of heteroglossia that is Los Angeles, he is too wise in his ways to pretend that one doesn’t get one’s hands dirty with appropriation, with sweat, and ultimately with understanding when translating and writing. “Our tongues chip / thin flakes when stabs / aren’t straight & quick. Our / tongues are neither spoons / nor arrows, petals nor leaves. / Our obsidian tongues,” he asserts.
The discerning reader will note how the collection functions as a matrix of voices, Spanish and indigenous languages, and terms from Aztec, Mexican cultures, and even the experiences of migration in the United States. For example, in one of the untitled shard-poems peppering the collection, he writes of the “rumor of automobiles,” toying with the meaning of the word rumor in Spanish, and twists it in his favor as a false cognate (one can assume this a playful nod to early translators of Lorca who adopted this trope). Pathetic postcards scribbled by the missing, the drowned, the bloody mess that is undocumented migration, appear among this stunning collage of Aztec Gods who are like “celestial bouncers,” mango vendors, and the “ribskinny” mutts of Mexico City; in one of the shorter, yet most moving poems, written by a mojado, we read:
please forgive me—
nothing to say—
my last letter
was a lie:
your husband, he
didn’t really die.
off, though you
it yet. Do
the kids know?
Let em grieve
a dead hero.
Shook is also masterful in carving the living, and often, grotesque sinew and marrow of reality with his imagery. Images emerge from the muscular and turbid river of this collection, they break the surface and force the reader’s gaze upon them: from Silvestre Adán, one recalls Jorge’s son whose body was “bloated with the river’s spit, eyes glazed mezcal,” or a wool poncho which “strings of dead semen starched like sweat,” or “the penetrating stench of rotten oranges,” or the poems entitled “Sacrificing Chickens to the Lake Before Corn Season” and “The Rest of theCow,” where in the narrator studies “ their wings’ last flaps” and “chicken skeletons, eyes picked by fish,” or the carcass in a butcher shop, “its mouth an empty home papered in cud” and the heart that “beat like a trout fresh on the floor of boat,” reminding the reader of the images rendered in crimson and uncooked-meat-blue across canvases by Francis Bacon or Chaim Soutine.
Serving as a recurring presence, the personage of Silvestre Adán appears in different guises, as carpenter, farmer, artist, orchard keeper, morning singer, a type of witness and Whitmanian I, or Eye, who plants, reaps, carves and draws music from the “ash,” “worms,” “the shots & tits of cheap tourist shit” and “corn two heads taller than a man” that both nourish and are nourished by this landscape of words where things are sacrificed and reborn, like the victim’s skin flayed for Xochipilli, which is then reborn and worn by the dancing priest.
Although yearning for the Mexico of his youth, Shook ultimately finds comfort in the landscape of Los Angeles, specifically Echo Park, where “kids play in Spanish, a man in a coat / sells corn with butter, mayonnaise, & chili,” as he writes in a different sort of postcard, quite different from the ones penned frantically by those searching for jobs and a better life al otro lado. He takes us on a great journey via these poems, one that is tellurian and spans the centuries of conquest, sacrifice and renaissance. The closing poem returns to the Tecuani voice that opened the collection by praising his obsidian tongue (the word Tecuani, in nahuatl, alludes to the badlands, the realm of beasts, bloodshed and hunting). Yet by the end of the book, the obsidian tongue used to carve the heart from the steaming chest is replaced by a tongue like a bundle of sage and incense. Is this the sage one burns for prayers? The sage that is a source of comfort to the petitioner? Or is it the incense smoldering by the great atriums and temples of Tenochititlán in order to mask the odor of corrupting flesh? Are we here? Or there? Or do all spaces occupy the same moment simultaneously? Is the past forever present and tangible? As all good poets should, Shook leaves us in the interstices.