Roberto Carlos Garcia’s latest, [Elegies], is a collection to be kept close at hand right now, as every day sends us further into the upside-down of mask mandates and social distancing. In every possible sense, it is an essential bedside companion, be it a self-isolated hotel drawer or hospital room trapped in the shadows of mourning. Sometimes grief is an ever-moveable feast, and here we are blessed to know there will be poets like Garcia to see us through, to affirm and celebrate this fleeting gift of time on earth.
Garcia’s work in [Elegies] is wide-ranging and spans the emotional palette of our daily life, with poems that are at turns playful, inventive, and deeply felt. Take “This moment / Right now,” for example, whose urgent pacing and shifting panoramic lens will grip you to the page:
Right now, a boy is wondering if people can really dodge bullets & is he one of them & somewhere nobody bothers to ask, they simply wait. […] The heartbroken hook new bodies, night after night, drink after drink & I dance - my feet mashing grapes for wine & I sing mockingly- what is life / what is life?
It’s in this juxtaposition of youth and torment, of the broken bodies and those dancing drunk on wine, that Garcia’s work is perfectly at home. “This moment / Right now” also gets to Garcia’s gift of momentum; how each poem unfolds down the page with a cinematic flourish that will read like theatre in your hands. “Charge that to the Game” is one such example, as each line builds on the poem’s expanding narrative:
I wonder what happened to the baby. I mean, after the mom slipped her crack vials into the baby’s diaper—I never went back. I copped a dime bag & ran to School 3, looked for my crew, the night ugly, I sat on bleachers under a streetlight. No one around, rain cut silence, soaked my Philly, I couldn’t roll the blunt, damn. Scoped 5-0 circling the park—I ate the weed & walked home—
Where there is so much authority in the poem’s first-person perspective (owed in no small part to Garcia’s pinpoint diction and detail) that, as readers, we are immediately invested in the who, what, and where of this brief tragicomedy. It is a hallmark that features throughout the collection and is best perhaps best exemplified in the biopic storytelling of “To a Young Man on His First period” and “10 Minutes of Terror”, a poignant prose interlude and narrative highlight that explores the sinister micro-aggressions of white authority.
It’s difficult to overlook or state the stylistic variety of [Elegies], from centos and ballads to bops and Garcia’s mixtape variation. The latter, a collage of the borrowed fiction, poetry, hip-hop, and the poet’s own verse, is an inspired take on the ancient Greek style. “Mixtape for City Kids from Dysfunctional but Happy Families, Kids Like Me,” for example, is so seamless that its myriad authors become indistinguishably joined. Such an experiment would likely fall off in the hands of a lesser poet, but Garcia’s verse goes toe-to-toe alongside the likes of Larry Levis, Willie Perdomo, and Gil Scott Heron without ever skipping a beat.
And as its name suggests, [Elegies] is replete with lyrical lamentations, elevating the form to its full potential. Like Neruda’s Odes to Common Things or even Lorca’s Gypsy Ballads, Garcia’s elegies often function as a kind of open door, honoring the internal while also bearing witness to the world’s great pain. “Elegy for all of it” stands tall amid the more introspective lyrics of the collection, not least for its sweeping condemnation of our American failure to protect the wider BIPOC community from marginalization and murder:
The Monday after Tamir Rice’s murder many white people I knew went on with their lives, their social media feeds a mix of ironic humor & smiling faces & anything but black lives mattering. […] Dear White reader, we’re being slaughtered catch as catch can. By all means, go back to your Daily Dose of Internet video.
Here we see the elegy held as a force of scathing criticism. The poem serves as a truly damning rebuke of our collective neglect and all but demands an immediate call to action as a litany of victims’ names go filling out its final page. This closing passage reads like a chilling war memorial and is all the more devastating for its truth.
No matter the scale or subject, these poems are brimming with lived wisdom and so much heart you almost can’t help but smile through tears of immeasurable grief:
Mami, when I journey backward I leave the lamp—so much of life is seeing, & memory— that blind knife thrower— demands faith, nakedness, open hands held softly against the heart— […] I am my own parade steadily advancing chanting—tambourine slapping my thigh. The grief, so terribly long—remembers the greed, so terribly long—remembers & the chint chint of my tambourine breaks.
These excerpted passages from “Elegy in which grief sends me” offer a glimpse into the collection’s thematic through-lines of memory and love, with its arresting pace and emphatic emdash serving perhaps to mimic the wavering (dis/)belief of loss itself.
What’s more, a substantial selection of Garcia’s elegies appears to be working toward this more significant, singular story – charting the next stage of Mami’s life in its bond to the speaker. Her presence is palpable on every page and no less alive for the poem’s invocation. Instead, she is kept abreast of his night’s dreaming (“Elegy in which I dream of us under fruit trees”), inner turmoil (“Elegy in which I consider the resurrection”), and the wider news of the world (“Elegy in which I hide an elegy a ghazal for Syria”), her soul everlasting in these lines of the poet.
Like the best bedside companions, this collection will invite you back and back into its wide-open arms. Arguably the most diverse assemblage of poems in Garcia’s growing catalog, [Elegies] is vulnerable, affirming, and essential reading.