Watermark and Fable: On Eduardo C. Corral’s Slow Lightning

Anna Journey

New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012. 76 pages. $18.00.
(Click on cover image to purchase)

“I’m / performing / an autopsy on my shadow,” writes Eduardo C. Corral in “Self-Portrait with Tumbling and Lasso.” Elliptically narrative, imagistic, musical, and fabular, the poems in Corral’s debut poetry collection, Slow Lightning, explore the shadowy borderlands of both gay and Chicano identity while adapting and altering aspects of magical realism. In Corral’s supernatural border culture, the stolen shadow of a vulture longs for its master; a mother’s kneecaps emerge as watermarks in the rain; a son borrows his father’s shirt as the gaze of the moon “stitches” the buttons to his skin; a finch pecks the moles off a speaker’s body; the coyote ears in a composite pelt perk up one by one at the recitation of a name; and a black fish leaps from the small of a person’s back. When describing the manner in which Corral’s imagination defies verisimilitude, one’s tempted to conjure the striking amalgamations of the marvelous and mundane in the unrealities of Borges or García Márquez. Corral, however, subverts even as he honors his folksy incarnations of magical realism by confronting the political realities sometimes absent in the genre. His poems consistently reveal the nightmarish subjugation and manifold experiences of illegal refugees within his most enigmatic fantasias.

Like Robert Hayden’s “Bone-Flower Elegy” in which “presences in vulture masks / play scenes of erotic violence / on a scaffold stage,” Corral’s employment of fantasy is often erotically charged or grotesque, evoking the Chicana queer theorist Gloria Andzaldúa’s notion in Borderlands/La Frontera that in primal Chicano, Mexican, and some Indian cultures, there is “a magic aspect in abnormality and so-called deformity” (41). In Corral’s second poem titled “Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome,” for example, a herd of moonlit mules surround the speaker:

          necks bent,
                    nostrils pluming out different lengths
                              of breath.

                    I toss off my robe. A mule
          curls its tongue around
                              my erection.

Elsewhere, in the poem “In Colorado My Father Scoured and Stacked Dishes,” Corral evokes a “magic aspect in abnormality” as his speaker attempts to define himself against the cultural identity and heteronormativity of his immigrant father, juxtaposing the seductive scents of horse blankets with the fraught physical (and psychological) encounter between father and son:

                                  In Tucson he branded
cattle. He slept in a stable. The horse blankets

oddly fragrant: wood smoke, lilac. He’s an illegal.
I’m an Illegal-American. Once in a grove

of saguaro at dusk, I slept next to him. I woke
with his thumb in my mouth. ¿No que no

tronabas pistolita?

The way Corral’s speaker is drawn to the body of his father in sleep manages to be both comforting (a child sucking a thumb to console himself) and creepy (a man sucking the phallic appendage of his own father). To the speaker’s hypermasculine cowboy father, who in shock (or perhaps disgust) likens the thumb in his son’s mouth to a pistol about to fire, homosexuality and incest seem equally dangerous and taboo. Corral’s speaker realizes the many divisions—generational, cultural, linguistic, sexual—between himself and his father, and names his own hybrid identity: “I’m an Illegal-American.” Whereas Corral figures his speaker’s father as a Mexican folk hero who “strummed a guitarra, sang corridos,” the speaker, even as he borrows his father’s shirt, cannot escape the painful illumination of the moon, which highlights his otherness. Like the pitiless moon in Plath’s “Edge,” “staring from her hood of bone,” the moon in Corral’s poem makes a similarly stark witness to a kind of gothic self-transformation as its gaze “stitches the buttons of his shirt to my skin.”

In addition to the “magic aspect” of sexuality in Corral’s poems, Andzaldúa’s concept of the borderland as a physical, spiritual, and psychological space is also important when considering his repeated use of the border motif:

A borderland is a vague and undetermined place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary. It is in a constant state of transition. The prohibited and forbidden are its inhabitants. Los atravesados live here: the squint-eyed, the perverse, the queer, the troublesome, the mongrel, the mulatto, the half-breed, the half dead; in short, those who cross over, pass over, or go through the confines of the normal. (25)

Corral’s evocation of borders in Slow Lightning can be literal (as in the sonnet sequence “Border Triptych” in which a border patrol agent, a Mexican woman, and a Native American man each speak) as well as metaphorical (the dark and light divisions of watermarks, shadows, moles, smalls of backs, etc…). Whether literal or figurative, Corral suggests, borders tend toward flux rather than fixedness, even within one’s own being. In the fabular lament, “Monologue of a Vulture’s Shadow,” Corral writes:

          I long to return to my master
                    who knew neither fear nor patience
          My master who years ago spiraled
                                        above a woman
          trudging through the desert.
                    She raised her face & cursed us:
                              Black Torches of Plague, Turd Blossoms.
          She lashed out with her hands,
                    pinned me to her shoulders.
                                        I went slack.
          I called for my master.
                    I fell across her shoulders like a black shawl.

In addition to offering a magical take on Hegel’s master-slave dialectic—that myth of self-consciousness in which two aspects of a person’s consciousness strive for lordship over the other—Corral slyly politicizes and eroticizes this struggle through the poem’s postcolonial awareness and subtle echoes of S&M. In this fable of self-consciousness and desire for wholeness, the speaker remains submissive to its master, the latter of whom seems a coolly deliberate scavenger who circles the desert, perhaps on the lookout for a vulnerable border crosser, such as the witchy shadow-thief.

Corral imbues the figure of the desert wanderer with magic as she curses the speaker. Her profanities—“Black Torches of Plague, Turd Blossoms”—allow her dominance over the shadow, which she appropriates and transforms into “a black shawl” embroidered with red thread. It’s hard not to think of the witchy power of language in the poem—even its curses, even as we sympathize with the desires of the shadow—as an ars poetica. At the end of “Monologue of a Vulture’s Shadow,” Corral reveals that uniting the disparate aspects of oneself may be ultimately impossible, as the borders of our subjectivities keep shifting:

                    Sometimes my master soared so high
                                        I ceased to blacken the earth.
          What became of me in those moments?
                    But the scent of decay always lured my master
                                                  earthward.
          As my master ate, I ate.

In Slow Lightning, Corral’s fantastical transformations often seem realistic depictions of desire. The self, he also suggests, is always engaged in the process of transition. And even if the reconciliation of one’s multiple selves might seem at times fantastical, the hunger that drives the assembling and reassembling of our desires is a mighty power we must feed, nurture, and finally obey.

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