by Christopher Woods
photography by Justin Flythe
Prayers of Little Consequence by Gilbert Arzola is the first poetry book by this writer, and winner of the 2019 Passager Poetry Contest. Not a bad beginning, though Arzola began writing in eighth grade and is now a senior citizen and a grandfather.
Arzola’s book is, like so many poetry books, about the traditionally big subjects, life and death and the space between them, and how one might, for better or worse, survive in an often indifferent world. What makes poets and their writing truly individual depends on how much they share of their own individual and private worlds, and how those worlds are somehow uniquely different from the next poet. When successful in this endeavor, the fortunate poet discovers his or her distinct voice.
Arzola’s voice undoubtedly is influenced by a number of things, but being brown in America is in the forefront in these poems. He reveals this in one of the first poems in the collection, “Self-Portrait,” which takes a look back at his childhood:
“See the kid who couldn’t sleep, hear him banging
His head against a colorless wall.
Wishing the brown away.”
Or when reflecting on indifference, and obvious hostility from others, in “Third Grade” he describes the treatment he received from his ironically named teacher, Mrs. Brown:
“Mrs. Brown made me wash my hands twice
Because I was a Mexican and she said she couldn’t tell
When they were clean.”
Arzola comes from a family of Mexican migrants. His family was one of only three Mexican families in a white community in Indiana. Many of the poems in the collection are portraits of those close to him in life. One poem, “Grocery,” recalls a visit to buy some basic necessities:
“The floor creaks with my father’s steps,
His hands and trousers caked brown with
The frozen mud of the fields.
It is December cold and he chooses quietly
a can of corn, flour and lard…eggs,
And on good days: moon pies.
On special days: moon pies.”
Other poems in the collection emphasize the various losses in the poet’s life, and they are, one by one, poignant indeed. In “I Shoved It Down,” Arzola remembers Matt, possibly a friend or uncle, who had cancer.
“But Matt got it and I ached long
the way my back would ache in migrant fields
right there in that place between your shoulders
where your neck meets your back
like a crooked road.”
And later in the same poem God appears, as faith plays an integral part in these poems. Still describing the bad news about Matt and cancer, Arzola questions why:
“Right there when you try make sense of shit
and insist God has His reasons and it’s
like uncles that don’t want explanations
and stuff you shove down
with two hands
but it won’t stay down.
Shove down with two hands
but it won’t stay down.”
It is in poems like this that Arzola registers doubt about a divine deity, surely one of the biggest subjects of all for poets. The poems in this collection describes deaths, natural and by suicide, and the poet does not veer away from questioning the reason behind them. Is it some grand master who directs things from behind a celestial curtain? In “Introductions,” Arzola tries to make sense of these losses:
“I should tell you what I think, lead you into some
discussion of me. Because there are Angels I think
and some sort of God
that offers enough, but only enough.
I know, don’t think I don’t know.”
For each of us, there are these continuing uncertainties. For some of us, words are a way out, or at least a way to cope with unknowing, those chronic unanswerable questions. Still, what and how we write, if we look inside ourselves deeply enough, can help. Writing is not a cure any more than there is a cure to being human. But it is all we have. In his poems, Arzola asks the right questions. Given his heritage, and certainly whatever wisdom comes with age, his questions reveal an original voice, his very own. As he explains in “Why:”
“I write because I cannot shout
loud enough. I write because
I cannot swallow what is bigger than me.”
by Gilbert Arzola
Passager Books $16.00
Christopher Woods is a writer and photographer who lives in Chappell Hill, Texas. He has published a novel, The Dream Patch, a prose collection, Under a Riverbed Sky, and a book of stage monologues for actors, Heart Speak. His photographs can be seen in his gallery and at IG. His photography prompt book for writers, From Vision to Text, is forthcoming from Propertius Press. His novella, Hearts in the Dark, is forthcoming from Running Wild Press.