National Poetry Month Day 19: R.A. Villanueva


R. A. Villanueva’s debut collection, Reliquaria, won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize and was published by the University of Nebraska Press. New writing appears or is forthcoming in Poetry, the American Poetry Review, Guernica, Prac Crit, The Rialto, and widely elsewhere. His honors include a commendation from the Forward Prizes, a Ninth Letter Literary Award, and fellowships from Kundiman, the Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts, and The Asian American Literary Review. A founding editor of Tongue: A Journal of Writing & Art, he lives in Brooklyn.


Damnatio Memoriae

“I shall create! If not a note, a hole.
If not an overture, a desecration.”

– Gwendolyn Brooks, from “Boy Breaking Glass”

A hollow-cast bronze
of an emperor stands
now on a makeshift plinth
unburied from a ditch
behind an orchard, his
forehead split, temples

hammered-in, his jaw thrown
to the crucible blazes—& see
a clutch of saints now
polychrome fog adorned
with the many instruments
of martyrdom, rising

up tabernacle walls lit
by candles rendered
from animal fat, all eyes
gone, all their mouths
scratched clean away by fang
or grit. Because: damnation.

Because: oblivion &
jubilation & rapture.
Because this forgetting
demands the brutal magic
of rage. I confess
these days I hold dear

to such reckonings
—& to the sight of flags
cut from their masts, or
as new ash underfoot
in capital parkyards &
to word of statues unbolted,

tarps, cranes, generals
of zinc bound for rats
& rock salt, riders pulled
down in the dead of night
to whistles & vigils
& bricks. Tomorrow,

our flight home
lands on a runway north
of arrivals, will rumble
toward border control
& its arrows, cordons
to snake us past mute

slideshows of meadowlarks,
musket fire, a choir’s
salutes beside the last
launch of Atlantis. There,
in full view of guards &
exits, we walk to that space

marked for heads of state
& find again this dying
to tear at their portraits,
to hit back, crack plaques,
barrel through mirrors
& memorials—all this daring,

though, kept inside, kept
quiet. Not blasphemy or
sacrilege enough & still far
from actual defiance, we
give them only our eyeballs
rolling gently in their

orbits, daydreams marching
around the empty theaters
of our skulls—& yet look:
my son is here in my arms,
beyond passport checks &
customs scans now, a riot

of laughter lunging at
those photos, wanting,
it seems, to test fists or
to drum his knuckles
against their grins or smear
both palms bright with spit

& wet with sick across
the glass. I swear I know
this means nothing, but
imagine: his hands’
unspeakable mess visible
to the whole terminal,

a kind of beckon, a slurry
inviting each body to join
in their own way, so we
might face together these
restless monsters we have
made for ourselves.


Author photograph © Jennifer Villanueva.

Original poetry published by The Rumpus. More from this author →