Much will be written, I suspect, about the many identities that Benjamin Garcia explores in his debut collection, Thrown in the Throat, forthcoming from Milkweed Editions on August 11, and rightly so given how prominent a role his queerness and his family play in the poems. But I hope that in the process, reviewers don’t overlook the lyrical inventiveness and formal prowess that Garcia displays in these poems. It’s that melding of craft and subject and language that makes this an extraordinary collection.
Before I tell you more, a quick reminder that in order to receive your early copy of Thrown in the Throat, read along with the Poetry Book Club, and participate in our exclusive chat with Benjamin Garcia, you’ll need to subscribe by June 15!
Four poems in this book share the title “The Language in Question,” and that title evokes a formality in me, like it’s the kind of phrase I would read in a legal document, a lawsuit perhaps, or a police report, but the poem’s early lines suggest a different intent: “The language in question is criminal // like a shark it ate a license plate // and it ate the shark // well the fins it poached anyway.” The language is criminal—here I think of loan sharks—but also language will eat anything, the way tiger sharks, for example, have been found with license plates from all fifty states in their stomachs. But then language only eats the fins, which are poached (as in illegally hunted or as a mode of cooking? Or both?) So language is a shark that devours sharks, but only in part.
Later, in the same poem:
…I told you the language in question is the S-
shaped tongue of the anteater // the so-called worm tongue // it warms itself at the
fire it made from other people’s scrolls // codices // tomes // it entombs and
embalms and lights bombs // the language in question thinks it’s Billy the Kid //
the language in question is shooting up the saloon // the language in question is
shooting up meth // dope // coke // whatever’s on hand is the drug of choice…
In this passage, language moves from comparison to a literal tongue (which is a synonym for language, of course) to the image of written language being burned, and the run of “entombs and embalms and light bombs” which just rolls off the tongue, and finishes with a play on the word shooting. Garcia has really mastered the act of using a word’s multiple meanings to create unexpected connections in the course of a poem.
He also plays with the way words can be broken down into their constituent parts and remade to create new meaning. Look at this selection from “Non-monogamy”:
Take for example the word know. To know someone is to say you fucked. You can deny it, n—o sits in the middle and who knows what k and w are doing. Jiggle a letter here, and slide a letter there, and get rid of what is silent. You get the word own. And to be thoroughly fucked is to get owned.
I’m reminded of James Merrill’s poem “b o d y” which does similar things with the way a word is physically formed on the page, but Garcia here is doing something different; he’s explicating a word and playing on the multiple meanings of “know” at the same time.
Thrown in the Throat is full of these moments of inventiveness and I’m really looking forward to discussing them with the members of our Poetry Book Club and with Benjamin Garcia. If you join the Rumpus Poetry Book Club by June 15, you’ll get an early copy of Thrown in the Throat and be invited to take part in our exclusive online chat with Benjamin Garcia in early July. Will you join us?