Beloved Names and Incantatory Powers: heidi andrea restrepo rhodes’s The Inheritance of Haunting

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The title of restrepo rhodes’s debut collection, I confess, made me a bit weary—not as a reader of poetry inasmuch as a scholar in the humanities. Those who know, know that historical trauma and spectral motifs account for nearly every other academic book written in the past twenty years. But this, needless to say, is no academic book: it’s a “great exorcism.”

Those are the words of Ada Limón, author of the critically acclaimed Bright Dead Things (2015) and The Carrying (2018), and judge for the 2018 Andres Montoya Prize, which was awarded to The Inheritance of Haunting. Under the auspices of Letras Latinas and the University of Norte Dame Press, the Montoya Prize has been awarded biennially since 2004 to celebrate the diverse expressivity and world-class quality of emerging Latinx poets in the twenty-first century. I have read them all, and each is its own triumph: Sheryl Luna’s marvelously real Pity the Drowned Horses (2004), Gabriel Gómez’s meditative The Outer Bands (2006), Paul Martínez Pompa’s sly My Kill Adore Him (2008), Emma Trelles’s lyrically lush Tropicalia (2010), Laurie Ann Guerrero’s tenderly seductive A Tongue in the Mouth of the Dying (2012), David Campos’s tenaciously honest Furious Dusk (2013), and Felicia Zamora’s experimentalist trance Of Form & Gather (2016).

But restrepo rhodes’s The Inheritance of Haunting stands out, at least to this reader, as an aesthetically potent and ethically rigorous work with unrivaled incantatory powers. For the work haunts, yes, but not like a horror film, let alone a melancholic poetics. Rather, its poetics are akin to a cathartically rich espiritismo séance—and, as a caribeño, I don’t use these words lightly. Nor does restrepo rhodes: it is a duty, one infers, for her to come to know her historical and collective self, no matter the wretchedness—or precisely because of it: “unnamable things done / must, however, be named.” Indeed, she has no choice: “This residue between my legs, / five hundred years of history / I carry between my legs, / in my bones, / stories carved against my will.” This is history poetically conjured and ethico-politically interrogated, thus, but a history that speaks neither for nor about the (un)dead inasmuch as with and through them. Not history for history’s sake, but for a new posterity: “My beloved revolutions / my beloved lost / show me tomorrow’s questions.”

Her incantatory powers, to this end, are seemingly limitless. Consider this stanza from “dis-astre”:

until midnight dogs
dirty their jaws, & like howling
feral midwives, endure the hours
heaving the gravel of torments in the
delivery of bones, the birthing of claims,
the gift of illumination
impossible in the stench of withered sockets
under the light of ancient suns
their yet
unannounced & holy extinguishing.

Such is the verse that consistently characterizes the poems throughout the book, the cumulative effect of which is to inculcate the reader into a trance that is not mystical or transcendental inasmuch as ethico-political and thoroughly tethered to the unjust dead. As a collection, the book is organized into two sections, the first titled “El Otro Lado/The Other Side,” and the second, “Casí Pájaros/Almost Birds.” Reminiscent of Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera, the titles bespeak a liminality that operates at the nepantla, the in-betweeness, that not only she, the poet, embodies but also the (un)official histories she conjures, if not exorcises. It is a poetics, accordingly, that reckons with five hundred years of “but we belong here too,” but the here invoked is ambiguous—or, rather, plural: be it Colombia, the United States, the Americas, or the Middle East. For one of the works’ unmistakable themes is violence, especially war, which is to say governmental and imperial violence: from Colombia’s Thousand Days’ War and la Violencia to the El Mozote massacre in El Salvador to Vietnam and Basra, Fallujah and Palestine.

But violence has many modalities, not least as racialized or patriarchal. The poem “all your braids like a compass will bring us home,” for instance, deciphers the secret codes in the braids of enslaved Afro-Colombianas, thereby rewriting our Black mothers into history as cunning “cartographers of our liberation.” Another, “If I wear my hair this way,” is a mother’s address to her daughter, a pedagogy in how to read (and express) one’s woes or one’s jouissance as it is written in hair either wound tightly or let loose. And there is, of course, the violence of poverty and inequality, like that conveyed in the poem “the terror of clean.” In it, restrepo rhodes eloquently mocks the “immaculate sterility” of the bourgeoisie’s fanciful lives for the filth and dispossession they radically depend on—a terrifying cleanliness, as it were.

Indeed, whatever the welcome humility and intimacy with which restrepo rhodes enacts and reckons with her “inheritance,” hers is an insurgent voice. There is mourning, thus, but not so as to lay to rest or issue last rites inasmuch as to conjure, a conjuring of her grandmother’s grandmothers’ grandmothers, of Vietnamese and Palestinian children, and of revolutionaries like Frantz Fanon—all crying out their injustices. And so it is an exorcism, yes, but also a song. As Limón says in her introduction to the collection, “Above all, what you will remember most is the singing.” And so let us listen to restrepo rhodes sing:

I sing march & the earth will tremble out a eulogy, a prayer, a promise
I sing how, & why, & when, & your name will wind palm into a fist, &
I will hold it high

I sing sky, & we will think of freedom, we will taste it,
we will taste it in our mouths, & it will be your name, all your names,
be gone & done.

Self-identified as a “queer, mixed-race, latinx second-generation, Colombian immigrant, poet, artist, scholar, and activist,” restrepo rhodes is her own multitude and a timely voice. This critic, for one, can’t wait to see what she does next.

Born in Puerto Rico and raised in Tampa, Florida, e. m. franceschini is a former day laborer, US Army veteran, and community college grad who now holds a PhD from UC, Berkeley and is Assistant Professor of English and Latin American Studies at the University of Georgia. His scholarly works have appeared or are forthcoming in Global South Studies, Journal of Postcolonial Writing, Centro, and Comparative Literaturem, and his poetry in Moko, Chiricú, Witness, Dryland, Acentos Review, and elsewhere. More from this author →