Interrogating Language: Carlos Andrés Gómez’s Fractures

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In my sophomore year of high school, I began a tradition of walking into school with my earphones connected to my iPod and hidden under my hijab, listening solemnly to Vitruvius, Carlos Andrés Gómez’s album of performed poems. Before I had a name for things, I was a student in a school that taught me how to be invisible. Between classes, I would watch YouTube clips of Carlos Andrés Gómez performing at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, or the Bowery Poetry Club, and feel spellbound by such spaces. That there were rooms where one could square their shoulders, stand in the light, and stun an audience— into anger, laughter, silence—seemed inconceivable.

One day, toward the end of that same school year, I walked into my creative writing class to find my classmates cheering. Overnight, US Navy Seals had raided Osama bin Laden’s residence and shot him dead. Conscious suddenly of my friends’ lingering gazes, I slunk in my seat; the shame of proximity cast upon me. The teacher, in a fatigued attempt to hush the class, reprimanded us by saying, “You shouldn’t celebrate anyone’s death. Every death is a tragedy.”

In Fractures, Carlos Andrés Gómez’s full-length debut (University of Wisconsin Press, October 2020), death and life are laid atop each other to create kaleidoscopes of resurrection. Gómez’s poems are not interested in marking the tragedy of death, but rather in making coherent the ways death lingers, pushes against, and becomes indistinguishable from, life itself. We enter the collection with the antechamber poem “Hijito,” which depicts, initially, a literal overlay of the speaker’s face atop a reflection of Michael Brown’s. Immediately, the contours of reality are questioned as the speaker’s vision is thrust into a cloud of doubt: “[t]his sly mirror. This taut mirage.” As such, we enter the world of the collection neither forgotten in death nor fully alive when the speaker reveals the awaited birth of their child as America’s ravaging racial violence continues:

…Today, she is
nine weeks along, he is almost eighteen,
and I am grasping for any thought
that is not my son calling out breathless
from the hollow lungs of night, abandoned
seven feet from the hood of a patrol car

This section of the stanza is carried by an insistence on the verb “to be.” Every named subject in the quoted lines is described through an act of being (“she is,” “he is,” “I am”) establishing a certitude of selfhood that juxtaposes the ever-present fear of the brutal loss of a Black child. These lines tug against being, as if gesturing toward the poem’s previous line—language itself becoming the “sly mirror [the] taut mirage.”

The tension of positionality is examined further in “Murambi” when the speaker is met with a startling realization:

…The guide,
who will not give me his name or ask for mine,
leads me to what every foreigner thinks
they came this far to see. They still use machetes
to cut the grass: Among other things, he reminds me,
It is a most useful instrument.

The violence rendered visible in “Murambi” is not a violence against bodies, but rather a persisting violence of language. As in the poem’s opening line: “There is no smell of death here,” the speaker is haunted by a violence made apparent only through absence. The repetition of “no,” “not,” and “nothing” throughout the poem indicates an attention to lack (“Nothing here will ever again grow,” “The guide, / who will not give me his name”). For this reason, when we arrive at the line “They still use machetes,” the opacity of “still” is doubly jarring. The dialogue that follows indicates a voyeurism inherent in this remembrance. Couched in the language of function (“It is a most useful instrument”), what is memorialized is memorialized to serve a role to the foreigner. Despite the speaker’s lengthy and haunting description of Murambi’s Genocide Memorial, the most brutal encounter is found not in the landscape, but in the guide’s final reminder.

In this way, Gómez uses the space of the poem to interrogate language—its loss, its destructiveness—while making evident the ways systems (political, racial, patriarchal) usurp language for their own means. In “Native Tongue,” the speaker links relearning Spanish with his own changing awareness of masculinity:

I went there to meet a man
with my father’s name. We sat,
flanked on all sides by other
awkwardly assembled pairs,
each obsessed with the shapes
of each other’s mouths and
the sounds they made. He grabbed
his crotch and slowly unfurled
a word

The sharply enjambed endings create surprising turns in each line, mimicking the threat of traditional cishet masculinity and its obsession with legacy. What is handed down from the previous line dramatically shifts our information. The speaker in “Native Tongue” is observant, nervous, slow—aware of all the ways his attempts to learn a language he has watched “slowly drift away” are in fact attempts at unraveling his own masculinity.

Similarly, the sonic quality of these lines evokes our own consumption as readers. Words like “man,” “name,” “pairs,” “shapes,” “mouths,” and “crotch” are connected to each other through assonance, creating a subtle change in our reading rhythm. As such, the reader becomes part of the “awkwardly assembled pairs, / […]obsessed with the shapes / of [their] mouths.”

Language is weaponized further still in the long poem “What Happened” which begins in tight stanzas then unfurls almost chaotically on the page. The repetition of “let’s say,” “or,” and “but” sustained throughout the piece calls to mind the use of hypotheticals in legal vernacular (“We all know what happened. But / let’s say…”). Here, the space between reality and imagination is blurred by a language which offers alternatives that obfuscate violence. The circular reimagining of events ends in the wrenching apart of language, the alienation of words from any possible complete sentences. The impossibility of saying stands in stark contrast with the speaker’s rapid questioning. Language enacts violence through manipulation: “We remember the story / we commit to. Then, we tell / ourselves it happened.” The line’s structure reverses the order of memory; it’s as if memory arrives first, then knowledge. The enjambment that places together the ends of two sentences: “we commit to. Then, we tell” emphasizes the separation between “remember” and “happened.” Later, the speaker states, “I know what happened, endlessly,” disorienting language even further.

The poem “Race Was Not a Factor,” found in the collection’s final section, expands the work of “What Happened” by placing an end to the hypotheticals:

[…] The child
still in the street. It is two minutes & a few
seconds past noon on Canfield Drive
in Ferguson, Missouri, & he is still
right there, in the middle
of the street. Not my nephew. Not my

The double usage of “not” in the penultimate line is reminiscent of the absence invoked in “Murambi.” Yet here, language is intent on documenting: “It is two minutes & a few / seconds past noon on Canfield Drive / in Ferguson Missouri.” Gómez places the journalistic tone of these lines alongside the horror which follows: “& he is still / right there, in the middle / of the street.” The blurring, then prompt separation, of the pronoun “he” who we finally understand to be Michael Brown, with the speaker’s nephew and son is striking.

However, Gómez’s choice to end the poem with a singular word, “son,” on its own line, demonstrates a final form of protection. The speaker’s son, at least in the body of this raging and violent poem, is offered the refuge of the line.

In our contemporary American moment—marked by the continuation of centuries of racial violence—Fractures is the “single ray / [which] unfolds its warmth” along the contours of our grief. Carlos Andrés Gómez achieves in the work of his poems both tenderness and power, peeling away language to make room for the layers of loss, ruin, and birth underneath.

Joumana Altallal is an Iraqi Lebanese writer and Zell Fellow in Poetry at the University of Michigan’s Helen Zell Writers’ Program. She works with Citywide Poets to lead a weekly after-school poetry session for high school students in Metro Detroit. Her recent work appears in Glass Poetry, Muzzle Magazine, Mud Season Review, and Bayou Magazine. She has received fellowships from the Bread Loaf Environmental Writers' Conference, Napa Valley Writer's Conference, and the Radius for Arab American Writers. You can find Joumana on Twitter at @joualt. More from this author →