Reading Achy Obejas’s BOOMERANG/BUMERÁN as Indelible and Recursive Testimony

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If I had to define poetry in a single word, I’d choose serendipity. Poems have a way of finding us when we need them most, a fact reinforced for me when I discovered Achy Obejas’s new bilingual collection, Boomerang/Bumerán—or when it discovered me.

Last autumn I was working on an essay about memory. At the top of the page, I typed: “I have been thinking lately of a boomerang, not the literal thing exactly, but the noun-as-metaphor for everything that returns. Sometimes incessantly. Often inexplicably. Boomerang. Hear the boom in it. Hard, loud. Hear the rang.” Then I sat, as I often do, staring at the flashing cursor. Where did I want to go next? What was I trying to say?

Just then, in the way serendipity often feels like a trick at first, a new message chimed in my inbox. (It would not be unreasonable to say it rang.) One click: “Join us for a virtual evening with Achy Obejas discussing Boomerang/Bumerán.” Already a fan of Achy Obejas, I didn’t hesitate. This felt like a sign! I ordered the book, and when it arrived, I did what I often do with a new collection of poems—closed my eyes, fanned the pages, and pointed to a line at random: “When memory escapes, overtake it.” My essay had found its epigraph, and this incipient review had found its title.

When I type the word boomerang, I often mistype it boomerange, which speaks well to the dual motors that power Achy Obejas’s book. There’s the polyphonic reverie of the poems as lyrics, and there’s also the broad scope of the poems’ thematic engagements. In other words, Obejas is singing memorably throughout the collection, her language boomeranging within and across poems (anaphora! epizeuxis! refrain!), while at the same time, her content is far-reaching and deep-delving, spanning personal, historical, cultural, national, and linguistic forms of identity and exile. This is Obejas returning and returning (“repeat, repeat, ad infinitum,” she writes) to the essential questions, and the essential music, of her speaker’s life. She is a boomerang.

As the title suggests, Boomerang/Bumerán is two books in one, each 66 pages long. They’re the same book, in the thematic sense, but they’re also different books, in terms of the divergent, sonic experiences the English poems and the Spanish poems provide. When you reach the fulcrum of this collection, whether reading from the English side or the Spanish side, you find a centerpiece page where the title words meet each other in both languages and reverse. There’s even a perforated arrow indicating the book must be turned upside down to continue reading in the other language. In this way, the physical text also mirrors the double-sided nature of a boomerang.

I’m a reasonably adept reader and writer of Spanish but a very limited conversant. I know the language best on the page and least in my capacity as a speaker. This is why I chose to read the Spanish side first—and out loud—so I could appreciate the music of a language I did not come of age hearing. I also consciously chose not to use a dictionary for words I didn’t recognize on sight because I believe in the arresting quality of poems as spoken songs. Since it’s harder, at least for me, to prioritize feeling over thinking when reading poems in my first language, encountering these poems in Spanish prior to English also helped me hone my attention as a more sensory-astute listener.

The Spanish words boomed and rang differently, of course, than their English counterparts, but the boomerang quality of both languages as chosen and arranged by Obejas transcends any reader’s relative fluencies. Patterns of repetition sustain us, and they also heighten what we remember best. When memory escapes, repetition may be the best way to overtake it.

Consider Obejas’s prodigious use of anaphora in the poem “Recuento” (“Recountal”). This poem begins with an explicit attention to music: “Ahora le clave/ (siempre hay une clave)./ Ahora les tambores/ y le intime oscuridad./ Ahora le baile.” “Now the beat/ (there is always a beat)./ Now the drums/ and the darkness within./ Now the dance.” The word “Ahora” (“Now”) establishes a beat that the reader listens for throughout the poem and that buoys the surrounding language as music shifts from subject to form:

“Ahora le historia sobre le carcelero/ que por piedad libera a le future dictadore./ Ahora su amante y le tinta invisible./ Ahora les informes desde le frente./ Ahora le raicion que se convierte en mito,/ le bomba casere que no explota,/ le sacerdote que interviene (a su pesar).”

“Now the story about the jailer/ who frees the future dictator out of pity./Now his lover (the invisible ink)./ Now the reports from the front./ Now the betrayal which becomes myth,/ the homemade bomb that doesn’t go off,/ the priest who intervenes (to his regret).”

Which jailer, which dictator, which lover, which priest? The answer is any. The answer is many. This is a content feature of Obejas’s poetry that I have always admired: the way people often appear as individuals and archetypes simultaneously. They do both specific and symbolic work. This jailer can be personalized, made to feel like a character we know, but the jailer also represents repression and lost freedom, themes that permeate Boomerang. The dictator is a jailer writ larger, a jailer of a whole country or nation. The lover may be a jailer too, one who holds the beloved’s heart hostage. The priest might represent selfless love or sexless love. The priest might symbolize rigid dogma and capacious atonement at once. With no easy or singular answers, Obejas continues to inosculate the particular and the universal with deft rhythm and deliberate repetition. Later in the poem, addressing the complexity of any social role, the impossibility of any singular, historical truth, our speaker declares: “Así es como fue y no fue/ y fue de verdad.” / “This is how it was and it wasn’t/ and how it really was.”

The drum beat of “Ahora” (“Now”) persists throughout the poem, steady and emphatic, with an urgency that grows by accretion. This use of anaphora makes us feel the presence of all the various versions of the past, all the complicated histories we seek to understand, and the ways they are still alive in the present. The past is like fingers drumming on a table, keeping time. Anaphora doesn’t allow us to forget that all stories are timely. The people who comprise them are timely, and time must not be permitted to erase itself. Hence, the appearance in another poem of “The Clock of the Long Now,” an enormous, mechanical clock designed to keep accurate time for the next ten millennia. Obejas, as a poet, aligns herself with this clock. While the clock keeps literal time, Obejas commits to keeping time in the musical sense and as an act of continual remembrance.

We don’t talk about the technique of epizeuxis as often as I would like in our poetry classes. Perhaps that’s because epizeuxis can be misunderstood as babbling or ranting, simply saying the same thing over and over. How is that different from redundancy—diluting the power of a word or phrase rather than amplifying it? I see epizeuxis, well-used, as indexical of great emotion. I see it as a refusal to banish the hardest truths we encounter to the easier realm of the Forgotten.

In Boomerang/Bumerán, Obejas asks us to consider hard truths. Among them: the grief of exile from one country (as in her native Cuba) and immigration/displacement to another (as in her adopted United States); the horrors of the Holocaust; the trauma of gun violence, in war and in domestic spaces. Her book also challenges us not to forget what feels unforgettable right now—the global pandemic. Deployments of epizeuxis, as in repeating a single word or phrase in rapid succession, remind me of a ghostly encounter. There is a word and then an echo of the same word and then perhaps an echo of the same word again. The effect is haunting, the way the past haunts the present, the way earlier atrocities reappear and manifest again in later atrocities. Epizeuxis is a technique that defies forgetting.

Take, for instance, the poem “The Ravages,” which evokes many elements of our zeitgeist: “someone shouted/ they were masked/ so who could tell who it was.” The pandemic comes to mind with the presence of masks, but soon we see “these are children/ their faces covered.” This image might mean their faces are covered with masks, but it might also mean their faces are covered so as not to witness the violence erupting around them. It might mean both. Obejas writes, “someone died today right on the corner/ and someone/ who knows who/ cried out/ don’t cry, don’t cry!” Not once, but twice. This doubling, like a boomerang. The imperative strikes us once and then returns. What follows amplifies the use of epizeuxis further: “this is the rifle/ that started it all at the church/ each pull of the trigger/ like medicine, like magic, no one knows better.” Did you think of the massacre at the Charleston church in 2015? Did you think of the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018? Did you think of another massacre, at any place of worship, anywhere in the world, at any time? All apply. And the duplicated imperative not to cry only heightens the longing to do so.

Near the end of this poem, Obejas writes, “symptoms continue/ in millions/ kids too.” Did you think of Covid-19 symptoms? Did you think of the symptoms of trauma—for what we’ve witnessed, for what we’ve survived, including and apart from Covid? All apply. This is the signature multi-valence with which Obejas writes, culminating in a triple use of epizeuxis: “we can see them in the parking lot/ the ambulance/ the paramedics/ masked too/ and shouting in a chorus now/ don’t cry, don’t cry!/ don’t cry.” This repetition intensifies our emotional response. Is the ambulance for victims of the virus, for victims of the violence, for both and more than these? All apply. And the imperative not to cry, arising from a chorus of voices now, puts us in mind of all there is to cry for. Implied: Don’t cryremember.

One of the most singular and powerful poems in this collection is called “You,” a pronoun that is both singular and collective in English. In the Spanish poem, Obejas chooses “Tú,” the singular and informal “you” for two reasons, I presume: the intimacy of direct address and the way the word implicates each reader personally and specifically. This poem looks like prose but sounds like poetry. The word “you” appears anaphorically within the blocked stanzas. It also appears as a growing refrain interspersed between each blocked stanza. By growing refrain, I mean that each time the “you” or “tú” is invoked after the title, another “you” or “tú” is added—which means another person is addressed and implicated. There are two “yous,” then three, four, five, six, seven, eight, and finally a string of nine “yous” that appears before the final stanza of the poem. And of course, this growing refrain is an example of epizeuxis, too. If you keep saying one word over and over, it begins to sound different. It begins to feel like a clock ticking or a gong being struck. This poem makes forgetting impossible.

Early in the blocked stanzas, we encounter our big themes again:

“Oh, how they chant their chants: War is peace, freedom is slavery—and most importantly—ignorance is strength. [We may be thinking back to those archetypes—jailer, dictator, lover, and priest.] That’s right: the less you know, the more indignant. The less you know, the more protected. The less you know, the more correct you’re bound to be.”

Soon, there is a litany of people and places, each a capsule containing so much current and historical pain. The proverbial “Karen” is there—not one woman, but a collective of women; Charleston is there, metonym for the site of a violent, racist crime; Orlando is there; metonym for the site of a violent, homophobic crime. And interspersed between these expansive litanies (boomerange-ing again) is the ever-growing epizeuxis, the ever-increasing refrain, “you, you, you, you, you.”

By the end of this poem, instead of a chorus of voices telling us not to cry, the multitudinous “you” we have become is advised by Obejas’s speaker: “Commit. Be a witness. Take what you learn, prick your finger and write a new story to be read in the days to come. Then listen: Listen to the stories others have written and that are read aloud like a song.” The witnessing, the writing, and the listening all imply resistance to forgetting. When we write what we have learned, we remember it better and longer. When we listen to what others have written, we remember it better and longer. And of course, we remember best and longest that which reads aloud like a song. The music of poetry isn’t only to heighten emotion or enhance aesthetic appeal; the music is how we retain what we’ve learned and pass it on memorably.

Obejas is not only a prodigious writer but a prodigious reader—a twinning as essential as the two sides of a boomerang, each comprised of a “leading” and “trailing” edge. Her engagement with outside texts within this book yokes those two practices, like the place where the two sides of a boomerang meet. (This, I recently learned, is called the “elbow.”) Obejas brings musicality, recounted narratives, and factual information from beyond this book into the body of this book, where they can be witnessed anew, recounted anew, and addressed anew in writing. Consider in particular “The Hospice, After Carolyn Forche,” a poem in direct dialogue with Forché’s well-known poem “The Colonel.” Forché is a “you” with whom Obejas, as fellow poet and activist against forgetting, aligns herself.

“The Colonel” begins: “WHAT YOU HAVE HEARD is true. I was in his house. His wife carried/ a tray of coffee and sugar. His daughter filed her nails, his son went/ out for the night […]” Obejas echoes the structure and syntax of Forché’s poem more quietly but no less precisely: “It’s true what they say, I’ve been there. It’s an ordinary home, with a dining table, a Christmas tree in December […]” Forché focuses on the people who surround the titular colonel. The unspoken but deeply reverberant message is that atrocities are committed and supported by ordinary people; however, the ordinary may serve to mask those atrocities.

Obejas’s has chosen to highlight a place—the hospice—rather than a person. She too focuses on the ordinary, the familiar. The hospice has a dining table and a Christmas tree in December, as so many homes do. In this poem, too, the horrors come slowly. The façade of normalized circumstances ruptures slowly. In the hospice, a living patient suddenly becomes a non-living patient. But Obejas doesn’t say the patient died. She uses imagery to document the surreal, even hyperreal nature of death: “When the other tries to/answer, their skin tears, neatly shedding, folding on the floor/ like the lightest tissue. Then their skull tumbles, the eyes, / nose and teeth scratches on a stone, or divination shells.”

In Obejas’s hospice, after death, there is immediate sterilization, a covering over of what has occurred: “After/ a moment, someone sucks [the skull, eyes, nose, and teeth] up with the vacuum cleaner,/ someone else sprays white foam to lift the stain from the rug.” As with Forché’s ending, as readers, we are staring at the floor, the place our eyes most often turn when we are pained, uncomfortable, wishing to escape. But neither poem opens an escape hatch for us. They insist on our rapt attention to ensure our enduring memory.

The longest litany of explicitly named “yous” with whom Obejas aligns comes in the final poem of the book, a quasi-cento that, per the footnote,

is adapted from The Black Panthers Ten Point Program, the Delano Manifesto, Equalise It! (a disability manifesto), Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, Trail of Broken Treaties, the Transfeminist Manifesto, and the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America.

Who has Obejas been listening to? (See above.) What have they borne witness to? (See above.) How will Obejas commit to their credos of not forgetting? This book is a stunning instantiation of her commitment.

Nota Bene: Boomerang/Bumerán belongs to Raised Voices, a “poetry series established in 2021 to raise marginalized voices and perspectives, to publish poems that affirm progressive values and are accessible to a wide readership, and to celebrate poetry’s ability to access truth in a way that no other form can.” This book fulfills all three imperatives while adding and fulfilling another: to access and make accessible truth in an unforgettable way. Two books in one, so that even the book returns to itself. What you encounter here will leave an indelible mark.

Julie Marie Wade is the author of 13 volumes of poetry, prose, and hybrid forms, including the newly released poetry collection, Skirted (The Word Works, 2021), the book-length lyric essay, Just an Ordinary Woman Breathing (The Ohio State University Press, 2020) and the limited-edition, hybrid-forms chapbook, P*R*I*D*E (Vermont College of Fine Arts, 2020), which won the inaugural Hunger Mountain Chapbook Prize. A recipient of the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Memoir and grants from the Kentucky Arts Council and the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, she teaches in the creative writing program at Florida International University. More from this author →