We Borrowed Gentleness Cover

Reveling in the In-Between: J. Estanislao Lopez’s We Borrowed Gentleness

Reviewed By

Estanislao Lopez’s debut collection We Borrowed Gentleness (Alice James Books, 2002) is razor sharp, both in form and character. Addressing weighty matters such as race, fatherhood, and culture, the book offers beauty and gentleness, forgiveness and kindness, alongside ugliness, pain, and petty cruelties. It is a wonderfully tender collection, and Lopez handles complex subjects with care and grace.

Lopez begins the collection with stories from his father’s childhood in Laredo, Texas, and Nuevo Laredo, its neighboring town across the border in Mexico. Laredo and Nuevo Laredo are twin cities, and which side of the border you’re born on is a matter of chance. In “Laredo Duplex,” a fitting form for this geography, Lopez writes, “Across the river, Nuevo Laredo. My father, born there, / was born on the side of defeat.” The pain of childhood, the pang of being Spanish-speaking in America, and the fear of one’s father come through in the book’s early poems, but Lopez is only sowing the seeds of a more complicated collection.

While the father in Gentleness persists as a shadowy, fiery, fear-inducing figure who creates discord wherever he crops up, Lopez moves away from family to write about God:

There are things that we ignore:

the grandeur of God’s disinterest;

an old historian pointing to a wound
convinced it spills not blood, but light.

The image of a wound spilling light is made modern and strange by “the grandeur of God’s disinterest,” a sentiment that will be expressed and re-expressed elsewhere in this collection.

Generational trauma is also a recurring theme in these poems—the way we remake our mistakes, the way we hurt our children, and the way our children hurt us. In some poems, the speaker seems angry, restless. He says, “Can I tell you that sometimes I utter the word justice and mean revenge?” He finishes that poem, “My Uncle’s Killer,” with:

Freedom, after all, is what binds me to the worst version

of myself. Shout Freedom. You can’t help it. You’ve made a threat.

This displays Lopez’s power as a poet, his ability to make language new. His poems complicate the meaning of freedom. Displaced by churning migration in the region, none of the members of this family are really in control of their own destinies. Rather, they are at the mercy of factors larger than their own lives, and their notion of freedom is controlled by governmental, political, geosocial, and even magical forces that they cannot understand. Lopez acknowledges all of this; to him, freedom is an act of violence against these various factors, a rebellion against the press of destiny that is a blade against the speaker’s neck.

The actors in Lopez’s poems have certain freedoms—they are legal citizens, for the most part—but they are not free. They are victims of injustice, from brutal, physical violence to the smaller daily betrayals that can affect us all, like broken promises. In the poem “The Contract,” Lopez describes the verbal contract his father has made with another man, who now refuses to pay him:

He had insisted on a verbal contract,
a handshake, a pact made of air, shared
between one man and another like                 laughter

In “Reasons to Despise Being Literary,” Lopez takes aim at academia, the very circumstances that allow him to work and live:

You know that, as Keats died, he did so in the throes of unrelenting failure. Your apologies are too well-crafted, and so read as insincere.

This humor, fresh in its irreverence, is welcome alongside other poems that read darker and more cynical as they grapple with survival and death. At the same time, it echoes the sentiments of other poems in the collection that address the inability to apologize or apologies taking too long to arrive.

One of the most striking poems is “Speaking Ill Of The Dead.” Here, Lopez’s grandmother speaks on her deathbed to his mother:

I tried, I tried, she whined,
I’m sorry I could never love you.
My mother forgave her those words, keeps them close to her—
A keepsake I could never fathom.
She says it’s comforting, it’s comforting to know she tried.

This poem, an explicit accounting of generational trauma, exemplifies the raw, dark beauty of this collection. It’s comforting to know that our parents tried to love us, even if they didn’t try hard enough. It’s the only thing that allows us to forgive them; especially after we’ve had our own children, made our own mistakes, the mother seems to be saying, even as the speaker of the poem cannot abide the admission of neglect.

Religion permeates Lopez’s collection. Like the Old Testament God, this religion is not gentle or kind. The scaffolding that holds this collection together is not one of gentleness, like the title suggests, but one of tightly held cruelty. At the same time, moments of grace interrupt the cycle of trauma. These moments of grace, perhaps, are the gentleness that’s borrowed from the collection’s title. Speaking on his experience of fatherhood, Lopez writes:

                                                                        My daughter

nicks her ear on a kitchen drawer.      I apply pressure with a duck-print


Red blooms through yellow—a first duck,

Then a second. Some nights, we read from


her favorite astronomy book.              I struggle to explain the difference

between bodies and dust.

These are the gentle moments borrowed against the backdrop of all harm that’s been inherited: a father and a daughter, a duck-print cloth. As a son, his experience is that of violence—his father’s anger and fear afflict his young life. But as a father, the speaker can find grace as blood spills in a far more innocent way. Speaking again on fatherhood, in the poem “In Praise of Weakness,” Lopez writes, “All the ways / in which I might / fail him / populate the charted / territory.” Lopez’s desire for revenge, his animosity, and his fear coexist with his love for his children, his family, and his culture.

The last lines of the collection are “we borrowed gentleness and couldn’t speak.” In an interview with 45th Parallel, Lopez recounts, “Was it the moment of epiphany or was it a moment of knowing that whatever you say next will depart from that gentleness back into whatever it is, you know, toxic behaviors, toxic relationships?” This tension defines the collection. Lopez notes, “I hope that a reader who needs grace to be there will find grace there and a reader who is approaching this issue from another way finds what they need there.”

A stunning effort, which begins with the self and swells to address family and God, We Borrowed Gentleness abounds with cutthroat lines, gorgeous revelations, and a straightforward style. Writing in the tradition of authors who explore borders between the self and the outside world such as Natasha Trethewey, with the ironic touch of Wislawa Szymborska, Lopez has created a world in which God is both merciful and cruel. Families break apart and are put back together again, but not always the way they’re supposed to be, and both children and adults can be ugly and beautiful.




Joanna Acevedo is a writer, editor, and educator from New York City. She is the author of two books and two chapbooks, and her writing has been seen across the web and in print, including in Jelly Bucket, Hobart, and The Adroit Journal, among others. She received her MFA in Fiction from New York University in 2021, and also holds degrees from Bard College and The New School. More from this author →