Brother Sleep by Aldo Amparán; Alice James Books; 100 pages; $17.95
In Aldo Amparán’s book of poetry, Brother Sleep, the speaker explores resolute and austere forms of grief from which a unique expression of pain is born. The mourning of loss takes place among the souls of sibling cities in anguish, stretching across borders, brothers, lovers, families, and words. Amparán’s words both describe the sorrows and reconcile the fallout from their heat: “Mother, | I swear the entire universe fits / inside this urn | when blood from the heart clots with yearn...” In the book, poems probe the deaths of a brother and a grandfather alongside others that inquire into the precarious and dangerous landscapes of queer love. Their poetry is suffused with the sights and sounds of Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, and El Paso, Texas, as well as the redolent and mystical dreams and nightmares of its people, specifically those who are cast out, missing, perished, forgotten, or unspoken. Brother Sleep is the poetry of the survivor, and Amparán is the author of their own recovery.
At the opposite end of the survivor’s spectrum of empowerment is isolation and the loss of connections. The speaker of these poems struggles to rebuild from trauma by reclaiming identity within the context of relationships. Brother Sleep declares war on the people, places, and words that stand against the powers of reconnection and re-creation by calling out the truth of their love for family, of their queer identity, and of the terror and violence against the bodies and minds of gay men. In their arsenal, Amparán wields memory, pain, and love, but not from the ubiquitous emotional landscape. Instead, they draw upon the ancient tradition of mourning loss through oratory, by sharing in poems that separate us from each other and bind us together. In “Elegy with a Dial-Up Connection,” a wife’s bereavement of her husband and a grandson’s memory of his grandfather blend in the ritual of recounting the moment of loss. Both survivors grieve uniquely, but they both share the loss with the world around them, as distressing as that process can be, by reaching out through a telephone and through poetry: “When she picked up the phone & encountered the brittle / noise of connection, tried, still, to dial an emergency, to rift / the chaos of the digital world...” And in the grandson’s memory, the grandfather says, “muy joven pa’ saber / lo que es bueno para ti” (“too young to know what’s good for you”) — the border between youth and maturity becomes an ironic bridge connecting the wisdom of knowing oneself and the naïveté of accepting customs made of ignorance and fear, specifically the fear of what other people might think. Being long-lived is not synonymous with having any moral high ground, but it can lend perspective. The grandfather’s truth and his grandson’s desires seem at odds with each other, but they are reconciled within the poem and by the power of healing relationships with others, as well as with ourselves.
Amparán finds truth and deeper meaning in colors and numbers used as signifiers to carry absolution among further veins of healing: “Another body drops on the tarmac— luminous, wet— / His stomach decked with seven slashes / The color of Venus, seven red / Mouths speaking foreign tongues….” To make sense of survivor’s shame and guilt, the speaker imbues numbers and colors with mythological power and the strength to find compassion among the moral complexities of living on the border in extremis. In addition, the poet uses the tools of his craft to exploit any confinement of meaning. To reveal the many interpretive textures that words can cast, nouns, verbs, and adjectives are explicitly identified and used to define the interlinear translation of definitions by using the methodology of dictionaries and glossaries. From “Glossary for What You Left Unsaid: Loss,” the poem begins by revealing “loss, n.” to be a noun, as well as a verb, “loss, v.” Brother Sleep employs a poetic glossary for nine different words, such as “puñal” (a dagger or a derogatory term for a gay man), art, border/cities, citizen, and silencio, all of which are deemed to be “unsaid” and all of which offer up multiple layers of meaning and interpretation. The use of discrete numbers and colors and the application of lexical descriptors in these glossary poems is a stylized manner of psychological displacement. These signifiers operate to transfer the negative feelings from the speaker to the page and to the reader. As a stylistic choice, the repetition of colors, numbers, and lexical indicators is misdirection, and may well be the speaker’s unconscious defense mechanisms in practice.
There are moments in Brother Sleep when the sheer beauty of a line or turn of phrase can disguise the broader theme being excavated. In the poem, “Misadventure,” the list of confessions, which seems most worthy of a priest’s ear, ends with “I know Death / is as fat, tall, / & white / as the edge / of this page” The litany of misadventures almost seems to be overshadowed by the presence of death in no small part because of the depths of mortality experienced. The choice to end the poem with this line renders the prior lines down to logs on a fire when it’s these earlier lines that hold the theme of misadventure: growing up without a father; blaming sexual orientation on being fatherless; and discounting fatherhood all seem to be far more powerful toward re-creating identity and fostering recovery than the ultimate silence of the grave. But hope is emboldened by what faces on the opposite page in “What Light Wants,” where the beauty of loving, exploratory sexual encounters is recounted: “moonlight, too, slips in / to take part in our skin, / our softness, this un- / elegant exploration...” Perhaps life is found in the loud named light of desire and in the curious adventure of recovering from darkness and unnamed silences.
Brother Sleep is a poetry book of beauty in the face of darkness, of survival against a raging flood of pain, and of brilliance amidst the trials of recovery from trauma. From the traumas described in “Glossary for What You Left Unsaid: Mad” and the survivor’s tale in “Primer for a View of the Sea (Desert)”, to the knowledge of recovery in “Some Notes on Love” — the path of healing is often circuitous. To restore power and control to the survivor, first, safety must be secured; second, stories need to be reconstructed and retold; and third, connections must be reclaimed along with new relationships built using the freshly minted instruments of reconciliation. The poems of Brother Sleep work the looms of all three areas to weave a sense of resolution.
If poetry is the author’s toolkit for restoring control to the traumatized person, then it’s also the means to creating (and re-creating) their identity, one that underscores the need for art, the poet, and the reader to take a moral stance. Neutrality is not an option in Brother Sleep; one must affirm the speaker’s experiences of suffering and violence. Although the word “murders” only appears in the narrator’s voice in “Scrapbook for My Undoing,” the sense of wrongful death as a character is far from diluted, and, instead, is present throughout the book, most noticeably as “sleep.” As the magician, Prospero, in Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest, says, “We are such stuff as dreams are made on; and our little life is rounded with a sleep.” Amparán also reminds us that our mortal life can end quickly, and that mourning the loss of loved ones need not proceed without compassion, hope, and companionship. For as they suggest in “Litany with Burning Fields,” “Let’s say Death only exists in this line” — a clear and unbridled poetic lifeline is proposed.
Brother Sleep is a deep exploration of a dark ocean. At times, the poems grace the light with specters of hope. But foremost among the verse is the struggle to go from autonomy to intimacy within the framework of loss. In that journey, there are many border stops, but key to its success is the act of creating identity. Amparán successfully navigates this space by reconciling past trauma, memories, and fear with the awareness that who we are is equal parts of looking back and forging ahead. As they write in “Pentecost, 2006,” “I’m here because I want / a change of tense.”