I took to Twitter this weekend after reading Laurie Ann Guerrero’s new book A Crown for Gumecindo (Aztlán Libre Press). I took my time with it, but I read it all in one sitting. When discussing it with a friend earlier this week, I recounted how this book is a work of art from front to back. Tim Z. Hernandez gifts the reader with a devoted study, both technical and artistic, of Guerrero’s writing in this collection:
It takes a master craftswoman, and sheer boldness, to pull off a heroic crown of sonnets while at the same time bending the form. However, the poet’s departure from the rules are not random or haphazard; the craftswoman respects, admires even the traditional form. Likewise, with each careful verse she aims to elevate her grandfather’s traditions, so that the cross-pollination of both lineages exists in a single breath. Beyond “boldness,” what the poet is working through here is the urgency of her own grief…
Maceo Montoya’s art weaves itself around and between poems. The images are dark and evocative. This book is a true collaboration of verse and the visual. There are other poems and fragments of prose that ghost themselves into Guerrero’s sonnets, elements I feel to be necessary hauntings, shadows. Similarly, Montoya’s artwork abounds with shadows in this collection. Both the poems and the visual artwork work in tandem to affirm that the dead live, but one must listen for them.
…I rearrange rocks, pull newborn
weeds that sprout like vocal chords: he’s dead,
they hum. In my nails, your dirt burrows like worms.
– from “4. The Absence of Water”
In part 1 of her 4-part essay “Stealing the Crown: Sonnet as Vessel: Plan for Building” for The Best American Poetry Blog, Laurie Ann Guerrero writes, “What I knew for sure was that the sonnet was an unyielding form and I needed something as steadfast as he was to get me through the greatest loss of my life thus far. I keep thinking, what did he think would help get me through the loss of him? I keep thinking, he never even knew the word sonnet–little song. And what little songs did he know that I will never hear?” A year into the loss of her dear grandfather, Guerrero found grief to be unyielding, and she chose the sonnet to answer this unyielding. The sonnet became her chosen form of prayer. Yet, in A Crown for Gumecindo, the traditional sonnet form yields to other lines, unexpected sounds. These brief moments of surrender become small reassurances that even the things we feel will never yield, those hurts we think will not subside, will eventually. Guerrero shows in choosing the sonnet that facing this unyielding is what’s necessary.
One hot day in July, my king, you were gone–
wheeled out under the red and early sky.
Until you find me, I build a house: carve
boulders with your chisel, sweep fire and air
aside with sage, dig tunnels with my hands.
– from 13. The Work: Blueprints for the Body
I lost my grandfather last November. In January, Rigoberto González, my adviser at the time, recommended I read Guerrero’s A Tongue in the Mouth of the Dying. (THANK YOU, Rigo.) It became an important book for me. It was the first time in a long while that I could see myself, elements of my life, in a book. Guerrero’s poems were fire and salve. Her poem “Cocooning” brought me to tears every day for many days, but it was the only thing I wanted to read every day because it made me feel closer to my grandfather.
I’ve had A Crown for Gumecindo up on a shelf since May. I knew I wasn’t ready to read it when I received it in the mail. For so many months, I didn’t feel any grief, or I didn’t think I was feeling any grief, but something happened in May though I know not what. Maybe it was celebrating my grandmother’s 89th birthday without my grandfather. Maybe I’d driven up to their home too many times now thinking he was on a long vacation only for that 5th of May to be the day I knew with certainty I would never see him again, never again bury my face in the crook of his neck and smell his skin, never again watch him in his khaki house shorts, white socks, and brown chanclas walking around and sneaking a bite of pie. Whatever it was that shifted in May has been haunting me since then, and sometimes the grief feels like it will never relent. I see my grandmother struggle with a loss that is forty years heavier than mine and I can’t see straight. But then, last week, I found a letter I had written to my grandfather back in 1999 that he’d saved, and in reading this letter again this weekend I knew it was time to turn to Laurie Ann Guerrero’s book. There are books that help us with our grief, and then there are books that save us from our grief. A Crown for Gumecindo falls into the latter category for me, and, what’s more is that it helped me to see I had to face my grief first.
More links about this book that I urge you to explore: