Book Review: Revelations by Ruben Quesada
Ruben Quesada is the author of Next Extinct Mammal and Exiled from the Throne of Night: Selected Translations of Luis Cernuda. His poems and translations have appeared in the Best American Poetry series, American Poetry Review, TriQuarterly, and other anthologies and journals, and he has been awarded fellowships and grants from Vermont Studio Center, Squaw Valley Community of Writers, and Santa Fe Art Institute.
Quesada serves as faculty at The School of the Art Institute where he teaches poetry. Quesada is the founder of the Latinx Writers Caucus, which meets annually at AWP (Association of Writing Programs) and serves to connect and advocate for Latinx and Latin American poets and writers from around the world.
A Review of Ruben Quesada's Revelations
Ruben Quesada’s Revelations is collected within a quartet, each section of poems introduced by a translation of the late Luis Cernuda (1902-1963), a Spanish poet exiled at the start of Spain’s Civil War in 1936. Quesada’s poems meditate from the preceding Cernuda translations to explore the relationship between the human body and language to faith and religiosity.
In the opening poem titled “Angels in the Sun,” an existential question is posed in order to mediate the internal struggle with one’s individual faith. The doubt that questions faith is persistent in the subsequent poems, which appear enumerated, as opposed to traditionally titled. “Angels in the Sun” sets up the philosophical inquiry that is explored throughout Revelations in the form of religious awe:
Come angles! Come beasts!
“Angels in the Sun” points to both reality and otherworldliness to interrogate doubt as well as belief, and also show the communion between holy and unholy in regards to the body’s senses.
For instance, in the prosaic poem enumerated I, the speaker’s first “revelation” points to the individual’s questioning of Christ:
Christ was never more than a man nailed to a cross but from him I learned that an entire life fits into a person’s palm like a book of poems like an executioner’s hammer now at thirty five I have learned confession won’t save me
Quesada’s poem avoids punctuation altogether, setting the reader into the speaker’s stream-of-consciousness, opening a paradoxical relation between fluid and fragmented. The poem is fluid in that it reveals a narrative, but fragmented in the lineation of how the story is told. Moreover, the presentation of one simile following another allows for a double meaning to one image, all the while giving significance to the following image that appears after the second simile. Specifically, both “like a book of poems” and “like an executioner’s hammer” can be compared to an “entire life fits into a person’s palm,” to imply an “entire life” can be narrated through a book of poems as well as that “entire life” being subject to the dangerous connotation of said “life” being “like an executioner’s hammer.” The lack of punctuation also allows for a second statement to exist for the simile “like an executioner’s hammer,” where the comparison is now situated with “I have learned confession won’t save me.” The poem offers readers their own revelation through the speaker’s shifting change of thought, demonstrating the effect language has on the interpretation of an individual’s beliefs. That said, the imagery quickly strengthens the declaration “Christ was never more than a man nailed to a cross.” Quesada’s form dramatizes the process in reaching truth, and thus offers insight into how belief turns to inquiry and unlocks room for a new belief system founded on the experience of one’s own.
In accordance to the revelatory stream-of-consciousness manifested into a prosaic poem, poem IX offers insight to how the unholy and holy reconcile to offer paradise on earth. In Christian theology, sins of the flesh exist in order to condemn erotism, whereas poem IX subverts condemnation by using pleasure as a means of feeling longing and desire to that joy:
you told me about the time in Salt Lake City when you went away to college when you’d spent a night in a sling high on heroin with a line of married Mormon men waiting their turn to be inside you the smell of the fireplace filling your nose is what you remembered most beyond the window mountains blanched with snow
The imagery is of drug-use and eroticism, two methods of overpowering the senses in an act of feeling beyond ordinary, arguably beatific. The speaker’s recollection of “high on heroin with a line of married Mormon men” is spoken matter-of-factly, yet matrimony between sacred and profane is read through the piece’s tone, normalizing the sexual act as well as keeping aligned to the thematic doubt over religious veracity within Quesada’s Revelations. The past tense verbs, paired with the serene imagery of “the smell of the fireplace filling your nose” and “mountains blanched with snow,” create the atmosphere of nostalgia. Nostalgia communicates a sense of longing—whether or not the speaker wishes to know and experience what their partner is relaying to them; or, the speaker is mimicking the tone of what their partner tells them. The poem ends on a note of spectacular awe: “above us a hunk of clouds formed grackles crackled above a church lot nothing more was said.” The metaphor visualizes clouds taking the form of blackbirds over a church, signaling a sort of spiritual forewarning. As the poems do not contain incredulity of a higher, divine power, the speaker’s reaction leaves the reader to speculate the significance of ending on a mystic image—what revelation are we now in possession of?
Ruben Quesada’s Revelations explores the truths in paradox, giving sense and dimension to the word “revelation” in order to show the astonishment in obtaining a truth often considered exclusive to divine or supernatural law. Quesada constitutes a newfound belief system from doubt, configures the holy with the unholy, and crafts a beautiful juxtaposition between his narrative poems and Cernuda’s lyricism. Ruben Quesada’s Revelations is an open investigation that allows readers the same privilege—to ask, to answer, and always speculate.