January 25, 2019KR Reviews

On Unaccompanied by Javier Zamora

Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2017. 88 pages. $16.00.

In “To Abuelita Neli,” the introductory poem to Unaccompanied, Javier Zamora’s remarkable debut, the reader is immediately gifted a moment of intimacy. Zamora writes, “Abuelita, I can’t go back and return. / There’s no path to papers.” And what we’d imagine might follow—poems of resignation, of resentment and rage at two nations, one torn apart by civil war, another inflamed by its civic policies—is consistently tempered by such intimacy. For white and non-immigrant readers like myself, this intimacy is not ours. Despite the imperative mode in poems like “Instructions for My Funeral” and “Dancing in Buses,” despite the second-person you in “How to Enlist,” “Abuelita Says Goodbye,” and “Seeing Your Mother Again,” Unaccompanied is not a book of radical empathy. It doesn’t allow for the reader to easily identify with the speaker’s experience. It doesn’t offer emotional catharsis. It doesn’t feel obligated to humanize. It rightfully assumes all of that. Tells a non-immigrant reader to catch up. Get with the program.

The program is defined by an imposed deprivation. Unaccompanied narrates Zamora’s experience, at the age of nine, of migrating from El Salvador to the US, with the acuity and precision of reportage cast in the shade of trauma. Sections I and II read like a catalogue of what has been and what will be denied to the speaker. First, it is sanctuary, as in the poem “Saguaros,” set at the US-Mexican border where Zamora recollects images of “not the promised land but barbwire and barbwire / with nothing growing underneath.” Then, it is language itself; it is communication, as in the same poem where “bats speak English only.” It is the sensuous experience of picking mangoes in Salvador, of reveling in “the white flor de izote,” before resigning to the loss of a beloved earth: “I can’t keep mangoes from falling six meters down, / to where dogs lick what my aunts, / Mom, Dad, and I still cannot.” (“Montage with Mangoes, Volcano, and Flooded Streets”). And perhaps most significantly, it is agency in Zamora’s own migration: “The Mexican never said how long. / ¿How long? Not long. ¿How much? / Not much. Never told us we’d hide in vans like matchsticks” (“On a Dirt Road Outside Oaxaca”).

In “To the President-Elect,” Zamora writes, “I’m still / in that van that picked us up from ‘Devil’s Highway.’” At first blush, still appears to be a temporal stillness: the deferred experience of trauma articulated so unforgettably in Louise Glück’s “Gretel in Darkness.” Gretel, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, turns to her brother and says, “Hansel / we are there still and it is real, real, / that black forest and the fire in earnest.” For Gretel, the deferred experience is never figurative. It is always “real, real,” and is happening now. The same is true for Zamora.

The “fire in earnest” suggests the means of the witch’s murder as well Gretel’s fury, a fury Zamora similarly carries “like matchsticks,” with their incendiary potential, throughout Unaccompanied. The “matchsticks” offer another way to consider Zamora’s use of the word still. John Keats writes, “Thou still unravished bride of quietness,” and thus imbues the titular Grecian urn with the potential to yet be ravished. And it is that very potentiality, that still-ness, that seems to gift the urn its beauty. It is a still-ness of possibilities, of possible alteration. I think Zamora subscribes to a similar belief. The desire for the potentiality of change. Poem after poem mines the “still” particularities of memory, searching intently for a fissure: a moment the poet might intervene against in order to change a narrative already and forever inevitable.

In this way, Unaccompanied most often resembles an elegy, or rather it employs several elegiac tropes. Because Zamora is dissatisfied with the turn of events, he rewrites the experience over and over again, which is the practice of an elegist; against the cold logic of reality, the elegist “still” believes they might make a difference, might change the outcome, if they can just get the telling right.

Of course, Unaccompanied is elegiac. The book consistently confronts what has been deprived, what has been lost. Loss begins to accrue in Salvador, before the poet’s birth. In “Crybaby,” Zamora recounts the US military involvement in El Salvador’s civil war. He writes, “Before I was born, the dawn locomotion of troops / was the town’s alarm . . . // Those gringos wore uniforms.” The poem concludes with another moment of still-ness: “I know no one slept before my birth. / For years after, / still, no one slept.”

Another poet might see their recollections of a lost homeland veer towards nostalgia, toward an idealized vision of home, a fallen Eden. Zamora’s recollections of El Salvador retain the ambiguities and complexities of his lived experience. Consider the distressed lineage explored in “I Don’t Want to Speak of ‘Don Chepe.’” Consider the domestic strife confronted in “Postpartum,” “Then, It Was So,” and “Mom Responds to Her Shaming,” a series of poems that grant the troubled narrative of the speaker’s parents’ relationship the dignity of truth. Consider the blunt confession in “El Salvador”: “Tonight, how I wish // you made it easier to love you, Salvador.” The loss has always already occurred. And continues to occur, defining the experience of a refugee—losses that are both personal and national.

Still, for me, Unaccompanied is a book of hope and of hopeful reconciliations. In “Cassette Tape,” Zamora writes, “I won’t be back soon. I can’t vote anywhere, / I will etch visas on toilet paper and throw them from a lighthouse.” The image conveys both the righteous anger of a people denied legal status and the near-magical hope akin to a message in a bottle. Nowhere is this ambiguity more fully realized than in the virtuosic sequence, “June 10, 1999,” that closes the book, in which Zamora ends with a familial claim. “Everyone’s working,” he writes, “Mom Dad Tía Lupe Tía Mali / working under different names / I sit here writing our names.”

Ryan Black
Ryan Black is the author of Death of a Nativist, winner of the 2016 Poetry Society of America Chapbook Fellowship, selected by Linda Gregerson. He has published previously or has work forthcoming in AGNI, Blackbird, Ninth Letter, Ploughshares, Southern Review, and elsewhere, and has received fellowships from the Adirondack Center for Writing, The Millay Colony for the Arts, and the Queens Council on the Arts. He is the Director of Undergraduate Creative Writing at Queens College/CUNY and lives in Jackson Heights.