Book Review: In Bloom, by Esteban Rodriguez

Book Review: In Bloom, by Esteban Rodriguez
Review by Jory Mickelson
Stephen F. Austin State University Press, 2020

Esteban Rodríguez’s collection In Bloom unfolds and examines what it means to be a body, in a family, in a world of divergent cultures. In Bloom serves as an ever-expanding cartography or roadmap for the speaker and reader in these poems. Surprising, sometimes violent, but never flinching, these examinations are rich and engaging.

Rodríguez’s work is firmly grounded in the world. He embraces the specifics of pop culture to center the reader, rather than keeping the reader suspended in an “any era.” We are given a wealth of material to read and remember: Dickies, the Golden Arches, Coke and Nikes, DayQuil, and pogs. From “Pogs:”

At recess we’d gather, kneel
and pile our shares into towers,
and with our slammers, with that flamed
eight-ball we attempted to embody,
we’d adjust our strength with each turn

While rooting us in pop culture, these poems are solidly of the body. The growing body of the speaker, the bodies of the speaker’s parents and relatives, and the longed-for body of desire. Rodriguez’s poems are never far from abundant physicality. From “Cement:”

…while my father, home
from being defined by a construction hat
all day, moves to the center of our yard,
where he bends his spine to an angle of overtime,
and squeezes his hands into a pair of gloves

Rodríguez’s exquisite attention to the body, its movements, its restings, and its breakings, carries a reader through the narratives of these poems. More than stories, these poems serve as a stage on which the body is displayed, rearranged and pondered. The stories told in In Bloom transport the reader through the book on one level, but their superb detailing of bodies act as a second kind of carrying that sweep the reader along. Brief excerpts can’t show you the full range of these poems’ descriptive powers, but one striking example is “Primer poema para ti.” It opens:

I like to touch your scars in complete
darkness, the ones from fences,
sun-scorched collars, from chains

One of the delights of In Bloom are its odes, the lyric poems that address a particular subject. They elevate and reveal the wonder of the everyday. Rodríguez writes odes to silverfish, a chained dog, a Texas porch, and even dial-up internet. His ability to take what is overlooked and reexamine it is one of this collection’s many strengths. From the opening of “Ode to Dial-up:”

The century arrived,
and I made an altar of cords,
modems, of wires I knew not
where to plug, of a desk

Rodríguez’s poems navigate the often difficult and complex issues of what happens when disparate cultures come into contact. In this case, Hispanic and Anglo culture. These poems examine the speaker’s growing divide between the received culture of their parents, and grandparents. In addition, these poems interrogate the intricacies of desiring and being excluded from the wider Anglo peer culture the speaker finds themselves in. From “Egging:”

In the beginning
we harassed our colonias,
bombarded mobile homes,
semis, sheds, spent the last
of our cartons on rotted framing
and abandoned walls of brick.
And when we graduated
to neighborhoods with lampposts,
driveways, mailboxes,
we hurled our eggs with purpose,
with the feeling that each door
stained was payback for what
we didn’t have:…

Rodríguez looks and looks again at childhood, family, religion, and the Colonias of South Texas. Amidst the unincorporated residential areas along the US/Mexico border, these poems take root, rise up, and open their mouths to speak about what is found there. But these poems aren’t merely the telling of stories, they compel a reader to stay, to begin to listen. In Bloom refuses to let us look away.

JORY MICKELSON’S first book, WILDERNESS//KINGDOM, is the inaugural winner of the Evergreen Award Tour from Floating Bridge Press and a 2020 High Plains Book Award Finalist in Poetry. Their publications include Court Green, Jubilat, Sixth Finch, Diode Poetry Journal, The Rumpus, Ninth Letter, Vinyl Poetry and other journals.