Often a debut collection will satisfy a reader’s hunger pains only to be wiped away after the initial reading like stubborn crumbs. Laurie Ann Guerrero’s A Tongue in the Mouth of the Dying defiantly demands a place at the table. This collection offers sweet and savory poems that invite the reader into a domestic sphere where all is not as it seems. Poems like “Babies under the House,” “Esperanza Tells Her Friends the Story of La Llorona,” and “My Mother Woke a Rooster,” signal the intensity of full-bodied language that is delivered throughout this tantalizing debut.
Guerrero’s complex narratives rely on powerful bodily tropes such as bone, skin, and tongue. In the introductory poem, “Preparing the Tongue,” she writes, “In my hands, it’s cold and knowing as bone.” Language assumes the form of a tongue “Shrouded in plastic,” which the speaker carefully unwinds. She craves “to enchant it: / let it taste the oil in my skin, lick / the lash of my eye.” Instead of employing domestic language generally associated with meal preparation, the speaker forcefully admits that she will “lacerate the frozen muscle, tear / the brick-thick cud conductor in half to fit / a ceramic red pot.” It will be painful, if not bloody, and by the end the “frozen muscle” will be transformed into sustenance for the body. These poems are crafted out of urgency for consumption.
Throughout the collection, Guerrero asks what it means to have a tongue with no voice, to suffer quietly, to rewrite history. A series of poems titled “One Man’s Name: Colonization of the Poetic,” explores the caustic relationship between heritage and language. In the final installment of the series, Guerrero writes:
Write the body well, I say.
Pink man, write well, write body.
Little pink man: write books,
write history, white history: Cortéz
and I have the same hands: grandmother.
Bodies ripped with babies and men: molcajete:
pounded, blood-red dust, pigment
for painting. Art. Framed in gold.
In her visceral debut, Guerrero hacks away unnecessary language “like an axe murderer.” By relying on careful lineation and striking imagery, she weaves a complex tapestry that displays a body ravaged by history. She sews images together with language like a skein of blood red embroidery thread. A Tongue in the Mouth of the Dying reveals what it means to conquer with, and be conquered by, imagistic language.
Guerrero’s poems are not silent. Like a raging rooster clawing its way across a tin roof, these poems demand the reader pay attention. In “Put Attention,” the speaker remembers her grandmother’s inability to translate Spanish into English, thereby butchering her own demand for the speaker to “Ponga atención.” “Put attention, put attention. Put it where?” the speaker asks. “Shall I put attention in my glass and drink it soft like Montepulciano / d’Abruzzo? Like Shiner Bock? Horchata?” With each poem Guerrero petitions, “Put [your] attention somewhere large.” A Tongue in the Mouth of the Dying repeatedly dismembers large issues like family, race, and history in an effort to make them more digestible. Through careful construction, these poems become palatable bites that leave the reader feeling satisfied instead of overfed.