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Tucson Weekly The Sounds of Memory

In his second collection of poetry, Luis Alberto Urrea wrests a loving tribute from a violent loss.

By Sharon Preiss

FEBRUARY 16, 1998: 

Ghost Sickness, by Luis Alberto Urrea (Cinco Puntos Press). Paper, $11.95.

THE MEDIUM OF poetry is one human voice," stated Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky in a recent magazine interview. "All poetry for me is spoken poetry. The page is just notation."

If poetry, like music, is an aural and oral art, then the best work is based not only on conveying moving content, but creating moving sound. As with good songs, subject and sound in poetry work together, sometimes in subliminal ways, to create meaning. What strikes us most about a great love song is not only the words themselves, but the particular desire or joy or longing of the sound of the music, and how music and words together create a mood that's more than the sum of their parts.

Clearly, Luis Alberto Urrea understands this relationship between word and sound, as evidenced by the following excerpt from the first poem of his latest collection, Ghost Sickness:

I saw the dead nodding sugar skulls.

They danced dark alleys bright

from burning.

Children licked the letters of their names

from glassy candy foreheads. Whorehouse poets

whispered sly reports

to ice cream suited gunmen.

From this opening stanza, there's more than just an indication of the difficulty and treachery of the journey on which we're about to embark. Not only are the images evocative, but so, too, are the sound of the words, intimating danger and difficulty. These poems beg to be read out loud, with their strident consonants and consonance grounding them on the hard landscape they evoke.

Ghost Sickness is, indeed, a treacherous journey. In the title poem, we find ourselves being literally driven through the scorched landscape of some Southwestern memory by the ghost of the narrator's father. And even though the poet is clearly in control, his narrator is not. As we sit in the passenger seat and dig our nails in deeper, neither we nor our narrator dares to whisper, "Let's jump!" because the thrill and intrigue of the ride overwhelm its imminent danger.

In the book's second section, it's the narrator who materializes as driver--the father riding shotgun, backseat driving always. We see the demons of the narrator's own making, how he's allowed himself to be haunted and driven by memory and inescapable images: Mexican poverty, love lost or unrequited, mental and emotional unrest, divorce, questions of youth and aging. We travel deep into darkness here, the ghosts of this section best summarized by the implied loss of a single line repeated in "Culiacán": Each second more is one second less.

Yet this section ends with a prayer for redemption: redemption through love, through lovemaking, the touch of skin on skin, soul on soul. The narrator begs to return to the land of the real, the living: rain your watersongs/across my lips/my hands/can you rain/inside my chest?

His prayer is answered in the two poems of section three, indicating that the narrator, and vicariously the reader, is now coming back into himself, having purged the need for the ghost after this pilgrimage through darkness; we emerge now from hallucination and sickness. There's a clarity, a groundedness in these last two poems. The words and images lose their hard edge: I am tired of writing/about my father/betraying/his skeleton/with confessions, allegations/bald/faced accusations.

The final poem is a clear, level-headed recounting of the horrific car accident that resulted in the father's death; a recounting of the grief and helplessness of a son who could neither delay nor control the sudden and fatal accident.

By the last stanza in this collection, the words and sounds--the feelings--are those of relief. At last we hear harmonious music, a voice that, having traveled through the discord of the abyss, is now clear and still. The ghost has been laid to rest, and peace envelops this difficult landscape of memory, image, word, and sound.

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