A Review of Tomás Q. Morín's Patient Zero / by Peter LaBerge

BY WESLEY SEXTON

 Tomás Q. Morín's  Patient Zero  (Copper Canyon Press, 2017).

Tomás Q. Morín's Patient Zero (Copper Canyon Press, 2017).

In his second collection of poetry, Tomás Q. Morín takes to task some of poetry’s biggest questions—those of language, love, and myth–in his signature, playful style, which is awe-inspired and reminiscent of Mary Ruefle or James Tate, yet derivative of no one. Whether he is mythologizing, investigating the types of influence we inherit as members of culture and language, or sigh-singing the cyclical process of love lost and found, Morín manages to tell it all in a way that inspires open-eyed curiosity, or, in the darkest cases, disappointed amazement. Those readers seeking a lens through which the world appears both strange and amazing, despite and because of its brokenness, will love encountering this new book.

Again and again, the speakers in Morín’s Patient Zero seek to understand the terms of their existence—what it means to live in a world where so little is ever fully explained. One might think such a task would take the form of intense and widespread questioning, but there are extremely few questions actually posed in Patient Zero. Rather, Morín encourages us to indulge in imaginative instances of history, persona, and impossibility until a conglomeration of provisional and possible answers to the question of truth begin to emerge. Throughout the book, Morín employs various intellectual strategies such as ekphrasis, translation, and epistolary forms; but never does his speaker take him/herself unproductively seriously. In fact, Morín seems to take pains to ensure nothing is too neatly wrapped, undermining poems at their most conclusive points with fantastical and absurd assertions, such as “one could love a herring / I suppose if the timing were right and the moon / shone just so and the fish could order a pizza / for two in near perfect French.” In another instance, Morín’s speaker interrupts a desperate search for a runaway lover to comment on the appearance of 3s and 8s: “those conjoined twins / disastrously separated at birth.” No matter the context, there is always a willingness to let absurdity into the mental landscape; and in every case, the situation is rendered more artfully and truthfully because of the inclusion.

Always, Morín’s poems navigate a balance between fancy and reality. Sometimes a poem begins with a slightly impossible set of assumptions and proceeds logically from there, as in “Ai,” which imagines the Japanese American poet as an atomic element and proceeds with a faithful description according to those terms. In another way, the speaker in “At the Supermarket” describes the scene and all its characters to us as if they are “trapped in a Rockwell.” At other times Morín’s speaker will use facts and logical processes to reach delightfully unexpected conclusions. In “Gold Record,” for example, the historical fact that NASA sent a record of various earthly sounds onto the Voyager space shuttle lands us on “shag rugs,” listening to music with a “race smart enough to escape / gravity and cross the peacock-black / of galaxies.”

Consistently, Morín’s poems create a moment where the fantastical and whimsical butt right up against the mundane and the ubiquitous. It is often at their most absurd moments that the poems in Patient Zero reveal to us something deeply and undeniably true. When circus clowns cram into a tiny car in “Circus Pony,” this cultural epitome of absurdity becomes a way to speak authentically about performativity of the emotional self and the particulars of existence. In this way, Morín’s poems awaken us to the absurdity that exists within us and within our world to make it so we may delight in that absurdity, to make us more human.

Throughout Patient Zero, there are also many clear-eyed attempts to come to terms with what it means to be a modern person and to be influenced by a truly syncretic culture. Morín’s speakers claim both characters from the Old Testament and professional wrestlers from ‘80s television as sources of inspiration and cultural identity. We encounter attempts and non-attempts at translation, and we are asked to question the selective power language enacts on our consciousness. As mentioned above, the poem “Ai” imagines the poet Ai Ogawa as a periodic element, literally becoming one of the fundamental building blocks out of which Morín builds his book. Cumulatively, the reader receives a view of globalization and cultural relativity as processes of creativity and perspective building.

Similarly, Morín includes in this collection a brilliant translation of Pablo Neruda’s “Calle a calle,” which is more commonly translated as “Walking Around,” displaying a glimpse of the talent brought most fully to fruition in Morín’s translation of The Heights of Machu Pichu.

Amidst these homages to intercultural experience is a deep-seeded and ambivalently answered question: How much can honestly be transferred from one culture to another? What is lost in the process of translation? In the poem “Saudades” (saudade being a word that is imprecisely translated as nostalgic), Morín’s speaker warns us against translation “unless [we’ve] been a disciple of the rough grief / that lovingly wraps [us] in its wings.” However, Morín also invites us into such discipleship, saying it

is warmer
than one would expect, so much so that it’s easy
to forget for a moment something trivial like pigs
aren’t supposed to fly or that if you say saudades
with enough pain and heart the pigs of your past will come
trotting out of the dark, doing their little sideways dance
around you, shaking their hips to the drum
in your chest until you forget what a frown is
or why we need them.

In a similar way, the speakers in “Little Road” and “Red Herring” relish in the imaginative possibilities presented by misunderstood and poorly-pronounced languages. Here, a connection might be made to Morín’s willful obfuscation of mundane reality throughout Patient Zero. Just as a person less-than-fluent in French can walk around a French market pretending to be blown “so many kisses / with every r and l and w they speak,” there is a way in which Morín’s poems encourage us to resist perfect understanding so as to see the world with curiosity and awe.

This encouragement, however, never tends toward escapism or willful ignorance—perhaps because Morín acknowledges some of the world’s deepest sadnesses in his poems. Morín is not oblivious to the damage we do to each other, but he makes us see the “pitiful soul, hand at his punctured / side, trying to groan louder than the TVs / the neighborhood keeps turning up.” In a poem addressed to an aborted daughter, Morín’s speaker tells of “all the birthdays / I’ve celebrated but that haven’t come / to pass since that day long ago when we agreed / it would be better if you never drew that / first breath of air.”

Morín’s speakers do not close their eyes to sadness, but they do not close their eyes to possibility, either. We experience, as readers, a push-pull relationship with a world that does not yet know the best way to love us. On both grand and personal scales, Morín enacts the story of “love / gone cold, and its light, the clammy light we might spend / years saying we can’t live without and then do.” Whether told through the grandiosity of eternal space travel or the specificity of a weekend vacation, the poems in Patient Zero tell a story of love’s incompleteness, creating in us a longing in which the world seems beautiful. In the book’s titular poem, Morín imagines the moment that Adam and Eve fell into lovesickness. The speaker speculates as to the source of their affliction, and though a definitive “patient zero” remains unnamed, we eventually learn of lovesickness that it is “something, and divine, and endless.” For Morín, if the world has a stable state, it is this oscillation between love and disappointment, or the true expression of love together with its souring. In some cases, both of these oscillations occur simultaneously, as in Morín’s supermarket retelling of the Caritá Romana, as well as his longest poem, “Sing Sing,” in which a Muse is imprisoned for lovingly intervening in her poet’s life. In both poems, tales of love and imprisonment are knotted together and retold in an identifiably American landscape.

Morín takes us from the enormous to the minutiae and from the universal to the personal, always encouraging us to come to terms as fully as possible with what it means to be a person. What does it mean to inherit one culture, complete with its language and habits and qualitative assumptions, instead of another? What does it mean to admit the limits of our understanding? What does it mean to be profoundly disappointed by the same world that asks us in a million strange ways to love it? The poems in Patient Zero take as a central concern the belief that the stories we tell ourselves affect who we become, and in response, they offer us several marvelously unique narrative possibilities.

 

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Wesley Sexton is pursuing an MFA at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in online journals such as Story South, Literary Juice and The Connecticut River Review. He lives with his wife and cat near a large Pin Oak tree and several brambleberry shrubs.