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Know the West

Reimagining nature poetry

Benjamin Garcia’s ‘Thrown in the Throat’ uses plants and landscapes to think past oppressive structures.

 

There are many sites of entrapment in Benjamin Garcia’s debut poetry collection, Thrown in the Throat, winner of the 2019 National Poetry Series. Whether a closet or the bellies of carnivorous flora, they work either as places of refuge or the ground from which Garcia questions social structures — racism, heteronormativity, cisnormativity, sex-negativity and classism. Personified plants draw attention to and playfully protest norms; the corpse flower, for example, is labeled a “goddess” and a “corpse in drag.” This disruption is reflected in Garcia’s choice of form, which uses frequent double dashes (//), to create a kind of forced closure and lend a frenetic, leaping and ultimately devastating pace to the work. The poems are funny, sexy, critical and consistent in their attempts to study how narratives can limit identity expression. “We must be confident being more direct,” Garcia writes, addressing anyone who has yet to realize or feel the results of inaccurate language.         

Set primarily in New Mexico and the “gut of Texas,” Thrown in the Throat brings urgency to nature and rural life by highlighting systemic forms of violence. Garcia describes Highway 287 as “skewering” the state of Texas, where the speaker’s father refuses to stop for anything but gas, fearing both micro and macro acts of aggression. As a result, one brother earns the nickname “Castrado,” after cutting himself while attempting to urinate in a can. A restaurant owner refuses the family service, an act that magnifies the ways in which the systemic racism of a place can exclude Black, Indigenous and people of color, impacting the body.

Krystal Quiles/High Country News

Four poems in Thrown in the Throat share the title “The Language in Question,” in which Garcia explores the restrictions of linguistic structures. The first uses animal life as a metaphor in order to emphasize imperialism:

The language in question likes conquest // moves west because it hungers like… / the larvae of the caddisfly.

In lakes and rivers, caddisfly larvae create protective cases for their bodies, using silk secreted from glands on either side of their mouths to incorporate sand, bits of leaves, rock, bark, shell and other material onto the outsides of the tubes that surround them. Camouflaged, they are able to function and impact the systems around them largely undetected. Garcia wields the caddisfly and other metaphors to brilliantly highlight the “worming” nature of colonial language. “Ah-dee-ose // ah-me-goes,” he writes, concluding the first poem of the series by demonstrating the severing effect “when the accent doesn’t even come close” — how systems of privilege force English to remain, most often, the language in question.

Thrown in the Throat’s poems personify plants with remarkable traits to imagine ways out of limiting narratives. In “Ode to the Pitcher Plant,” for example, a plant known for being carnivorous — seducing and drowning prey with its nectar-filled pitfall trap — self-identifies as pansexual and gender-fluid: a “three headed // head giver” waving its spade “for any lad or lass.” In the traditional nature poem, landscape often serves as a backdrop against which to explore and define a sense of self.

Garcia’s plants speak with their own voices, critiquing the social norms that limit human life.

But Garcia’s plants speak with their own voices, critiquing the social norms that limit human life. These odes read as celebrations of kink, of queerness, of “maneaters” and drag queens. They demand “a better name for when women climax.” Celebratory, empowering and explorative in nature, Garcia’s poems expose the link between compulsory monogamy and hetero and cis normativity, with systemic social control.

In Thrown in the Throat, Garcia uses figurative closets as sites of both entrapment and transformation, most evidently in “Conversations with my Father // a Poem in Closet Verse,” and “The Great Glass Closet.” In the first, double dashes separate two columns on the page: The left column represents the father’s comments, the right includes the speaker’s replies. The divisions emphasize the closeted queerness of the speaker while he communicates with his father: “When was the last time / you took a girl to the movies // it’s been a long time / since I’ve seen a movie.” Conversations avoiding queerness snake across the page, sidestepping the obvious. The closeting of the speaker’s identity exists loudly within the white space.

In a long prose poem, “The Great Glass Closet,” the speaker compares himself to Harry Potter for sleeping beneath his family’s clothes; he identifies the trunk of a car as “a kind of closet” for an uncle on crutches, who “couldn’t cross the border / by foot;” he also compares closets to prisons — to places where one is closed-in and forced to “(open) what (they can)”. This speaker, occupying multiple closets, opened books: “Reading, I learned the difference … between close meaning to shut, and close, meaning almost there.” The relationship between close and close might act as a thesis to this text, where the same tools used to create and define distances can also be repurposed to survive them.

Taneum Bambrick is the author of Vantage. Her work appears in the New Yorker, PEN, American Poetry Review and elsewhere. She is a 2020 Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. Follow her at @BambrickTaneum. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.