“My Uncle’s Killer / wipes spots of toothpaste from the bathroom mirror / he shares nightly with his son. There, he’s humanized / again in my imagination…”
writes J. Estanislao Lopez, in a poem from his debut collection, We Borrowed Gentleness, out last year from Alice James Books. Lopez writes with ferocious tenderness. It’s not as if I am counting, but Michael has been dead for a year.
As Susannah Mintz notes in her essay, “Commit Yourself,” found in the Spring 2021 Nashville Review, “‘I don’t know what to say’ is the worst thing to say to someone who is suffering.”
I first encountered Lopez’s writing in August of 2022, when Michael was still alive and mercy was still possible. Lopez’s family was from the same border town as my family, and although our birthplaces differed, our roots and stories were the same; we had the same salt and dirt in our blood. I interviewed him over Zoom late one weeknight in my studio apartment, the humidity seeping through the walls. We spoke of assimilation, the pressure to speak Spanish—or not—migration, immigration and the devastation it wreaks, as well as the hope it creates. Both of us are products of the vast and powerful engine of the American Dream.
“Can I tell you / that, sometimes, I utter the word justice and mean revenge?” Lopez asks, in the same poem. My own anger was already being displaced. It would be in the next year that Michael would commit suicide. It felt like the world had continued to spin, leaving me behind, waiting, waving, at the bus stop. I was out of orbit.
Fact: He was twenty-eight years old.
Fact: I knew him as well as some, not as well as others.
Fact: When they found him, they had to duck under his body in order to cut him down, an image that, like the faces of my friends (as they fell like dominos), I will not be able to get out of my head.
Susannah Mintz asks, in one of my favorite essays: “Did you know that only female mosquitoes need blood to survive, that the males feed on plants and don’t live more than a month? What kind of love could you make in that time? Is it even love at all? It seems desperately sad, but maybe it’s fantastic and liberating, knowing the end ahead of time.”
I think about these lines often in the wake and rustle of his death. When did he know? Like Lopez’s Uncle’s killer, did he [redacted], think about it, mull it over, or was it a lightning quick impulse, like biting a fingernail? Was it fantastic and liberating, those final moments, knowing what was coming next?
What, precisely, do the dead know, that we don’t?
“On my best nights, I mean mercy, but my best / is my rarest form,” writes Lopez. In our interview, he speaks of the way violence pushes like a tide, the way migration erodes and changes culture. My own capacity for violence, my own ability to hurt and be hurt, surprises me even to this day. The shake of a seizure, the burn of a swallow of liquor—there is so much violence caked into the foundations of what we experience, see, believe.
Once, I thought I would forgive. Now, a year later, I’m still waiting for the feeling to appear, the way you wait for a friend to come out of the rain. If this year has taught me anything, it’s that love has not made me any kinder, more generous, any better than I was before.
In a monthly column I am writing for a poetry magazine, I comment that “poetry finds us when we need it most,” but I’m not sure if I really believe that. Poetry shocks and devours us, chewing us up and spitting us back out. Poetry will always be there; a rich, open maw of connection. It’s not about possessing the tools, it’s about using them.
I don’t even feel halfway healed, but in the cracked egg and wet yolk of my life, pieces are beginning to come together.
Lopez’s final lines are arresting. They are an uneasy call to action, feet resting on uneven ground, and I rise to meet the challenge, taking advantage of the only tools I have available to me.
Maybe it’s not about being better. Maybe it’s just about being.
As Lopez notes:
Freedom, after all
is what binds me to the worst version of myself.
Shout freedom. You can’t help it. You’ve made a threat.