What does it mean to long for a home? What does it mean to feel that craving while also craving a 7-11 soda? How many miles do you have to drive and how many weird foods do you have to eat before you feel a sense of your true personality?
MJ Santiago’s new book, Swallow, tries to answer these questions. Before I dive into how much I loved this book, I’m going add a few qualifications: MJ is a queer Mexican-American from Central Florida. I am a cis white man, father to a black child and husband to a black woman. We have “living in Central Florida during formative years” and “conflicted about our place in the world” in common, but that’s about it. My experience is very different from MJ’s, and this book is very much about searching for identity. I want to acknowledge that this review is coming from a place different from theirs. And I want to do justice to the book, but feel slightly underqualified.
That said, Swallow is absolute catnip for me. It’s the exact kind of collection I love to read, and the kind of thing I try to write. The layout of the poems seems unassuming, but is wildly ambitious. It begins as a series of tight, beautiful lyrics of driving down highways drinking gas station sodas, stopping for downbeat diners, and reminiscing about family. I want to hear these poems read over Tom Waits’ studio musicians endlessly vamping jazz riffs. I want to read these poems aloud while sitting on a porch on a sticky summer night with citronella candles warding off mosquitoes.
There is a constant searching for home, a connectedness to land and people, while feeling somehow away from both. This is especially evident in the opening “Self-Portrait as My Ancestry, La Malinche,” which begins with an image of one location being home to two different restaurants and a fruit stand before shifting into a meditation on the woman who was Hernán Cortés’ interpreter. Yet the speaker undercuts traditional characterizations of La Malinche as treacherous by ending the poem with “So, I don’t know what I own. I know that / I am loyal to whatever I can say is mine.” For all the searching, all the physical movement, all the celebration of ephemeral things like food and old houses, there is a pining in these poems. There is a sense that family and pets and the people we have one-off interactions with on the bus matter.
Midway through, the book takes a turn for the surreal with a series of lengthier poems, beginning with “HOME.” “HOME” sees our speaker come face-to-face with an alligator and unable to turn away. By the time we get to “revaluation,” the poem lets us know “the alligators have taken over the ihop / and the denny’s, and the bob evan’s.” Body and gender becomes less defined, as in the poem “When Asked to Explain What I Want.” A roach on the wall of a Taco Bell is imagined amongst the stars, “glowling grossly in the sky alive at the very least.” “HOME” is a hard turn into uncertainty, and it’s a wonderful midpoint. If these poems are all the same speaker—which is how I read the book—you are seeing the speaker shift into thornier questions of identity and reality.
You think you’re reading one thing, and then that thing morphs into another thing. These kinds of disparate poems existing in the same short manuscript is a tricky thing to pull off, but Santiago does so wonderfully.
Chris Corlew is a writer and musician living in Chicago. With Bob Sykora, he co-hosts The Line Break, a podcast about poetry. With Brendan Johnson, he is one half of the musical project b and the shipwrecked sailor. He mostly exists on Twitter.