A Gentleness More Potent than Death in “Midwestern Skulls for the Broken Latino” by Roy G. Guzmán

Read “Midwestern Skulls for the Broken Latino” here.

For the past week, a dead squirrel has lain in the berm a block from our house. I walk by it every day taking my daughter to school. Sometimes I remember to cross the road before we get to it. Sometimes I don’t remember it’s there until I smell it. I try not to look. After the weekend, I forgot it was there, and when I looked down, I saw its face—which on Friday had been the peaceful, eyes-closed, sleep of death—was peeled back entirely. The skull was empty and picked bare, probably by ants. The body remained furred, but that naked skull was startling.

What do we do with death? We try to keep separate from reminders of it. Death is one of the truths of life which we have no control over, so why think about it? Or we cover fear with faith, a set of precepts or promises that can make us feel safe. Some choose to stare deeply, to inure themselves to the grim inevitability. But who can smell week-old death, who can see the bare skull, the rotting body of roadkill up close, without feeling a little uncomfortable in their own flesh? These questions rise to the surface as I read and reread Roy G. Guzmán’s poem, “Midwestern Skulls for the Broken Latino.”

This poem is a tension rod holding death on one end and gentleness on the other. The image of a fox sets up how death and gentleness reside in the same body, are two ends of the same thing:

People who crave the jaw
& not the fox’s gentle tail—
            his land mine
            of teeth

The pairing continues throughout, a whirling two-step, first toward blood, then toward softness. Racoon feet are made into a necklace which a woman giving birth wears. Secrets are “rolled into the mouths / of strangers” while a “father can make up / suffering’s seasons.” Guzmán builds the image of a child in a garden and follows it with a shipwreck and a jawbone cup which is “handed down / for all to drink from.” Finally, the tension is drawn taut enough for this revelation: the speaker becomes the fox which has been dismembered, eaten by a coyote, and used as a vessel for drink:

I appear dead—
but here, here in my chest, is where my father
            finds the new continent
            of directions measured in forgiveness.

The father, the cause of suffering in the poem, is gifted the grace of the fox, the unasked-for “gentle tail.”

Something about this poem is so kind, even with all its focus on death, even as it draws our attention to the cruelty of humans, to our obsession with the bodies of dead animals. Guzmán questions the choices of the people described here but does not condemn. In fact, the speaker offers forgiveness. The broken body offers forgiveness. Within this generosity lies the miracle of the poem.

The poem brings into focus people’s cruelty to other people. The ways in which oppressors blithely uses human bodies in the pursuit of personal gain:

                                                Did they really mean
to leave us shipwrecked—those sailors
who recognized flesh but not what the flesh
                                    can camouflage?

The intention doesn’t change the outcome: death comes, and it too often comes by human hands. But the fact that the speaker even asks the above question show such generous empathy. What can better break our oppressive behaviors than such tenderness in the face of violence?

This poem isn’t like my hackneyed roadkill story. The poem dwells within the corpse. There is no separation between the skull and the speaker. They become, in the end, the same creature. I think that’s how this poem manages to keep death from swallowing it whole. The fallen are granted enough agency and power here to, in the end, find peace and offer it to the father, the sailors, the people with fresh blood on their fingers.

Guzmán, Roy G. “Midwestern Skulls for the Broken Latino,” Catrachos: Poems, 2020.