Saturday 30 April 2016

Reliquaria by R. A. Villanueva

American poets in London have long made it a more interesting place to be.  There are many; some stay more or less forever, others come and go.  Some are also commentators and Ron Villanueva’s one of these.  I met him at the Troubadour a few months ago when we were both on a panel discussing the “I” in poetry.  By then I’d read enough of his poems to be sure I wanted the book. 

Reliquaria: it’s clear roughly what that means, something to do with relics and reliquaries… but exactly?  The word’s not in the Shorter OED or Lewis & Short (classical Latin); nor is it clearly defined online.  I got some clerical (not Catholic) help.  Independently we worked out that reliquarium is ecclesiastical Latin for a reliquary and may also stand for a place where relics (perhaps boxed in reliquaries) are kept – just as the house of a poem contains stanzas and lines and words, and a collection contains poems.  Reliquaria (plural) also makes you think of the things themselves that are left behind, whether bones or memories – things that appear in the poems.

So it’s a good title: you think you know where you are with it but then..?  Google it and the first page results are mostly the book!  

Going down a layer, poems have titles like ‘Vanitas’, ‘What the bones tell us’, ‘Fishheads’.  The book invites layered thinking as with the cemetery in ‘All Souls’ Day’, which starts:

Here see the city of makeshift things:
ramshackle balustrades, stopgap pipes,

clotheslines of staples and twine.
What surer proof of the risen Christ

than this tomb-stacked city,
its lungs of bamboo. Gravestone town of scaffolds

and cellophane. Smoke-heft of burnt plastic,
of tin, match-lit ranges of ash.

The poem’s as packed as the cemetery with details of the strange after-life of death.  The fullest lines bristle with consonants but also have assonance to give them music (eg. ramshackle, balustrades, stopgap; pipes, clotheslines, twine, Christ).  Between the couplets is much-needed space for the reader to walk, as between gravestones.  The looser second sentence offers space between the lists, a vowel-filled change of tone.  Words, syntax and line-ends all work together.  

The detail could also stand for an accumulation of heritage; Villanueva is Filipino American and this poem is (I think) set in the Philippines.  Tagalog words and phrases enter some poems along with fragments of family history.  In ‘Fish Heads’ the speaker’s mother

.. warns, Don’t waste what should be eaten. Reminds me
of every delicate gift we have thrown away: tilapia stomach
best soured with vinegar, milkfish liver to melt
against the dome of the mouth.

Such gifts, scorned by a younger generation not brought up to know the frugal past, could be metaphorical too. 

I like it when Americans do form because they do it (as everything) differently.  Villanueva has a rather lovely poem in a form that’s hard to do without making the average editor groan and think Oh no, another X.  Form can make a writer go to surprising places; here, it’s the work to disguise the form that does that.  Enough about the poem – no spoilers for a pleasurable discovery. 

He also has a sonnet crown, ‘Aftermath’, whose main theme is white racist violence and the associated dilemmas, memories, fear and other states of mind it brings:

I need you to know I’ve tried. To name ghosts,
to face them, dark as they are, slurred in with
the city’s glossed clots and fresh buttresses,

The thought and description is complex, concentrated and regretful, almost elegiac in tone.  The crown isn’t closed off as if to say: this story continues. 

Within the broad themes of life and death that run through Reliquaria, subject
Gunther van Hagens 'The Skin Man'
matter ranges from ancient Greek myth to Magellan, the Kill Sparrow War (China, late 1950’s) and life in modern New Jersey.  There’s much strangeness, often related to often deathly transformations: a rodent-poison that causes the body to kill itself by producing deadly levels of calcium; cancer; a plastinated cadaver; a journey to the ocean’s hadal zone.  Language often has gothic flourishes to match, sometimes with deliberate archaisms.  These occasionally, for me, tip over into bathos in the relatively few persona poems such as ‘On the sixth day, Ugolino thinks of his children’: “I… cannot father / more grief here among what remains alive, /knots itself round my waist..”  But the risk usually pays off as ‘Drifting towards the bottom, Jacques Picard recalls the sky’:

All around us seems an empire at the
height of its forces, a tuber of night
and ooze, bone fog and soot we come to love
because we can.

There’s a lot to be teased out of many of Reliquaria’s poems in repeated reading; for example ‘Swarm’ in which schoolboys in a biology dissection have “jury-rigged” a phallus on a crucifix. 

                     Transgressors, all of you,
           he said and closed the door behind him,
refusing to look at us or the thing
           that seemed to shimmer and twitch
with each frog’s reflex kick against our forceps.

Schoolboys, sex and death; religion; mockery and suffering; group solidarity; the visceral mystery, wonder and absurdity of the body; institutional behaviour…

The short lines and simple language of the final poem, ‘Mine will be a beautiful service’, show Villanueva’s versatility:

Pressed, chemical

I will look content,
but confused,

as when you watched me turn
in my sleep, dreaming

           of a Golgotha
in beeswax, a coffin

for swallows..

This is a favourite poem partly for its gentle humour and especially in part 2, where it becomes a love poem for the “you” it’s addressed to (the longer line length contributes to a change in tone):

          If you each day clutch
our pillows, press them to your face, pray
to take in some atom of me all
into the hollows of your chest, yes

I promise my ghost will find you
should you want someone else to love.

Reliquaria is published by University of Nebraska Press.  I've kept it around for several months now, enjoying rereads of various poems for their richness of language, form and metaphysical thought.  There’s an interview with Ron Villanueva here. 


  1. Dear Fiona

    It sounds like an interesting volume although I'm not sure that you've quite managed to persuade me to rush out and buy a copy.

    Best wishes from Simon R. Gladdish

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