Book Review: Slow Lightning by Eduardo C. Corral

Book Review by Annik Adey-Babinski

76 pages
Yale University Press

in a Tex-Mex restaurant. His co-workers,
unable to utter his name, renamed him Jalapeño.

If I ask for a goldfish, he spits a gob of phlegm
into a jar of water. The silver letters

on his black belt spell Sangrón. Once, borracho,
at dinner, he said: Jesus wasn’t a snowman.

from, “In Colorado My Father Scoured and Stacked Dishes”

Winner of the Yale Younger Poets Prize, Slow Lightning is an astonishing debut book from Eduardo C. Corral. Sitting down to read it, one enters a space that at first seems familiar, and quickly reveals itself as completely new. In “To the Beastangel,” Corral writes, “You release the finch. It wings towards me” (53). Canaries and finches populate Slow Lightning like bright early-warning systems. These are previously unmapped caves deep in America’s psyche to which he is giving voice, and we would do well to pay attention.

Duality reigns in many ways in Slow Lightning. Corral employs a technique called code switching, in which he uses both English and Spanish in the span of a single sentence without translation. As I read, the code switching highlighted the limits of our ability to transmit our thoughts and feelings through language. Corral sees the world in a way that I never will, even if I were to learn Spanish; his code switching amplifies this reality. Still, reading Slow Lightning is not alienating. I was drawn in by the vibrancy of Corral’s words and the honest intimacy of his stories. Corral’s use of language generates an otherworldly, moody shadowland that lifts us into a hyper-real America where he honors the challenges of the undocumented migrant and the gay man. Readers of Slow Lightning leave the book cloaked in the uncanny duality of the great beauty and the unsettling horror of America today.

I knelt              touched its
ears and snout             my
face          rippled beneath
my fingers              as if I
were troubling          water (66).

It is not only with his language that Corral speaks to the reader, he also communicates through the exciting formal decisions he’s made. As you can see in the above excerpt from part two of “Velvet Mesquite,” Corral has imposed a smaller-than-standard frame to many of his poems. He has also flipped some poems on their side so that they cross from bottom to top of the book’s pages. If he isn’t aligning his poems on left and right, he sometimes uses language to frame his poems. This can be seen in “Qué Chido,” when he reworks the anaphora repetition so that not only the first word, but also the last word of every line is the same: “Chido” to start and “Qué” to end. This frame works to highlight the differences and similarities between the ‘meat’ of each line, and is a satisfying twist on the expected anaphora form.  

As Carl Phillips, judge of the 2012 Yale Younger Poets Prize, notes in the introduction, Slow Lightning reexamines the frame and its ability to both confine and set free that which it holds (x, xv). Corral’s impulse to use a prose-poem-like box with empty space and jagged lines on the inside is compelling as a metaphor for the individual. We appear whole and aligned from the outside, but we contain gaps or paths which we secret away on the inside. Corral maps these paths.

I will return to Eduardo C. Corral’s debut continuously, as there is so much to learn from and enjoy about this book. Sorrowful, sensuous, populated with saguaros and canaries, Slow Lightning is a triumph.

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