Guillotine traverses desert landscapes cut through by migrants, the grief of loss, betrayal’s lingering scars, the border itself—great distances in which violence and yearning find roots. Through the voices of undocumented immigrants, border patrol agents, and scorned lovers, award-winning poet Eduardo C. Corral writes dramatic portraits of contradiction, survival, and a deeply human, relentless interiority. With extraordinary lyric imagination, these poems wonder about being unwanted or renounced. What do we do with unrequited love? Is it with or without it that we would waste away?
In the sequence “Testaments Scratched into Water Station Barrels,” with Corral’s seamless integration of Spanish and English, poems curve around the surfaces upon which they are written, overlapping like graffiti left by those who may or may not have survived crossing the border. A harrowing second collection, Guillotine solidifies Corral’s place in the expanding ecosystem of American poetry.
I have been expanding my library, adding some different types of books to my collection, thus reading some things I would not have picked up in the past. One of them is buying and reading poetry. I do not know much about poetry in a clinical sense, but I can tell what I like and don’t like due to content and impact. This means I have to review poetry more on content than on execution. If you are not much of a poetry reader, but want something that will really knock you down, Guillotine is that short collection. I read it in one day, sometimes reading a poem more than once, and by the end, I was in love.
Eduardo C. Corral starts the collection with a long poem called “Testaments Scratched into a Water Station Barrel.” These thirty pages surround a stationary item in the middle of the desert that many immigrants use as a marker while moving toward the American border. This poem is more of a cycle with many different voices and different perspectives. The anguish and sadness in these pages burn, and by the end of it, the reader cannot help but think that anyone who tries to make this crossing is filled with courage and strength. The emotions that Corral brings out of these pages, even with the anti-immigrant scrawlings of the border patrol, are expressed in a way that makes every poem scorch your heart.
The next section of poems scorch in a different way. Many are personal poems about desire, love, and lust. Corral brings the same intensity. The danger and longing he brings with “Testaments Scratched into a Water Station Barrel” resurface in “Guillotine”, “Autobiography of My Hungers”, “Black Water”, and “To a Straight Man” particularly.
“1707 San Joaquin Avenue” is another heartbreaker toward the end, a poem inspired by newspaper articles of the immigrant men found in drop houses in Arizona. These pages are tough to read and are proof that there is more horror in the things we do to each other than in the outside world.
I can talk about every poem in this collection, break it down, and do my best with understanding the emotion and meaning behind each word. I could read this over and over. I could loan it to people who are harsh critics of the border crisis. I could also recommend Guillotine to anyone who does not read poetry but wants a good collection as a start.