Once upon a time there was a soldier
who marched to Mictlán in his soldier
boots and every step was a soldier
step and every breath was a soldier
word. Do you know what this soldier
said? I’d like a piece of bread for my soldier
hand. I’d like a slice of cheese for my soldier
nose. And I’d like a woman for my soldier
heart. …~~Complete poem available online at Poetry.
A quick primer: Mictlán is the Aztec underworld, the place of the dead. I’m startled by some similarities to Dante’s Inferno: nine levels, a river, a dog, a four-year journey.
That’s the easy part. I’m not sure there’s a word to describe the style of this poem. Perhaps polyphonic verse? It’s extremely clever: while written in a single block with each line ending the same, when read aloud the rhythm creates different patterns, often very strong rhythms. Take a look at a restructuring of the first few lines above, for example:
Once upon a time
there was a soldier who marched to Mictlán
in his soldier boots and every step
was a soldier step and every breath
was a soldier word.
Do you know what this soldier said?
I’d like a piece of bread for my soldier hand.
I’d like a slice of cheese for my soldier nose.
And I’d like a woman for my soldier heart.
Suddenly death and war turn into a nursery rhyme. If you read it aloud, you’ll find several places, most places, break apart into stanzas like these, a variety of irresistible rhythms that cling lines together differently from the printed page. And notice, the “I’d like” section could be much simpler, could match the first group more closely by just omitting a few words in each line: I’d like some bread for my soldier hand, for example. But that isn’t how it’s done. That isn’t how it’s meant to be. It’s meant to be different.
It wasn’t until I read a post in Waxwing that I got a glimmer of what might be at stake here: The disguised rhythm is different, but the lines uniform, like soldiers in a row: each one a different soldier, but as a group the same. Not one soldier of Mictlán, but soldier after soldier, each line a soldier, a horde of soldiers one after the other entering the land of the dead, because that’s where so many soldiers end up, without bread, without cheese, without love, for the good of king and country, their stories told by a series of nursery rhymes to make it all palatable.
The poem leads off González’ 2014 collection Unpeopled Eden, described by the publisher thus: “Haunted by border crossers and forgotten deportees, lost brothers and sons, González unearths the beautiful and musical amidst the grotesque. These mournful, mystical poems are themselves artifact, a cry for remembrance….”