[N.B.: Poems quoted herein appear in Stories After Goya with all text—save the last lines—justified to the right margin. Line breaks are honored, though our formatting limitations prevent said justification. —Ed.]
What most excites about Pedro Ponce’s Stories After Goya is its strong imaginative approach: it takes a set of art-objects, inventions of the mind, and hews more mindfulness thereout. Its orbit and its center are both quite impractical, as all great art must oppose function; at a time when winners of poetry prizes are cited for ‘clear-voiced poems that bring readers the news from 21st Century [sic] America,’ this is easy to forget.
The world Ponce crafts is insular, which is one way to sustain punch in a suite this short—six poems, not a page number to be found. Next, the cityscape in Stories After Goya is vague by design: speakers observe ‘constructions,’ ‘dining establishments,’ ‘lessons,’ ‘warm months’; dawn is ‘delayed,’ but we aren’t sure how, why, or for how long. Continued encounters with this vagary begin to lend declaratives more power than perhaps they deserve. In “Visitation”:
We are here to see the baby. The line reaches far beyond the
crèche, but the guards are unyielding, allowing only three
at a time to pass. The baby is teaching us patience. This
helps as we swelter beneath our proffered burdens of fruit
baskets, plush animals, and educational board games.
The final sentence of this stanza features a move commonly used by Ponce’s speakers: varying content registers that feel like popular acquiescence. This acquiescence is a rare instance of practicality disturbing the concerns of Stories After Goya. It cannot, somehow, just be ‘burdens of fruit / baskets’ that are ‘proffered’ (!), but ‘plush animals’ and ‘educational board games’ too; in “The Pill Course,” there must be ‘crudités,’ a bourgeois consumable, alongside ‘strings.’ It’s quizzical to me that concerns about ‘husbands,’ ‘cabin climate,’ ‘gaming devices,’ and ‘prescriptions’ factor into this space, where ‘thick volumes smoke when opened.’ It feels like a failure of nerve on Ponce’s part.
Given the breadth of Goya’s agenda as an artist, it may also have been a mistake on Tree Light Books‘ part not to state the painterly context of Stories After Goya somewhere in the book proper. Do we depart from the Goya of Disasters of War or the Black Paintings? The book will not give up her origin.
This may all be, as Heath Ledger’s Joker suggests, ‘part of the plan.’ However sedate their voices, Ponce’s speakers read as wily enough to know the latent savagery beneath their own social servility and civilities:
They crowd grocery aisles, teasing partners for their
sweet tooth, carts brimming with iced meringue. They
slow our steps in the constitutional green, lingering to
pick stray petals. The choicest blooms are shelved tenderly
behind ears, complementing braids of metallic luster and
irises unlidded by expression or exhaustion. We pass them
brusquely to finish training for the day.
You’ll note directly previous another of Ponce’s gifts: a deft, unusual touch with verb forms—’shelved’ is ghostly tender, as is ‘palm our thighs’; and, in “The Golden Door,” ‘underscore their eagerness,’ ‘seats gradually empty.’
Hail, hail the anti-commercial chapbook form. Hail all that portends, even in a small way, the end of pragmatism’s vogue in art.