Review of Roberto Harrison’s Culebra
by Paul Martínez Pompa


Chicago: Green Lantern Press, 2016. $19.26 paper (ISBN 978-0-9884185-8-5), 234 pages.

During his Poet Laureate acceptance presentation at the Milwaukee Public Library in the summer of 2017, Roberto Harrison situated his book Culebra among some of his other works, declaring Os as a way of dying, Counter Daemons as a way of seeing, Bicycle as a way of being, and Culebra itself as a way of knowing. Indeed, to read a Roberto Harrison poem is to be confronted by your own limited assumptions about language assembly and then hurled through such illusions into a realization of infinite meaning generated by each line’s intense, meditative focus and beautiful and terrifying shapeshifting. The poems that make up Culebra feel deeply personal yet undulate across universal planes of human-being-ness that hover and break, embrace and shatter, differentiate and merge, all through a cycle of tercets that ultimately labor to transcend such binaries.

I could spend a lifetime (or a deathtime) making meaning with just one Harrison stanza; Culebra hits you with 223 pages of them. Holding any one is a bit like holding the air you breathe, in and out. Inside of the poem “painted dog,” for instance, there goes a directive: “make / its amputation like your field / where snakes improve / their operations…” (140). I think of amputation in this moment as the necessary releasing, letting go or cutting away of a limb-prop that appears to be so very integral to doing but might be the very thing that restricts being. It is a painful but essential (r)evolution both in the vastness of your field of awareness, of labor, of data, and in the abundance of space that liberates you to fuse with a techno-spiritual process that manifests as an animal slithering through cycles of perpetual renewal. The culebra’s operations function on parallel levels here: one evoking a mechanical task and the other evoking surgery or maybe insurgency. Both levels heal together or improve toward a third space of consciousness.

Underlying my read of Culebra, whose poems are divided into two sections titled “zero” and “one”, there is a subtle anxiety, informed by the book’s preface, also written by Harrison, which asserts the poetry’s stakes with regards to a merging of circuitry and carbon channeling toward oneness. Under most circumstances, I would be uneasy with this marriage as I tend to hold technology, especially digital technology, as a cancer to be handled with careful suspicion, but truth has no duty to comfort, and accordingly, perhaps it is the sincere spirituality permeating Culebra that makes Harrison’s work so unlike anything else being written right now. There’s no trickery or bullshitting in this book; there is a most beautiful transcendence. The words that comprise each Harrison line come to end point, but their energies extend well beyond the quiet of the margins. This book believes deeply in language in a way that I am often afraid to (due to my own distrust of language which is a kind of ancient technology itself), yet it is a genuine faith at work in Culebra that summons readers onward, and it is a love rooted in an ancestral reliance on the tongue as a tool for conveying, connecting and evolving through space, through time.

Packingtown Review – Vol.10, Spring 2018

Born and raised in suburban Chicago, Paul Martínez Pompa earned his BA in English Language and Literature at the University of Chicago and his MFA in Creative Writing at Indiana University. Martínez Pompa’s first book of poetry is entitled My Kill Adore Him (2009). In 2008, poet Martín Espada selected the collection to be the recipient of the Andrews Montoya Poetry Prize. Praising My Kill Adore Him, Espada noted that the poems are “gritty and visceral, but never cross the line into sensationalism” while they “vividly evoke the urban world, especially Chicago, without ever lapsing into urban cliché.” Paul teaches at Triton College. He was a contributor to Volume 4 of Packingtown Review, a few years before joining the journal's editorial board.