I decided to read Radiance because poetry is the literary genre that I have neglected to explore most, even more than nonfiction. So I figured a good way to conquer this long-standing aversion to reading poetry would be to create a reading list to start off and adhere to it stubbornly. Radiance jumped to the top of the list because it is an #ownvoices collection of poems by an openly gay Latino. But also because it is a slim collection and a perfect starting point for poetry novices!
What struck me most about these poems was how hauntingly personal they were and that Emanuel Xavier was not afraid to make the personal political. For a poetry novice, this is a perfect way to draw me in and maintain my interest as I read a style of writing that is unfamiliar. Xavier certainly accomplished captivating me with every snippet into his life the poems provided. As I read these poems, I immediately assumed they were about his personal experiences, and I later confirmed that they in fact were. This provided a connection to the writer that increased my enjoyment of each poem exponentially.
Taken as a whole, the poems narrate the life, in vignettes, of a flawed but deeply sympathetic man who is rendered raw and vulnerable on the page. They start off with childhood memories. Some are funny, some are a shocking punch to the gut, and then go on to realistically depict the longings and fears of childhood and adolescence. A few of the poems are mature in nature, but I think the maturity of the content brings a level of authenticity to the narrative that would have been lost if the mature content had been left out entirely.
I found it difficult to sample a poem for this review. Some are too long, others too short and lack a context provided by other poems. This demonstrates that the poems must be taken collectively, and that is what I enjoyed most about reading Radiance. Reading the poems in succession gave me the familiar sense of reading a traditional narrative, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. The poems near the middle were the most poignant for me. They were complex and brilliantly expressed the hard and often uncomfortable subtleties of love, life, and sexuality.
Here’s one that can stand on its own without much context:
The last several poems cover a variety of topics, but near the end it focuses on a brush with death, starting with the poem “When Your Doctor Calls To Tell You That Your Brain Tumor Is Back.” How is one supposed to react upon hearing such news? Well, be sure to “respond quietly in the car so as not to alarm your boyfriend, your mother, your aunt.” But also “be grateful you are not the one driving as the world outside collapses and the song on the satellite radio fades into the distance.” These are lines taken from what’s perhaps my favorite poem in the entire collection because it signals a shift in tone and elevates the collection into a more optimistic yet bittersweet literary experience.
The boy and young man we once followed is now a man who is at once reminded of his mortality. We learn the most about his character in the last few poems, as he grapples with the harsh realities of his condition. Right off the bat, we see the spirit of a fighter and a survivor in the poem “Schwannoma,” where he makes light of the situation by saying the name of his tumor sounds like something one orders off a Mediterranean restaurant, and that he wants to give it a drag queen name. We see he is determined to pick himself up “from this death drop,” to forget the darkness of his past, the pain of his present, and focus on the radiance of his future.
By the time I read the last poem, I could envision fully-realized human in my mind’s eye who I deeply admired for his honesty, the boldness of his voice, but most of all because he was a survivor. The collection is actually dedicated “to survivors everywhere,” and as one reads each poem, it soon becomes clear the meaning of “survivor” is multi-layered. The poems are dedicated to survivors of sexual assault, parental rejection, physical violence, and even brushes with death.
At 53 pages, it’s easy to recommend such a slim work of poetry to anyone who is traditionally averse to reading it and certainly to poetry lovers as well. The poems are memorable, the feelings they will evoke in you are real and complicated, and the journey they will take you on is surprisingly large in scope. As a Queer Latino, these poems resonated with me profoundly, but the authenticity of the experiences laid out on the page should ring true and appear unequivocally and universally human for any reader.
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