Such begins the title poem of Tomás Q. Morín’s Patient Zero, a lovesick, remarkably rich collection whose speakers sing of heartache, of loneliness, of the strange distances our worlds plant between us, of our inability to know.
The collection’s first poem, “Nature Boy,” is a menagerie that evolves into a tender reflection on boyhood. Its images build from a gathering of birds, bears, dogs, and a mule, to joined testaments of biblical transcendence—that of Christ preaching, then en route to his crucifixion, and that of Noah, in whose ark all animal life was saved, as the story goes. Like many of the poems that follow, it expands into surprising utterances, the way some dreams do, and lights rather than lands, its resonances troubling the air long after its words cease.
In this way, among others, Patient Zero is a surreal text. Like the surrealists of the last century, the speakers in these poems reflect on a speech-saturated world they condense and reorder, consuming and being consumed by it. They doubt their own memory, and in speaking to these doubts evoke a sense of displacement that rings in tune with how things feel in our hyper-condensed world. They live in the contemporary but they ask old questions. They possess a sensitivity particularly skilled at unraveling the epistemic closures that this world, in the name of its own fecundity, encourages.
Exemplified in poems such as “Nature Boy,” “Stargazing,” “Carità Americana,” and “Patient Zero,” Morín’s voices drop the walls between humans and non-human animals, between the contemporary empirical world and a Judeo-Christian divine, between flesh and food. Sometimes they plumb the gap they made, with questions whose answers dissolve like a lover when the season changes. Sometime they play in it for awe, as a circus does.
One of the text’s most memorable turning points occurs in the title poem. Its central revelation on the origins of lovesickness points to a crisis in the logic of heteronormative love. Its unfolding challenge to presumptions rooted in patriarchy is among the insights that ring clearest in this work. The reader is led to consider:
if we are to be good scientists we must investigate
the moment when the sons of God made themselves
known to the daughters of men
Indeed, men—who have called themselves, made themselves “sons of God,” ordered themselves at the top of a hierarchy of being—have failed to investigate the illogic that would lead them to posit women (from whom all come) as their “daughters.” Would that such a revelation be writ large across our worldview; how much more wisdom might emerge from these kinds of heartbreaks? The poem proceeds into the comedic image of a woman singer who, in love with an angel, swiftly finds him wanting in ways typical of heterosexual romantic relationships. He doesn’t, for instance, “crow / her name to the dawn unless the night / before she had said, Enough is enough, we’re done…”
In this near-farcical declension to predictable failures of love I sense another incarnation of the circus, one with deadly serious concerns. Indeed, where laughter shows up in these poems, it almost always manifests as an invitation to mortal considerations, such as in “Grinning in Sardinia.” The speaker invokes Odysseus’s face as the latter considers “his wife’s bold suitors,” and Socrates, “who saw the humor in death.” In these works, love is laughable, paradoxical, a particularly dialectical disease of the mind, and yet “endless.” If “comedy is a reconciliation of paradox,” (1) Morín uses it in these poems as one of many means toward synthesis.
“To desire something or to be eager for something means to want the complete discharge of tension,” (2) philosopher Christoph Türcke says, speaking of dreams. We want only what we do not have; the void of what we want manifests tension. This is true in love and in politics, in persons and in collectivities. Poems such as “Ai” (for Ai Ogawa) and “Calle a calle,” a translation of the Neruda poem, align this collection’s hunger with a tradition of authors reckoning with a means to love in a world that orders itself with a politics of exclusion and radically uneven power.
It is an expansive enterprise. Perhaps the most articulate expression of this expanse comes in the epic poem, “Sing Sing,” which takes place in the voice of an imprisoned muse who is considering a letter to her parole board that will convince them to free her. In her words are many echoes of the images of contemporary rhetoric, speech that confirms its purpose through the integrity of its invitation. It weaves, and its strands include the reader’s attention, include our conversations, as though overheard clearly, to make its vessel:
A wall built high and plain enough
could easily bend a memory, is meant to,
which is why so few ever remember the past
true enough to know what
they’re apologizing for.
When I finish Patient Zero, I’m sitting by a window in a cafe overlooking Cornell Avenue. It’s a cold and rainy day, early spring in Chicago. Cold and rainy; maybe it’s this minor and inevitable meteorological phenomenon, maybe it’s Morín’s work that induces my mind and heart to sink to memories of loves lost. When I read these poems I can’t help but question my own memory, and how heartache can shape it. How does one learn transparently to speak to a beloved, to hear a person out? Across the gulfs our identities open, can we ever find a clarity that closes yearning?
Something of these questions permeates all the poems in Tomás Q. Morín’s significant work. To read these poems is to take on a chorus singing plain the crises that induced them to sing. They ache with the pain of misremembering, that liminal space between immediate sense and oblivion. They do not presume to have the answers to the questions they ask, but they leave the reader with impressions to aid in their own pursuit of clarity, as poems should.
(1) As comedian-provocateur Dave Chappelle recently noted in a CBS This Morning interview. Significantly, Chappelle’s recently released compositions might have benefited from the insights Morín’s work lead us to consider. Yet in their current form they nonetheless illustrate how, in reconciling paradox, in marrying thesis to antithesis, what was once marginalized can form a new orthodoxy which marginalizes others.
(2) In Philosophy of Dreams (Yale University Press, 2013, Trans. Susan H. Gillespie).