In Oil and Candle, the debut full-length poetry collection by Gabriel Ojeda-Sague, ritual and religion are turned to as salves for various societal issues, including racism, homophobia, and war. From limpias oils to abrecaminos candles and tarot cards, the speaker seeks a way to dispel darkness, dissipate clouds, and make a space for a queer Latino voice in contemporary Anglo-dominated American poetry. Published by Oakland-based Timeless, Infinite Light, Oil and Candle is comprised of four poems that move between lyric fragments, direct statements, and elliptical narratives, which makes for a quick, challenging, and necessary read.
The book opens with the long poem “Limpias,” which enacts a cleansing ritual expressing the desire to remove poets from the speaker’s belly-button: blood-thirsty poets who work like drones, appropriating black and brown bodies while maintaining a position of privilege (think Kenny Goldsmith’s “The Autopsy of Michael Brown” and Vanessa Place’s Gone With the Wind Twitter project). The speaker demands, “if you must have the blood, you must also take my plantain chips and my unfortunate life.” The speaker then launches into a powerful litany calling for Limpias, an oil used in Santeria, to cleanse these poets from his life:
limpias of the communist poets who forget who killed my family
limpias of the market poets who forget who killed everyone else…
limpias of poets who take queerness as their metaphor
limpias of poets who have never been scared just of walking around in the world
limpias of poets who trust the police
limpias of poets who poison the apple
limpias of poets who still trust irony
And the list goes on to include all poets. No one is off the hook, not even Ojeda-Sague, who later writes in “Poem for Eleguá,” “When I exist, / I am complicit.”
While “Limpias” is a powerful indictment, it is also at turns humorous and deeply human. The speaker is seeking to reconnect with his heritage, even though he wasn’t raised with the rituals he is now trying to learn. He says that his abuela raised them Catholic: “I stopped / believing in that when / my prayers didn’t turn / my friend gay and / didn’t stop anybody’s / cancer in my family.” Though his grandmother raised him Catholic, there was still a clash of traditions in his childhood. He explains that his grandmother wants his mother to have the children wear beads to avoid being cursed, but his mother decides against it:
if someone says
your baby is cute you
are supposed to say
malditos sean sus
ojos which means
cursed be your eyes
which is odd because
it still uses the formal
tense and because
maldito also kind of
means fucking as an
adjective but my mom
said that she didn’t
want to dress us that
way and I get that
There’s a sense of humor that comes through in the deadpan delivery. Another humorous section involves the speaker calling to see how to dispose of the abrecaminos candle after he has completed a ritual. The answer is to rather unceremoniously throw it away. The speaker explains, “in my dorm / the trash is a long / metal chute not a / bin and I had to / hear it go all the way / down after asking / myself is this / recyclable.”
The final poem in the collection, “Abrecaminos,” is the unaltered result of a ritual written much in the same way of CA Conrad’s (soma)tic exercises. There is a brief description of the meditation and materials Ojeda-Sague used in his ritual, followed by the poem that resulted from it. However, unlike Conrad, Ojeda-Sague dismisses the ritual as “useless,” despite the result of the poem. The poem was written while focusing on “the intention of opening paths of resistance against warfare.” Composed of a series of short lyrical pieces, including two pages left intentionally blank (though the text that appears on the page––(page left intentionally blank)––means the pages aren’t actually blank), the poem seamlessly flows between English and Spanish as it meditates on war, violence, and life. The speaker asks, “how does the body survey / its own impossibility, / starting with war? / how does the Latino convey? / what has him survive?”
Though the poems are set against warfare, the murders of trans people, and other hate crimes in Philadelphia–the author’s current home and a place where the speaker thinks being assaulted is inevitable (“I wonder if there is a ritual to stop killing and I think not”)–there is something somewhat optimistic about this collection. Despite the darkness, humanity survives–it’s there in the speaker’s voice. It’s there in the thousands of people who are challenging the status quo, who are calling out racism, sexism, and trans- and homophobia, and who are in the streets declaring that black lives matter. While survival seems impossible for many, they are finding ways to survive.
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