Carlos Lara, Like Bismuth When I Enter, 2020 (image courtesy Nightboat Books)

Abstraction in poetry often recreates the lived rhythms and social textures associated with a particular time — more so even than poetics that attempt to speak to the times directly. In the case of the LA-based author Carlos Lara’s most recent poetry collection, Like Bismuth When I Enter, published by Nightboat Books (2020), abstraction serves to create a composite image of the author’s relationship to place, history, introspection, and knowledge. Rather than speak to politics directly, creative freedom is the overarching concern, which highlights form and technique by way of their absence.

One could say that each poem in the collection dabbles in the connection (or misconnection) between a personalized and collectively shared language. Slang mingles with specialized terms; the written word shades into orality. Blending different modes of language, Lara translates poetic form into a kind of labyrinth, a choose-your-own-adventure story where different meanings, images, and connotations will appear and dissolve for different readers. The book’s opening poem, “Quaalude,” demonstrates this from the start:

[…] golden Aztec grief, headless sky of Jacob Riis, farcical nominalism, the dream that eats your steak-frites for you, it all prays to me, all what it was, some moments imbued with the crass economy of self, some fragmented along the journey like shrapnel of conscience, the deep dead-death etiquette, against the efforts of the misguided, but I believed, in all respects and none, in the karma of the saint

The sheer accretion of imagery might make it seem unremarkable that a professional muckraker like Jacob Riis should be mentioned in the same breath as Aztecs, karma, and sainthood. But this passage is typical of Lara’s use of abstraction, which demands that readers condense disparate historical contexts into a single block of text.

Another mammoth, 40-plus-page prose-poem called “God Wave” wonderfully illustrates Lara’s use of abstraction:

[…] from you going soft universe feeling so soon that the center is a kind knot of creation believed & disbelieved taught to be the bell of this alms alba to last all night in the torque of day to writhe in sound robes pennyroyal & the only song blind to other entrancement like wearing phenakite needing plainness awakened inaugural though several internal heads the plasticity of the fog anthems suffering

Here, the ability to construct various meanings within the poem partially depends on its artful lack of punctuation. Lara doesn’t browbeat the reader with ideology masked as description (or confession), but rather creates a linguistic context in which readers can attach personalized meanings to objects, persons, places, and events, as though by some telepathic communication of empathy. An additional example of this is found in the opening lines of “The Inflated Tear”:

I see into people whatever a tree dormant and green doom

salivating hallways appear in concussive old me

what celestial car bombs desire a long cauliflower fire

you know the witch that came out of you

What’s most remarkable about Like Bismuth When I Enter is the palpable sense that the author is translating life into language. This movement from the particulars of experience to a broadly inclusive form of abstraction creates a kind of virtual reality where recognizable persons, objects, and feelings move about in novel ways — their familiarity burst asunder by the gravity of a new poetic architecture:

Deep Deep Verbal grab; & 44 grabs–

listen ‘(/!$ – Czar’

Throwback from little facsimiles

Gaol way

Maybe give gifts. Water wine. Unforgiving zephyrs on.

Amanuensis question Axiom

My common Quetzalcoatl

The refreshing quality of Lara’s poetry is most concisely exemplified by four poems, each titled “The New Desnos.” These poems adhere to the Surrealist tradition of drawing on the unconscious. Even when they allude to collage (“Hi / Liz says Ok”), they don’t feel arbitrary. Rather, they speak to a liberation from factual particulars. Lara’s poetry suggests that by distorting the language of everyday life, one can push to the hilt the divide between socially engaged and imaginative language, thereby transcending both.

Realizing an abstract freedom opposed the determinism of everyday life, Lara’s poetry has an intrinsic social value. With an epigraph that reads “for my grandfathers,” he sets the tone for a book of origins, only these origins point back to a multicultural, inter-traditional history, and then encircle the present moment like a warm sirocco wind. Lara’s linguistic consciousness is less a juxtaposition of phrases in the form of collage than a kind of attentive listening that discovers harmonic connections between disparate conceptual planes.

Like Bismuth When I Enter by Carlos Lara (2020) is published by Nightboat Books and is available online and in bookstores.

Jeffrey Grunthaner is a writer and artist currently based in Berlin.