Against Empire, For Watermelon: On Nico Amador’s Flower Wars (2017)
of your arms”
These lines are from a poem by Nico Amador, aptly and gorgeously titled, “The Principal State of the Erotic Is Confusion.” Note the generous use of white space, the short lines; how these choices enact an extreme slowing down of sensual attention. To slow down, Amador suggests, is not necessarily to make more sense; sometimes, this pace is about leaning into the dizziness of an encounter. This poem is from Amador’s debut chapbook, Flower Wars, which won the 2016 Anzaldúa Poetry Prize and was released in 2017 by the Austin-based publisher, Newfound. The prize honors the late Gloria E. Anzaldúa, known for her visionary 1987 hybrid poetry/prose text (which examines hybridity in place and identity), Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. With uncompromising attention, Amador’s Flower Wars explores history, birds, falling in love, haircuts, and the intersections of trans, queer, and mixed-race identities.
In another stand-out poem, “What Changed, Exactly,” Amador investigates how change of various kinds—seasonal, corporeal, relational, spiritual—can happen with or without our noticing. Some changes become highly legible once we choose to train our gaze on them: “the moment / when the trees / cease being trees,” while others refuse to cohere into a single, sayable narrative. And then there are changes that catch us completely off guard. “Funny,” this speaker remarks, “how we can’t always / see it coming.”
Considering trans and queer identity formation, Amador lets certain quotidian details speak for themselves: “I was… / a thief of my father’s / pressed shirts” and “I grew a bread, / I might say.” A dry humor resides in these lines, subverting the romantic idea that profound change is always a big, astonishing act. Rather, it is the unremarkable, the ordinary that Amador decides to express paradoxical wonder over. The everyday is the site of so much change and discovery, before we can articulate a name for such shifts. Then again, some experiences never seem to fit the names we construct.
Amador is also capable of a grander register. In one of the most moving poems of the collection, “The Attempted Suicide of Saúl Armendáriz,” Amador takes on the larger-than-life voice of “an openly gay lucha libre wrestler who performed as Cassandro, a flamboyant character in drag.” Thanks to a friend who found him in time, Armendáriz survived the attempt to take his own life. But Amador’s poem is set in the moments before, as Armendáriz brings the razor to his wrists.
The poem begins, “Call me the night queen Call me extravagant sorrow,” highlighting the theatrical nature of Armendáriz’s work as a lucha libre wrestler. Indeed, everything in this poem shines as though happening on a great stage—even the despair: “Apollo’s high priestess headlocked / by the blues.” Amador imagines Armendáriz’s suicide attempt as “the gesture of a single rose / torn open on the bathroom tiles,” a “final maneuver,” a longing to move “toward the sky’s white hotel.” Amador takes a major risk in aestheticizing a suicide attempt; such wrought and lyrical language could rob this situation of its gravity, its reality. But because Amador has given us a voice that wants to be recognized as a queen, a high priestess, these images of the rose and the sky feel true to the personality of Armendáriz, lover of performance and glamor. At the same time, Amador’s lyricism is what makes the speaker’s agony come through so urgently, specifically.
The collection ends with a poem called “Eating Watermelon with Pablo Neruda,” a surreal encounter with the famed Chilean poet that sends the reader into very real corners of history and memory. It is night. The speaker and a newly alive yet not in the best health Neruda are out together. They are eating watermelon that somehow has healing properties: “with each bite, / he became a little stronger.” And they are spitting out the seeds in an act of resistance. They spit against what they find abhorrent, like corrupt governments and greedy leaders, and they spit for the protesters, the marginalized, the workers, and the land. Large abstract terms meet bright wet imagery. An incantatory momentum meets bodies—and beauty:
…We spit against empire
and presidents and against Donald Duck.
We spit against contras and bananas and
the days lost to exile. We spit heroically.
We spit for vandals, and we spit for windows.
We spit for our fathers and for the gentle way
the fruit vendor listened with his teeth.
We spit for the torn edges of stars and the gradual
descent of mountains and the weight
of morning and the color red. We spit for love.