- Sara Ellen Fowler
Ángel García: Teeth Never Sleep
Ángel García’s, Teeth Never Sleep, delivers the intensity of a poetic reckoning. Sustained energy, focused as through a gunsight, is run through images systems that center on the body of the speaker and circumference of his relationships.
While impressed by the endurance and vigor of the lyrics (there is not a weak poem in the collection), I am left wanting reconciliation or integration of the virtues García is writing toward. Because I do not believe it is enough to only describe, in harrowing accounts, what transpires between bodies.
Poets sculpt and yield consciousnesses, and when I reach the final meditations of the collection I am left wondering where the speaker is at —spiritually and philosophically— how they move through the world, at present.
Still injured or injuring?
What is their relationship to the practice of accountability?
What has their writing given them permission to air in public, be lauded over?
Isn’t there more processing to be done, in terms of apology and reparation, that this book does little to speak of?
Just because books like this one have an abbreviated legacy (I mean: not many poets wade into the vulnerable waters of owning up to violence physically inflicted upon others); just because dialogues around toxic masculinity are only beginning to gather their distinct vocabulary; just because it is not easy to speak about domestic violence in public, does not mean that authors offering their perspectives should be held to a less-rigorous standard of empathy or justice.
They should not be permitted melodrama in the face of violence. They should not be praised just for “trying” to help the world understand, like it is so brave.
There is something disturbing me about Teeth Never Sleep. I do not intuit any resolve, on the part of the speaker, to enact any lessons of healing or accountability. I am not allowing this reaction because it is my preference to read narratives tied in a bow at the end. I don’t want the speaker to “learn his lessons…” I know true life never unfolds like this.
But an arc of transformation is essential, even when there is ambivalence in the face of grief or feeling haunted by familial legacy.
It disturbs me that the speaker’s lovers never have (fictionalized) faces or names. They are not physically described with any affection, only anatomically (“Exuviae” pg. 16) Even in the accounting of violence, the pain of the lover is only attended to in terms of the speaker’s guilt and discomfort. This is an oversight that belies there is more emotional work that the author needs to do; right now the framing is self-serving.
The beasts of these poems wield their teeth as weapons and as inventors of speech. This is a very compelling polarity to sketch in language, especially in the representation of familial relationships and domestic violence. In this context, physical danger and silence/silencing can be two sides of the same coin.
Speaking toward violence has the dual potential to give it more power and perhaps de-mystify the strength-of-feeling that inspired the violence. I think this is the edge this book is walking. Beasts act upon guttural instinct. They can lash out by virtue of the emotions of fear, anger, betrayal, and sadness. Their salve and their exasperater might be drinking, might be sex (“Rinconcito” pg. 15).
Teeth being the generator of the beast, I would like to look to the “Teeth Never Sleep” poems of pg. 12 and pg. 75. Between these two pillars, the bulk of the book’s pain has been exposed. What potential was introduced as “music made crudely from bones” (p. 12) has manifest in confessions of violence and personal strife.
As the speaker’s mother is described engaging in her ritual of remembrance, the reader understands the struggle and sacrifices she has made for her family of boys. Her ceremony of re-assembling the mouths of her younger sons, while reciting their names, is written tenderly. Her act holds longing, affection, loss, and the legacy of trauma (meaning the way the teeth were extracted from her sons’ mouths by their father). While it is natural for one’s first set of teeth to fall out, the speaker of the poems has been haunted by visions of broken, extracted, and stolen teeth in multiple sinister images in multiple poems. The version on pg. 75 feels like redemption. A mother’s touch to remember and re-animate the innocence of childhood, in an reversal of the harsh manner in which the teeth were removed (“culled from our mouths” pg. 75)
In both poems, materials are literally and figuratively ingested: “the words you’ve swallowed: a constant quiet, dying of hunger” pg. 12, and “the pools of blood we swallowed” pg. 75. They both mean: to have endured; to have borne witness to [ourselves & our own pain].
The meaning of the presence of teeth—as threat or as annulled language and hazard-maker—gathers agency and gravity. Without those teeth, there is no bite and no articulation. With them, there is the specter of harm. The last line of the second poem revolves both pieces with the intensity of heightened stakes: “…each of us wanting to keep/in our mouths what we feared losing or becoming” (pg. 75). The potential of violence that the teeth symbolize is a promise the speaker (and his brothers) can neither live with nor live without.
The speaker reckons, here, with the inevitability or value placed on becoming a beast in his own right—for that is how he gathers his agency around him, how he can confirm his emotions are actualized.
Teeth never sleep because their potential is present and pounding in sleep and in waking life. “[T]hey sing,” (pg. 12), García releases, knowing the blessing and the curses of bones meant for consuming and speaking.