‘Machete’ Carves Out Moments of Tenderness in a Violent Time

Through a variety of poetic forms and a wide range of cultural references, Tomás Q. Morín’s work is meticulously researched and wonderfully inmate.

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Don’t be fooled by the roaring tigers on the cover of Tomás Q. Morín’s latest book of poetry, Machete. They aren’t ferocious; they won’t devour you and spit out your bones. Morín’s craft is more playful and tender than that. His poems about fatherhood will rest on your heart like a giant paw, and his use of circus imagery is more likely to conjure up a tiger jumping through a flaming hoop than attacking. Machete’s overarching themes spark and crackle throughout, as he tackles parenthood, pandemic life, identity, racism, and apocalyptic doom.  “Our country is a circus tent,” Morín writes. Each day warps like a funhouse mirror.

Machete is Morín’s third book of poetry. He caught the poetry bug while pursuing a Ph.D. in Hispanic and Italian Studies at Johns Hopkins University. In a moment of boldness, Morín sent Philip Levine, a favorite poet, some of his writing. Levine’s reply was encouraging enough that Morín decided to earn a master’s degree instead, turning his attention to crafting poems for his first book, A Larger Country, which won the APR/Honickman First Book Prize. Morín currently serves as an assistant professor in creative writing at Rice University. He also works as a literary translator, most notably translating Pablo Neruda’s The Heights of Macchu Picchu

Machete highlights Morín’s versatility as a poet who fuses both content and form. His persona poems, dramatic monologues spoken through the voice of characters and objects, are imaginative with a foreboding edge. In “Duct Tape,” Morín allows the toolbox staple the chance to speak. The tape announces how its role had changed from patching holes in jeans to holding together a sign that says, “The End is Near.” 

“Santana and Machete in Outer Space” is more visceral and erotic. This poem is in the voice of Santana Rivera, a character played by Jessica Alba in Machete, the grindhouse movie series directed by Robert Rodriguez and Ethan Maniquis, starring Danny Trejo. Santana hails the toughness of the film’s lead, Machete (Trejo), a former Mexican Federale with a faded chest tattoo and a leather trench coat lined with machetes and knives. Trejo is a hired assassin, who’s set up after he receives a job to take out an anti-immigrant Texas politician. While I could see how the poem relates to the title of the collection, I’ll admit having not seen the film, I was lost trying to ascertain the plot and character dynamics. 

Another poem, “Whiteface,” takes the shape of a list, providing 98 ways to stay alive during a traffic stop. The poem asks questions such as “What if next time we painted our faces white? / Like a happy clown.” In an alternate world, white face paint wouldn’t just dupe cops into letting a car of brown teenagers go; it would also protect them from being pulled over in the first place. Morín writes of all people of color: “This person has the right to remain breathing.” 

In his poems about fatherhood, Morín emerges as the hero of Machete. These poems fuse arts and culture and domestic life, when the pandemic, as Morín writes, had turned the world “into a pineapple upside-down cake.”   

In “Two Dolphins,” the poet stays up with his infant son to allow his wife to rest. He sits on an exercise ball, formally used for “tightening my abs” and bounces to comfort the baby, who “brushes my nipple / and pinches it.” He offers his son a pacifier:

“and he gets to work,

his little fingers

kneading my chest

like dough

—my son the poet

already mixing

metaphors

out of my body.

I would rush out to buy a copy of Machete just to have a poem like “Two Dolphins” on hand. Not only was I captivated by the sheer beauty and dexterity of the poem but I was struck by how rare it is to come across poems about fatherhood. “Two Dolphins” and “Vallejo” are remarkable for how much depth they convey about being a dad. In these poems, the poet-speaker is the hero, the protector, the maladroit dad, learning to burp a newborn. 

The limberness of “Two Dolphins” and “Vallejo” makes me eager to read Morín’s forthcoming memoir, Let Me Count the Ways (March 2022), which explores his relationship with his father, surrogate father, and grandfather.

If Morín wields language like a machete, it’s to slash through ignorance, to clear a path for strollering his children onto a sidewalk, safe from traffic. Less interested in violence, Morín threads love and protection into the narrative of a mother, who worries about her son stepping foot inside a car, between the film characters and lovers Santana and Machete, between a poet and his baby boy. Deep in the Dantesque woods of our era, it makes sense to carve out space for love. 

Or, as Morín writes, “And if nothing will free us from death, at least love will save us from life.”