Catrachos by Roy G. Guzmán. Reviewed by Emilia Phillips

Catrachos by Roy G. Guzmán
Graywolf Press, 2020

Review by Emilia Phillips

If I had to select a single poem from Roy G. Guzmán’s first collection as evidence for why prospective readers should read the whole book, I’d pick “Restored Mural for Orlando,” a three-page elegy—or, as the title proposes, “mural”—for the forty-nine victims, most of them queer and Latinx, of the 2016 Pulse Nightclub Massacre in Orlando, Florida. As a queer, Honduran poet, Guzmán’s response to this trauma is harrowingly forthright about the position of vulnerability in which they see themself after the shooting: “I am afraid of attending places / that celebrate our bodies,” they write, “because that’s also where our bodies // have been cancelled.” [49] It’s an occasional poem, yes, but it’s one whose immediacy outlasts the kairotic moment, the direct aftermath of the event. This is due, in part, to the fact that Guzmán is an adept when it comes to the movement in their poems. Take, for instance, this passage on the first page of “Restored Mural”:

                                                                                Our mothers gave us names
                                        so we would know what goes at the head of a tombstone / bare précis /

                                        & our duty is to feel the isolation that any alignment of letters can trigger
                                        when they’re carved out of grief / since most of us were born or bloomed

                                        out of sorrow like swans always bent on pond water [49]

These long-lined couplets are interrupted at times by an in-line virgule, i.e. the forward slash usually employed in poetry quotation to indicate the placement of a line break. These are original to the poem, a kind of having-your-line-break-and-eating-it-too strategy that challenges the long line’s integrity, its wholeness. The rupture of the line might give the reader the sense that something has been interrupted or cut short (like a life). These cracks in the poem’s surface mirror the speaker’s emotional shattering, as well. This small gesture, a tiny typographic addition, likewise echoes visually the predominant image in the passage: as if they’re marks chiseled into a gravestone.

The identification of the first-person plural, the “we” implied in “Our mothers” and “most of us,” ties the poem’s speaker together with other queer people of color. This larger community identification is integral to the poem and its emotional stakes, and it hints at the way that the book at large honors chosen communities and chosen families. Here in this poem, the “we” goes through a metamorphosis, at least imagistically, transforming from a gravestone into a bloom into a swan. This swift movement astonishes, in part because it relies on complex associations that work on both literal and figurative levels. The gravestone and the blooms have obvious literal connections. Perhaps blooms—that is, flowers—are left on the grave or sprout from its soil. Of course, there’s a more metaphorical gesture here as well: if the grave is totemic of death, blooms represent life or rebirth. The most surprising transformation of all is when the “we” blooms “out of sorrow” into swans, an image that’s nearly surreal. Through their grief, perhaps, they become something beautiful, even graceful, in spite of institutional racism, xenophobia, and homophobia inherent to American culture. That’s not to say that Guzmán romanticizes this grief, only that they honor it. Later in the poem, the dramatic situation is revealed: the “we” includes a group of friends who have dinner together on the night of the Pulse Nightclub Massacre, to grieve together: those “friends who grieve // by not dying.” [51]

As such, “Restored Mural” establishes Catrachos as a book about survival, but not a skittery, mousy version of it; rather, it’s about a kind of survival in which one’s voice rings out, even if—and maybe especially if—it seems obstrusive to a heteronormative, white-privileging culture. The poems that best display this are the sequence titled “Queerodactyl,” of which there are twelve interspersed throughout the collection. At first glance, these poems seem to exist in an entirely alternate reality than that of “Restored Mural”: Queerodactyl is a kind of chimera between a pterodactyl and a drag queen, who battles Dudesteroid, a heteronormative character who’s out to prevent Queerodactyl and their friends from having fun. Beyond the phantasmagorical cast of characters, the poems are straight out of the house-ballroom scene, the underground subculture in which Black and Latin-American drag queens lived together in “houses” and vogued at “balls.” The beginning of the sequence’s second poem illustrates ballroom culture, combining the spectacle of the performance with the scene’s punning, idiomatic invectives:

                                        You don’t have to watch me whip my wings
                                        back & forth to count the number of fiyahs

                                        I’ve put out. Single-handedly. Lady don’t
                                        PLAY. Up-in-out—don’t break your nails

                                        on that triceraTHOT! Out-in-up—
                                        werk that bill! werk that bill! werk that bill!

For those that can follow along with the language (e.g. “THOT” stands for “that ho over there”), these poems are campy and hilarious. Occasionally, however, their wordplay lands upon a chilling statement. As when the third poem goes from elaborate metaphors about a house “mother” giving fellatio (“she hummingbirds / against the lightning-loaded whistle of his slop // -py elimination”) to a stark definition of history: “who buries / whom first.” [15]

Although the rest of the collection feels tonally distinct from the “Queerodactyl” sequence, these poems don’t feel out of place in the book. In fact, they demonstrate Guzmán’s range as a poet, their ability to work in different voices toward similar critiques of Western culture. “In Service of Silence,” for instance, takes on the Catholic church’s sexual abuse of children, whereas “Self-Portrait According to George W. Bush” negotiates American policy about immigration laws. Other poems offer up dramatic situations that feel autobiographical to the poet, like “Arthur’s Spelling Trubble,” which braids together an episode of the PBS Kids’ show Arthur with the speaker’s experience entering a spelling bee even though “to everyone’s / knowledge, I don’t speak sufficient English” [29] as a Honduran immigrant. The book’s title pays homage to the poet’s Honduran identity. In the late 19th-century, Honduran General Florencia Xatruch’s troops defeated William Walker, an American who declared himself president of Nicaragua. “Because Xatruch’s name was difficult to pronounce,” the “Note on the Title” reads, “Nicaraguans…yelled, ¡Aquí vienen los catruches! From Xatruch’s name…Hondurans [became known as] catrachos.” [93] By naming the collection Catrachos, Guzmán identifies in solidarity with Honduran immigrants. This self-identifying is a kind of power, a way to say that a country is “an extension of one’s heart.” [46]

Regardless of the subject matter, all of Guzmán’s diction is so unexpected, so volatile, that it might leave a reader feeling charged up and dizzy. Electricity runs so vibrantly through the phrases like “machomanic evacuation” [27] and “measled fantasia sewage” [84] that it almost feels like the language will blow a fuse. Just read aloud these lines from “Jurisdiction”:

                                        Child of butchery, I now rove in nowhere,
                                        skin aqueducts, oldfoundlands. I hide
                                        my ambitions in skunk-stamped burrows,

                                        pluck sarcophogai out of city diapers—
                                        I let the rain stone me, knowing full well
                                        my futile desire to belong. [78]

The language here is just astonishing. To be astonished is to be stunned and bewildered; it has its roots in Latin: extonare, meaning “to thunder out.” And this language thunders. We hear Spanish intermixed with English because, as they write, “Spanglish is caged thunder, oblivious / certitude of orchids.” (33) In the passage I just read, we have all of those competing, interwoven sounds: the ch of “child” and “butchery” that morphs into the k of “aqueducts,” “skunk,” “scarophogai” alongside the oh vowel sound in “rove” and “nowhere” and “old” and “burrows.” We have a word that’s unsettled on what part of speech it might be: Does the speaker rove in skin (noun/adjective) aqueducts? Or does the speaker skin (verb) aqueducts? Across the collection, we have passage after passage of great music, from bombastic consonance to the lullabying cowbelling of vowels.

The images are sometimes surreal, as in the passage above, but not in a cheap, ornamental way. They seem to enact—no, embody—a bewilderment of the soul, one of celebration and grief, of rage and acceptance. This is a book of both/ands rather than either/ors. Guzmán’s poems aren’t narrowed by their multilingual, queer, Hondoran subjectivity; rather, they are expanded by them, containing not Whitman’s multitudes but “a post-Pangaea of intimacies.” [26]



Roy G. Guzmán was born in Honduras and raised in Miami, Florida. They received an MFA from the University of Minnesota. Guzmán is the author of the full-length collection Catrachos (Graywolf Press, 2020) and the chapbook Restored Mural for Orlando (Queerodactyl Press, 2016). The recipient of a 2017 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship and a 2016 Scribe for Human Rights Fellowship, among other awards, Guzmán is currently pursuing a PhD in in Comparative Studies in Discourse and Society at the University of Minnesota. They live in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Emilia Phillips (she/her/hers) is a poet, writer, and reviewer. She is the author of four poetry collections from the University of Akron Press, most recently Embouchure, (March 2021) and three chapbooks, including Hemlock (Diode Editions, 2019) and Beneath the Ice Fish Like Souls Alike (Bull City Press, 2015). Her poems and lyric essays appear widely in literary publications including Agni, American Poetry Review, The Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, Poetry, and elsewhere. She’s an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing (Poetry) at UNC Greensboro.