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Nonfiction Prose Reviews

Warring Warbles Within — A Review of WARBLES by Alex Z. Salinas

Thoughts on Alex Z. Salinas’ debut book of poems.

By William O. Pate II

WARBLES by Alex Z. Salinas
2019
Hekate Publishing
85 pages

Having put aside my recent readings inquiring into the goals of white supremacists, the connections between free-market right-wingers and Bitcoin enthusiasts and the morality of markets to reread and comment upon Alex Z. Salinas’ debut book of poetry, WARBLES, I’m struck by the way his work communicates the struggles of an authentic real-world American in a time when many prefer to abstract away to justify various forms of violence.[1] His work allows one to zoom in, as it were, on the lived experience from the often purposely nebulous, amorphous and ill-defined level of supposed theory justifying additional suffering offered by your day-to-day conservative.

To be clear, Alex’s work isn’t political. In fact, though he serves as the poetry editor of San Antonio Review, which I edit and publish, I can’t say I am aware of his true political leanings. He could be a raging Trump supporter, for all I know, to be honest.[2] His poetry certainly betrays no political leaning. So, my remarks should not dissuade those of the mistakenly apolitical bent from enjoying his work.[3]

Image of "Warbles" book cover

On the contrary, WARBLES contains poems on the topics you’d expect in a first book of poetry: family (with its history, customs and lineage), love (especially for a beloved), self (it is poetry) and the writing process. Perhaps the most surprising topic he touches on is faith (“Winds of Obsession,” “Fallback,” “TV Religion”). Clearly, faith isn’t a unique topic for poetry, but addressed unironically and without sarcasm by a Millennial poet it can appear slightly unexpected.

I say Alex’s work isn’t overtly political, but, as any feminist will tell you, the personal is political. One of my inquiries recently has been on what we can base a belief in the basic equality of all. When conservatives abstract away to concepts like freedom or liberty or rights, what can we point to that truly levels the playing field? In After Theory, Terry Eagleton argues that it’s the basic frailty of the human body and our inherent dependence on one another to survive that makes us all equal.[4] If there’s one thing we all share, it’s that we truly can’t do it on our own. Babies can’t survive without someone to care for them. The same happens at the end of life, though we’ve done a great job of ignoring that reality in recent decades I think it may become more apparent again soon. In “Rolly pollies,” as in other poems, Alex reminds us of our felt frailty:

They say newborns need their
mother’s touch, skin-to-skin contact,
to help their brains produce the right
amount of hormones.

Adulthood is no different.
Walk into any state prison and stare
long enough into a convict’s eye—
tell me what you find missing there.

They say we eventually become self-sufficient—
logical, reasonable, responsible.
They say once we’re no longer children,
we’ve grown up.

This is the point as which we
lose touch, probably—forget the connections
we made when we were unafraid
of using our hands.

Alex was born, raised and lives in Texas. Some poems call out San Antonio landmarks. Though he’s Hispanic, he doesn’t share his family’s knowledge of the Spanish language (“Connect Four,” “Ju Speak Spanish?”). Moreover, outside the heated immigration context of early 21st century United States, he could easily be considered (“pass for”) white (“The Great Things About Being Sometimes Hispanic”). His work documents some of the negotiations he makes with these aspects of his identity – negotiations that involve not just self-imposed questions of selfhood but those identities placed upon him by society (“Salt,” “The Great Thing About Being a Hispanic Writer”). His struggles make me wonder how white supremacists justify their beliefs when their membership in an identitarian group is problematized, questioned or undermined by the existence of non-“white” genetics in their own DNA or their closest comrades turn out to be people who were assumed to be white. And, in carving out their own ethno-states, where do people like Alex fit?

As in all books of poetry, there are pieces I would rate misses. They don’t predominate or overwhelm. If anything, the poems that don’t quite hit the mark remind you that Alex is only thirty and has much more to offer. Alex is a writer with a bright future whose work I look forward to continuing to read. WARBLES is an excellent first outing that only makes me more excited to read his first book of short fiction, which is sure to be published soon. Any book that reminds us of our shared humanity is worth reading.


[1] For my recent reading, see inadequate.net/read.html. David Golumbia’s The Politics of Bitcoin: Software as Right-Wing Extremismsits beside me as I write this; Misty is about to begin Edward and Robert Skidelsky’s Are Markets Moral?, which I read yesterday morning; and I thoroughly enjoyed Kevin Musgrave and Jeff Tischauser’s “Radical Traditionalism, Metapolitics, and Identitarianism: The Rhetoric of Richard Spencer” in boundary 2, though I question their claim of using rhetorical analysis in their study.

[2] I hardly believe this to be the case.

[3] I would insist conservatives could enjoy his work as well, if I believed they were capable of enjoying the poetry of words instead of profits and/or prophets.

[4] I’ve owned the hardcover edition of this book for more years than I can remember. I only just recently finally read it on a whim. As for an answer to the equality question, I’m looking for something that isn’t completely metaphysical to justify my own belief that we are all intrinsically valuable as human beings and no one person is somehow inherently more valuable (and, thus, deserving of life, liberty and happiness) than another (who is expendable, but only after being made to suffer exploitation).


William O. Pate II is the editor and publisher of San Antonio Review.