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Book review: A Question of Gravity and Light
by Yasmin Nair
2008-06-01

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Blas Falconer's collection of poems, A Question of Gravity and Light, is about nameless people, perennial outsiders who find themselves in situations they hadn't planned upon. The 46 poems here explore themes of attachment, family, belonging and of being located in many places at once. The voice is at once detached and enlivened, warily testing out spaces of connection with an eye and a mind that faultlessly record details for a posterity that could be fictive or real. The result is a set of pieces whose apparent lightness belies the burden of grief and longing experienced by the narrator ( s ) .

In 'The Given Account,' Falconer, who is of Puerto Rican origin and who happens to be gay, takes on a weighty subject: the legend of Diego Salcedo, whose death by drowning is considered by some to be an origin tale of Puerto Rico. As the story has it, Salcedo was killed by Taíno Indians in an attempt to see if the conquering Spaniards were indeed mortals. The poem's narrator—'I, who came to drink, struck dumb by one thought—they bleed, they die—' seems mysteriously at odds with the killers and filled with a nameless grief that's both corporeal and abstract: 'He hung / wet and limp and heavy in my arms—/ this man, this man, almost too much to bear.'

Seven poems share the title, 'Letters from the Cumberland,' referring to the part of Tennessee where Falconer lives and works as an assistant professor of English at Austin Peay State University. They explore the process by which a stranger makes his way into town and into the consciousness of his neighbors: ' … though the boxes have been broken down for months, the pictures hung, my name exchanged … / We wave across the street … ./ They don't ask much … '

The Cumberland poems are markers of the poet's attempts to set down roots, while struggling with unfamiliar and hostile students and the possibility of a long-term separation from a lover. The briefest of them is also the most precise in its description of two people trying to make distance work: ' … I'll fly north. / You'll drive down / when the time is right. / A question mark over the month of May, months from now.' But the questions about time aren't just about the logistics of schedules; they're about testing the elasticity of attachment: ' … Someone has to give.'

Other pieces relive childhood memories, and reveal how elusive and mysterious these become over the years. In 'A Story of Winter,' there is, possibly, the death of a child: ' … And the boy. / There. Then not there. / The ice breaking … ' Falconer's poetry is fiercely precise and sharp even when he writes about death. Here, as in 'The Given Account,' the enormity and grief of death is conveyed in the simple words that hover at the end: 'The air changing over and over again.'

This kind of dexterity with words is sometimes precious, but Falconer is too adept to let the work slip into flashiness, and he can be playful without coyness. In 'A Definition of Terms,' he waits in an airport and mulls over the meanings of 'cruise'—as 'a verb, slang, to seek a trick, / usually at night; no connection to / Tom Cruise, beloved actor and movie star.' As the poem continues, he reveals different meanings of the word—as in planes cruising the runway—and finally settles upon his trick. The two men continue their wordless circling around each other: ' … talking sex / without talking … ' before the clink of buckles and bathroom sex. At the end, what could be a judgment is rendered more ambiguous: a trick might be ' … the cruised, / the lonely, the starved … ' or it could be ' … sex between strangers / who give and take this temporary love.' A Question of Gravity and Light is a pristine collection of poems about the untidiness of sex, death, and attachment, written by a poet who's precise without being sterile and weighty without being burdensome.


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