The Devil’s Workshop by Xavier Cavazos
The Devil’s Workshop by Xavier Cavazos | CSU Poetry Center | $18.00 | October 2023 | 142 pp. 978-1-7348167-8-5
“Sound is ritual, and ritual is the vessel by which poetry can transcend this universe.”
- Xavier Cavazos
Winner of the “Editor’s Choice Award” from the Cleveland State University Poetry Center, The Devil’s Workshop is Xavier Cavazos’ second poetry collection. In reading this book, the body becomes aware of itself. Every nerve-ending activates, and it all begins in ritual.
Cavazos’ language stands at an altar of stone, and it cracks like the splitting cartilage of a chicken leg ripped from its joint. His lines are bones splintered wild across his pages; the shards and marrow take the shape of a glass pipe, of an exorcism plunged from needle to arm, of a man clutching through his neck a squall swallowed and swallowed until smothered deep in the thickness of his veins.
His anaphora, alliteration, repetition, and hyphenated-hyphenated words become a chant. And as the first sound rose from paper, the incantation—like the speaker’s mother—“began blessing with the four corners” of my room, asking me to “break free” of its “verbal binding.” This is the process of Cavazos’ healing, and his poetry moves beyond art to heal the reader—it is a prayer that fogs its breath on a dim mirror, and it sharply names the gaping pores of trauma, the peeling skin of border crossing, the dry cotton tongue of addiction, and more.
But how can poetry heal? In a conversation with Cavazos, he answered this question with three words: “Finally, by faith,” he said. Faith, an abstract concept ripened into image, sound, and fragment in The Devil’s Workshop:
Aflame my body tingled, wanted
to float. A powerless powerline.
I saw my reflection—a
wilderness in a wolf.
El spirit y Lo.
My head cocked
back as far as a howl.
Each of Cavazos’ lines is soaked, fat with the juices of metaphor and alliteration. His sound and image transport the reader to the speaker’s physical body, untethered by the real or the representative alone, entering into a space between. It is something that is simultaneously metamorphosing and grounding. Faith, as it appears on Cavazos’ pages, is the bumps on your neck, rising in the cold-hot sensation of image as experience, and it is the soul vibrating just inches outside the boundaries of your skin, reaching for a communion with the speaker.
During our conversation, Cavazos further clarified this concept: “What I ask of every reader is to enter into a contract with me and to have faith that the journey will produce healing. By letting the chaotic demons’ tongues speak and babble, a language of healing is resurrected because in [the reader’s] loss and in their confusion, they arrive at a place that is centered and healing.” He calls this contract “a demonic frenziness,” and it is through this state that Cavazos aims for his readers to “subconsciously exercise their own trauma.” This “confusion” or “loss” Cavazos describes is exemplified in the poem “Taller Del Diablos. 29 CLINTON STREET NYC, NY.” It begins with the grounded narrative of a failing marriage and a speaker “running down a street in New York City.” Cavazos, like a boot curling its weight onto a piece of glass, cracks then shatters the stable reflection of narrative, leaving the reader to stare into the fragments of a “demonic frenziness”: “The river is raging cows, horses, good meat, sour meat, spiders, and mites. /The river is raging needles, cotton, spoons, blood, and swabs.”
It is this anaphora phrase— “the river is raging”—where the poem reaches the height of frenzy. Often, throughout his collection, Cavazos leaves the reader to cling to repeated phrases. In the river of his language, heavy with image and fragmentation, his repetition stretches out like a bent bough creaking just above the water, its branches thin enough to grip, strong enough for the reader to choke out from the rapids for air: “The river is raging, and calling, and the cunning devil tempted me.” But the bark flakes away beneath the reader’s palms like dead skin. At any moment, they will again be submerged in loss and confusion. This is the moment of subconscious linkage in which the reader will “exercise their own trauma.”
However, confusion is not the only factor in this process. In our conversation, Cavazos also explained that “by naming traumas, the unspoken trauma that’s been buried deep in every reader becomes electrified, becomes illuminated.” The Devil’s Workshop names traumas in micro-moments of imagery that are concrete and particular:
manteca” I shouted
again. “Hold me close.”
My two hands ready to
rip the bathroom sink
right off the wall
It is during these brief “electrified” moments that the reader, “finally, by faith,” can face the sensory memories that arise from their transporting experience. It is like a carving in the dirt that brings back all moments of dirt, all finger-shoveling and face-smothering, grit-between-your-teeth-and-tongue moments, and in that filth, you are “illuminated.”
The Devil’s Workshop is poetic healing. In accepting the contract, the reader begins to scratch at their scars. Cavazos holds up the pink flesh of affliction in its rawest form, and through his language, you feel its sinews; you know the place it has been ripped from and how it used to feel when it was pumped with blood and life.
Zachary J. Schloss is a writer from Washington state whose stories deal with small-town confinement, rural spaces, and the mundane as myth. He graduated with a BA in Professional and Creative Writing from Central Washington University.