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  • Alfredo Aguilar and Laura Villareal

Golden Ax by Rio Cortez

$18.00 | Penguin Books | Aug 30, 2022 | 80 Pages |

ISBN: 9780143137139


Laura Villareal (LV): I never know where to begin when reviewing a poetry book. Often I’m overwhelmed with all the exciting moves and turns of a book and want to speak on them all at once. Let’s begin, perhaps, with initial impressions?

Alfredo Aguilar (AA): Unsurprisingly, I found myself drawn to this book’s first section with its descriptions and meditations on and inside of the specific landscapes of Utah. I was struck by how place is used as somewhere to begin thinking about the speaker’s origins, as through the course of the poems it becomes clearer that one single origin is not only impossible, but also maybe beside the point. Perhaps there is a kind of freedom in having multiple points of beginning as in the end of the poem “I learn to shoot a bow,”

With two birth stories.

In one story I come from a sea god

with the forest as my mother, and in

the other, I have no mother at all

LV: I want to come back to your point about multiple origins and discuss “I learn to shoot a bow” a bit deeper later, but could you speak a bit more about why you found yourself drawn to the first section’s descriptions? In the years that I’ve known you, you’re often drawn towards mountains because it's a familiar landscape to your upbringing in Southern California. Do you think that played a role in why you were drawn to the first section?

While you found yourself drawn to the landscape and locality of the book, I was drawn toward the temporality of the poems. The mix of past, present, future, intersecting time, and imagined time that happens as Rio Cortez invents the future, looks towards familial history, reimagines the speaker in pre-existing contexts, and reckons with how time influences the present.

Admittedly, I feel that what each of us is drawn to in this book is very telling of how we both write and think about poems.

AA: I think that familiarity definitely played a role in my being drawn to the first portion of the book. For me markers in the landscape, especially mountains, have always served as a way to orient myself in the world; to tell me where I was, how far from home. I felt a resonance in how the speaker relates to landscape, however there is a distinct searching for how they have arrived at where they find themselves. I’m thinking here on the poem “A Class Distinction” and the lines,

It’s possible

I wasn’t born from mountains at all

but a valley.

What is lower

than a valley?

There is something here about a questioning of what the speaker assumed has been a kind of origin and wondering if that origin is located under and deeper than where they first thought. Throughout a number of poems in the first section there is also distinct sci-fi imagery running alongside the landscape in this searching which makes for strange and compelling poems. How do you think about the temporality of the book and poems in relation to Afrofuturism and Afropioneerism that the author mentions at the front of the collection?

LV: To best answer that, I think it’s necessary to quote Cortez herself. In the Author’s Note, she says: “Much like the way Afrofuturism seeks to envision a future for Black people at the intersection of imagination and science fiction, a future that also seeks to remember the Black past, in many ways Golden Ax hopes to find its place and definition as a work of ‘Afropioneerism’ or ‘Afrofrontierism’terms that describe and inform my family ancestry and experience. This work is autobiographical, but it is also a work of imagined history.” I approach temporality with Cortez’s note in mind, and inevitably with the work of Afrofuturists like Octavia Butler (especially since we’ve been watching Hulu’s adaptation of Kindred) and

Tananarive Due. The past, present, and future are inextricable from one another.

Something else that came to mind when thinking about temporality was Dr. Alan Pelaez Lopez’s book Intergalactic Travels: poems from a fugitive alien (The Operating System, 2020). There’s a poem called “An Artist Manifesto For Black &/or Indigenous Folk Surviving Empire.” In it Dr. Pelaez Lopez writes, “I believe in the Ghanaian concept of Sankofa: we must always go back and get that which we have lost. What we have lost as an African-diasporic people, an Indigenous people, as queer people, as trans people, and as undocumented people is memory.” In Golden Ax, I see Cortez reaching back to retrieve the history of her family’s enslavement, their migration, and the life they built in Utah. The speaker in her poems tries to make sense of her place in the world as a person through this retrieval. Both books write towards the reclamation of history and acknowledge what has been lost.

At times the blur between autobiography and imagined history intersect for Cortez’s speakers so they’re in multiple temporalities at once. There are also poems that feel outside of time as if abandoning the constraints of past, future, and present allow the speakers to live and create more freely. I felt like the three sections could be read as the past, present, and future with a few instances where time overlaps or is intertwined.

Since you mentioned sci-fi imagery, maybe we should look at “Covered Wagon as Spaceship” together. The sonnet begins “Standing unseen in the little bluestem, / curious and not quite used to living,.” The first line reads as a present moment, but it is turned by the second that contains knowledge that feels like it can only be gained from looking back.

A major theme of Afrofuturism is alienation which can be seen in several poems in this collection– a sort of unbelonging and what you’ve called searching. “Covered Wagon as Spaceship” feels like the most explicit example. The ending reads:

for understanding: how do you come

to be where there are no others, except

science fiction? I am a child feeling

extraterrestrial; whose history, untold,

is not enough. Anyway, it begins with abduction

I’m struck by the revelation that this poem is about the speaker as a child perhaps because child logic fascinates me– how not yet having enough information often leads to invented solutions and conclusions like here. The final conclusion “Anyway, it begins with abduction” is spot on though.

AA: Since we’re touching on the Author’s Note, I wanted to mention Sadiya Hartman’s idea of critical fabulation which deals with writing into the gaps of the archive. As the author notes, there is so much that is lost to those whose “histories are cut short by the design of transatlantic slavery.” I feel like the idea of critical fabulation is in conversation with a number of the poems in Golden Ax that write into what the author describes as that “imagined history.” In a place where there is little or no recorded memory, the writer takes what is left to them then imagines and writes into those gaps. The imagination then becomes a source or tool in finding an origin.

Yes, the child’s perspective is so compelling in “Covered Wagon as Spaceship.” Finding no suitable explanation for how the speaker understands how they or their family arrived in Utah she considers “whether it's aliens / that brought Black folks to the canyons, valley.” I think this consideration is strange, humorous, compelling, and maybe a bit sad. Sad because the speaker can’t or hasn’t yet found a satisfactory explanation for their being in a place they call home, though the speaker’s roots go back generations. This speaks to both the feeling of being alien and sense of alienation and feels related or like a way to talk about race through the lens of science fiction, which the genre often codes. There is also a bit of humor here too though; like the only explanation that makes sense to this child speaker for why they are in Utah is aliens. Of course! And while there is the very serious reading in the last line of being stolen, it is simultaneously conveyed in a somewhat off handed tone: “Anyway, it begins with abduction.”

LV: I’m glad you brought up Sadiya Hartman’s idea of critical fabulation. Critical fabulation is a powerful tool in claiming and reclaiming space in the archive. To invoke another writer, I’m also reminded of John Keene’s Counternarratives, which utilizes “counternarration” as a throughline in the stories. Whether a writer calls the ongoing project that is addressing the archives failures “critical fabulation” or “counternarration,” I’m always interested in how these approaches differ but often have a similar goal of recovering the past to imagine the future. Cortez is doing comparable work in how she combines pieces of the archive with speculation to illuminate various aspects of identity, history, and freedom or lack thereof. Since I brought up John Keene, I’m now thinking about the poems in Golden Ax that recast existing white TV and movies characters as Black: “Black Annie Hall,” “Black Frasier Crane,” and “Black Mary Wilkie.” The Frasier Crane poems were particularly delightful. What did you think of them? I really enjoyed them, but I’d love to hear your thoughts before I speak on them further.

AA: I found those poems particularly playful and subversive. There is a kind of gleefulness that I felt in seeing the speaker recreating the white characters in their own image. It's a kind of reimagining and assertion of a black identity inside that world in which those characters and stories exist, which almost always omit non-white characters. I found a kind of pleasure in watching how the speaker insists on and recreates their centrality in those stories. It's playful and sly, but also rebellious. As in “Yes, I’m going to re-imagine this white main character in my image.” I’m thinking about lines from “Black Frasier Crane” here:

Isn’t this the hardest

work? To be happy

when you already

have everything

In subverting these characters and their whiteness, the speaker imagines a world where the norm in stories about black characters and black life has them living in material abundance, and their largest concern or work is achieving a sense of happiness. What was your experience reading the poems?

LV: I loved those lines in “Black Frasier Crane” you pointed out. That poem in particular is doing a lot of work to critique, poke fun, and reimagine through its lines and breaks. The poem’s lineation and short lines have enjambment that turns the meaning over and over as you move into the next line; the poem is exceptional at creating duality and critical texture. To add on where you stopped, the poem continues as:

to have so much

you give some up

not away

but to the beast in you

that just takes

and takes until

there are no more

brûlées and no more

canapes just the mind’s

endless narration.

These lines read to me as an indictment of capitalism and wealth. But, yes, there’s something playful about the tone too. For instance, the choice of “brûlées” and “canapes” confer a sense of coded class status. I could say more about class and food but this is not the time! Let me get back to the poems.

There are moments in Cortez’s film/TV poems that are deeply revelatory and reveal a sort of emotional undercurrent that resonates with other poems in the book. I was listening to the VS podcast this morning where Brittany Rogers and Ajanaé Dawkins talk to Joy Priest. The episode is called “Joy Priest vs. Absurdity.” In it Joy Priest briefly talks about Afrosurrealism and her PhD work. A couple things she said made me think of Golden Ax. Priest says, “We’re living in white realism but it’s surreal for us…” and then furthers her thought by saying, “Blackness is ontological surrealism meaning like to live Black, to be Black is to live in the surreal.” This made me think of these poems again. Though Cortez recasts these white characters as Black, I wonder if the world around them has changed too? Annie Hall, Manhattan, and Frasier are products of white imagination, which often willfully excludes anyone from historically resilient communities. You already know this but I can’t stand watching movies that somehow only have white extras– especially in places like New York City. It feels to me like an incredibly violent imagination rooted in white supremacy. I found myself wondering as I was reading: why these films and TV show? And does Cortez’s reimagining then make them the product of Black imagination or is there still the lingering phantom of whiteness that haunts them?

I really like your reading that they’ve been reclaimed in entirety because the poems are often imagining joy, longevity, and abundance. I was smiling to myself on first reading because of how these poems reach towards joy and are rich with sensory details that to me feel luxurious. Things like “lavender ice cream,” “the distance sound of waves,” “falling into a bathtub of calendula / and orange peel,” and well-made espresso drinks. Did you read “Frasier Crane Toasts No One in Particular” as an extension of “Black Frasier Crane” like I did? Since “Black Frasier” comes first in the sequence, I continued to read the character through that recasting.

AA: I think that the world of the poem where those re-imagined Black characters exist has been changed if only for that moment to feel and express that luxuriousness, complexity, and joy without whiteness butting in. I know that all white extras in an imagined New York City is especially irritating because the city itself looks nothing like that; it is a kind of erasure. I was wondering too about why these particular movies and TV shows. I can’t help but feel that the writer has a familiarity with these works and perhaps even a fondness for them, but she’s able to look past that and point out the racial erasure and violence in that imagined world. And I think that in the context of the poems that’s where the subversion comes in. To take that violent white supremacist imagination and turn it on its head by reimagining at the center of those stories Black characters and Black life.

Yes! I definitely read the “Black Frasier Crane'' poems as a kind of series. What I read as the recurrence of the same character in both poems felt fitting because of the serial nature of the TV show it was referencing.

I wanted to backtrack a little and touch on what I read as a sense of searching throughout many of the poems but from a formal/craft point of view. I was struck by the decision in many of the poems to not end with a period even though in many of the poems there is use of punctuation. For example, in “Covered Wagon as Spaceship” the poem ends “whose history, untold, / is not enough. Anyway, it begins with abduction”. I noticed this on my first read through and thinking about it made me feel like that gesture towards not finishing the sentence, towards the openness on the page communicated something about the searching never being done. As though the origin or explanation that the speaker is looking for always lies elsewhere, beyond the page and language, just out of reach. That choice might be small but it had a great effect on my reading of the poems; as though that feeling was being conveyed through choice of punctuation. I found it deeply compelling. Were there any formal/craft elements in the collection that stood out to you in your reading?

LV: Agreed, it’s a thoughtful move in the collection that I think is indicative of the care put into writing Golden Ax.

My tendency is to look at how form and content are conversing, so I was interested in the visual caesurae Cortez uses across Golden Ax. By visual caesurae I mean the intentional gaps between lyric fragments in a line. An obvious interpretation of these caesurae would be that they help amp up the idea of the fragmented archive. You know, like what is known versus unknown in family history or the literal gaps in the archive. But I think they’re also doing something else more subtle. There’s a thread of what feels like conflict in deciding whether to recognize duality of self as two-ness that’s abundant or rather to see it as a splitting of identity.

Duality or two-ness can be seen visually in the dueling epigraphs by Sun Ra and Brigham Young at the beginning of “Salt” and in the way “Dishwashing the Mammy Salt & Pepper Shakers by Accident” emphasizes the word “two” on the left margin. But I want to focus on where it feels most explicit in form and content. There are two poems next to each other in the book that feel centered on duality/multiplicity; “I’m Forced to Imagine There Are Two of Me Here” is on the right-hand page and “I learn to shoot a bow” is on the left.

When we talk about poems, we often talk about the poet and the speaker as separate, but in “I’m Forced to Imagine There Are Two of Me Here” the speaker is the poet, Rio Cortez. Here’s a bit from the poem:

To fit in we practice not dancing I pull her hair against our head and burn

the water out she sucks in the lip of our belly

I call her Rio say Rio remind them of our one white grandmother

do what it takes to make them think we are like them

Because it is a risk to want us we close the bedroom door she reaches under

the blanket It’s just me Rio and The Dark

Rio Cortez splits in two in this poem, at first calling the other self “Rio” but then referring to her as “The Dark.” This shift in name is telling. Should she recognize the second Rio as herself or create distance and estrangement by giving it a name like “The Dark”? There’s a moment later in the poem where it says “It feels like there could be more / of us somewhere,” so further fragmentation may exist but it’s unclear how the speaker feels about it. Though later, there’s a moment that hints at her feelings for the second Rio. She writes, “we show each other mercy” and I can’t help but infer that there’s conflict that requires mercy.

Duality that is abundance appears in the ending of “I learn to shoot a bow” which says:

against the willow. I guess this is where

I am Orion. With two birth stories.

In one story I come from a sea god

with the forest as my mother, and in

the other, I have no mother at all

Choosing to embody Orion who has several birth stories, but these two major ones, is a fascinating choice. Coincidentally as a constellation, Orion is composed of several stars but there are two supergiants, Betelgeuse and Rigel. In this iteration, the two birth stories read to me as a form of abundance. That not only is there a full narrative for the speaker’s existence but there’s two.

To close out our conversation in review, should we talk about, “Eden,” the last poem in the collection?

AA: That use and reading of the caesurae throughout the poems hits on the abundance of origin that you mentioned. For me that was most explicit in those lines from “I learn to shoot a bow.” What strikes me about this abundance of origins is that it exists simultaneously in the searching for an origin. In searching the speaker finds a number of possible origins, but the poems never feel disappointed or down about that fact. Instead, the poems celebrate that abundance of origins even if it can be conflicting, all which feels truer to the murkiness in trying to find an origin. Often an origin isn’t located in only one simple thing or place, but in multiple, sometimes sprawling places and people. I think that throughout the book the poems grapple with that notion.

In thinking about the final poem in the book, “Eden,” I wanted to touch on the gesture of ascendance towards the end of the poem.

at the beginning

of which could, I suppose, be anything

cul-de-sac, just as well, a saucer, rising up,

up to the summit, it’s possible I’ve never been

higher, I feel it, I’m really leaving now

moving through the told story

I found the transformation of the cul-de-sac into a flying saucer really striking as a way to ascend into and away from a place. As though perhaps it doesn't matter what your mode of transport is so long as it can take you away. It was also in keeping with some of the sci-fi imagery from earlier in the book and I appreciated its return. What I found noteworthy too is that movement at the end where ultimately the speaker is taken to heights they have never known, are nearly disappearing, and finally ascend into the “told story.” That movement felt to me like a collapse of time, where the speaker is simultaneously moving into and through a story that is being told by someone else. We are watching the speaker ascend into the mythic, but at the same time the myth is being told, while also keeping the speaker alive in some sense.

While it's a stretch, I can’t help but think (perhaps because of the sci-fi and Western imagery) about that recurring line from the show Westworld: “You live only as long as the last person who remembers you.” Which then for me also echoes Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18: “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, / So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.” Once the speaker ascends into the realm of story, as long as the story is told the speaker continues to live in some way. That feeling of the continuous and unending is also reinforced for me through the choice of not having a period on the last line, especially when it is used elsewhere in the text. The poem, the speaker, their story has no end. What were your thoughts on this final poem?

LV: “Eden” was a phenomenal way to end the collection. The title evokes for me the Biblical telling of Adam and Eve from Genesis–you know, eating from the Tree of Knowledge and their exile from the Garden of Eden. The poem ties together the thematic threads we discussed earlier but also transcends to move into a place of self-affirmation and reclamation. I felt like the “told story” that is mentioned in “Eden” echoes back to the second poem in the collection, “Covered Wagon as Spaceship,” which says “I am a child feeling / extraterrestrial; whose history, untold, / is not enough.” The speaker who has longed for and worked so hard to reckon with the gaps in their family history or “untold story” and who has created multiple narratives to make sense of their place in the world is now ready to move past them. In “Eden” the speaker proclaims,

there must be countless allegories

but I’m only interested in one

am I home or am I only visiting? I am through

with asking,

I love this moment in the poem– a question and then a rejection of the need to ask. It’s powerful and assured. The speaker is taking control. I like how you’ve described the speaker as ascending because it feels like an emotional, spiritual, and physical ascension. Or perhaps it’s more like a departure from the bounds of story whether it’s their families’, their own, or other people’s stories about them. We can often feel these stories define us, but more often than not they feel like a dead-end (like a cul-de-sac) where we’re forced to exit from where we entered rather than to continue moving forward and onward.


Alfredo Aguilar is the author of On This Side of the Desert (Kent State University Press, 2020), selected by Natalie Diaz for the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize. He is a recipient of 92Y’s Discovery Poetry Contest and has been awarded fellowships from MacDowell, the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, and the Frost Place. His work has appeared in Poetry Northwest, Waxwing, Tupelo Quarterly, and elsewhere. Born and raised in North County San Diego, he now resides in Central Texas where he is a fellow at the Michener Center for Writers.

Laura Villareal is the author of Girl’s Guide to Leaving (University of Wisconsin Press, 2022). She earned her MFA at Rutgers University—Newark and has been awarded fellowships and scholarships from the Stadler Center for Poetry and Literary Arts, National Book Critics Circle’s Emerging Critics Program, Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, and the Dobie Paisano Fellowship Program at University of Texas-Austin. Her writing has appeared in Guernica, AGNI, The American Poetry Review, and elsewhere.


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