Review: Museum of the Americas by J. Michael Martinez

Photographs are often intimate artifacts, heirlooms, and a means by which our mortality is tracked and recalled. Many of our contemporary rituals around memory use photographs as a conjuring mechanism to reanimate the past. A timely hybrid-genre text, Museum of the Americas by J. Michael Martinez interrogates the white gaze and how the curation of the archive is another palimpsestic layer of control and power. Martinez uses the aesthetic lexicon of visual arts to navigate immigration and citizenry. “To photograph people,“ theorist and writer Susan Sontag famously declared, “is to violate them. It turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed.” How then do we reclaim and recover the body of color from the appropriations that render it an art object or framed as grotesque? How is visual art complicit in the objectification of bodies of color that are then devalued or erased? Through Museum of the Americas, Martinez places together his parents’ wedding photograph, postcards created during the Mexican Revolution, and the visual rhetoric and language in which Mexican-American and Mestiza consciousness is both visualized and denied.

The collection opens with a poem titled, “Potus XLV.” Using the jargon of ecclesiastical figures, the poem is about our current president, in which Martinez positions him as a “servant who sweetens/ only mirrors.”  The rest of the collection operates with this doorway in mind. One of the most exciting poetic offerings is when Martinez creatures his own visual poetry. In “Crossing the Border,” Martinez uses the configuration of absence and spatial silence to replicate the idea of borders.  One example is, “[ ] this Garden, / [   ] of distance” where the parenthetical preceding “distance” is larger than the one adjacent to Garden. Martinez plays with presumptions and narrative archetypes of pastoral language. In “Lord, Spanglish Me,” the poet participates in the alchemy of the domestic where “naranja” is translated into “familia,” and the “grove” becomes “tea” and the “tea” turns into “talisman.” Many poems are long-form poems, such as  “Casa Paintings, An Erotics of Negotiation,” a multi-segmented poem exploratory of how visual culture was used to assign multiracial subjects power under Spanish colonization and how these ideas reverberate in colorism. A potent moment occurs in “On The Naturalization of Alien Immigrants,” where Martinez lays bare how the language of documentation demarcates experiences and personhood. Using varying fonts, the poet fills in the blanks with rich and evocative language, creating ideas such as: “My occupation” followed by a blank that is filled with, “was the keeping of the divine fire, a serpent with maiden eyes.”  

In “Executive Order,” Martinez offers, “noun we are.” Yet, with all of these nouns, Martinez forfeits lyrical language in favor of expository. These deviations aren’t necessarily a shortcoming because explanations are necessary for creating sutures from the wound of erasure and false depiction. Yet, it is through this travel and explicit historization that readers can feel like the journey is too heavy.  In the last poem of the text, “Where Love is Ground to Wheat,” Martinez eulogizes his grandmother through “& the bread of my routines/ now absent of you, / are abundant with you.” Museum of the Americas is not a routine text, and the bread the poet bakes from the necessary ingredients of personal and political evocations is something a distressed American public hungers foreven when it is a little chewy.

About the author

Jai Hamid Bashir is a Pakistani-American writer from Salt Lake City, Utah. She is an MFA candidate in Poetry at Columbia University.

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