In his sophomore poetry collection, Andrés Cerpa’s sequence of fragments, letters, and lyrical reflections grapple with grief, love, and the manner in which the process of healing can turn ruin into moments of understanding and beauty. Although slim given its 70-ish page count and how the poems are arranged sparsely (but purposefully) on the page, The Vault is an engaging book that takes a closer look at how one can be both vulnerable and strong even when hope appears to be slipping away. 

The Vault is divided into two sections: Join Me and The Nightmare Touched Its Forehead to My Lips, both of which differ slightly in poetic forms and grammatical choices. Nevertheless, they share similar language and themes, and in the first section we are offered fragmentary reflections of a past the speaker is attempting to come to terms with, repeatedly addressing close friends Gregorio and Colin, and his partner Julia. While a definitive narrative isn’t clearly laid out, we do see the speaker’s “proclivity toward ruin” (drinking, loneliness, death) and how it has “only increased with [his] distance from it.” In one moment, the speaker is quite intimate with Julia, and in the next they are in a complicated separation. As the section progresses, Gregorio appears to have died, and Colin is left listening to the speaker’s philosophical questions. Eventually, the speaker comes to the conclusion that he’s “hurt for such little comfort / like a bird’s first test of the glass,” but whatever glass was shielding him from the outside world has since been shattered. 

In the moments that do surface with clarity, the speaker has arrived at a point where his emotions can be exhumed,, and in one instance when conversing with a friend whose life is going in a different direction than his (despite the fact that the speaker’s friend was his best man), the speaker is left feeling alone and empty inside: 

at every stage in your life we’ve said it’s a strange stage in our life 

embers more vivid at dusk 

soon we’ll get into a car 

& I’ll go home to an empty apartment 

have another as I run my hands through the few strands on the 

    second pillow 

I am haunted by my decisions & Julia’s name 

The decisions the speaker is referring to could be the “bender” in Amsterdam or the occasions when he, in moments of despair, longed to be alone, but the fragmentary nature of the poems leave in their wake a fog that can’t be easily navigated. Ultimately, however, we are but witnesses trying to make sense of the uncertainty, since it is the speaker who has to put the pieces back together again: 

I have tamped down the earth & prayed for the vault to open 

neglect 

all my psychological shit untouched 

when I imagine myself 

I am always leaving 

I couldn’t draw my own face if god asked 

What perhaps the speaker doesn’t realize is that through this constant reflection, the vault of emotions has already been opened, and while he may not be able to recognize his own face, even if God or any god asked for him to draw it, he does recognize that despite everything he has been through, he wants to write about “love & completion,” even if neither exists at the moment. 

The second section, The Nightmare Touched Its Forehead to My Lips, while still fragmentary, introduces punctuation, primarily commas and periods, into the mix. This might be a minor detail, but it’s one that shouldn’t be overlooked, considering that the punctuation provides not only a more definitive structure to the speaker’s thoughts, but a soberness that wasn’t found in the first section. The speaker is quite aware now that “Nothing new / can save [him] / from grief,” but that “Bit by bit [he’ll] go on surviving.” The speaker has lost those closest to him, and we can see this when he is remembering his father: 

A radiant silence

envelopes my veins 

with its letter — 

Dad, 

I still need you. 

This honesty was no doubt found in the first section, but the cryptic nature it was veiled with is removed here. He still needs the guidance of those crucial to shaping his past, but even without it, he understands the need to move forward (in his first collection, Bicycle in a Ransacked City: An Elegy, the speaker’s father is the focal point as the speaker seeks to understand the consequences of his father’s illness and eventual death). 

Cerpa’s images are vivid and poignant, and when his language does veer into the surreal, it is not without keen awareness: 

In a foreign car, painted in snow salt, 

I watch myself drift out. 

Then low tide where I walk ankle deep, 

careful not to cut up my feet. 

A bit of flame in the wind. Blood 

in the flash. There is no god, 

so I move my own heaven. 

We never leave our trauma behind unscathed, and whether we find ourselves walking ankle deep in water or moving through a gust of flaming wind, we, like the speaker, will eventually come to the conclusion that there may be no one there to save us. We must create our own heaven someplace where we can finally be safe and true to ourselves, despite the wounds that still might not have healed. 

The Vault is a slight departure from Bicycle in a Ransacked City, but it is just as wholly moving and successful, and the honesty depicted on every page highlights Cerpa’s ability to channel grief into a more welcoming reality. Cerpa’s voice is one to follow, and if his future work is anything like the two books he has under his belt, we, as readers and students of a world that isn’t always ideal to our hearts, will no doubt feel compelled to learn from the ways in which Cerpa takes everyday tragedies and molds them into opportunities for empathy and growth.    

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Esteban Rodríguez

Esteban Rodríguez is the author of five poetry collections, most recently The Valley (Sundress Publications 2021), and the essay collection Before the Earth Devours Us (Split/Lip Press 2021). He is the Interviews Editor for the EcoTheo Review, Senior Book Reviews Editor for Tupelo Quarterly, and Associate Poetry Editor for AGNI. He currently lives in central Texas.

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