Jon Pineda’s latest—his third poetry collection and sixth book overall—is a fervent and fragmented critique of joy, as its title suggests. Little Anodynes is taken from Emily Dickinson, from “the heart asks pleasure first,” a poem that in its brief lines moves from joy to anesthetic—”anodynes/that deaden suffering”—to death. As it animates Pineda’s work, the cycle is not so direct. The poems here consider fatherhood and the power of memory to ignite joy and pain at once. For many parents, this is a powerful truism, that our experiences run through fits of joy and suffering repeatedly and in many forms.
Little Anodynes is slim—just under 60 pages— yet stuffed, with nearly every poem containing the compounding moments of living with children and all of the emotion and work suggested by the modern state of being a parent. To engage the work by pushing through its emotional wallop, I pieced together time in the mornings before the chaos of long days that make up the short years with my daughters and wife. I wrote with the white noise of a child monitor always nearby, amid the furtive rustlings of my teenage daughter making breakfast so as not to wake others. Parts of the book have come to me in the weeks of my engagement with it, as my own life with children has been eerily echoed and pleasantly affirmed by his work.
Pineda’s collection works with several narrative threads from the viewpoint of a father—family history, the tragic loss of a sibling, and the fabric of marriage to name the dominant ones—and showcases his considerable talent in using prose to serve poetic ends.
Gathered in four sections, Pineda’s prose poems weave children, a father, and a distant grandfather in clashing narratives. The voice of the poems is often both a parent experiencing moments of fraught joy and a son witnessing and not wholly understanding the context behind his father’s inscrutable visage. The book’s first section is formative, looking at the advent of fatherhood and manhood. The second concerns the lived conflict of being a father, rife with the pleasure and fear that are the peaks and valleys of that existence. The penultimate section concerns mortality, and the final section is the long title poem in which the book’s themes coalesce. The sections taken together suggest a lifespan flashing in spangles of memory and great drifts of emotion.
Pineda’s use of language intensifies image and the simulation of memory and emotion, creating productive tensions in the works in this collection. The book’s jacket calls the works “lyrical personal narratives.” They could be considered prose poems, or micro-essays (though that, to me, is a stretch), but ultimately feel very consciously composed as prose-poems, if for no other reason than the writer justifies a shorter margin and eschews punctuation in favor of end-line and mid-line enjambment. While the enjambment often suggests sentences, the book has no punctuation to signal such. Often lines interact in ways that cloud sentence understanding or structure.
In “Trailer,” the poet evokes a childhood memory about exploring an abandoned structure. The intensity of overlapping image is underscored by the language’s simultaneous approach and resistance to grammatical convention:
There are burn marks
where the floor is concave
the green carpet melted as
if from ashtrays overturned
the contents mashed we
play in the trailer & avoid
this spot later we’ll run
In “Ceiling and Ground,” a family on a cavern tour watches as a toddler in a stroller hurls a pacifier into a pit. As the speaker wonders whether interns have the unenviable task of cleaning debris from the caves, and whether someone will be lowered into the abyss to find the offending item, the poem ends with the speaker thinking about “searching / the dark for those / unfortunate signs of life.” In a book of pieces composed with few narrative cues beyond the immediacy of the language, and that yoke together contrary images and clashing narratives, “unfortunate signs of life” become glimpses of resonance, the soft drag against joy.
As the book’s title suggests, the poems describe the complications of joy in the context of loved ones. In “Prayer,” Pineda writes ” . . . there is always / a hint of sadness that hangs / back from any considerable / joy & waits . . .” The line renders the curious tension between parenting’s over-informed awareness of action and long-term consequence. In “Prayer,” Pineda juxtaposes two narratives threaded with violation. In one, the speaker and his pregnant wife stand amid revelers at Mardi Gras and witness a woman disrobe and become an object of ridicule. People take her photo, with the emphasis on take, as the speaker holds his wife, knowing a baby will soon join their lives.
In the latter section of “Prayer,” the speaker recalls his Filipino father when the man was a GI in World War II. The father and his friends, Filipino all, attended dances off base where women wanted to dance with them, enjoying their contrast with the usual fare. The white sailors and soldiers often forcibly cut in, resulting in violence against the Filipinos. The story ends on a night when it becomes too much, and the Filipino soldiers arrive at the dance “thick chain links around / their necks under silk shirts / metal pressed heavily / against their skin & covered / marks left by a mother’s rosary,” armed and ready.
In both stories, tragedy lurks, but Pineda does not let menace or tragedy dominate, even in the collection’s most tragic piece. In “Notes for a Memoir,” the speaker discovers the name of the dump truck driver who killed his sister in a car accident. The accident itself is scarcely evoked in the very short poem, and the beauty of compressed image pushes the meat of the accident and death from the poem’s foreground. The idea is approached but only lightly evoked at the trucks impact: “touching the car a window / pressed my sister’s raised / hand”—the last word left hanging.
Given how seemingly autobiographical are the stories (and a cursory review of Pineda’s two acclaimed memoirs strongly suggests autobiographical resonance), the style mimics memory’s broken visions: odd juxtapositions, lack of clarity aggravated by the omission of punctuation, and murky enjambments. Because these speakers know the whole story, joy is always modulated: “all / is buried underneath our / shortlived joy” and “the surprise of joy” suggest its surprise, its fleeting qualities, and yet its permanence: ‘if there is an edge to each / image the light will find it.”
In “The Story,” the speaker shares a tale of his father playing Russian roulette when he was in the navy. The father told the story to his wife only just before they married, “when his life / still held within itself / numerous things yet to / come.” The speaker imagines his father held his breath before the hammer click, knowing he would have a son. The speaker knows better, knowing such thoughts would likely not be in a young man’s mind, that the son only existed “on the other side of / his surrendering”—intimating that a life more than the satisfaction of the immediate is something to which a man surrenders. The book draws stark lines between the masculine of a previous generation and that which the speaker has come to understand. In “Strawberries,” Pineda considers masculinity in how he envisions his son growing up: “[I] think of / the man my son will / become & kiss him softly / on the mouth.”
In what is perhaps my favorite piece in the book—or at least the one I have read aloud to more people than anything else in years—Pineda captures the specificity of an indelible moment as a parent while using terms evoking the imagery of death (tomb, next life, sarcophagus, temporary temple):
Some mornings I pretend to
sleep our room cool as
a tomb before the radiator
has jeweled the air to weigh
us further into the next life
& that is usually when she
arrives stuffed animals
she places on either side of
us a dog named Tickle &
a cat whose name I
have forgotten in your
slumbering you are almost
a sarcophagus while she is
the ritual the play by play of
her prayer what is what &
what goes where content
she then climbs between us
rests her hands on our faces
until the moment is little
more than what it is
returning those awake in
the temporary temple
of Love’s making.
More than any of the other works in the book, this is the poem that startled me into an understanding of the brevity of time with my own children. The scene described in “Ritual” resonates because I, like so many, have been there, with the child who arranges her world, watching the assumption of safety, of how her world is her own and within her control, while at the edge of consciousness in that moment is the dread of the day when she will realize the limits of her control. No matter how one tries to be in the moment—and so many of Pineda’s poems remind us of this—the longer strands of time and its upheavals weave through every ritual.
I have tried to shorten this review, and in doing so have left out the many things I have to say about nearly every poem in this wondrous collection. I have reduced what I would say about “Ritual,” a work concerning a father stubbornly fighting the nighttime “back & forth ritual” that a young child can masterfully manipulate, while a daughter fears a thunderstorm until her father hollers for her to stop and go to bed. The result is “then nothing / more so I returned to my / journal & erased what I had / written to ascend those / stairs again.” I have not even started on the final poem, and there is much, much more.
Pineda is already celebrated, and what does another laudatory review do? In the context of this particular publication, one that expands our culture’s ridiculously narrow conception of parenthood, lauding this effort is part of the work. Pineda has used his considerable skill with language and its manipulation to capture, evoke, and unleash the condition of fatherhood, showing its emotional density as “a world no longer held / within language.”