I know this is going to make me sound very old, but I do feel there is something of a lost art to sarcasm, snark, and satire. Part of that is the fact that so much of the good humor with a bite is buried under a modern avalanche of edgelords and bigots who enjoy saying things to hurt people and, when called out on their pathetic behavior, retreating under the white (all too often exceedingly white) flag of “it’s just a joke” or “don’t you get satire?”. I’m also aware that when we find historical gems, they are often simply what time has not yet managed to erode, and that they too were likely obscured in an age that did not fully appreciate their genius. But there is something wonderfully impressive about an utterly merciless text that was born in an age that largely did not tolerate that kind of bravado. I don’t know what I was expecting when I started reading A Stab in the Dark, a collection of the poetry of Facundo Bernal, but upon completion I find myself thoroughly amazed, deliciously amused, and surprisingly hopeful. It is a thorough and elegant dressing down of systems and societal ignorance, poignant enough to ask hard questions and explore the hypocritical cruelty of social constructs with a sardonic smile on its face.
The ticket sales: good for seats in the sun, / worse for those in the shade. / The public: satisfied. / And that’s where the story ends. / Period.
It really is difficult to overstate the cleverness of this collection. I am reminded of the intended purpose of Jesters and Fools in the courts of aristocracy and royalty, not merely serving as entertainers but as critics. My imagination wonders at the idea of Bernal’s poetry being performed on stage, the speaker wearing a series of kabuki masks or the faces of Melpomene and Thalia. And few systems escape that performance unscathed. Bernal addresses the hypocrisy of the male gaze when it both desires and disdains female sexuality, the greed that betrays political revolution and societal progress into pantomimes, and the absurdity of moral authority when its supposed codes are neither fairly enforced nor logically consistent. He even explores how these self-destructive vices intersect, such as in “A Sermon”, where we watch a priest claim the moral high ground and warn his flock about the dangers of women. Bernal perfectly captures the affectations of those he criticizes, aping without misrepresenting, shucking the visual fluff and leaving the words raw and exposed.
do not frequent those dances / with such…ah…ridiculous cleavages, / which expose what should / remain forever unseen;
Humor, however, is all too often a coping mechanism, and this collection is no exception. The beating heart of A Stab in the Dark, the driving force behind its cutting wit, is a sense of dislocation, a person exploring identity while all too aware of the unrelenting exterior pressure they experience. Bernal’s poetry asks what it means to be Mexican, American, and Mexican-American, when none of those labels had concrete definitions to begin with. He echoes DuBois’ ideas of double-consciousness in poems like “Mexico in Caricature”, where we see a glimpse of what it is like to live with an ever-present mockery of you and your people. You can see the pity and anger in his words as he speaks of the lies that draw Latinx migrants to the United States, promises of opportunity and reward for hard work, while knowing full well the conditions that drive them to leave their homes in the first place. Without stating it openly, he encourages you to ask how any person is meant to find self-awareness under this kind of pressure. The fact that some do is nothing short of a miracle, and a testament to the resilience of their origins.
like the other gullible ones / he believed the tall / tales of god wages / and shorter / work days, among / other pipe dreams
I’ve mentioned in previous reviews a fondness for straightforward poetry, and Bernal definitely scratches that itch. Complexity can certainly be beautiful in its own right, but there is an undeniable effectiveness to being direct, particularly when your goal is subversion. Powerful messages can get lost when poets and authors forget their aims when writing and attempt to heighten the work through grandiose language. The only pomposity on display here is when Bernal allows the powerful and the hypocritical to make fools of themselves, and his poetry is all the better for it. Much of his work simply would not have the psychological gut punch that it does, or earn the same emotional pathos, if he had forced a lyrical waxing. The poems are never redundant or needlessly long, and the line breaks create a good flow that allows quick consumption and slow digestion. The collection is not terribly long, especially if you are lazy and don’t read it in both languages, but it is thoroughly re-readable.
peacocking in a green / leather coat, with a white / vest, and red pants – / in other words: Mexico.
To that end, the presentation of the text does not betray the sustained quality of the poetry for an instant. Anthony Seidman’s work as a translator is fantastic, as usual. His eye for when not to translate is impeccable, embracing the idea that there are many words or phrases that cannot carry the same weight and implication when reconstructed in another language. All poems in the collection are included in Spanish and English, and together they provide a powerful resonance with the text’s themes of duality. Even the footnotes are compelling, providing concise and efficient reference for Bernal’s regular commentary on the political and social scenes of his day. They, and the text they supplement, are sorely needed reminders of the wealth of Mexican and Chicano art from the early 20th century that is pathetically underserved by modern academia and culture.
Let’s hope none of this / will make one think: they’re robbing Peter / to pay Paul…
If this review makes me sound old in my admiration for an artifact of a different time, then I might as well also sound like a broken record, because the power and relevance of A Stab in the Dark to the modern age is too potent not to discuss. I am Mexican-American (how sad that I feel an impulse to refer to that as a potential bias), and I am forced to watch daily as many of my people are murdered by the police, exiled to places that they have never known under the lie that they “belong” there, or are thrown in cages to die. I am forced to watch their children receive the same treatment, with the only “mercy” shown to them being torn away from their parents and fed into blood-drenched jaws of a for-profit foster industry. I need more work like A Stab in the Dark right now, art that will put its hand on my shoulder as I stare into the abyss and smile with me as we steel ourselves against the horrors, as we remind ourselves that there is work to be done. It is perhaps a tired phrase, but there must always be literature that speaks truth to power, that shows the abhorrent distortions in the reflection not to be a trick of the mirror, but reality free of self-aggrandizement.
A Stab in the Dark is available now through LARB Books.