Richie McCaffery reviews At Least This I Know by Andrés N. Ordorica (404 Ink, 2022)
This sparkling first collection by self-identified ‘queer Latinx poet’ Andrés N. Ordorica reads like a contemporary take on the corridos (popular Spanish-speaking ballads about the everyday life of the working classes or society’s outsiders and outriders). One of the most prominent leitmotifs in these poems is how the speaker longs to be a nopal (a flowering prickly pear) born of the desert but is driven by thirst to find new experiential vistas and another, perhaps more hospitable, climate. Ordorica himself has been transplanted, like a rare botanical cutting, via Mexico and USA to the crags and braes of Scotland where he has settled with his Scottish husband:
You showed me the land,
said, “this made me.”
I longed to know a land like that,
close enough to feel at home
and for that home to love me back
like I was her one and only son.
The register of the poems is a winning mix of Spanish lexicon and Scottish vernacular, where speaker and partner are “coorying in among the dim candlelight” (from ‘We are young and still have time’). More than this, there are also poems after, and in homage to, noted Scottish poets such as George Mackay Brown and Edwin Morgan who wrote perhaps one of the most tender and beautifully coded gay poems in the form of ‘Strawberries’ which becomes ‘fresas’ here: “no need to wash the plates / in the middle of a storm”.
The register of the poems is a winning mix of Spanish lexicon and Scottish vernacular
While the poet’s own story arguably has a happy ending, these poems are really the efflorescence of painful experience, like bright yellow gorse flowers that hide some of the stings and barbs of a life lived to the full in spite of displacement and prejudice, not to mention the traumas of the legal labyrinths people from two different countries must go through to be together. The opening poem ‘November 16th, 2014’ is given even greater topical urgency for the fact that we are now facing the erosion of many of the protective laws of the European Union, not least “The Freedom of Movement”:
It comes out like hot bureaucratic vomit:
My name is Andrés Nicolás Ordorica,
I am reuniting with my husband;
Under Article 13 of The Freedom of Movement;
Under legal jurisdiction of The European Union.
Slow down, sir.
I am ready for immediate patriation.
I am ready for belonging.
I am ready.
Please have a seat, sir, and someone will be with you shortly.
However, the central image of the flowering cactus is one of self-empowerment: there is beauty and vulnerability grafted onto the need to defend yourself against attack from the ill-informed, the oppressive and the bigoted. The gammon-hue of the skin of ignorant middle-Englander men is conjured up more than once in this book, in ‘Ramesh’s magic carpet ride’ as “bright pink from anger / Like foul chicken skin freshly plucked” and in ‘Faggot’ as:
Pinkish face – malt stained.
He had two kids (boy and girl).
They seemed used to this,
although still so young.
The croaking voice called, “Faggot.”
Rang loudly within others’ silences.
An evening stolen from us
by the man at the back of the bus.
Conscious or not, the above poem has echoes of the Edwin Morgan poem ‘Glasgow’ from his sequence ‘Pieces of Me’ in Dreams and Other Nightmares (Mariscat, 2010), where the speaker, as a boy, is approached on the bus by an overly friendly, perhaps even predatory, drunk man who gives him a coin. Social mores of behaviour mean that the boy just has to smile awkwardly and put up with this violation as his mother hisses to him to always accept what a drunk man offers. “I remember how nicely / he clasped my hand round the coin.” But these poems do not dwell on persecution and victimhood, though this is clearly a hugely significant aspect of the book. Instead, this collection repeatedly questions our received notions of what is macho and strong and what isn’t:
His Wranglers were so tight
that I could see his muscles
contracting as we danced.
Men and women watched
with angry bloodshot eyes
full of stinging condemnation.
But I felt safe in his arms,
held firm against his longing,
aware of the power I possessed.
(from ‘El vaquero’)
In ‘For Papá’ the speaker pays tribute to an inspirational male figure from their childhood, a troubadour-like character “belting out corridos / from a time gone by – a México that preceded me.” Again, the speaker inverts our expectations of masculinity and self-worth and ends the poem on a striking volta where the child is father of the man:
In your words, I found myself and so I hummed along
Love has no need for the cartographer,
because love has no borders,
Eventually, there was applause for you, for me.
As the sun set, the light hit the windowpane,
causing our two bodies to morph into one.
At once, I was a man in the reflection.
and you, you were a little boy singing.
Ultimately, the emphasis is placed on the desire for wholeness and ‘patriation’, for belonging in a physical and existential sense, be it geographical, tribal or familial. In ‘then and now’ the differences between childhood and adult ambitions are enumerated to end with the revealing couplet: “back then, what did i want? well to be an only child. / and now, what do i want? well to have a child.“
The interstitial quandary of wanting deeply to belong but also to be a free and freethinking individual is what this book is all about
The poems themselves seem to enjoy a running dialogue and the book is well curated to give the impression of a journey. ‘Rosemary’ shows us that the speaker has a positive outlook and an unfastidious lust for life, a sprig of rosemary reminding them of “life’s seasons / … and I was grateful to be alive”. But these are not facile remarks, they are extremely hard-won insights. ‘Breakdown on l-35’ gives a driving test down the highway a profoundly ontological subtext where the driver, speaker and author of the poem is torn between wanting to follow the instructions (“Start merging into the next lane, please”, “The merging lane will end soon so be quick”) and the compulsion to go at their own speed and forge their own path. The interstitial quandary of wanting deeply to belong but also to be a free and freethinking individual is what this book is all about. At the close of the poem, a voice despairs that “I am afraid I won’t accomplish anything great before thirty, which is ridiculous, and yet”. While poetry, and more generally life, should never be a competition and while I do not know how old Andrés N. Ordorica is, he must rest assured that he has followed his own emotional and moral compass and out of it has produced a first collection of lasting worth.
Richie McCaffery lives in Warkworth, Northumberland. He’s the author of four poetry pamphlets – Spinning Plates (HappenStance, 2012), Ballast Flint (Cromarty Arts Trust, 2013), First Hare (Mariscat, 2020) and Coping Stones (Fras Publications, 2021) – and three full collections – Cairn (Nine Arches, 2014), Passport (Nine Arches, 2018) and most recently Summer / Break (Shoestring, 2022). He’s also the editor of Finishing the Picture: Collected Poems of Ian Abbot (Kennedy and Boyd, 2015), The Tiny Talent: Selected Poems by Joan Ure (Brae Editions, 2018) and Sydney Goodsir Smith: Essays on his life and work (Brill, 2020). His book-length study of Scottish poetry and World War Two is forthcoming from Brill.