…Christ was never more than a man nailed to a
cross but from him I learned that an entire life
fits into a person’s palm like a book of poems
like an executioner’s hammer now at thirty five
I have learned confession won’t save me…
Ruben Quesada is the author of Next Extinct Mammal and Exiled from the Throne of Night: Selected Translations of Luis Cernuda. His poems and translations have appeared in the Best American Poetry series, American Poetry Review, TriQuarterly, and other anthologies and journals, and he has been awarded fellowships and grants from Vermont Studio Center, Squaw Valley Community of Writers, and Santa Fe Art Institute.
Quesada is on the faculty at The School of the Art Institute in Chicago, where he teaches poetry. He is also the founder of the Latinx Writers Caucus, which meets annually at AWP (Association of Writing Programs) and serves to connect and advocate for Latinx and Latin American poets and writers from around the world.
Revelations, his new chapbook of poetry and literary translations, is now available from Sibling Rivalry Press.
In Revelations, Quesada layers his own work with translations of the late Spanish poet, Luis Cernuda.
When love has gone everything
seems useless even heartbreak
suffering for beauty grows old
the eagerness of light drowns shadow
–from “Dead Bird” by Luis Cernuda
I read Revelations in one sitting — or standing — walking around the house holding the palm-sized book, unable to put it down, unable to put myself down. I found my body mimicking Quesada’s contemplative pace. I noticed his ability to gently insert the divine into moments of both suffering and elation. He is a seraphic poet, of sorts, but he doesn’t shy away from the erotic and dreadful as it pertains to self-understanding.
As an LGBTQ+ woman, I was particularly struck by his attention to the moments of solitude and time with lovers and family that point to the often merciless nature of development and the experience of shame.
…I have tried to avoid
blaming myself for being called a faggot
for most of my life I could not escape it
but those days have gone like the gospel
of Anita Bryant who wanted to drown.
I interviewed Ruben Quesada via email for Good Letters.
Cassidy Hall: As an LGBTQ+ woman, I noted your attention to this aspect of yourself. All of us have parts of our selves that have been challenging to express or to grow into, but the damage the church has caused the LGBTQ+ community seems endless. And yet your work expresses an awareness of an omnipresent God threaded throughout your life. How has the thought or presence of God been formed in your life, through both good and bad experiences?
Ruben Quesada: It has taken me a long time to shake the conventional notion of what God is or means. I grew up believing in the practice of the Catholic religion as a means to salvation. Two of the most important women during my childhood, mother and grandmother, both believed in the power of prayer. Prayer was a calling to an omnipresent God for help, for forgiveness, for hope in good times and in bad times. I was encouraged to believe in God, Christ, and all the cast of characters of Christianity.
One morning on my way to Sunday school on my bike, I lost my balance and spilled the contents of my book bag. I was thirteen. I sat on the curb and cried, letting my folder of prayers fly out into the street. I didn’t care. I was confused and I didn’t understand why I’d begun to study this religion beyond following a tradition that my mother had established with her children. My two older sisters had been through this same practice of Sunday school. We were all baptized, received First Holy Communion, and now I was the only one in my family yet to receive Confirmation. Though it may seem like this was a moment of loss in faith, I believe it was exactly what the process of Confirmation was meant to accomplish. I knew that Catholicism could take away the feelings of being different away from me. I accepted my destiny and put faith in myself. I picked myself up and rode back home. I never returned to Sunday school or church again.
Religion has always been part of my family’s culture and I will never abandon it completely. Over the years, my family’s faith hasn’t waned, but their interpretation and understanding of the practice certainly has. Just as societal attitudes and expectations change, my family has come to terms with my homosexuality to varying degrees of acceptance. Change is hard for people. When I came out to my mother at the age of 15, she cried for hours. She never fully explained what saddened her, but she did say that I could change. This was a phase that could be fixed somehow, she said. I remember her mother praying and telling me to pray so that these feelings would go away. This is my coming out story. I was blessed to have a mother who believed in my happiness. My happiness did not infringe upon her faith in God. She didn’t want to lose either.
Life is horrific and no amount of religion can make one numb or blind to its horrors. When I encounter religious people, I wonder about their sense of humanity. Do they hold the ideas and faith they’ve inherited above those lives of human beings in the world around them? Why would someone purposefully contribute to making life more difficult for others? Religion is about love. We must be present and understand that is it the living who make paradise possible. Paradise is all about love. Of course, it has taken me a long time to come to terms with the purpose of religion in my life and the importance of faith and dignity in humanity.
Over the last few years I’ve grown close to a priest and a poet who has taught me about the importance of love and its relationship to religion. When I say he has taught me this, it is not through some formal training but through my observations and interactions with him I have witnessed what it means to have faith in the power of religion and in one another. What an extraordinary privilege it is to bear witness to someone who acts with so much love and faith in humanity. I am truly blessed to know Spencer Reece. He has helped me find faith in humanity and in myself.
CH: In Revelations you express what feels a way to pray that I’ve come to know—prayer intertwined with nature. What is prayer to/for you?
“like the sky shaping itself into inky streaks
as the hum of a ballad like a prayer
murmured throughout the house
now each morning I pray for silence
a pine in the backyard leans into the window
hoping to steal words to grip me in its drizzle”
RQ: I pray to settle my mind the way someone might sing a lullaby to a child. Or the way someone might repeat a mantra to keep them moving ahead with their goals in life. I’m reminded of Jinkx Monsoon’s mantra, “Water off a duck’s back!” Prayers like poems, not necessarily the act of praying, are a way to remind myself that I will get through IT. Whatever IT may be in the moment, a breakup, a job I didn’t get, another submission rejection. When I pray, I look out into the world that exists around us. Not the world we’ve created—the cityscapes and concrete, but trees, clouds, stars. I listen to my breath and the sound of each world, the rhythm these patterns create and how they give life to a moment just the way our own heart goes unnoticed carrying its rhythm through the body giving us life.
CH: What do you hope your work offers the world, what do you long to give others through your words?
RQ: I believe poets are the curators of history. When readers spend time with my poetry, my hope is for readers to learn about a life lived and how the living informed the poems. I want readers to take something away from the use of language, structure, and imagination. I’m reminded of collections that have come before me like Harryette Mullen’s Sleeping with the Dictionary. It’s a remarkable collection that captures a voice on the precipice of the analog, ready to embark into the digital age, introducing readers to the possibilities of language and imagination. h
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Written by: Cassidy Hall
Cassidy Hall is an author, photographer, filmmaker, podcaster, and trained counselor. You can read more of her writing at Convivium Journal, the Thomas Merton Seasonal, the Huffington Post, Patheos.com, and the National Catholic Reporter. Find her online at cassidyhall.com.