Alexandra Lytton Regalado is the author of Relinquenda: Poems, released by Beacon Press in October 2022, and Matria (Black Lawrence Press, 2017), which received the St. Lawrence Book Award. Regalado is the co-director of Editorial Kalina and editor of Puntos de fuga/Vanishing Points (Editorial Kalina, 2017), a bilingual anthology of contemporary Salvadoran prose. She lives in San Salvador, El Salvador.
Poets.org: In an interview with People en Español, you mention that the heart of Relinquenda was written in the span of three months. What did writing through the grief of loss, particularly in such a short span of time, teach you about letting go? And at what moment in the process did you know that Relinquenda would be the title of this book?
Alexandra Lytton Regalado: Yes, I wrote the core of Relinquenda when the world was in pandemic lock-down and I was separated from my husband and three kids because the borders of El Salvador had closed. My father had died three months prior, and I was in Miami because we’d just sold our childhood home and were in the middle of sorting through boxes when COVID hit. Suddenly, there was a new way of evaluating the things we “need.” I spent those months living with my mother and grandmother, and every day I maintained the routine of writing on my grandmother’s terrace, swimming in the pool with my mom, and lazing in the sun; reading, cooking meals, and watching foreign films at night. In that time of anxiety, I found comfort in those rituals; the only way I could process was to focus on the day to day.
Many of the poems already existed as drafts in my journals, but my mother always said I could not publish them while my father was still alive. Because my father’s cancer was such a prolonged illness, we spent years pre-grieving. And so these poems focus a lot on pain and resilience. My dad was a stoic, and a bit of a hermit, and although we had huge differences, those qualities we held in common. I thought I knew a lot about letting go, but it never ends, that lesson. One year later, my grandmother passed, and then a few months afterwards my mother died of a heart attack. We lost all our ancestors. The branches of our family tree were torn away, and I am now the matriarch.
I realized that even in letting go there is a ritual element. When my mother died, I kept an altar for her for forty days, lighting a candle, keeping the flowers fresh. My elders are all ash, but they visit me in dreams. Relinquenda in Latin is “that which we must relinquish.” Relinquenda was my mother’s motto. I found it jotted down on the inside cover of one of her journals. She wanted to buy a property somewhere on a mountain and call the house “Relinquenda.” And I love that idea of living “in relinquenda,” and that is what I am trying to do now. Loss is unending.
Poets.org: Artwork figures prominently as an influence in this collection, particularly Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights. The painting presents, at once, a scene of paradise and of turmoil that, when viewed from left to right, passes from day into night. Your poem of the same name, in which the central panel of the painting is embedded in the form of a half-completed jigsaw puzzle, reflects upon the passage from life to death. What sort of relationship do you see between the painting and the poem, and how does the notion of the threshold, the doorway, or the passage figure into that relationship?
ALR: During the final week of my father’s life, my brother and I were working on a thousand-piece puzzle of The Garden of Earthly Delights. All these naked figures cavorting in the worldly indulgences of fruits, flowers, and flesh—all the things my father could no longer enjoy. By then, he was a breathing one-hundred-pound skeleton with skin mottled like rotten fruit.
My brother had a sleepless night and, when I woke up, I found the puzzle nearly completed. He had left about twenty pieces for me to fill in. The puzzle sat on the table untouched for the entire day and, that night, we sat down together to complete it. Of course, as in a perfect movie ending, we could not find the last piece of that puzzle. We tore up the living room, turned over the sofas, and scoured every inch of the house but it was nowhere. We still had energy to joke and said, my dad is going to give his last breath and he’s going to release the missing puzzle piece from his clenched palm. The things that cross your mind when you are sleep deprived, wracked with sadness, and so desperate to feel better.
My father died that night at 3:40 a.m. Before his last breaths, I had held his hand, wanting to let him know I was accompanying him; I squeezed. When I released his hand, I saw that an entire flap of skin had lifted off to reveal a red triangle of meat and bone. There was no way I could wish for him to continue to inhabit that body. I thought a lot about the way people comfort you in mourning, the formal phrases: my deepest condolences; or the weirdly over-empathetic: cuanto lo siento (how I feel your loss). We are uncomfortable with death, not wanting to say die, and instead say pass. Although I was brought up Catholic, my father was an atheist, and so I worried about where it was that he would be passing to. He was an engineer, and his religion was science: I’ve got to see it to believe it. And so I wondered how he grappled with the uncertainty of what was next. He never showed pain—or he was averse to admitting it. He would say, “I have no pain, I just feel a discomfort.” He only told us that he was happy to have lived “a good life.” He was so resolute, and I was full of questions.
I think of the unfinished puzzle and that missing piece in the center as a passageway—and all around it those larger-than-life birds feeding cherries to open mouths, bareback riders on a carousel of fanged and clawed animals, fistfuls of flowers and huge flopping fish, beach-ball sized strawberries, calling hands, caressing hands, hands clinging to everything in this garden of earthly delight.
Poets.org: The poems provide us with a lush, natural, and expansive landscape, and though quite a few animals, particularly those often deemed repugnant (e.g., flies, mice, and possums) make an appearance, the snake appears frequently in the collection, including the title poem. What does the recurring snake show you about impermanence, about relinquendus?
ALR: In contrast to my father’s science and reason, I lean into magical thinking and divination. I’m always looking for signs as guidance and, in Relinquenda, animals become symbols. Even those animals that are considered aesthetically pleasing, like rabbits and peacocks, are reviled by some. In the case of certain species, when we encounter them in spaces we consider to be ours, or when there are too many, we see them as invasive, and I think about how this might speak to the idea of immigration and borders. In this collection, I also obsess about our most animal things: teeth, fingernails, saliva—the things from our body that ground us, and that some consider gross, especially when they are cast off from our human bodies, probably because they remind us of our impermanence.
In El Salvador, even to say the word culebra requires a superstitious cleansing phrase—“lagarto, lagarto”—to dispel the bad luck. The snake as temptation, danger, our mortal coil. My earliest memory: the snake that strikes the ankle of The Little Prince. During lock-down, I saw the garden snake daily as it sunned itself on the paving stones and I always thought about the door that separated us. One day, I found the complete snakeskin—its perfect, unbroken form—and I marveled at the eye sockets. Another day, I forgot to close the door and the snake followed me inside the house. So, I needed to understand what that encounter was all about and what that snake was trying to communicate to me. I decided that I wanted to work in a structure, so I used the first words of a poem by Joanna Rawson to start off each line—it’s kind of like trying on someone else’s clothes. I hate working in form; I struggle with expectations, especially the ones I impose on myself. But, in this case, I felt I needed to restrict myself—and sometimes form can be a straitjacket, and other times a cocoon. I was surprised by the turns of the poem and how the words, as they came to me, felt as necessary as the encounter I had had with the snake. The fear I had imagined, the anxiety I felt coiled inside of me; the encounter inevitably happened and, when it did, I felt no shock, but rather a sense of revelation. I just had to withstand it, go through it. And that was what I had to relinquish: it wasn’t the first snake, and it won’t be the last.
Poets.org: “Five American Sentences” is a sort of thesis of the book, each sentence acting as a resolution to questions proposed in earlier poems: “I too, someday, will end, & this forgetting is a kind of freedom.” How were you thinking about Allen Ginsberg’s “American Sentences” while writing this poem? What is your relationship to questioning and answering throughout your writing?
ALR: When I wrote the book, I was practicing yoga daily; I was reconsidering my Catholic upbringing in the face of death, and, as [Rainer Maria] Rilke recommended to the young poet, I tried to “live the questions.” And the resolutions of this poem do veer from the questioning present in the rest of my work. It was a writing exercise, one of the last poems I wrote for the collection, and, because of the support I received from my writers’ group, the Miami Poetas Collective, I felt confident enough to consider what it means to be “enough.”
So, I was drawn to Ginsberg’s American Sentences and how they take this very assertive form: a bold linear statement across the page versus haiku’s tentative, staggered lines and open-ended images. American Sentences are meant to explain, declare, and are restricted to seventeen syllables; but I tend to overspill, I make mistakes. I am terrible at math, and so some of these have extra syllables. I’m not sure if it’s my way of rebelling, or proving my difficulty with letting go. I could not cut those extra articles because they give those sentences their specificity and meaning.
Also, I thought about what it means to be American. Those wide spanning assertions, proud to take up room across the page. My father was half American, but he was very American in his ways, and so, I wondered, how am I American? This idea of freedom, independence—how does it resonate on a personal, human scale? In many ways, Relinquenda explores masculinity—the men in my life and where we diverge and converge: being hard-headed, logic-oriented, stoic. If I had to summarize, my first book, Matria, is an exploration of Salvadoran women and Relinquenda is an exploration of men. I start my poems seeking discovery, not answers.
Poets.org: What are you currently reading?
ALR: I’m always reading several books at once: fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and something in Spanish. Right now, I’m really into the nature writing of Olivia Laing and Robert MacFarlane. They feed into my obsession with collecting shells, stones, bird bones. Also on rotation is Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes and On Photography by Susan Sontag because my current writing project involves photography and maybe video. I absolutely love the inventive hybrid styles of Jazmina Barrera and Valeria Luiselli, and their books are also on my night table. I’ve been devouring all the current literature by Salvadoran American authors as well. I just listened to the audio book of Javier Zamora’s memoir, and his earnestness has marked me deeply. It’s a golden era for Salvadoran writing. This year there are new poetry books by Christopher Soto, Cynthia Guardado, Claudia Castro Luna, and coming soon, Yvette Siegert. I can’t recommend them enough.
Poets.org: What are your favorite poems on Poets.org?
ALR: Thanks for leaving the question open because I hate picking just one. I love the mix of Latinx poets, canonical and contemporary. I love the translation of Lauri Garcia Dueñas’s poem “0” and the repetition of the line: “you have to put the body in writing” and how that speaks to Salvadoran women’s experiences. It’s hard to find Salvadoran poets’ work outside of the country and so necessary to have this poetry more accessible and in translation.
Last year I read Jenny Xie’s Eye Level and I was completely blown away. Her poems are introspective and sensorial, focusing on the personal and universal, place and solitude, how we are seen and unseen. And some of my favorite poems from that book are included on Poets.org: “To Be a Good Buddhist Is Ensnarement,” “Origin Story,” “Ongoing,” and “Letters to Du Fu.” It’s extra special to hear her lovely, elegant voice as well. As soon as I go to the States, I’m going to look for a copy of her new book.