REVIEW — A Sliver of Light in Post-Maria Puerto Rico
Poetry editor M. Creel reviews Catch A Glow by Karl Michael Iglesias
When measuring the aftermath of hurricanes, we’re often bombarded by statistics such as storm surge height, wind speed, economic costs, and casualties. I was seven years old when Hurricane Katrina made landfall over Mississippi’s coast as a category three hurricane, flooding the coast with up to 20 feet of water and tossing trees across every street and power line in Rankin County. I remember little of the storm itself, except for the train-like roar of the wind against the roof of the storm shelter—a local Baptist church—and the sight of a freight car blown off the nearby train tracks. After the storm passed, we had no power for weeks; none to run the air conditioner in the suffocating late summer heat, none to boil water on our electric stovetop, none to hasten the recovery process, none to do anything but wait, and wait, and wait. We sat on the porch, playing dominoes and sweating while the radio droned on about damages, dangers, and casualties. In the static of the aftermath, the images of biblical flooding and destruction cemented the storm in my mind as apocalyptic, befitting the Southern Baptist God of fire and brimstone.
In the wake Hurricane Maria, a storm more deadly and destructive than Katrina, the United States abandoned Puerto Ricans, leaving the island without electricity and clean water for months. Writing about the aftermath of Maria in his debut chapbook Catch A Glow, Karl Michael Iglesias is attuned to the ironic divinity of Hurricane Maria's name; while Mary birthed the savior of the human race, Maria wrought destruction on the lives of Puerto Ricans both on and off the island, "wrecking sneeze-swift" and flipping lives upside down, as if "placed...in rain stick." Trapped under former president Trump's denialist regime, Puerto Ricans were left powerless, chronically under-resourced, unrepresented, and unheard by the United States' negligent imperialism. Iglesias' writing in Catch A Glow counters the post-storm silence by asserting the humanity of Puerto Ricans, documenting their strength in the face of disempowerment, erasure, and tragedy.
To be clear, Catch A Glow is not "trauma porn," the common shorthand for art that exploits the trauma of marginalized people and objectifies them for consumption; Iglesias does not center the white gaze in this work, nor does he write about climate trauma from an outsider's perspective. Accordingly, Puerto Ricans are the subject of the text, even when Iglesias confronts the violence enacted against Puerto Ricans by nature and imperialism. On the other hand, neither is Catch A Glow a resilience narrative; pretending that Puerto Ricans simply need to toughen up in the face of adversity disregards the vast destruction of Maria, the thousands of deaths that followed, as well as the climate change caused by lack of enforced regulation and a corporatized insatiable desire for power—that of both fossil fuels and social control—that strengthened the storm and exacerbated its impact. In refusing to portray Puerto Ricans as resilient martyrs, Iglesias' poetry provides a counternarrative against the sensationalized reporting surrounding Hurricane Maria by illuminating how Puerto Rico's survival is hindered by the United States' failures, rather than reinforcing the mainstream narrative that Puerto Rico is helpless without the United States' aid. In Catch A Glow's chord, the bass note reverberates with yearning for self-governance, a call for freedom from the oppressive forces that enabled Maria's continuing devastation through lack of political representation.
Music lilts throughout the pages of Catch A Glow, with epigraphs from Jay-Z and Lil Wayne opening the collection. After an intense first poem which describes Maria's landfall from the hurricane's perspective, Catch A Glow is divided into three sections, marked by lyrics from “Periodico De Ayer,” a song by Puerto Rican musician Hector Lavoe. Translating to “Yesterday’s Newspaper,” Lavoe’s lyrics compare a past lover to yesterday’s news: “Sensacional cuando salió en la madrugada / a mediodía ya noticia confirmada / y en la tarde materia olvidada.” By dividing the book with these three lines, Iglesias recontextualizes the lyrics as commentary on the news cycle following Hurricane Maria, the devastation sensationalized and the people quickly forgotten by the United States media. In this cycle, the people of Puerto Rico themselves become "materia olvidada” through Donald Trump's denialism and neglect. Iglesias resists this national amnesia, documenting the lives of Puerto Ricans in the immediate aftermath of the storm, as well as the effects of the United States' negligence. Iglesias reserves the final section for eulogy, repeating "names deserving of echoes" and honoring the dead.
In the first section, the madrugada, Puerto Rico is plunged into darkness as Hurricane Maria twists the island’s infrastructure into nothing. A lack of power, both electric and political, threads through this section. While many of the poems in this section sting with darkness, grief, and anger, "OFRENDA," the poem from which the chapbook takes its name, illuminates a sliver of hope in the darkness engulfing the island.
Ripe with biblical reference/reverence, "OFRENDA" is set after Dia de los Reyes, also known as Epiphany. Much like the three Magi who visited Jesus, the speaker of the poem is guided in the night by a generator-powered flood light, "cayey's north star," the generator itself a gift sent to a neighbor from his son in the States. Consistent with the recent holiday's traditions, "OFRENDA" highlights the reciprocity of resource-sharing among Puerto Ricans, even when the storm left locals resource-starved. Iglesias uses repetition to great effect, echoing the verb "offer" nine times throughout the poem—though the generator itself is "sent," totaling to ten offerings—only using the verb "take" once. Even then, the speaker of the poem only takes "a little shine from our neo-moon," only a sliver of light. However scarce resources may be, neighbors still offer what they're able:
[...] I offer pitorro de quenepa
to evelyn and her husband next door
but they never except she offers una tasita tivia
and how could i say no i offer my cuatro cup of humming
sugar my quickened bones croon a bolero out the night
is warm brick of chocolate surrendering to simmered milk
Scarcity is echoed in the little warm cup, but the tiny warmth expands once exchanged, blooming into song that sweetens the night. The interplay between the English and Spanish stresses creates a vibrant rhythm, percussed by the repeated consonant sounds, dancing the tongue from the front to the back of the mouth like the hammock's offered "waltz."
In a bittersweet twist, "OFRENDA" sings a solemn undertone to balance the sweetness. The title itself alludes to an ofrenda, an altar typically prepared to honor the dead during Día de Muertos. Many of the offerings throughout the poem, such as food and drink, are commonly placed on the ofrenda, in addition to the "coro-pregón of burning candles," lit to help the souls of the dead find their altar. While the generator implies that the candles are lit as a source of light during the power outage, their presence in "OFRENDA," so close to the "coquis / [whistling] by the thousands," suggests that the candles also guide the souls of the thousands of hurricane victims, just as the floodlight guides the speaker to caring neighbors. In this context, the offerings between the living become more than a means of survival, now also showing the reverence that the survivors hold for the departed.
Throughout the chapbook, Iglesias maintains a nuanced tone of reverence and righteous anger, criticizing the sensationalized media ecosystem surrounding Puerto Rico, Hurricane Maria, and Donald Trump's dismal response while sincerely presenting the experiences Puerto Ricans have faced in the aftermath of the storm. Where the media relies on portraying Puerto Ricans as helpless victims or resilient survivors of hardship to sustain deficit narratives about the island and the diaspora, Iglesias celebrates the cultural and social wealth of Puerto Rico while pointing an unflinching finger at the United States' failed response and its impact on Puerto Rican lives. This sincerity combined with Iglesias's rich figure, strong sonic attention, and visually cohesive form make Catch A Glow a must-read debut, especially for poets interested in the poetics of diaspora, climate change, and political resistance.
Originally from Mississippi, M. Creel is a writer and web developer living and working in Massachusetts. They were the poetry editor for Breakwater Review during their time as a poetry MFA candidate at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. Their poetry is featured in Product Magazine, SPORAZINE, TWANG Anthology, Petrichor, and Déraciné Magazine, among others, and their self-published web poetry can be found at toofymaw.itch.io.