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Golden Ax

By Rio Cortez

Golden Ax, a debut collection of poems by Rio Cortez, confronts social and racial injustice by following the poet’s complex family map through the United States, from enslavement in Louisiana and relocation West following Reconstruction, to a conversion to Mormonism and the poet’s own reverse migration from Utah to New York City. In the Author’s Note, Cortez introduces “Afropioneerism” and “Afrofrontierism” as useful terms with which to “mine the hidden history of the Black West,” particularly as they pertain to Cortez’s own Black heritage, and her experiences growing up in Salt Lake City. For Cortez, the Afropioneer’s “cosmic imagination” invents and remembers the “outward and earthly landscapes” of the Afrofrontier, often seeking to answer that singular question from childhood: how did we get here? In “Covered Wagon as Spaceship,” the speaker wonders “whether it’s aliens / that brought Black folks to the canyons, valley”:

Standing in the great evaporation
of a lake, holy dandelion for
eyes, full and white and searching the landscape
for understanding: how do you come
to be where there are no others, except
science fiction? I am a child feeling
extraterrestrial; whose history, untold,
is not enough. Anyway, it begins with abduction

Here, the haunting, bucolic imagery of the Great Salt Lake crashes into the poem’s chilling final line. In other poems, Cortez extends her poetic lens to reimagine popular film and TV characters, like Annie Hall and Frasier, as Black (in the case of Frasier, as a Black woman). “Black Frasier Crane” lampoons the small problems of rich analysts (“what is more / important than the fine / dusting of cinnamon / on the perfect ratio / of foam to espresso”) in a send-up that is utterly gutting:

Isn’t this the hardest
work? To be happy

when you already
have everything
to have so much
you give some up
not away
but to the beast in you
that just takes
and takes until
there are no more
brûlées and no more
canapes just the mind’s
endless narration

Reviewed By Diego Báez
Publisher Penguin Poets
Pages 80
Date August 30, 2022
Price $24.00