When I first thumbed the pages of Damien Flores' Junk Yard Dogs, bending the spine of the thin volume of poetry for the first time, it was the first day of Lent. It seemed serendipitous, then, to read the opening lines of the Albuquerque poet's third printed collection that go like this: “I became a poet in church. Knelt beside Grandma/every day of Lent/ every year” and go on to explicate the saints who lend the poet his name, and recall, with language that evokes something of candlelight, incense and quiet places, the holy nature of his discovery, “In that church/my first poems came/in the silence of the night watch/on Holy Thursday./My mind strayed/'til midnight, once I/was all out of prayers/and all out of sins.”
Written from the perspective of angels, women making tortillas, boxers, the wise, the bereft, and himself and his family, Flores assumes voices that are as compelling as they are savvy. Titles like “Saint Michael Condemns the Bigot to Purgatory” elicit a fist in the air just as much as a hell-yes sort of smirk. “Words are harder than knuckles” Flores writes in the same poem, and it is evident that the poet's pen is galvanized by racism, gentrification, poverty and the shifting landscapes of Albuquerque, lending them urgency and resonance. These poems read as resistance.
Flores' work is strongly rooted in this place, our city, speaking with such specificity that Burqueños will read things in these textured lines that no reader from outside could ever, but at the same moment Flores trains his eye on the universal, calling it out from each dusty alley, the interstates that dissect our city, every West Mesa sunset and adobe home. Flores also takes his turn spinning old tales across familiar parkscapes and cross streets, like La Llorona whose authenticity “only the cottonwoods remember,/her hair tangled in their branches.” Flores gives tales like this one new lucidity as they loom in news stories and empty playgrounds. “La Llorona of legend does not only breathe/in the story or in the mind./She lives in the water and we all drink/from the same river,” he writes in a poem part warning, part absolution.
The book reaches an almighty pitch in poems like “Manuel Leyba Speaks to the Bulldozer,” which tells the story of a life in all its pain and power in less than 300 chopped lines—that's how precise Flores is with his words. Asides like “Me llamo Manuel Leyba/but they call me 'manual labor'” are clever, yes, but cutting, too. Manuel Leyba is a metaphor just as much as he is the reader and the writer; or at least we can aspire to be something like him, who stands up to the bulldozer that threatens to demolish all the metaphors for what he is and what he loves. This is one standout poem among dozens that seem to vibrate on every frequency—the saccharine stirring of love, the exhaustion of labor, the pang of memory. The occasional closing line is a bit too tidy, but as a whole Junk Yard Dogs is expansive and tenacious, a powerful testament to Albuquerque and to Flores' own capacity to translate a concrete place into a sense of place. This book is so much more than that, too—a work that demonstrates what love and struggle look like. Junk Yard Dogs is available now through West End Press.