Book Review: Time Served

Don McIver
3 min read
Being Poetry
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Just off of Rio Grande Boulevard, there is a Contreras Road. And I know I’ve asked him before, and he’s denied it, but I always think it’s named for the large, supportive family of an ABQ native: poet Carlos Contreras. Carlos Contreras is Albuquerque. You can hear it in his reading style, read it in his work, see it in his confident–yet-humble swagger. This is his home—a place he is clearly proud of, and it’s about time that we be proud of him as well. Carlos Contreras’ first book of poems, Time Served, brings you the verbal pyrotechnics and heartfelt emotion that many of us have watched being born in this young man’s work. Reading it is a cause for celebration.

Now, I admit that I’ve known Carlos a long time. For a few brief months, I was even a frequent substitute teacher in Carlos’ high school, and we’d give each other the knowing nod in the hallway. Watching him grow up, it’s a wonderful thing to read poems that clearly show a strong familial bond with our fair city. And that bond starts with his family.

To know Carlos is to really appreciate how rooted he is to place and how important his family is. And at almost every reading, Carlos’ relatives are there in droves, cheering him on, being supportive because that is what family does. The book’s first section, “Invincible,” centers on family and is structured around his father being a Vietnam veteran. Perhaps the strongest piece is simply titled, “2530523,” which says, “It’s the case of one realizing/ the severity of hate’s hunger” and harkens back to his family (like a lot of Carlos’ best work does). The poem makes a strong case for treating veterans better, specifically veterans who also happen to be fathers. There’s a strong current of Carlos understanding his own compassion by being connected to his father.

This compassion is what holds the second section, “Time Served,” together. In this section, the reader learns that Carlos spends his time helping incarcerated men write poetry. Broken up by short essays, the poems in “Time Served” give voice to the people he works with and a compassion that says, “Nightmares were all they dreamt/ so how dare anyone ask them to dream?”

As someone who hasn’t spent any time behind bars, reading their stories is compelling. Carlos knows, understands and, at times, looks up to the subjects of his poems. He’s not blinded to what they’ve done to get there, but he also doesn’t think they’re beyond redemption. In fact, he is open to the possibility of their redemption, writing, “You./ Man-made masterpiece,/ ticking time-bomb/ just waiting to be released,/ just waiting/ to bloom,” with the deliberate emphasis on the last line, the possibility that the forgotten inmate still has hope. And reading this collection I feel like I’m watching Carlos bloom as well. He takes the charge of poet seriously and tells a compelling, compassionate narrative in the linked poems about his father and his incarcerated students. Now I can’t think of a better book to meditate over when one wonders what it means to be a Burqueño and a poet.

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