The poetry of Anthony B. Perales speaks to the harsh realities of his life, which he acknowledges in his two chapbooks: You’ll Find Me In The Darkness If I Let You (2014) and Arm The Outcast (2015). The poetry comprises straightforward and telling narratives about growing up in San Pedro, chasing the dragon, spending time in prison, learning native doctrine in the desert of Southern California, losing love, and finding poetry. He wrote his first poem in 2007 when he was thirty-three years old.
Although there is, at times, a filtered, contextual anger in his poetry, Perales does not vent. Quite the contrary. He allows the reader in, bit by bit, like an introvert weighing the consequences of revealing too much. Yet, paradoxically, he reveals a lot, giving the reader admission into the darkness of his world through a poetry that says: This is real. It happened. I do not lie. I do not exaggerate. If you bear with me, I will tell you what I know, what I have seen. Likewise, Perales does not do surface poetry. His narrative voice belies the complexities of the submerged layers that constitute the poet’s oeuvre.
Two poems in particular illustrate the submerged layers that prod the reader to go deeper, to find the meaning and meanings waiting to be gleaned. In the poem “All I Need” (Arm The Outcast), the poet is given a twenty-page pamphlet about what he “can no longer enjoy” and nothing about what he can abuse. He rationalizes the need to escape, and opines how his “mother has her wine,” his father has “his faith and his guns,” and his brothers “all have their futures.” Then he moves quickly to what holds him together:
All I have is this.
And if it ever leaves me.
If the words stop coming.
Then what I am but another
empty useless soul.
Taking up space.
Fighting off the demons.
Waiting on the
darkness to come.
Given the reality in which he has lived—prison, heroin, alcohol—the poet finds an altogether different one that holds him together—a reality of words that shape his poetry. If he loses the words, he knows the darkness will surely envelop him.
To illustrate further how Perales works in the submerged layers, the poem “My Silence Doesn’t Mean Have Nothing More To Say” (You’ll Find Me In The Darkness If I Let You) presents an excellent opportunity. “My Silence…” begins with a common-enough scene, but it soon takes unexpected turns, leading to a surprising revelation. In the first line, the poet suggests that the “torture” he feels is akin to what he might feel watching an ex-lover with another. The narrative shifts, however, in the third stanza, where an altogether different struggle takes place, this time within the poet’s mind. In his mind, the words he says to himself sound so perfect, but his “quivering lips” can only “mouth the/word in silence.” Fear grips him as he implores the reader to hear him out.
Questions abound: Why doesn’t he speak? What is he afraid of? What’s up? The seventh stanza reveals all, unpretentiously, matter-of-factly:
It’s the stammer,
the God-given gift which
has held my opinions hostage.
Prevented me from approaching
her and telling her
what she secretly longed
Naming the struggle allows the poet to enumerate the afflictions: cruel children teasing him; “kind souls” finishing his sentences; expressions of necessity lying barricaded “somewhere/within that dead and maimed/space between my mind and speech.” In the fourteenth stanza, the poet arrives at a resolution, much like a denouement in a dramatic play. “Word by/ written word” he finds
a way for this silent
Perales does not dwell on the stammer. It is present in the background, however, and reappears briefly in two other poems. In “Arm The Outcast,” the title of his 2015 chapbook, his father gave him his first guns when he was a young boy and taught him how to shoot. Perales practiced on steel and paper targets, clay pigeons, and beer bottles, and surpassed his father’s expertise. For him, a 20-gauge shotgun was his escape: where others saw danger and violence, he “found an escape from the foolish games” he “never excelled at as a short stammering,/ toothless little boy.”
“Where Shall I Begin” (Arm The Outcast) is the third poem in which the stammer appears. The poet is an adult, sitting across from a doctor in the doctor’s office, not a young boy shooting a rifle in the desert. Apparently a psychologist, the doctor asks him to write a list. From the perspective of the poet, the contrast between him and the professional startles: he “so superior with his framed accomplishments littered all/over his institutional colored office walls; the poet “degreeless/self-educated, therefore a failure/in this sham of a world they have created.” The anger is palpable, but the judgment the poet renders against himself is heartbreaking:
To him I was just another fool with my prison tattoos,
police record, and noticeable stammer.
And the “stupid” list he writes for the doctor is no less prejudicial: a mind full of tragedies, a broken heart, shattered hope, meaningless tattoos, and ancient lies.
In the twenty poems that comprise You’ll Find Me In The Darkness If I Let You, and the twenty-two poems published in Arm The Outcast, no other poem expresses the anger manifested in “Where Shall I Begin.” As an outlier, this poem suggests that Perales does not accommodate hostility casually. He prefers, instead, to reference it indirectly in a descriptive style as illustrated in his San Pedro poems, or absorb it altogether in an introspective voice, as expressed in his “existential” poetry.
The San Pedro poems ground the poet in time and place. In “Light House Wisdom,” (You’ll Find Me In The Darkness), the poet describes a scene by the sea, referencing the Spanish Wall, the harbor, the Gateway to the Angels, and the dependable lighthouse with its “vigilance and wisdom” washing over him. The San Pedro poems also locate him in the city itself, on Beacon Street, as depicted in “Evolved Into This” and “Curb Side in San Pedro,” (You’ll Find Me In The Darkness) where he sits on concrete steps watching the goings-on of the “occupants of the Mad house.” Then there are the youthful poems, such as “Dosed In The Days Of My Youth,” in which the poet describes the reckless and carefree days of Southern California: sage bush and honey suckle swaying, palm fronds dancing, white owls and ancient oaks. And in “The Piracy of Youth,” (You’ll Find Me In The Darkness) the reader is transported to their kingdom, stretching from
the end of the world along
the cliff lined Pacific.
To the low side of Alma.
wild canyons of 6th street,
to the railroad
tracks along the waterfront.
Theirs was a brotherhood, but it was also “black eyes and stab wounds,” cocaine and alcohol.
Among the San Pedro poems is a poem in Arm The Outcast that lives up to the poet’s promise to write about the things he knows, the things he has seen. In “Better Moments,” he describes drinking keg beer and listening to music in backyards; walking drunk in a pack along city blocks and getting high on “sour caps and toxic cartoon/printed paper tabs”; riding bikes on Pacific Avenue; reading the poet Bukowski, a son of San Pedro. “Better Moments” isn’t only about the memories of his youth, however; it is also about the passage of time and the realities of his adult life—paying bills, drinking at home, doing prison time, walking off anger, burying a friend. But the poet isn’t done with the memories of youth and realities of adult life, even after fourteen stanzas. In the fifteenth stanza, Perales ends with an aphorism that is memorable for its irony and wit:
It ain’t no picnic.
It’s a history
It’s the politics
Among Perales’ San Pedro poems, “From the Rib of Los Angeles” (You’ll Find Me In The Darkness) stands out. Similar to the English lyrical ode, a form of poetry that praises something and personally inspires the poet, it is sophisticated in structure and breathtaking in its reach. As an encomium, “From the Rib of Los Angeles” accomplishes the hope of any poet—to write a poem that is unforgettable. The first line of each of the nine stanzas addresses the city of Los Angeles as an imperative and establishes the structural outline: “Got a second for me Los Angeles”; “Spare some time/for me Los Angeles”; “Stay with me for a moment/Los Angeles”; “A little longer Los Angeles”; “I don’t expect any return from/you Los Angeles”; “Trust in me Los Angeles”; “Believe in me Los Angeles”; and “Don’t forget me Los Angeles.” Each stanza recounts both his experiences in and his feelings about the sprawling city, and the effect is a narrative not only of his life as a native son of San Pedro but of the much larger city itself. Yet, the poet cannot leave it even when he knows he should. In the end, the poet submits to the metropolis as well as to the town of San Pedro:
I am the son of your southern most
The son of the town named after
the Saint Pedro.
Whose roots are that of a
The motif of darkness recurs throughout these two chapbooks, so it is not surprising that the poet finds himself “lost within the deep darkness/of you”—the City of Angels.
Lending itself to discovery of the self, the motif of darkness in Perales’ poetry is potent. As a motif, darkness is not necessarily a negative; rather it can lead to reflection and new understandings. Whether or not the motif of darkness explicitly appears in Perales’ existential poems, it is present as a subtext. In such poems as “What I Make of Gray,” “Native Doctrine,” “The Chase,” “Stoic Conclusion,” “Bukowskis Ghost 6th and Nelson Street,” “What It Is,” “The Artist And The Second Hand,” and “Get Off Your Knees,” the poet is searching for meaning in the life he has lived and in his present life, believing there is “a masterpiece in each person waiting to be freed.” In “Bukowski’s Ghost 6th and Nelson Street” (You’ll Find Me In The Darkness) and “Native Doctrine,” (Arm The Outcast) there is no doubt he has found masterpieces inside him. Although they differ in tone and mood, time and place, each holds the poet in the center of the inquiry: What does it mean to be alive? What is the meaning of existence?
Charles Bukowski was an avant-garde poet who defied the literati and wrote about the marginalized in American society with a maverick’s sense of injustice. A hard-living man known as the “original barfly,” he wrote forty books of poetry, novels, and prose, much of the time for underground presses in Los Angeles, where he lived (except for a stint in New York). He moved to San Pedro in the 1970s, becoming known as the “son of San Pedro.” He died there in 1994 of leukemia. Bukowski must have had an outsized influence on Perales, as the poem “Bukowskis Ghost” makes clear. Even in death, this larger-than-life man becomes like a counselor to the lost poet.
“Bukowskis Ghost” is a dramatic narrative poem that tells a story within a story. Three characters meet up on 6th and Nelson Street: the poet, the ghost of Bukowksi, and the ghost of the poet’s grandfather. Walking down Nelson Street high on what seems to be opium, he remembers seeing a photograph of Bukowski in the same place where he is standing. Bukowski then appears to the poet as a ghost, advising the poet he can’t stay here, he must move on and deal with his own demons. He informs the poet “we and the Gods are with you.” But who is the “we”? The poet feels a pat on his shoulder, knows already whose hand it is, and his “heart begins to slowly rip.” As he turns to see the ghost standing next to the original Barfly, he sees his grandfather:
Next to him stands my
Grand Father, the man who
broke my heart when the Gods
decided to take him away.
His grandfather smiles at him as the two ghosts depart, a smile that the poet still longs for “in his dreams.” As they disappear, the poet falls apart but he has no choice but to move on, leaving two of the most influential men in his life behind, two men who have become ghosts.
Confronted with the ghosts of Bukowski and his grandfather, the poet, by necessity, must ask himself: What is the meaning of this? Insofar as the hard-drinking poet and the beloved grandfather appear as a dyad, it may not be too much of a stretch to suggest that the poet’s poetic aspirations and his heritage are two sides of the same coin. Bukowski advises the poet to move on. You have our support now. Get it together—all of it. Placing “Bukowskis Ghost” side by side with the poem “Native Doctrine,” (Arm The Outcast), it becomes clear that the poet’s heritage does indeed give him purpose and meaning.
In “Native Doctrine,” the poet reminisces about a woman who teaches him the lessons “in the old way/through stories and songs.” In the winter months when snow covers the high desert, he would watch her “sit in her straight-backed wooden chair/and talk for hours” in her tiny cottage, warmed by her old iron stove. She showed him where God lived and taught him “how to carve/the soft roots of the cotton tree.” Most important, she taught him “the history of who I was./Who we were.” She is his voice that connects him to his ancestry:
The voice that lives inside my head
is her voice still
Teaching me in the old way.
Because the woman is not named in “Native Doctrine,” one can only assume that she is an older relative, a grandmother, and the poem is a literal narrative of who the poet is, where he has come from. It is a quiet poem, a reflective poem, a poem about wisdom and knowing. It opens out, rather than closes in: The darkness of many of the poems discussed in this review is nowhere to be seen in “Native Doctrine.” For Perales, “the old way” is
The only real way
There is to know.
His grandmother in the high desert teaches the poet and gives him the wisdom to answer the meaning of existence.
Author’s Note: Anthony B. Perales shares with us that “My grandmother was a full-blooded Tarahumara from what is now Sinaloa Mexico, in the Copper Canyon at the village of Creel. Grandpa was Hopi from 2nd Mesa Spider Clan.”