Moloch Reborn

Poet Albino Carrillo pits the Aztec god of war against the 21st-century American metropolis

The "destroyer"--whether Shiva, Odin, Ogun or Mars--is a difficult mythological persona for a poet to conjure. Which explains why the destroyer doesn't figure much in our nation's poetic tradition. After all, America is about buoyancy, technological advancement and eternal change. Death is not an option.

The destroyer makes brief, enigmatic appearances in the 19th-century verse of Edgar Allan Poe ("The Raven"), Walt Whitman ("The Sleeper") and Emily Dickinson ("I felt a funeral in my brain ... "). But it wasn't until beatnik bard Allen Ginsberg unleashed the awful Moloch in the second part of his landmark, postwar epic, "Howl," that the destroyer had a name and a face. And a specific mission:

"Moloch whose love is endless oil and stone! Moloch whose soul is electricity and banks! Moloch whose poverty is the specter of genius! Moloch whose fate is the cloud of sexless hydrogen! Moloch whose name is the Mind!"

Indeed, Moloch is the dark side of American know-how, the final countdown of Cold War confrontation, the end game of manifest destiny. So terrifying was Moloch that, in "Footnote to Howl," Ginsberg tempers the powerful incantations he had used to summon the monster with insipid lines like, "Everything is holy! everybody's holy! everywhere is holy!"

Moloch might have retreated, but he never died. He makes a long-overdue return in Albino Carrillo's breathtaking apocalypse, In the City of Smoking Mirrors.

Moloch takes the shape of Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec god of war, aka the Blue Hummingbird. But we can call him "H." He is our guide through a post-apocalyptic fever dream of America, where "the future is a cartoon of a future." He holds a mirror to our faces, and the smoke is due either to the hellish reflection or our own infernal breathing.

"Prelude: War Kept Huitzilopochtli From Dreaming of Travel" sets the malevolent tone. A series of sonnets held together only by the momentum of Carrillo's sinister language ("You see, / science fiction means nothing to the people / in charge of gassing their bombers / about our green planet like they were / just strolling along, in love."), the poem introduces the book's major themes: how "progress" undermines the human community, how the electronic media poisons our dreams, how suburbia homogenizes our identities.

Carrillo sticks with the Italian sonnet in poems like "Animal Time" and "On the Edge of Space, H. Speaks of the Infinite Void." (Does Carrillo seek to subvert the European masters by invoking their preferred form?) These are lyrical moments when H. immerses himself in an altered state, much like the Aboriginal "dreamtime" culture. Only instead of dreaming of creation, H. drifts into a nightmare of destruction. In the former poem, H. experiences the crushing weight of the self-imposed ignorance that had kept him shackled for so long: "the night rushes my mind to flame /and I cannot count the shuffling stars." In the latter poem, H. instructs the reader to follow him silently and with eyes wide open: "Remember--it's dark out there, and heathens abound. No beliefs will satisfy these chiefs, who through/this infinite void roam but seldom roar."

There's a twist here, though: Unlike Moloch, who directly brings ruin to the world, H. simply observes a ruination that has already transpired; the Aztec god merely records the suicide of the Western world. Consider the poem "Discovering a Christian Hymnal," in which H. wanders the "desert beyond Arroyo del Oso":

In the hills
developers with names like
falling branches were building
new homes daily. Whole families
grew up in subdivisions
unafraid of the desert, not knowing
the shell sky is an upturned mirror frame.

There are other disturbing images, as in "A Letter to My Brothers and Sisters in North Korea":

North Korea, in one of my magazines
there's a girl without shoes. In one of my tea cups
a .30-caliber bullet, an indescribable lotus
blossom wrapped crudely in wax.
It's for when you cross the sea
in your rocket
with the thousand-petaled sun
so bright, so bright.

But the masterpiece is the next-to-last poem, "The Circumnavigation of Hell," a blistering descent into an underworld cobbled together from Aztec mythology, Dante's Inferno, Homer's The Odyssey, the history of 20th-century American imperialism (Korea, Vietnam) and various comic books and cartoons.

Don't bother deciphering a narrative in Carrillo's book. Like a funhouse, Mirrors merely confronts us with a distorted yet defined glimpse of ourselves. And as our leaders bring us closer to a domestic nightmare (environmental collapse) and foreign-policy abyss (Iraq), there's not another poetry collection that matters.

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