The Many Deaths of Inocencio Rodriguez

Iliana Rocha
Tupelo Press ($18.95)

by George Longenecker                      

In this startling collection, Iliana Rocha writes about the unsolved homicide of her grandfather in Detroit in 1971; each of the twenty-six poems that have the same name as the book’s title offers a different interpretation of Inocencio Rodriguez’s death, based on the memories of family members in Texas and elsewhere. The details of the murder were unclear, thus the many versions of the story. Photocopies of Rodriguez’s autopsy report are printed several times, providing a terse contrast to the imagery of the poetry.

The title poems are interspersed with poems of other crimes; Rocha also writes about missing and murdered women, famous killers, death row prisoners, and last meals. These contents may dissuade some readers, but Rocha suggests that to have empathy, we must know the darker side of humanity. She has decided to face the fact of a family homicide head-on and put it in context of other crimes and tragedies. These are not easy poems to read, but they’re well worth reading.

In the first title poem, Rocha says of her grandfather, “His donations to the sun, /the backbreaking work of immigrants / . . . // Lavender & homicidal, dusk.” Her language is lovely, but don’t expect a literal police report. These poems are impressionistic paintings in which the author expects us to step away from comfort and literality. But the very next poem, “Bird Atlas,” uses a more surreal imagery as Our Lady of Guadalupe returns: “. . . she was heartbroken. At her feet, a pigeon crushed under the weight of a Ford 4x4, preserved in its own feathers & blood. . . . // . . . // She crouched closer to the ground to examine the bird atlas, wept in tangled rivers & tributaries.”

Other people from the annals of crime history, some famous and infamous, others little-known, appear in these poems. Scott Peterson, who killed his pregnant wife Laci in 2004, has been the subject of many crime articles but few, if any, poems. In “Love Letter to Scott Peterson,” Rocha writes of the woman who proposed to the convicted murderer soon after he arrived in prison: “Would you ever consider getting married again? Wouldn’t it be funny for our wedding cake to be a chocolate bar, the vending machine our priest?”

The author is aware that readers may want to know more, so she provides notes at the end of the book. This is especially useful for the poem “Texas Killing Fields,” which Rocha explains in the endnotes as “an area between Houston & Galveston that is a notorious dumping ground. For over four decades, women have gone missing or have been found dead there.” In the poem, Rocha renders the fields artistically: “At the spot where the girl lay, I see the refineries. Their stencils are blurred on the horizon . . . Her screams like steady streams of dark smoke.”

As the granddaughter of a murder victim, Rocha feels we must understand violence in order to stop it. Violence is central to her poetry. In “True Crime Addicts,” she writes of Charles Manson acolytes Susan Atkins, who killed Sharon Tate in 1969, and Squeaky Fromme, who tried to assassinate President Ford in 1975. Rocha writes: “I’ve been elsewhere, researching serial killers & unsolved murders because at least I don’t have to convince myself that this is horror.” She finds empathy for the needlessly murdered as well as those who languish for decades in prison or face execution.

In “Collective Memory,” Rocha writes of the thousands of Mexicans murdered in the U.S. between 1848 and 1948, some “left to suffocate in a trailer,” others lynched. In her philosophy, “what violence gives back to us is more of itself.” Violence is not easy to comprehend, especially when one knows it as intimately as Rocha; there are no perfect answers to the tragedy that lives on in a family’s memory and in the collective memory of a people. These are not easy poems to read, but they are necessary to read if we want to come closer to understanding violence and tragedy.

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