Melanie J. Cordova reviews When Kerosene’s Involved by Daniel Romo.
Author: Daniel Romo
Mojave River Press, 2014
Daniel Romo’s When Kerosene’s Involved is a collection of prose poems that nuances the experience of living in the borderlands of the Southwest, primarily central and southern California and northern Mexico. The powerful, human life experiences depicted in this collection will challenge the reader, and the stylistic clarity will encourage multiple readings. In this text, Romo’s swift storytelling places it firmly within contemporary Southwestern literature.
One of the most striking elements of When Kerosene’s Involved is its ability to create a narrative arc that does not confine itself to individual poems. The story of Pancho, a young kid who sells gum on the street, is one such example. We begin with his experience in a Mexican family in “Pancho as Protagonist in the 9th Grade Grammar Book,” in which his life is parsed like sentences. Romo writes:
Pancho in Mexico with his family.
He sells Chiclets on the streets to help provide for them.
Pancho’s feet always ache. The soles of his sandals are sad.
It is not unusual for Pancho to hustle his gum upwards of ten hours a day, because even though he’s young, he understands the futility he faces. Nor is it unusual for his parents to search for ways to smuggle their family into Southernmost Cali
After Romo describes Pancho’s family’s poverty, he does not return to their story for several poems. In the meantime, other stories take up his theme of immigration. The prose poem that immediately follows “Pancho as Protagonist” is an overview of families like his that attempt movement through borderlands, entitled “Fun.” Romo writes: “The world’s longest Slip n’ Slide extends from Mexico to / Southern California.” When we finally return to Pancho, after the focused experience of that “Slip n’ Slide,” instead of parsing out the grammar of his situation, his story is told as if it were a creative writing exercise, titled “Pancho as Show Not Tell Mini-Lesson in the High School Creative Writing Textbook.” Each of these examples positions the reader of When Kerosene’s Involved as an outsider, places the narrator in the unique position of cynical authority, and essentially exposes the absurdity of reading a collection of prose poems when real people like Pancho and his family live out this experience. Further, by using the space between these prose poems as narrative distance filled by other stories like “Fun,” Romo nuances his collection with the human blend of multiple voices—just as Pancho is more than his immigrant experience, When Kerosene’s Involved is more than Pancho’s story. It is quietly representative of life in the borderlands.
This collection is not limited by this single theme, however. Romo is able to treat heavy topics with deceptively simple and clear prose poems. One such example is “Buoyancy,” in which the narrator travels by balloon over a suburb: “I face droplets, head-on, knowing that is not enough water to / drown in.” But within this seemingly light anecdote of the narrator literally floating through the sky is a critique of suburban life. He laments the “consistency of / their landscape” and fears the residents are destined to die in these places, unable to soar through the sky as he does. In such a swift, bright poem is a rejection of conformity and call to action for mobility. In a similar way does the prose poem “Cultivation” challenge a reader’s understanding of the surface topic. In “Cultivation,” the narrators inherit a farm and debate if they should keep it, since they are untrained in how to maintain such a place. Again, this deceptively simple dilemma is the basis for the narrative arc for this particular prose poem, but deeper issues are at stake here. By wondering “if the livestock is happy with us,” larger questions of interacting with the land and its creatures are raised. Should one break with history and give up an inherited space? Leave and fully embrace their city life? Romo successfully weaves these intricate questions throughout When Kerosene’s Involved, which in a clear way complements larger narrative arcs like Pancho’s. Such clear complexity readers will not only enjoy reading, but rereading.
Overall, the collection is united by an interesting focus on words, language, and communication—both in terms of substance and composition. Romo has a discerning ear for the way each poem connects to the ones that surround it, and thus there is a logical flow to the order in this collection that makes it enjoyable to read even beyond its content. Such care and attention to the overall aesthetic construction of When Kerosene’s Involved demonstrates Romo’s investment in this work, and it cannot help but please the reader. When Kerosene’s Involved successfully conveys powerful, human life experiences in borderland areas through enjoyable prose poems that challenge the reader to think beyond the surface details.