we resided. The road—it took him west

and east. Into the next town and the rest,


where home was just glossy book covers.

Where evening and October flickered over.


From “Diaspora Sonnet in Autumn, Driving West with No Place to Be”

Celebrated author Oliver de la Paz returns with his sixth full-length collection, The Diaspora Sonnets (Liveright Press, 2023), a brilliant follow-up to the cerebral and touching The Boy in the Labyrinth. De la Paz again highlights his incredible depth and unique ability to be both thoughtful and accessible. The Diaspora Sonnets is a tender, patient investigation of family, home, and immigration that will resonate with readers across a broad spectrum. De la Paz is expert at grounding each poem in specificity while also preserving the universal. The result is a collection that resounds as both achingly personal and wholly relatable.

True to its title, The Diaspora Sonnets contains an extensive set of poems that loosely resemble sonnets. Though de la Paz does not always preserve pentameter, the iambic rhythm, or rhyme scheme, each of the poems carrying the phrase “diaspora sonnet” in its title is comprised of seven couplets and generally captures the ambiance of the sonnet. The sole deviation from this structure is “Diaspora Sonnet at the Feeder Before the Freeze,” which contains only six couplets. The departure adds to the poem’s fixation on silence, echoing the speaker’s lament that “Birds//cease calling each other” and “There are no sparrows or chickadees” making song. The sonnet, like the trees outside the window, is heavy and frozen with absence, awaiting the music of warmer months.

The book is separated into three sections which seem to trace the perpetual movement at the core of the collection: The Implacable West; Landscape with Work, Rest, and Silence; and Dwelling Music. Each section begins with a poem carrying the title “Chain Migration” and ends with a pantoum. Framing the diaspora sonnets adds immense depth to the collection. The “Chain Migration” poems highlight the phenomenon of continual migration, but de la Paz also composes each in common meter, an alternating structure of 8-syllable and 6-syllable lines written in iambic meter and arranged into quatrains. These poems establish that de la Paz is versed in the early structures of American poetry, and also that he is perfectly capable of executing iambic meter, thus drawing the reader’s attention to his intentional departure from the rhythm in various sonnets.

Closing out each section with a pantoum further demonstrates de la Paz’ careful attention to structure. The form is predicated on repetition and return, with every poem ending precisely where it began. Here, de la Paz emphasizes the ways in which one can simultaneously move forward while remaining anchored to a place. While the first two pantoums follow the form closely, de la Paz deviates from the structure in the final stanza of the final pantoum, which is also the last poem of the book. The final four lines are rooted in the potential subjunctive:

I’d drive out of this desert and set fire to the road,

I’d emerge from the earth like a prayer, unheard.

I’d take the offramp and ease off the interstate.

I’d see where the horizon and the plains form a sharp line.

The effect is remarkable as de la Paz shifts away from nostalgia and memory, toward futurity and possibility. These lines also re-orient the narrative with the speaker at its center, stressing that the story begun by the speaker’s parents will continue through him. That this is the last stanza of the entire collection also seems to signal that the speaker’s story cannot be contained by the limitations of the book.

While form plays an enormous role in The Diaspora Sonnets, the book also has a strong emotional core. The sonnets themselves celebrate family and capture the many layers of living in diaspora. “Diaspora Sonnet with My Father’s Stamped Time Card” deftly captures the ever-present fear that a father carries into a new land, a new job. The speaker describes how the family “hemmed his tears, sewed//lullabies to allay fears,” closing with a rebuke of how a father pours himself into work because “It’s what he does best.//Calls it self-care. You call it what you will.” In “Diaspora Sonnet as a Photo of My Father, Posing Near the Columbia River Gorge,” the speaker further laments, “My father is never happy//staying in one place. I say he is displaced//which sounds like another location/just beyond reach.” This constant pull to move and inability to feel at rest permeates the collection.

The Diaspora Sonnets is one of the most moving, layered reflections on diaspora and memory in American poetry. Oliver de la Paz has shown us, yet again, that he is not just an impossibly talented poet, but also a deeply patient and intuitive writer. The generosity of spirit so evident in the way he uplifts those around him comes through in his work, which is technical without being pretentious, nuanced without being inaccessible. This is a collection that belongs on every shelf and in every classroom.

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