On This Side of the Desert
The Kent State University Press
Winner of the 2019 Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize
Natalie Diaz, judge
i say / my mother’s name, / cristina & desert marigolds / crack through a boulder. / i say my father’s name, martin / & all the novena candles / in the bed of the truck are aglow.
These lines from the book’s titular poem “On This Side of the Desert” encapsulate the dominant themes of the collection: the power and meaning derived from the act of naming; the deep interconnectedness of Latinx cultures, a product of strong family traditions and an intimate relationship with the natural world; and a profound spirituality rooted in the sacraments of Catholic orthodoxy.
This poem, like many of those in Aguilar’s collection is written from the perspective of a young boy growing up along the Mexican border. As Aguilar chronicles the unique challenges faced by border communities where surviving the desert is a perpetual struggle, and the distress of finding “an entire skeleton in torn clothes” is muted by frequency, he also modernizes the traditional pastoral form to encompass both beauty and trauma.
This debut book of poetry describes the experience of being raised in southern California as a child of Mexican immigrants in the shadow of the borderlands. Just as the borderlands are defined by the desert, so, too, are its inhabitants defined by their families, their culture shaped from the clay of the Sonoran desert and given life by the nourishing water of their ancestors. In these poems, the desert is recognized for what it truly is—a living, breathing body filled with both joy and pain.