Iliana Rocha, The Many Deaths of Inocencio Rodriguez (Tupelo Press), 103pp. Paperback, $19.95.

Perhaps taking Bruce Springsteen a bit too literally, all-star baseball player Ken Caminiti was undone by a speedball in 2004. His death was somewhat enigmatic, though reporters were eventually able to piece it together: just a few days after being released from prison in Houston, he went into cardiac arrest in the Bronx apartment of a man he’d never met before. His fatal heart attack seems to have been the result of cocaine and heroin.

In “Ken Caminiti Dies in a Houston Hotel,” one of the poems featured in Iliana Rocha’s new collection, The Many Deaths of Inocencio Rodriguez, the 1996 NL MVP gets the Monroe rather than the DiMaggio treatment. Rocha—evidently a sports fan, as she prominently features a Houston Oilers jacket in her author photo—casts Caminiti in an erotic light. She recalls going to see him play at the Astrodome, “where I felt the seat / get wet with sex anticipation, those arms, that swing, that giant / bulge that seemed to symbolize third base, cheeks swollen with chew like the bag where he’d rest his cleat.”

Rocha deserves credit for making chewing tobacco sound sexy. (The joke about “third base” is a little juvenile, yet it still lands.) But her Caminiti isn’t just a hunky ballplayer with massive forearms; he’s a man with an “enlarged heart” who winds up dead at 41 under initially mysterious circumstances, the subject of myths and misinformation (e.g. that he was found dead in a Houston hotel).

Several of Rocha’s poems point to celebrities whose deaths made headlines: Elvis Presley, Judy Garland, Jayne Mansfield, Lupe Vélez. In a tribute to Kurt Cobain, she quotes from several of his song lyrics while comparing the brown ribbon of a Nirvana cassette tape to a bloody vein reeling out of the suicidal singer.

The fixation of the book, however, is the death of Inocencio Rodriguez, Rocha’s grandfather, who was shot and killed in Detroit in 1971. Rocha even reproduces the autopsy report and death certificate, documents in a homicide case that remains unsolved. Of the 71 poems here, 25 carry the same title: “The Many Deaths of Inocencio Rodriguez.” Her grandfather has become a stand-in for a host of others, famous and obscure, whose deaths were somehow overdetermined by the speed, violence, and enormity of the United States.

“The energy in these poems is both corporeal and centrifugal, like the body of a young woman twirling in her quinceañera dress.”

Rocha is currently an English professor at the University of Tennessee, but she is no stranger to the American Southwest. A Texas native, she went to college at the University of Houston and then received an MFA in creative writing from the Arizona State University. One of the poems in her debut collection, Karankawa (2015), took its cue from Las Vegas choreographer Peter Chu’s dance company.

For Las Vegans, The Many Deaths of Inocencio Rodriguez may bring to mind Human Resource Exploitation: A Family Album, a recent exhibit at the Barrick Museum of Art curated by Elena Brokaw. Brokaw’s father, Ramiro García, a Guatemalan artist and activist, was murdered by Guatemalan armed forces in 1980, when she was only a few months old. Her powerful exhibit (which also includes her father’s death certificate) was both a family memorial and a public reckoning.

Rocha’s own poems about her grandfather belie a frustration with the lack of information regarding his murderer(s). Many of these poems are marked by elisions and redactions, missing words and empty brackets. Take, for example, what Rocha has referred to as her “‘tabloid’ poems,” several of which are “deconstructed villanelles”—19-line poems about slain girls and women with details excluded and substituted. The final lines from “Tabloid for JonBenét Ramsey” are exemplary: “under our fingers what [       ] evolves, / [little] bird of [our] childhood, [blonde &] thieve[d], / we [     ] our [          ] to the place [where she sleeps].” These poems belong to a section titled “True Crime Addict,” a testament to one of America’s favorite genres.

While many of her poems are characterized by such missing elements, Rocha has a real gift for finding and placing the unexpected word. “I needed a fresh glass of wife,” begins one verse. From another, the following lines are perhaps especially indicative of her style: “Nothing from him has ever escaped, not so much a / microfiche wheeze or a lawnmower’s razor-thin snore, not / his carnival of women, buck tooth, ferris-wheeled, first / kiss, & hiss.”

U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo has compared Rocha’s poems to Rimbaud’s, and it’s easy to see why. The language is bent and twisted into new shapes; a woman’s uterus becomes “an inverted volcano,” erupting its progeny down onto the world. One death becomes many. Meanings are multiplied, and motives are uncertain. Or, to use one of Rocha’s own phrases, we might say that the energy in these poems is both corporeal and centrifugal, like the body of a young woman twirling in her quinceañera dress, “as she spilled out of it like fire’s closest friend.”

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