“The mosaic has a fundamentally Caribbean soul,” Robert Fernandez writes in his brilliant and captivating first collection of poems, We Are Pharaoh. The son of an American mother and Colombian father, Fernandez grew up in Miami, close enough to the Caribbean to have inferred a thing or two about its soul—and maybe even to have fallen under its spell. Now a resident of the American Midwest, Fernandez remains, in large part, a poet of the tropics, one capable of detecting “whale song / in the alien corn,” as he writes in his remarkable new book-length sequence, Pink Reef.  Throughout the work, Fernandez relaxedly (rather than fetishistically or heavy-handedly) invokes Caribbean fauna and flora, including dolphins, parrotfish, manta rays, the gumbo-limbo tree, and of course coral, whose accreted skeletal remains and living colonies form the complex biotic structures referred to in the book’s title.

But it’s more than topicality that makes Fernandez a poet of the tropics—truth is, his breadth of reference is actually quite wide, as the poetry below will demonstrate, and it’s pretty much devoid of locodescription. Put it this way. Just as a mosaic is made of any number of discrete tiles, so the Caribbean region comprises approximately 7000 individual islands and islets. While its collective land mass is relatively small (less than that of Oregon), the Caribbean houses an extraordinary number of microclimates and exceptional biodiversity. The human inhabitants of these islands are largely of African descent, but many have European, Near Eastern, Asian, and Southeast Asian ancestry, with a significant number of inhabitants identifying as mixed race. There are six official languages spoken throughout the region, as well as dozens of creoles, patois, and indigenous languages. In other words, what it means to have “a fundamentally Caribbean soul,” first and foremost, is to contain multitudes—to be diverse, polyvocal, complex, dynamic, and evolving.

Pink Reef is possessed of just this kind of soul. And it’s a soul that celebrates its incarnation—“there is meat enough for us all,” Fernandez writes, “for all of us lush / medallions.” Purity and restraint aren’t privileged here. Abstraction doesn’t last in this climate. As in the title poem of We Are Pharaoh, the “dominant impulse” is “to survive,” which is to say that struggle and even violence are expected. And yet it isn’t the individual that persists and is valued in this work so much as vitality itself, or life’s embodied principle. Indeed, the solitary subject often wants to reknit into an amalgam, even an interspecial society (“to be / among…brother / cacti”); the mere self wants to pluralize, or even to metamorphose: “I get so sick of myself I / want to clip & // clop, clip-i- / ty clop,” Fernandez writes, ingeniously suggesting both the dismemberment of the self and its transformation into a trotting horse.

This will to push forward through adaptation finds an analog in Pink Reef’s powerful musicality and shifting forms, which manifest a protean erotics of excitation and play while still offering moments of startling and resonant denotative clarity. The wish for a consistent through-line or conventional argumentation should be resisted in favor of a more open, sensuous reading strategy at first, followed ideally, and inevitably, by a pleasure-driven investigation of the sequence’s pockets and patterns of meaning-making. Reading Fernandez, think of yourself as a kind of valiant scuba diver, dazzled as you take in the heterogenous structure of a coral reef at the onset, then rapt as you poke among its many marvel-holding nooks and niches, not knowing if they hold a gold doubloon or a moray eel. It’s a thrilling experience you won’t soon forget.

—Timothy Donnelly


Editor's Note: The following 23 sections of Pink Reef represent only a portion of the book, which has just been published by Canarium Books. The first section here (“I’ve decided to pay…”) first appeared in Mandorla: Nueva Escritura de las Américas.



from Pink Reef




I’ve decided to pay

just at the point

I’ve decided

to pay into

the linen wall

& hope the fountain

will take my money


just at the point

at which I’ve decided to pay,

the point at which

the slit begins to leak

(it must be

a gusher)


just at the point

at which

the pigeons circle

around the single

violet pigeon

as if slowly

tending a star


just at the

point I want to stop:

the wall is amber


just at the point

I see the vultures

in the distance

& am given back


just as liars

bleed from

the eyes


just as

at any moment

I like to play

at being desperate


as at any moment

being desperate

likes to play

at being



so the brain corals


through the arms,


across the skin

(torso by



just so I ask

for the peace

to be &

simply is

& ask for

the peace to be

among my stung

with buds







was the black wallet

was the moral

was the quilled

meat of the wallet

was the vernal

floes of light

was the murder at

the site of production

red heart steaming

bleeding in the hands

red heart of

silk organza streaming

bleating thread

red heart of

polished metal

streaming, unspooling wet

sheets of metal…                                                

Jeff Koons

places a hand

on my lung

I say

I know

I am not


my stomach

would bleed

into a gallop

Jeff Koons

wants to fuck me

I offer him

a strip of

my back,

a strip

of my bloodied






sensitive anti-discourse dolphin

with your graceful pink


penis sensitive

expressivist teller of tales


with your pregnant precarious



master of manners radical

chic with your rabid


drifting joui-

ssant dolphins


sensitive visionary master

of manners sensitive


softly so real so

funny really I


get so sick of myself I

want to clip &


clop, clip-i-

ty clop





never again second-guessing my

“I am loves”


& the horses walk off,

sweat hardening


what is it to ruminate,

to boil over? The blood


like a net,

we dredge up


(Catullus) radishes

& mullets





why don’t I hope that I hate my-

self, says Judith, cutting a Madonna

nook out around her sternum


why don’t I blast blood

from between my teeth, says

Judith, rubbing her naked feet together


why don’t I just die, says Judith,

drawing a dozen roses ta-

da from beneath her ribs





red blood that runs

through the mahi’s veins


the blood an aureus

on which Agrippina’s nose is up-




body on the cleaning board

cut then grip the gills’


tear loose


there is meat enough for us all for all of us lush






it is the refulgent blush of your experience

that tends fires with Visigoths and swans 


it is the blush that makes you ornery

(you make me

work harder for my lilies,

you make me reflect on my scent of meat)


it is the refulgent blush of your

diadems that makes me itch through the scrim-

shawed ant-hill of my bones


it is your blush that makes me

ornery, that blushes with the cheetah foam

of my refulgent disasters





the artist

has blood in the stomach


the artist has

blood &


bubbles of blood

in the stomach


the artist has

organs announcing themselves

as organs


I cannot argue with the flesh

I cannot argue with the meat

across which I speak

across which I grapple

& beat





draw the jaw back

shake the eyes

back into the head

tear back the meat

joining the jaw

to the cheek

an egg emerges

in the cheek

observe the egg

in the pocket





bent over,


avocado seeds


we should be happy

releasing seeds,

glass screens

lifting from the seeds

(the pearl and wrapped

Pegasus of the face un-

wraps its wings)


releasing seeds

to not be sick


we should be happy,

voiding them





a pot of soil

mixed with


charcoal and egg-



in the first instance,

the orchid is a mask





leave the weed


it becomes a tree,

becomes a trunk

(a gray &

black flower


from its crown)


leave the weed


it reveals

a face (O

man walking

beneath the leaves

O eyes shaded

beneath a broad-

brimmed hat

O lean



then a shock of rain,

an ecstasy of sudden passage





eyes burn from the acidity

farther off


cock splits into plump



jasper is mixed with the milk,

raccoon is mixed with the water


harbinger of little

blood discs


I am going





I run my hand

over the red backs

of dolphins,


over baked



the lilies are tan

& plump this afternoon






an ethics

of banana-leaf

packets in which

moist cakes




the linga

& tulip together





pools of

soft orange suns

flexing over pebbles


or spins the searchlights

that drift screaming (all my

Marilyns are trapped in the light,

all my Marilyns…)





soup is

all the good stuff

mixed in,

soon enough,

the froth,


white, mixed

with cubes

of eggplant,


“nail your


to the



some “one

who betrays…”

I must power down

these lights,

flush the light-discs

from my chest





in the streets,

the macaws, actually, they are

everything working against us

& have been for months


what, besides, shall we make

of slews


slews of

crowd crystals


I get tired

I get exasperatingly lost

I think, here I had it in my hands

now, all my souls broken into



I need

a rest;

the vultures

along the wall:

tethered with gold thread


I am leaving the world

I am entering the

sotto valley




always skylight cubes, melting 

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon cubes


Les Demoiselles d’Avignon

blocks of melting shine,


gushing arcades

of blond and red reef…


water flows over me,

light flows out of me





so soon

into chattering and lounge

quite soon

too soon

rye light

rye eye seeing as it’s flowing

flown ground eating

across seeing

find the dragon’s scales seeing in

my stomach’s bleeding





believe everyone you meet, wipe

the blood up from the street

eat acid in the heat, expel 

warm white tracers


split the grain of the light,


get fucked up every night


watch the Glory mites

eating away at our





angels of “how exactly am I feeling?”

ask yourself

ask yourself

“how exactly am I feeling?”

I cannot stop I love hell

I am light

new moon again but I am light

Cartier chariots strung with pearls

expelling billowy brown light

I cannot stop