REVIEW: Canto Hondo by Francisco X. Alarcón
In his essay “Arquitectura del cante jondo,” the great Spanish poet Federico García Lorca defines the cante jondo against the flamenco of his time by saying:
“El cante jondo es un canto teñido por el color misterioso de las primeras edades de cultura; el cante flamenco es un canto relativamente moderno donde se nota la seguridad rítmica de la música construida. Color spiritual y color local: he aquí la honda diferencia…El cante jondo se acerca al trino del pájaro, al canto del gallo y a las músicas naturales del chopo y la ola…Es, pues, un rarísmo ejemplar de canto primitivo, de lo más viejo de Europa, donde la ruina histórica y el fragment lírico comido por la arena aparecen vivos como en la primera mañana de su vida” (García Lorca, 214)*.
(The deep song is a song tinged with the mysterious color of the culture’s first ages; the song in flamenco is a relatively modern song where one can note the rhythmic security of structured music. Spiritual color and local color: here lies a great difference…The deep song approaches the bird’s trill, or the rooster’s crow as well as the natural music of the poplar and the ocean wave…It is, then, a rare example of primitive song, of the oldest in Europe, where the historical ruin and lyrical fragment eaten away at by sand appear alive as on the first morning of its life) (translation: José Angel Araguz)
By naming his new collection Canto Hondo/Deep Song, Francisco X. Alarcón sets up the book’s spirit to be in the same vein as that of Lorca’s own “Poema del cante jondo.” Where Lorca celebrated the energy and mystery of his Andalusian influences, Alarcón’s new book evokes and celebrates the deep song of the Chicana/o literature, from its Pre-Cortesian roots to its politically fraught present.
Alarcón uses a minimalist style throughout the book to conduct his own fight against the “rhythmic security of structured music.” As the following examples show, he is able to keep close to images as well as concept within this style:
LOS OJOS EYES
heridas con wounds
las puntadas with open
NARANJA DEL DESEO ORANGE OF DESIRE
no hay nada there’s nothing
como comer like nibbling
a mordiscos an orange
en Granada in Granada
una naranja in the forbidden
en el jardín orchard
prohibido of the Sultan’s
de la Sultana main wife
While the image and brevity of the first poem are similar in spirit to haiku, the clipped nature of the second evokes William Carlos Williams’ own staggered lyric. The enjambed logic of both these poems gives an idea of the particular flavor of Alarcón’s poetics. In his hands, the deep song is ever personal, as alive and intimate as a nerve or a gasp.
These moves between image, insight, and form are to be found throughout the collection, including in the longer title piece “Canto Hondo/Deep Song.” This particular poem’s epigraph states that it is “after the passage of so many legal measures against undocumented workers – mostly Mexican and Central Americans – throughout the United States.” This declaration is followed by questions:
¿por qué why do
me escupes you spit
la cara? in my face?
¿qué papeles does the Sun
tiene need any
el sol? papers?
¿qué crimen does having
cometen hoy dreams now
los sueños? become a crime?
These questions, which move from insult to a rhetoric composed of image and implication, make clear not only the stakes of Alarcón’s deep song but also the powers available to the poet to fight for and keep alive what he names at the poem’s end as “this struggle//for life/burning/in my heart.” By naming the struggles of others, Alarcón is able to document the undocumented and give voice to grievances similar to the way Pablo Neruda does in his Canto General. Neruda comes to mind not only in the political nature of the poem but also in the rawness and surrealistic reach of the images.
As evidenced through both the content of these examples as well as the textual set up of the collection with poems set in both Spanish and English, Alarcón’s deep song is grounded within a Chicana/o sensibility, with an ear for its music and an eye for its issues. Poems about family are mixed in with those on braceros and César Chávez. By positing itself in Chicana/o histories, these lyrics fight against being “eaten away” by time and help to keep Chicana/o poetry, ideals, and culture “alive as on the first morning of its life.”
(*García Lorca, Federico. Poesia Completa. Ed. Miguel García-Posada. New York: Vintage Español, 2012. Print.)
Buy it from The University of Arizona Press: $17.95.
José Angel Araguz is a CantoMundo fellow and winner of Rhino Poetry’s 2015 Editor’s Prize. He has had poems recently in Prairie Schooner, Borderlands, and The Laurel Review. He is pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Cincinnati. Author of Reasons (not) to Dance, a chapbook of microcuento style short prose, he runs the poetry blog The Friday Influence.
Intriguing! Thanks for alerting me to Sr. Alarcon’s new collection. I greatly admire his writing and I suspect that this thoughtful and graceful review does justice to it.