by José Angel Araguz
In an interview, the essayist Richard Rodriguez tells a story about Edward James Olmos visiting a high school in California. In the story, Olmos turns to the room full of young Latin@ faces and asks: “How many of you are proud to be Indian,” to which the young crowd applauds and hollers in approval. Olmos then asks: “How many of you are proud to be Spanish?” Here, the young crowd responds with an awkward silence.
Olmos’s questions and the youths’s two different responses play out the crucible in which many Latin@s must work out ideas of identity for themselves. In working out one’s sense of latinidad, a person must reconcile not just the history of the oppressed natives that fell under the conquistadores, but must also learn to reconcile the history of the oppressor, and how that too makes up part of the identity and history of Latin@s today. I share this story as a way into discussing the poems of Juan Morales’s The Siren World, a collection unafraid to reckon with both personal and cultural history.
There are places marked by no plaque.
No committee petitions for historical status,
but something happened here –
These lines, from the poem “New World Map,” point to the central engine of The Siren World. These poems engage with memory and identity in order to mark down what “happened here.” In the section The Mountain, the poems delve into the poet’s Ecuadoran background, embodied by stories of his mother as well as stories plucked from the history of the Spanish Conquest. The opening poem, “A Good Education,” layers the narrative of the mother’s childhood upbringing in Ecuador, where she “recited saints, prayers, and science formulas,” with his own childhood in the United States. In detailing the routines and curated knowledge shared in school, the speaker of this poem makes clear how “The world’s violence [can fall] from the minds like pencils dropped under ancient radiators.” By layering the history of not only the mother and the speaker, but also of countries, the poem evokes a sense of what is at stake in documenting and establishing what “happened here.” This layering also allows the speaker to end on an image familiar to anyone educated in the United States, an image charged further given the meditation of the poem:
And I put myself there too,
getting a good education, oblivious to our country’s failings, saying the
pledge of allegiance and gawking up at the flag with my small hand on
my heart, about which
I knew nothing.
This section ends with the poem “Downtown Ambato, 3:14 AM,” in which the speaker and the mother share a room during a visit to Ecuador. This meditation on insomnia highlights the poet’s ability to dwell on details; amidst counting exhalations and the intermittent barking of stray dogs, the speaker is possessed of a quiet urgency. The room for the insomniac becomes a kind of conscience, the speaker alert to each movement around him. This quiet urgency symbolizes the collection’s theme: as it does during the restless toss and turn of the speaker, the material of what “happened here” continues to move around us, fleeting, resisting to be marked down. Still, the poet tries:
I capture every town sound
and convince myself that I understand
my mother’s hunger for sleep after so many years
without. Then I multiply it. I wish I could wake her
and ask how to say insomnia
in Spanish except hope
she’s in the midst of peaceful sleep.
The second section of the collection, The Island, takes the poems to Puerto Rico to explore stories of the poet’s father. Where the poems in The Mountain lived in moments of meditation and reflection on what the past might mean, here the poems present the past in a tougher tone. In “Passport,” for example, a poem whose “passport” structure and conceptual framework reflect Adál’s “El Puerto Rican Passport, El Spirit Republic de Puerto Rico,” the reader is presented with the following:
Sexo (Male) When I turned 18, my father gave me a machete. When I
turned 21, my father gave me a shoe shine kit.
The clipped and straightforward execution of these lines underscore the emotional atmosphere of The Siren World. For a moment, what “happened here” is marked down in two pseudo-official statements whose juxtaposition of violence and pathos strike a direct and exact(ing) note.
The theme of violence as a background element is returned to in “Garter Snakes.” Here, the reader is presented with the memory of killing of snakes as a childhood game. The speaker’s sensibility is established as the poem moves forward, describing both the violence done to snakes as well as to the speaker’s unspoken disgust and disapproval. The reader then learns:
When I threw rocks, I missed
on purpose. In the arroyo with the shallow
creek and the broken bridge,
I watched free snakes
ripple atop shallow water
with their heads level –
a holy incident
we did not yet know
What is powerful about this ending is the inaction of the speaker. In the awkward silence of childhood moments like this one, a certain kind of character begins to develop. A child’s reckoning before natural life is later followed by the revelatory understanding of the poet.
The father narrative is developed over the course of the second section. As with the first section’s stories about the mother, these poems find the poet able to use history as a way to feel out both personal and cultural present. In “Revising Scars,” the effort to work out what “happened here” is stretched in a way that tests its limits. The poem begins:
I bait my father with questions about his history
like the tattoos of two birds inked on in 1952
that I already assigned the meaning of young love
and longing and preservation of him as a man…
The self-awareness of these lines is meaningful. In this scene, the reader is presented with a symbol of what the poet’s task consists of; essentially, to push and question against a world of “assigned” meanings, even their own. This imposed narrative on the part of the speaker is followed down further, until the father responds:
[ ] and he challenges family myth
when he tells me he was too drunk to remember
how those damned tattoos got on him in the first place.
There is a sadness to the humor of this ending, and a lightness to that sadness; the speaker’s invented narrative is deflated, but what deflates it is a clear evocation of the father. The speaker is thrown back onto his imagination; in this instance, what “happened here” is made of the kind of sharpness and elation found in the best poetry.
Indeed, the need to work through the sharpness and elation of one’s life is at the heart of The Siren World. Poet as chronicler of what “happened here.” Poet at the heart of the awkward silence between two inseparable sides of history. These poems by Juan Morales again and again take us to the heart of reconciliation with the personal and political. The ending of the poem “Guaman Poma, Writing By Candlelight,” turns the speaker’s meditation on the Quechua noble into a statement on the poet’s task; it also serves as a call to readers and writers alike to open their eyes to what “happened here”:
Where will my words about Guaman Poma be lost?
Maybe an attic, a thick folder in a desk,
or a garage box, but still confident
in the risky release of poems
into the hands of a comrade
who will carry each sacred word,
chancing the indifferent someone
who will never bother to read.
Buy it from Lithic Press: $17.00
José Angel Araguz is a CantoMundo fellow. He is a PhD candidate in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Cincinnati. Author of six chapbooks as well as the recent collection, Everything We Think We Hear, he runs the poetry blog The Friday Influence.
by José Angel Araguz
I…continued dreaming, of owning a space
where all my poems would live & recline when tired, a pink box…
I wonder, will I call it Jessie or Yesenia? I need it, else I’ll have to continue
carrying my poems around like a baby on a sling, in the absence of a pink box.
From The Pink Box’s opening poem, Yesenia Montilla establishes herself as a poet for whom language is not only how we communicate but how we live. Throughout this collection, the reader is presented with a voice consistently aware of the stakes of a given situation, aware that for every dream there is a struggle. Whether it is a painful memory as insistent as the sound of a subway train buckling along on its track, or a moment of celebration via ghazal, ode, or haiku, Montilla keeps the reader close to the action of life. When the speaker of a later poem states, “I want to live in service of one action today, poetry,” they are declaring the heart of Montilla’s vision.
An example of what this vision is generous enough to offer is evident in the poem “Dendrology.” Here, the speaker recalls being shamed for her hair:
…my aunt announced
I’d never be loved by a white man
con ese pelo malo.
This judgment, however, is immediately challenged:
I loved my hair,
the way it frizzed around the edges
of my face & stood there like a woman
waiting to be asked to dance a slow bolero…
In recalling this moment of shaming, Montilla guides the reader through the process not of defiance but of consideration. Through these lines, the reader experiences a specific moment, one of new knowledge, and the instinct to hold that knowledge up to what one already knows. It is a nuanced form of defiance and of living enacted here. At the level of sheer understanding, the speaker’s narrative is moved to an image that evokes the physical hair via metaphorical movement. In this moment of intuited action, both speaker and reader wait to see what unfolds.
A similar moment of action via language occurs in the poem “Ode to a Dominican Breakfast.” As the speaker moves through a challenge against other traditional breakfast fare, the speaker and poem take an unexpected turn:
The other day I wore a white dress
with a wide skirt & red sash
I danced a merengue barefoot on my stoop, I kissed the
Dominican flag, once for each time I remembered a Taino word
yucca, batata, tanama, ocama, yautia, cacique, juracan,
every bite on the plate, every morsel like a bachata tune
This scene moves the poem from a mere contrasting of one cuisine against all others into the realm of celebration within language. Through the combined actions of dancing, kissing, and remembering, the speaker makes clear that what is at stake in this ode is not just what feeds the body. The gratitude and presence of each Taino word – words, like all words, to be spoken, mouthed – gives the poem a heartbeat’s persistence.
In “My Father’s 50th Birthday,” another kind of ode-like action takes place:
We forgot two years of jail visits.
Polaroids with white walls.
We forgot crack & shame.
We carried you out of the club,
you threw up on us with abandon.
Carried you like a dead body into
the narrow building…
shoes & lifted you onto the bed
to not wake your tired mother.
As we left we heard you cry out
Mami & at that moment you
were five & we were fifty.
We felt our childhood scratch
the back of our necks to let us know
it was finally gone for good.
In this poem, the celebration of the father’s birthday becomes a meeting and blurring of memories. The development of emotional tension leading to the images of the father being carried out are powerful and transformational; in a way, the father becomes a symbol himself of all the familial memories, struggles, and disappointments that the children carry between them. When the speaker feels “childhood scratch,” the physical nature of memory is emphasized.
Moments of such emphasis abound throughout The Pink Box. Montilla again and again makes available her stories and insights in poems that live up to the struggles experienced and overcome to get them to us. Her determination “to live in service of one action…poetry” is inspiring. That one should not surrender to despair, to hardship, to celebration, to anything but the language to evoke the journey, the surviving, is an admirable mission. It is a mission that Montilla, as evident in the poem “Iktsuarpok,” seems committed to:
the shaman said be ready
& I bought a new dress black a million ravens huddled
he said love affair
& I opened wide a calendar lunar phase & all
he said fire
& it was a million hummingbirds with their human faces dancing
he said madness
& here I sit waiting for the honey taste of it to drown me good
Buy it from Aquarius Press/Willow Books: $17.95
José Angel Araguz is a CantoMundo fellow and winner of RHINO Poetry’s 2015 Editor’s Prize. He is pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Cincinnati. Author of the recent collection, Everything We Think We Hear, he runs the poetry blog The Friday Influence.
by José Angel Araguz
By two we enter
the story, and leave the ark built
of catastrophes –
Via Biblical allusion, these lines from Rosa Alcalá’s poem “The Story to be Written” stress how reader and writer necessitate and need each other, meeting in the “ark” of the written work. Throughout the “telling/of catastrophes” found throughout the works of Rosa Alcalá, Craig Watson, and Elisabeth Whitehead, this collection of chapbooks shows itself to be engaging with the way literature manifests itself past the page.
Rosa Alcalá’s To the Archives begins the collection with its poem “Projection,” which finds the poet using varying fonts to quote from Ben Rubin’s media installation, “And That’s Just the Way It Is” (University of Texas-Austin, Cronkite Plaza) and Walter Cronkite’s news report of President Kennedy’s assassination.
This maneuvering and blurring of the world between text and story is continued in “Notes on Pasiphae.” Through a longer line, we move from myth to the computer screen, to the infamous act of coerced bestiality Pasiphae is famous for (which led to the birth of the minotaur), to a meditation on the way these acts are rendered through various paintings, ending on a final moment in which ideas of motherhood are juxtaposed against that fateful moment where parent and child meet:
…Here, they stared
at each other – mother, monster. A maze long before any built.
Mixing her own voice with that of Jacques Derrida, Alice Notley, Barbara Guest, Julia Kristeva, and Michel de Certeau, Alcalá then works out a meditation on ideas of voice in terms of language (spoken, unspoken, written) in the poem “Voice: An Essay.” Family stories and ghosts are mixed in with intellectual reckoning. Throughout these poems, one feels a reaching after that space between reading and understanding, where the self lives unknowingly, almost as a ghost.
Craig Watson’s Almost Invisible: Depositions from Neverland focuses on the way that “J. M. Barrie’s life and fantasies were so integrated, so seamless, that one continually became the substance of the other.” This blurring between what is written and what read, what made up and what made real through reading abounds through Watson’s poems.
The muddied relationship of the story of Peter Pan and the story of J.M. Barrie begins to be explored right off in the opening poem, in which the character of Mrs. Darling begins by asking:
All children, except one, never change. Does this make me the
only to end with:
All children, except one, kill their birth with a new story. So who is
the narrator now?
The narrative implications in these two statements is powerful. In the first, it is an adult voice that presents the logic of what defines a child, namely that they “never change;” that is, “except [for] one.” The change implied is that of adulthood, which would point to the speaker, Mrs. Darling. What is also implied is a relationship between narrative and change. This relationship is further complicated in the closing formulation of the opening statement and question. If a “new story” can “kill [the] birth” of a child, then one must wonder what possibilities are opened via the new narratives being created by Mrs. Darling’s meditation here via Watson’s project.
These ideas explored in the voice of a fictional character are counterpointed with the voice of a person in the poem “David Barrie,” which a note informs us is:
…J.M.’s brother, drowned while both boys were young. Their mother…grieved so deeply that there were times J.M. pretended to be David to garner attention.
This narrative charges the meaning of these lines presented in David’s voice:
In the paradise of self-interest
You can learn to be someone else.
Time’s up, lights out.
Anyway, sorry about that promise
It was dead when I found it.
Are they looking for you too?
The interplay of voices – J.M. via David, both via Watson – is revelatory in its implications. This poem, with its layers of narratives, seems to be asking: How much life is lived in the voices of others, via reading, or, in J.M.’s case, in the gestures of others?
Whereas Alcalá and Watson frame their projects with outside texts to take familiar narratives to unfamiliar places, Elisabeth Whitehead’s To the Solar North project starts with the unfamiliar and takes the reader further into unfamiliarity. Here is the first section of the opening sequence, “Pilgrim”:
she was collected toward the borderlines / with hanging pelts / a mover’s supply of the finest quality / fibers brand / cigarettes paper / post cards from the old city and internal / detail / how to construct a model- / animal or wood spine with field books occasioning / the frequency of prison- / ships sustenance / on vials of sugared water
What is unfamiliar here is the broken narrative presented through a line capable of phrasal and visual jolts. As the project goes on, this approach opens up to some startling lyrical moments, like the following from “At the Lodging House”:
3 silk purses 3 garnet rings / pulled aside for barter
and the soft grains make the stomach churn / elder and spiral a water- /
our first view of a city:
an appeal or merciful /
what will you bear of it /
in waiting of course /
gilded of this /
Elsewhere, the use of the slash mark produces a kind of break in narrative cohesion as well as setting up a kind of binary within the details and what’s said. Here, however, the slash marks are used as a kind of imaginative space, playing against the setup of “our first view of a city” and offering only half of the conceptual “view,” the other half necessarily left up to the reader’s imagination. As the project returns to its theme of travel again and again, the reader is presented with varying ways in which the “ark” of a poem can tread water.
Buy it from Instance Press (2014): $15
José Angel Araguz is a CantoMundo fellow and winner of RHINO Poetry’s 2015 Editor’s Prize. He is pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Cincinnati. His collection, Everything We Think We Hear, is forthcoming from Floricanto Press. He runs the poetry blog The Friday Influence.
by José Angel Araguz
…Come, memory, let me trace your eyes carefully. Let me learn you how.
These lines, which occur early on in Natalie Scenters-Zapico’s The Verging Cities, are from the poem “Dear Angel,” a prose poem in which the speaker recounts something whispered by the “Angel” of the title. This “Angel” is José Angel Maldonado, the poet’s husband whose middle name serves as a fulcrum into and out of metaphor and reality throughout the manuscript. In this particular poem, the speaker addresses to Angel a meditation on math and language, and the inability of both to tangibly rein in personal meaning. The ending quoted above, in being in Angel’s voice, brings into confluence the speaker’s own internal conflicts and the possibility of seeing clearly/seeing through conflicts that is symbolized by love. The impetus of Let me learn you how – which is a reaching towards a lover as much as towards meaning – serves both as a key into the poems of The Verging Cities and a kind of edict for the collection overall.
In the poem, “Photos Found on a Dead Man’s Phone,” for example, the book learns us how to enter the circumstances of the title. Image by image, the poem builds a narrative of human impression, giving an idea not of the story but of fragments of the life lived. This kind of narrative is necessarily executed not through mere description but more poetic means:
Image ten: exposed tongue – the buds missing.
Image eleven: flash, then the phrase –
our darkest corner damp with memory.
In these lines, the shock of the first “image” (ten) juxtaposed against the logic of the second “image” (eleven) creates a visceral connection; the “missing” buds of “ten” travel, in a way, into the meaning of “eleven.” In this kind of scrambling after life through image, it is memory that is most alive.
Memory is not only alive but life-giving throughout this collection. The poem “Woman Found Near Sunland Park Mall” invokes the story of the woman in the title as well as the border agent who found her “open-mouthed,//and [whispering] agua.” The poem finishes:
…He puts his foot on her neck
and watches how slowly her face turns red with blood.
When the other border agents ask what state he found
this woman in, he has a story that involves water,
how some can buy it at Target and how others
don’t know how to call it by its proper name.
In pitting the plight of the woman against the story told at the end by the border agent, this poem is able to bear witness to both. Against the border agent’s insistence on the use of violence and “proper name[s],” this poem stands as an example of how stories do not cancel each other but rather coexist by acts of verging. Sometimes this verging involves damnable acts; still, this collection time and again shows the importance of not looking away, of always being able to name and seek out ways to learn us how to go on living. Only by meeting damnable acts with acts of witness can the poet make their way and live up to what is later said in the poem “Placement”:
Some say you have no right to talk about the dead. So I talk of them as living, their
bodies standing in the street’s bend.
While the verging cities of the title are El Paso and Ciudad Juárez, the heart is also seen as a kind of city. The most moving moments in the collection come when Scenters-Zapico is able to elevate the love relationship at the core of this book to the heights of a different way of understanding the world, as in the poem “Angel and I are Both Great Pretenders,”:
Buy it from The Center for Literary Publishing at Colorado State University: $16.95.
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.
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.
by José Angel Araguz
While Angels of the Americlypse: An Anthology of Latin@ Writing provides no shortage of interest, I decided to limit
myself to three “stops,” highlighting how each in their own respective way points to the inclusive/expansive spirit of the anthology, all the while detailing the unique reading experience it offers. In their introduction, the editors describe their intent as wanting “to invite, to welcome, to unerase and reinscribe, to expand the landscape by making it visible” (xvi). One of the ways in which this work is done is in the anthology’s structure: Angels presents each writer with an introduction, a sample of their work, and space for their own aesthetic statement. This thorough approach to each section allows for not only a glimpse into each writer’s literary voice as well as craft/personal voice, but, along with the introductions, points in many ways to the overall conversation each writer’s work is engaged in. This structure has the accumulative effect of evoking how alive the field of Latin@ writing is today.
Stop 1: Rosa Alcalá
In his introduction to Alcalá’s work, Peter Ramos asks: “Where is the line, the border, between one’s cultural identities and one’s supposedly true self?” (5). The selected poems that follow seem to take turns engaging with this question. Compare the first line of “Voice Activation” with that of “Paramour”:
This poem, on the other hand, is activated by the sound of my voice, and, luckily, I am a native speaker (“Voice Activation”)
English is dirty. Polyamorous…(“Paramour”)
Writing against an epigraph by Wittgenstein on how a poem “is not used in the language-game of giving information,” the first line of “Voice Activation” plays the idea of “native speaker” against that of a poem “activated by the sound of my own voice” and, doing so, complicates the act of writing. There is a powerful assertion in this line – that the writer is capable of both accessing the ineffable (with its connotations of the unknowable and unutterable) as well as being fluent in the ineffable – that is later counterpointed in the poem by lines like:
Have no doubt, my poem is innocent and transparent. So when I say, I think I’ll make myself a sandwich, the poem does not say, I drink an isle of bad trips (6).
In using the language of reassurance, Alcalá is able to both allay the ineffable as well as invite it in. This ability to navigate between the several ways language(s) can mean (and unmean) is a key facet of much of in this anthology, one that highlights the sentiment behind the line “English is dirty. Polyamorous.” In the two short sentences that open the poem “Paramour,” an act of “unerasing” and “reinscribing” occurs, which is repeated and developed, becoming a rhetorical engine driving the rest of the poem.
Stop 2: Norma E. Cantú
In her aesthetic statement, Norma E. Cantú describes herself as being “[t]rained in semiotics” as well as “an undocumented folklorist – that is, I do not have any formal training in folkloristics” (54). If these statements are unpacked a bit more, Cantú can first be seen as a reader of signs. The latter statement’s juxtaposition of the word “undocumented” with the vocation of “folklorist” – the former a charged word for Latin@s, at times meaning illegal, and often implied in describing someone as being sin papeles (without papers) – complicates both terms, expressing an interest in both signs and folklore beyond the page (beyond papers). As the title of her aesthetic statement makes clear, Cantú focuses her reading of sign and folklore in order to “[See/Look] through a Chicana Third Space Feminist Lens.”
This seeing/looking takes us through the lives of three women – Aminda, Mercedes Zamora, & Elisa – from the novel Champú, or Hair Matters excerpted in this anthology. In Cantú’s particular mode of storytelling, which John-Michael Rivera in his introduction to her work describes as a “[conceptual] meld [of] autoethnographic technique with poststructuralist theories,” brings South Texas to life. Within each character’s story, many lives collide, celebrate, and pass each other through narrative as alive and charged as gossip and an unexpected phone call. Laredo becomes as rich as one’s own palm; lifelines cross each in their individual streaks but hold together as a resonant whole. An example of this kind of engaging narrative comes in this short passage from Aminda’s story in which she recounts her reaction to running into a medical intuitive:
Pues to make a long story short, I was intrigued and scheduled a session with the medical intuitive. It was intense. After six hours in session, I was exhausted. I cried and laughed and felt elated and full of life. She says we can heal ourselves (48).
This passage shows how Cantú mixes formal choices and an openness of voice to create a narrative that is engaging, direct, and real. This passage is also a favorite moment of mine because of how close this kind of narrative takes the reader into the thinking of the character. I found myself able to read the words She says we can heal ourselves both for what they say within the story’s context but also what they say about the spirit of this anthology. Angels provides example after example of how we as writers can heal ourselves by taking on the cultural and literary landscapes within and without.
Stop 3: Edwin Torres
Travel on the back of a poet in flight – the conjured modalities among a century’s search is where answers shapeshift among the alphabets. (294)
These words, taken from Edwin Torres’ own aesthetic statement, are a good place to round out this short ride through this anthology. With its focus on new Latin@ writing, Angels of the Americlypse offers the opportunity to do just what Torres suggests in this sentence: that we “travel” with this group of writers, experience some of the “century’s search” and be witness to “answers” as they “shapeshift among the alphabets.” The following three stanzas, drawn from Torres’ poem “ME NO HABLA SPIC,” tie together and evoke this anthology’s fascination with temporal and cultural reality, how both shape each other, “unerasing” and “reinscribing” who we are along the way:
i remember one afternoon in soho
sitting on the sidewalk
with my long-haired cat harry
single and care-free
showing my beautiful pet to the world
people passing by, saying
what a cute spic
i remember reading every email i sent
to feel as if i were the person
receiving my own words, basking in their clever reach
to feel the warmth of many messages
from many people, all of them me
a conglomerate of sinewy desperation
wrapped up in the viral opportunity of a cute spic
i remember sitting in soho
with my two-year old son
surrounded by expensive buildings
where there used to be none, the world passing
me, just thankful to get some rest
in the sun’s imperfections, the people
ooh’ing and ahh’ing, what a cute spic (273-279)
By bringing together some of the most exciting work being written today along with the thoughts and conversations behind them, Angels of the Americlypse stands as an essential and illuminating anthology.
Available from Counterpath Press for $35.
José Angel Araguz is a CantoMundo fellow and winner of Rhino Poetry’s 2015 Editor’s Prize. He has had poems recently in Poet Lore, Borderlands, and The Laurel Review. He is pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Cincinnati. Reasons (not) to Dance, a chapbook of flash fiction/prose poems, is forthcoming this summer from FutureCycle Press. He runs the poetry blog The Friday Influence.
by Jose Angel Araguz
…what I write isn’t memoir or autobiography; it’s sometimes messy and discursive and collaged—call it lyric, experimental, what have you—but I’m not ashamed to say that I “draw” (I’m thinking of both a graphic mark and a blood-draw) quite a bit from autobiography, that identity is central to my work
…a graphic mark and a blood-draw –
Within the idea of the artist’s mark, there is the implication of creation, of continuing to work at something fresh. The graphic mark also carries ideas of control and exploration. The blood-draw, on the other hand, brings in a world of double meaning. Because it is blood, it is intimate, it is physical and fluid and life. Blood is also family, where one comes from. Yet, the blood-draw also brings to mind the hospital. The blood-draw within this context is also life: blood is drawn for the sake of others, in this case not family in the strict sense, but the family of blood types, the tribes of positive and negative and neutral. Between these two ideas of drawing, the world of Undocumentaries can be said to unfold.
In the poem “In the Waiting Room,” for example, the reader follows the meditation of the speaker as she, “sit[s] for hours looking at open-mouthed babies” (Alcala 75). The meditation moves from the immediate scene to the political implications, both of being a young woman having to “submit/to the whole silly production” as well as the knowledge that:
the cluster of beings the technician
examines for future antagonisms
against the state, it will never find one
worthy of being knighted, no perfect
The poem takes on another layer at this point, moves from ideas of womanhood to ideas of race. The tension in these ideas lies in both the lightheartedly cynical phrasing of “silly production” on one end, and the calling of the doctor as “technician” and children as “future antagonisms.” These choices in diction set up a speaker able to make the distance of language allow for an intimacy in feeling. The poem continues:
English gentleman. This my mother knew
despite all the fanfare about Charles and Diana’s
wedding: princes and kings marry their own:
keep washing the dishes (except she said it
The rumination on race becomes one on motherhood, specifically the speaker’s mother. Race remains prominent, however, in the content of what exactly her mother “knew.” Her mother knew of segregation as much as daydreaming: knew about class as much as glamor. Family here is presented as where one draws their knowledge of the world from.
Furthermore, family becomes what is learned as well as relearned:
…As early as possible,
we learn to flirt with the guy who sells or makes
bed springs, those things beneath us
that cushion our sleep. Someone who never
discusses what he does, and works overtime
to bring the rest of his family
The unspoken comes into play here in the potential “Someone who never/discusses what he does,” and echoes much of what the book is about: the “undocumentary” as what is left unsaid or unshown.
This exploration of the tension between said/unsaid and shown/unshown is continued in “Confessional Poem,” where the image of a clothesline is taken on for its narrative potential. Alcala jumps right into the clothesline as metaphor for the poetic line with the first lines:
The girl next door had something to teach me
about what to air: On the line
somebody’s business gets told
then recounted; it’s best to thread a tale
for the neighbors, an orchestration
What is immediately striking about these lines is their confidence, their almost swagger, which
challenges the conventional notions of gossip the clothesline carries. These lines, in their tone and knowing, bring to mind the work of Sylvia Plath – a connection furthered by the choice of title “Confessional Poem.” At other points in the book, Alcala shows an awareness of writing within a poetic tradition (“A girl like me falls in love/with Yeats/and never recovers” from the poem “Undocumentary” is but one example), but nowhere else does the writing both indicate and challenge a specific tradition as it does here. The comparison to Plath is in terms of tone as well as the awareness each poet shows at working at a craft that is as much manipulation as a magic born of honesty.
…You wouldn’t know it
from the delicates I roll
into the yard. It’s all the same peek-a-boo lace
and stunted imagination. Of course,
all of this is scanty truth
Within the context of a poem called “Confessional Poem,” words like “delicates,” “peek-a-boo lace” and “scanty” are charged with multiple layers of meaning. One marvels at the wordplay at first for the skill on the poet’s part, and later for what it says of the speaker of these words, the self-deprecating air the words hang in. In drawing out the metaphor of the clothesline, Alcala presents a speaker aware of the insidious nature of narrative, how it has both the potential for showing as well as concealing. No story is the whole story. For a poem with the word “Confessional” in the title, very little is confessed. In fact, the idea that something personal can come through in a poem is challenged. Yet, in developing ideas of ways that narratives can be created and manipulated, the speaker of this poem gives an almost truer confession: the confession of a magician drawing back the curtain, the confession of a poet who knows how much control they have over language and how little control they have over life.
The poem’s final note drives this point home:
…Who hangs anything out to dry
when invention has halved the work?
This “halving” implies what is left unsaid in the act of documenting. The poems of Undocumentaries, at their most powerful, draw out – graphically, viscerally – the unsaid.
*(opening quote taken from “Latino/a Poetry Now: 3 Poets discuss their art (Rosa Alcala, Eduardo C. Corral, Aracelis Girmay).” Melendez, Maria. Poetry Society of America, n.d. Web. 22 Nov. 2013).
Undocumentaries is available from Shearsman Books.
José Angel Araguz, author of the chapbook Corpus Christi Octaves, is a CantoMundo fellow. Winner of RHINO Poetry’s 2015 Editor’s Prize, he has had poems recently in Blue Mesa Review, Pilgrimage, and NANO Fiction as well as in the anthology Goodbye Mexico: Poems of Remembrance. He is pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Cincinnati. He runs the poetry blog, The Friday Influence.
One of the first things that struck me about Cathy Park Hong’s Engine Empire was the absence of the traditional poet as speaker. The book’s three sections each take on a different era: the American Wild West of the past, a more recent industrialized China, and a possible future era. In each of these sections, different voices present alternating storylines, each alive with enough feeling and conviction to draw you in and keep you engaged in what is being said that you almost overlook how it is being said. Yet, the how of the book – for Hong throughout the book seamlessly moves from ballad to sonnet to prose poem as well as free verse lyric – is vital to its progression and overall power as well. What the book ultimately accomplishes is a meditation on the creative spirit via a poem cycle that takes on the past, present, and future ramifications of industrialization.
In the first section, entitled “Ballad of Our Jim,” the reader is introduced to Jim, an orphaned ghost of a character, who is taken into a posse of cowboys. The story of Jim is presented through ballads from men in the posse, a group whose tone is set in the first poem in this section “Ballad of the Range”:
The whole country is in a duel and we want no part of it.
They see us ride, they say
:all you men going the wrong di-rection.
:We’re getting to California. We ain’t got time to enlist.
In this small excerpt, Hong’s technical ability with regards to tone shines through. Her way with voices and feel for atmosphere is reminiscent of Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid. Out of scraps of conversation, Hong evokes the story of these “men going the wrong di-rection.” Jim, himself, is a balladeer whose lyrical musings are outdone by his status as the posse’s go-to mercenary, goaded more into killing than singing. In “Ballad of the Rube Parade with Their Quiver of Spades,” Jim interrupts a card game between the posse and “henchmen French”:
Our Jim starts singing his infernal ballad –
:Shut yer trap Jim.
He watches silent as our game
ratchets to pistolfire brawl.
Goddamnfilthy French gores us so ropes
of blood gout from our brother’s gullet
We scream: Do it boy! Shoot!
He aims cold, slays them all,
exciting us no end.
He says: I’m done finishing your games.
Not one syllable is wasted in this excerpt. One can almost feel the fight working itself out at the level of language, in the compounding of “pistolfire” and “Goddamnfilthy.” Jim’s distance from the fray as well as his decisive end to it can be read as the creative spirit doing what it needs to for survival. Jim’s story is one of distance as much as killing, which parallels the poet whose presence is felt through the observation of content and the action taken in presenting it. In the second section, “Shangdu, My Artful Boomtown!,” the poems revolve around the lives of people working and living in the industrialized ruins of Shangdu. In the prose poem “Of the Old Colonial Dutch Quarter,” the story of a woman’s obsession is divulged:
He is one of the painters who works in the Rembrandt factory. He paints 5 Rembrandts
self-portrait paintings a day which I hear are sold to rich town houses and hotels in
a place called Florida. He is renowned as the fastest painter in Shangdu and he has
completed 10,000 Rembrandt self-portraits. In the mornings, I walk past him when he is
on his smoke break. Today, I catch him sniffing his hand.
The creative spirit here is itself in ruins – in the displaced talent of the painter in the factory as well as in the presence of Rembrandt, symbolizing art itself, who turns into a commercial icon. The woman’s obsession for the man stands in for the obsession of culture for cultural products. Later, in the poem “Of the Central Language Radio Headquarters,” the story takes a turn:
The foreman sighed with disappointment and said, He was my best painter. But he’s
gone on to the next city to work at the Renoir factory. He is sick of self-portraits. He
wants to paint beautiful women.
The humor of this turn is deceptive, a sleight of hand where the lives and feelings of people are interchanged with that of products. This awareness of projection on the part of consumers of art and culture, comes into play later with the presence of Coleridge who is subjected to a direct address in “A Little Tete-a-tete.” Shangdu, we are reminded, is also known as Xanadu, the dreamt about place in “Kubla Khan,” which presents a much different version of the city.
The final section, “The World Cloud,” presents us with a vision which could have come out of a cyberpunk novel. In this vision, there is “smart snow” that is able to read your mind and upload your desires and memories from the moment it touches you. An idea of this world can be seen in the first lines of “Who’s Who”:
You wake up from a nap.
Your mouth feels like a cheap acrylic sweater.
You blink online and 3-D images hopscotch around you.
A telenovela actress hides under your lampshade.
You switch to voice activation.
Good Afternoon! Sings the voice of Gregory Peck.
The potential for whimsy in such a poetic conceit is checked by the speaker’s circumstances:
Underneath the sound of children laughing, you hear users chatting
over each other, which all blurs into a warring shadow of insects
and the one that sounds like a hornet is your husband,
telling you to put his stuff in storage.
Or sell it to pay off bills or
leave, why don’t you goddamn leave.
You sit on the bench until the sky turns pink.
When your former employer let you go,
they said, you are now free to pursue what you want to pursue.
So here you are.
This scene, eerily familiar, is the creative spirit overwhelmed and left to float amidst societal pressures. In Engine Empire, Hong, through fantastical content as well as technical virtuosity, gives a grounding and real experience.
Jose Angel Araguz has had poems recently in Slipstream, Gulf Coast, and Right Hand Pointing. He is presently pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Cincinnati. He runs the poetry blog, The Friday Influence.