Saturday, March 8, 2008


Javier Huerta’s SOME CLARIFICATIONS Y OTROS POEMAS (Arte Publico 2007) is a book that is bilingual and brilliant. The poems run the gamut between English poems about the difficulty of dealing with poverty and Spanish poems about undocumented immigrants, amnesty, art, frustration and hope.

“Fences: A Scene: Dramatis Personae” opens with a prologue where the dialogue swings back and forth from English to Spanish. The Guards in the poem do not say much, but the fact that there is tension between the father and the son, makes the simple presence of the guards haunt the reader. It is clear the son is visiting the father who is locked in a detention center before being deported.

FATHER: Mi Madre? Dime la verdad./ What does she say?
SON: Tanta maldad.
FATHER: ¿Tanta maldad? ¿Tanta maldad?/ The only thing I have--- this underwear.
SON: Then I refuse to be your heir.
FATHER: So you, too, abandon me.
SON: I must go. Piensa en mí.
Exit Son.
GUARDS: Your son has fled. Tell us what he said.
Exit FATHER led by Guards. Lights down.

The son reports the condition of the mother as being very bad. The father’s response seems to indicate is that his condition is even worse. The father accuses the son and the mother of abandoning him.

Why do the guards want to know what was said after the son flees? The word “flees” in itself implies the son’s desire to escape the father’s situation. Think of me, he implores as he leaves. The ambiguity works its magic because the emotional sense of separateness is haunting. The language itself is sparse, mysterious and magical. This is the type of dramatic tension that fills this collection of poetry.

In “El Reflejo en la navaja” Huerta presents the reader again with the sense of internalized shame brought about by this same sense of separateness, or internalized racism due to undocumented status. The repetition of lines, slightly tweaked, reminiscent of a sestina in English is beautiful. I would like to write the poem in its entirety, but also which to share some other gems, so here is part of it, singing a mournful and unforgettable artistry. In the second stanza, Huerta writes:

Perdón por el reflejo en la navaja, la navaja
En el reflejo. Perdón por la sangre.
Perdón por los ojos que aun tiemblan en sus cuencas.

Perdón por los gritos que huyeron hacia adentro:
No pasa una noche en que no oiga el eco.
Perdon por las esferas que se estrellan contra el piso.

The sense of sorrow crescendos throughout the poem, as Huerta splashes lovely magical and surreal imagery across the page as a true artist. The blending results in an unbelievable sewing of surprising imagery, which titillates a reader with its unexpected turns.

Perdón por las esferas que se estrellan contra el piso.
The speaker asks us to Pardon the spheres that crash against the floor, and river basins, yet the speaker is not to be swallowed by the face of the monster. And of course my own meek ability to translate cannot hold back the power of this lovely poem.

Perdón or no haber pintado de Amarillo
Todo lo que es rojo. Perdón por la noche.

Each line contains language that pulses with the energy of unspeakable truth. The title I believe is translated “The reflection in the knife” so again we get the unease, the masterful language of a poet that knows language’s great mystery, the bafflement and bewilderment of what it means to be human and what it means to suffer, but this speaker’s strength shines through despite the endless repetitive apology. The reader knows that what underlies the apology is a self-determined voice, one that will not be silenced.

Huerta's use of religious taboo, elegy, absurdity, and the experimental twist of words in both English and Spanish are a delight to read.

The movement of “Blasphemous Elegy for May 14, 2003" is about when an abandoned trailer of immigrants were trapped and suffocated and it is haunting. Again, Huerta successfully utilizes a mystical and chant like quality with the repetition of the phrase “ella me espera en Houston”. The phrase appears in two stanzas (quatrains) followed by two stanzas (tersets) before we again get the modest voice, which in its modesty questions the monstrosity of such an act, and the monstrosity of a society that would allow it.

I modestly propose that every year on the 14th day of May as a way to memorialize the 19 journeyers we hold our breath--- better yet, that we abstain from breathing--- for a period of 24 hours. The names and ages of the victims are listed, followed by the speaker’s unyielding imaginative dissonance with language.

That the beast
Off terrified I
Do not
Believe nor
Do I believe that
It gnawed off
Its limp
And lifeless heads

Huerta’s poem then goes on to describe such a beast, which reminds me of Yeat’s poem “The Second Coming.” The monstrosity that is human suffering is unveiled.
Another favorite of mine is called “Velas.”

Tu cuerpo es mi religión.
No inventes.

En serio, no vuelvo a mencionar tu cuerpo en vano.
No seas ridículo
No habrá otro cuerpo antes del tuyo.
No digas esas cosas.

Y de tu cuerpo no hare ídolos ni imágenes.
Como molestas.
Te voy a abrir las piernas como Moisès abrió en dos el mar rojo.
Es que Moisès nunca entró a la tierra prometida.

Huerta is unabashed despite appearing bashful in the work.

“The Good Apotehcary” also reveals this sense of strange word play, an honesty about the in between places we reside.

“…That annoying speck in his right eye, something/truly forbidden in a child. He looked down from his balloon, but the people simply stopped singing. He would always be a student in strange barbershops.”

Huerta’s work is packed with meaningfulness and imaginative language play in both Spanish and English. The work here is the type of work one can return to and harvest something year after year.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Opera, Pop Tarts and Chicharrones

Here in Central Texas I’ve been busy helping with a book festival. The big draw this year was a former Texas Ranger who wrote a memoir. He was a caricature of the infamous Texas lawman (A 6-foot-5, thin, cowboy hat wearing, boot clad man who spit out ain’ts like chewing tobacco) and the crowd ate it up. However, the most interesting writers in attendance, in my humble opinion, were Tony Diaz and Diana Lopez both of whom were overshadowed by the soon-to-be adapted onto film Ranger’s story. These two writers had original ideas, thoughts and things to say.

Diaz spoke about his fears for book publishing and reading in general. He said he was afraid that reading will become like opera—an art form only recognized by the elite and monied and one that falls further into obscurity. He said that as we close ourselves off from reading and writing, we close off our access to the halls of power. Hopefully, a festival like the one in our town will keep reading alive and well.

Lopez read the first chapter from her soon-to-be published young adult novel “Confetti Girl.” I enjoyed the way she blended the American with Mexican in her prose, so subtle, yet, for many a young Mexican American girl so empowering. The way the young girl in her novel nonchalantly listed the things she saw on the kitchen selves of her home, ie. Pop Tarts next to a bag of chicharrones is the subtle way Lopez lets us know this girl is American of Mexican descent. And I liked how in this Mexican American household there were books, hundreds of them lining the shelves of her home, contrary to what some people will have us believe. I can’t wait to read the entire novel in 2009.

All in all, it was a successful festival and I can’t wait for next year.

El Paso reviews

Although I haven’t been writing much prose I have been able to read some reviews and this Sunday the New York Times Book Review skewered John Rechy, the man and his new book “About My Life and the Kept Woman.” I’m trying to decide if this David Leavitt is on target, in love with Rechy, or hates him. See for yourself his review is called “Hustler.”

Roberto Ontiveros has a good review in the DMN about another El Chucoan, Benjamin Alire Saenz. Sounds like another book I need to buy and read. So little time so many books.