SEPTEMBER 23, 2015
WHEN THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS made the official announcement on June 10 that Juan Felipe Herrera had been selected the next Poet Laureate of the United States, the first Latino to hold the honorary post of “consultant in poetry” since the first appointment in 1937, the news went viral on social media and was met with universal praise. Though the prolific and popular Herrera is by no means an obscure candidate — he is also currently a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and his new and selected volume Half of the World in Light received the prestigious National Book Critics Circle Award — there was something unexpectedly refreshing about his selection. The next Poet Laureate of the United States comes from an ethnic community that’s quickly changing the demographic of the nation. His voice speaks to the Chicano identity, the immigrant experience, and the struggle of the Latino artist. Though the current national climate is fraught with social anxieties and racial tensions that will undoubtedly become part of any presidential candidate’s platform, Herrera’s body of work amplifies a perspective that has been deliberately muted by mainstream media, or rather, clumped into a single talking point: immigration reform. Writing as an insider, as an activist who has journeyed through the second half of the 20th century and into the present, he has remained clear-eyed and committed to his vision: chronicling the historical, cultural and political landscape of his Chicano consciousness. In the following critical review, I highlight five of Herrera’s 16 books of poetry published by two of his loyal publishers, who also published the two selected volumes I have chosen not to include here, but which I highly recommend, particularly for those who want an introduction to the scope of Herrera’s oeuvre. Those books are the aforementioned Half of the World in Light: New and Selected Poems (University of Arizona Press, 2008) and 187 Reasons Mexicanos Can’t Cross the Border: Undocuments 1971-2007 (City Lights Books, 2007). I have written about these titles for other venues.
The publication of Night Train to Tuxtla (University of Arizona Press, 1994) was significant for a number of reasons. Firstly, it initiated what is now the most acclaimed Latino literary series in the country, Camino del Sol. Secondly, this was Herrera’s entrance into the university press system, whose wider distribution and print run expanded Herrera’s readership and reputation. Up until this book, he had published a number of limited edition chapbooks and four full-length volumes with small and independent presses, where many ethnic writers find their first publishing homes. Yet Herrera, true to his generous nature, has been deliberate in acknowledging his gratitude for his modest beginnings. During his acceptance speech at the National Book Critics Circle awards ceremony, he singled out not only the work of the small presses, but the local businesses and community centers that open up performance spaces to support poets and spoken word artists. The sentiments of his speech mirrored the nostalgic tone in his introduction to Night Train to Tuxtla, which he titled “Train Notes.”
In “Train Notes,” Herrera includes a series of high-paced, high-energy statements that not only contextualize his work, but also introduce the reader to his rapid-fire, image-leaping aesthetic:
Previously, I had not taken the time to write on the swashbuckling Chicano sixties, an amorphous open-ended moment of creative and political gestation. Since I had spent the early seventies writing and performing political pieces ribboned with neat Amerindian utopian flourishes, I wanted to reenter, except this time with a more private palette, and unleash a Munch-Mariachi scream — a techno-urban culture gasp jammed up in the thorax. With Santana, I wanted to take on this challenge; let the congas and midnight beach waves come into the writing — lie down on a bed of hot dream rice stewed in salsa. Let Santana come with a dark spiraled guitar.
When Santana does come, he’s more than a soundtrack for Herrera’s sixties, he’s a kindred spirit. Santana, “vato from Tijuana,” had crossed the border and brought his unique sound, those “lead riffs for the band of spotted maracas and a fleet of ragged school buses under a cloud shifting into the shape of sugary skull.” Memory and culture as texture and lifeblood of the art is precisely what Herrera cultivates in his poems.
The sixties were an important historical period of Chicano activism and identity-formation, and Herrera addresses the era’s literary component. “Rolling to Taos on an Aztec Mustang” pays homage to the pioneers of Chicano letters, at the time, like Herrera, struggling writers on a mission to spread verse through “tortilla-colored newsletters” and to take poetry to the people with road trips throughout the American Southwest. The impressive roll call includes such luminaries as Raul R. Salinas, Tomás Rivera, Miguel Méndez, Alurista, Teresa Palomo Acosta, and Verónica Cunningham, who was “coming out/ with her sexual politics, ahead of all of us.” This poem in particular is an incredible record of grassroots literary activism. As one of the surviving members of this troupe, Herrera declares respectfully, “I remember all the names.”
Herrera’s train, like his poetry, covers an expansive territory. He not only travels the Chicano Southwest, he also journeys to the Amerindian lands of Mexico and Latin America — an impulse of solidarity that he develops more fully in later works and which will be discussed below. This train also moves forward in time, to events like the LA riots of 1992 in “Rodney King, the Black Christ of Los Angeles and All Our White Sins,” in which he connects the plights of African Americans and Latinos: “this is the way of the black cross, / the brown crown of thorns.” But for Herrera, the connection runs even deeper, a shared history of struggle that resonates throughout the Americas, and which continues to inform present conflicts, but also imagination. This awareness creates the sense of understanding something greater than the tiny space the body occupies:
I can see everything — San Francisco,
Guadalajara, and the city which was an empire
once upon a time. I used to go there
as a kid and look at my hands to make sure
I was there —
to remember myself there
by the shape of my hands.
This is the way of the Gods in the Streets,
this is the Gospel of Rodney King,
the Black and Brown Wand of Inspiration.
That something greater is political consciousness, wide-ranging and inclusive, which Herrera continues to cultivate in subsequent books.
In Border-Crosser with a Lamborghini Dream (University of Arizona Press, 1998), Herrera’s obsessive use of anaphora is incantatory, a litany of pain bearing witness to the blood wheels — repetitive labor, ubiquitous exploitation, the trappings of the American dream ever tumbling through the desert borderlands:
Blood in the tin, in the coffee bean, in the maquila oración
Blood in the language, in the wise text of the market sausage
Blood in the border web, the penal colony shed, in the bilingual yard
And so the appropriate response comes mirroring that structure, except it represents prayer, accumulative strength, and unionizing momentum. From the poem “blood gang call”:
Calling all tomato pickers, the ones wearing death frowns instead of jackets
Calling all orange & lemon carriers, come down the ladder to this hole
Calling all chile pepper sack humpers, you, yes, you the ones with a crucifix
Calling all garlic twisters caught in the winter spell of frozen sputum.
For Herrera, the migrant farmworker narratives that unfold on the fields are not that far removed from the working-class narratives of urban spaces, not when there’s a shared history and ancestry, indeed bloodlines. And so these populations inhabit the same poetic landscape of the book. The opening poem “punk half panther” introduces a street-wise barrio vato, jute-boy and trickster wearing a “Cholo-Millennium liberation jacket.” It is he who serves as speaker/guide “over the Mpire, the once-Mpire, carcass/ neural desires for the Nothing.” He is Dante’s Beatrice in “steel-toe, border-crosser boots” come to show us purgatory and its hells.
The cities have their own citizens in “red striped despair pajamas,” who succumb to the temptations of alcohol and drugs, sex and money — the twisted American dream. Somehow there’s a lesser chance of escape for the city folk, perhaps because, unlike the farmworkers, desires in the city speak to personal pleasures and gains. From “gestapo bowls on the plank”:
Inside my head, America
the bead drops & rolls a tiny awakening. To transform, to
reorganize the septum of Slave. Haaa-haa, I lied.
Imagining a world disintegrating in stasis is a warning, an urgent message that’s underscored by the challenging performance piece (which Herrera calls a “canto”) that makes up the bulk of Border-Crosser with a Lamborghini Dream, “broadway indian.” The speaker encounters the Wixárika, “the people,” a term used by the Huichol community in north-central Mexico. The flight of its youth to the north has threatened the people’s culture, history and memory. The Wixárika, and indeed all of Mexico’s indigenous communities, are being forced into assimilation through the economic dependency that benefits industries in Mexico (and the US). There is no changing the course of events. There is no recovering what’s been lost. There is, however, securing what has yet to vanish by acknowledging that it exists and remembering what is gone by speaking to its new stage of being as legacy, history, and memory. There’s also reversing the destructive exodus figuratively: by re-entering the creative space where stories (and poems) take shape, by writing the new narratives about migration, about loss, about the heartbreaking homecoming. Or as the Jute-Boy would say: “Crawl up, baby, come on, keep on floatin’ — / slidin’, always: for black journeys, always in holiness.”
With Giraffe on Fire (University of Arizona Press, 2000), Herrera ups the ante on the postmodern/performative elements of his verse, imagining a godlike watcher over the world’s troubled narratives — a shape-shifting deity that also becomes the poet’s muse:
This is my language. There are no codes. She sits there. In eclipse. In fission. Hiroshima, Iraq. The San Joaquin Valley. In leather rubies and grape pesticides. Alive and willing, still. She is traveling sideways, onto Desolation and Desire. Avenues, voyages ripped from Cádiz to Cadáquez. Moors and Jews come to her.
The universe is intoxicated with negative energy. An exhausting history of war and conflict, borders and contested territories, has barbed-wired the latitudes and longitudes and dotted the map with wounds, from Tlatelolco to Tiananmen Square. The pleas for salvation and redemption become brittle and irrelevant in this apocalyptic era. Survival is in the act of dissolution and re-invention in Half of the World in Light:
We must crash through our faces
and discover the new opening.
Eat the gold,
chew the strings, digest until we are ribbons,
reddish and jade green. Chinese and Vietnamese.
Cambodian and Hmong villages in tuxedos. Manila
and Northern Luzon where the Ilongot seek the words
for the new revolution.
Herrera does not deliver this arresting vision of the broken times without his characteristic intertextual wit. This new religion under which the oppressed populations unite for an epic overthrow of the dominant forces comes with its unique Trinity: La Frida (Kahlo), La Georgia (O’Keefe) and La Gertrude (Stein), and an “old Macehual sorcerer” named Zapata, “the commoner who lives out his days in the hidden vault below Velázquez’s cave.” These spirit guides will help unlock the doors that lead to the next plane of existence, which will thrive on knowledge and peace.
Herrera’s ode to the restructuring of the power dynamics is in direct dialogue with the beginning of the new millennium and with the surprising end to the Mexican ruling party’s 71-year hold on its country’s government. The poem “Bull and Octopus (Adiós, Querido PRI)” — a version in Spanish is also included — calls out the ruling party’s corruptions (“I judge you here”) and celebrates its defeat at the hands of its voters (“I look at you/ take you apart on your very own shore”). But true to Herrera’s respect for Amerindian mythology, Giraffe on Fire is also a reference to the notion of the Fifth World or Quinto Sol (Fifth Sun), which is the present age, and whose impending completion (according to a number of sources, including the Mayan Calendar) will usher in a new cycle or rebirth. We are not at the end of days but in the days of reckoning. Giraffe on Fire asks the burning question: Who will work to shape the next world?
Herrera’s bio in Notebooks of a Chile Verde Smuggler (University of Arizona Press, 2002) is very telling about the personal nature of this particular book. It reads: “Juan Felipe Herrera has been a dishwasher, photographer, arts director, teatrista, antropoetista, Aztec dancer, graphic artist, cartoonist, salsa sauce specialist, actor, video artist, and stand-up comedian.” And although he has used autobiographical material in his work before, this book takes on the form of a scrapbook filled with letters, journal entries, family photographs, snapshots of moments that read like photograph captions, a short screenplay and of course poems, many again favoring his favorite literary device, the anaphora. The tone is much more reflective and instructive — the speaker imparting lessons about his political and artistic journey thus far. And like any good scrapbook, the book creates a narrative about the protagonist’s life-long commitments: in this case (as suggested by the author’s bio), to work and activism.
The work ethic Herrera traces to his working-class roots, which is why he returns to those impressionable childhood memories, particularly of the hard-working women in his family, like Abuelita Sofi, who not only made hundreds of buñuelos for the nuns across town, she would walk them there. But there’s also “Cuñada Yoli,” the sister-in-law and successful accountant whose hard-earned money is spent on the envy of the neighborhood, a top-of-the-line Camaro. And then there’s Mamita, who enriched the young speaker’s imagination with fables, riddles and Mexican ballads, but also broke his heart with stories “about begging for food, about washing clothes, waxing floors, and cooking for the rich on Mt. Franklin in El Paso.” While she is alive, Mamita polishes the lens to the writer’s artistic vision and worldview: “You are the paper, óyeme, Mamita, you are the words, you.” But then, after her death, the speaker declares, “I am that paper, I am those words now, the ink burns pyres in every cell.” Her life, her lessons, become legacy and life force.
As he moves into a professional sphere in adulthood, Herrera shares snippets of journal entries and the poem series “New York City Angelic” that detail the speaker’s encounters on the road as a working poet. At times the tone is wistful, as in “June Journals 6-7-88”: “Been thinking about Buffalo, an inmate at Soledad Prison where I teach a poetry workshop.” But mostly it’s the poet coming to terms with the unshakable feeling that as he moves into different literary spaces as a Chicano writer, he belongs and does not belong.
The double-edged experience of becoming a working artist of color in the U.S. is more fully examined in the series of letters. “Undelivered Letter to Víctor #1, Late November, 1996” provides an important context for the Chicano professional’s labor:
We are the real thing, you tell me. Been breaking new ground for decades, inventing ourselves, a new set of categories, fresh art forms, an authentic discourse, we been hashing it out, without much to go on, except this fiery salsa fuel inside, we put up cultural centers on pennies, Teatro Chicano, Teatro Latino, lesbian ensembles, Latino gay performance, we did it with khakis and wino shoes, you name it, we’ve broken through the wall, against all odds, from frijoles to murales, from stealing sacks of chiles to reappropriating our language and sexualities. Now that’s American, carnal, you tell me.
And indeed throughout the book Herrera provides plenty of examples of those pioneering efforts that shaped the Chicano Movement’s literary momentum. From elementary classroom visits, to guerrilla readings at rallies, from writing conferences across the border to floricantos on community colleges, the urgency of the mission was never compromised, and the value of Chicano history, identity and politics was never diminished. In “June Journals 6-1-88” he recalls: “As Chicano artists, we have always pulled out our images, landscapes and symbols from the gut to the page, from the bile to the open forum; historias terribles of our people, our time; historical suffering in vitro.”
The purpose of this form of literary activism is not only to assert visibility and voice, but to empower the youth by instilling pride and awakening minds. The poem “Chican@ Literature 100” attempts to shake things up with a bit of old-fashioned tough love: “First of all, you are not going to find this stuff at the mall, in one of those flashy pendejada shops,” begins the lecture, and then concludes with: “go back and find the seed-voices, the ones that raised you, the letters that arrived with your red-green spirit, the ancient songs way deep inside.” And to further underscore that message, Herrera’s agit-prop theater-inspired “Hispanopoly: The Upwardly Mobile Identity Game Show,” offers a hilarious take on identity politics with plenty of his trademark wordplay and interlingual puns.
There’s a spirit of generosity in Herrera’s willingness to share the family albums and family stories that continue to inspire him, and which in turn have inspired many of his readers and members of his audience. But the other gift in Notebooks of a Chile Verde Smuggler is the behind-the-scenes look at the writer’s journey, a labor of love and duty, an artistic practice nurtured with a passion for the word and a deep respect for the values of his communities. “This is all you need,” Herrera tells us. “Breathe in, breath out, this green wind makes you strong.”
In his most recent book Notes on the Assemblage (City Lights Books, 2015), Herrera opens with a sobering look at the current violent landscape of the Americas. “Ayotzinapa” (one of a number of poems delivered in both Spanish and English) channels the collective voice of the 43 missing students from Iguala, Mexico. Though presumed dead, their voices and cause have been amplified by the global outrage, and by the artistic responses (like this poem) to their story: “we died toward all the cities/ in the world toward all the students and teachers in the world.”
But there’s another travesty taking place within the United States and Herrera, expressing solidarity with the plight of African-American men, invokes the names of Trayvon Martin and Freddie Gray (among other high-profile incidents) in “We Are Remarkably Loud Not Masked,” a poem that acknowledges (like “Ayotzinapa”) the need to channel outrage and pain into social (and literary) activism: “we weep & sing/ as we write/ as we mobilize & march/ under the jubilant solar face.” He broadens the conversation in “Almost Livin’ Almost Dyin’” to engage not only the deaths of African-American men at the hands of police officers, but also the deaths of police officers in the line of duty. The climate of violence has become endemic to American society and begs to change before the entire country bleeds out:
cry cry the candles by the last four trees still soaked
in Michael Brown red and Officer Liu red and
Officer Ramos red and Eric Garner whose
last words were not words they were just breath
askin’ for breath they were just burnin’ like me like
we are all still burnin’ can you hear me
Herrera’s pacifist sentiments surface throughout the collection, an assemblage indeed of moments that demand pause (from “The Soldier in the Empty Room”: “‘Come,’ the forest nymph said to the last soldier/ ‘I’ll take your guns with so many names’”), reflection (from “You Throw a Stone”: “those stones/ what were they/ where did they come from”), and ultimately, action (from “Poem by Poem,” which honors the 9 victims of the church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, “poem by// poem/ we can end violence/ everyday// after/ every other day”).
To provide additional tones in a book that’s weighty with charged subject matter, Herrera introduces poems that celebrate the lives of poets who have passed recently (some of which appeared first in LARB), including a barrio sonnet for Wanda Coleman, “word-caster of live coals of Watts and LA,” and tributes to Jack Gilbert, Jayne Cortez, Philip Levine, and the late Chicano pioneer José Montoya, whose lasting legacy (and beloved memory) is acknowledged affectionately with the phrase “forever a sweet forever/ my brother.” And as a nod to his own artistic interests, Herrera pens a few ekphrastic poems inspired by the work of the late Puerto Rican abstract expressionist Olga Albizu, and the Mexican painters Fulgencio Lazo and Alfredo Arreguín, who now live (and are influenced by) the Pacific Northwest, adding to Herrera’s contemplations on the immigrant artist’s journey. Herrera explores the synergetic relationship between painter and painting in “i do not know what a painting does”:
what does it do that is my question
it looks back I think that is why you paint you are
waiting for the thing-in-itself to come back to you to
greet you in its odd oblong stunted manner its elegance
Respite from tumultuous reality is short-lived, however, as Herrera comes back to his frequent concerns, the embattled U.S.-Mexico border and international conflict. The poems “but i was the one who saw it (drone aftermath)” and “i am Kenji Goto” speak to the turmoil of the Middle East. The first opens with a visual representation of the text shattered into pieces, making language illegible, the initial moment of impact inaudible or inexplicable; the second pays tribute to Goto (and Haruna Yakawa), the two Japanese hostages who were beheaded by ISIS in Syria.
In “Borderbus” another kind of devastating narrative unfolds about the predicament of the undocumented worker, not from Mexico but from Central America, whose trek across the continent with the constant threat of detention or deportation is inarguably risky. In this poem, a pair of detainees attempts to strategize their survival while riding a detention bus: if they are nothing (without nation), if they are no one (without identity), they might get treated less like animals or criminals. But one detainee also comforts the other by pointing out that this surrender and setback is not their final truth; they have shared the stories of their journeys, but have not reached their end. They are in fact everything “because we come from everything.” This small but significant gesture of empowerment, which comes from acknowledging humanity and empathy, changes the state of one detainee’s sense of isolation and the other’s sense of purpose. Perhaps that’s the ultimate lesson in Notes on the Assemblage, to shorten the distance to knowledge and awareness, to close the space between those who suffer and those who can respond to that suffering. Call it building community or call it healing, in Herrera’s books it is absolutely an essential responsibility because it generates, above all else, hope. Perhaps the poem “song out here” says it best:
if i could sing
you would hear me and i would tell you
it’s gonna be alright
it’s gonna be alright
it’s gonna be alright it would be something like that
can you turn around so i can look into your eyes
just for once your eyes
As a poet who makes impassioned connections from his Chicano subjectivity to his role as citizen of the Américas to his participation as a global citizen, Herrera has written an exceptional body of work, a true testament to his unwavering convictions and respect for the power of language. He’s a consummate artist and activist who will bring a different energy and perspective to his duties as Poet Laureate of the United States, and that’s one more reason to celebrate this timely appointment. But what came before that appointment, and what will stand long after it has been completed, is Herrera’s expansive vision, his remarkable voice, and those spirited flourishes that make him an original in American letters.