Chicano Poet

Friday, January 22, 2016


Don't approach a lion
with your hip hop

don't confuse arroyos
with your pollos

don't tell Rosa
you bought the sea

don't draw blue eyes
on your ghost

don't make ants
your only thoughts

don't date young girls
who hide under tables

don't set the marching band
on fire

don't tell God
he's the man

when surrounded by the sun
don't think you've got it made

Monday, January 18, 2016

Notes on the Assemblage by Juan Felipe Herrera
Reviewed by William Logan in the New Criterion
Juan Felipe Herrera’s wildly uneven post-Beat Beat poems are a throwback to a time when hip poetry seemed revolutionary. What you find, paging through this dispiriting book, is Ginsberg without animation, Ferlinghetti without the giddy innocence, Corso without the—well, whatever it was that made people read Corso. The new poet laureate takes the worst qualities of these poets and makes a hash of them. He’s still living for the days of coffee houses and bongos.

The devil-may-care insouciance of Notes on the Assemblage, slapdash lines thrown on the page with the swaggering aggression of Jackson Pollock, sentences sprinting along until they collapse from exhaustion, comes at a price:

we were protesting for funds that is all we were surrounded by police and their cronies they fired their guns they burned us they dismembered us in trash bags they threw us into the river yet we continue yet we march from here from the bowels of Mexico

Herrera harkens back to streetcorner preachers, Hyde Park Corner debaters, and the occasional lunatic ranter. The free association spills out like a torrent from a ruptured dam, often liberated from the bounds of punctuation. (Is punctuation necessary? W. S. Merwin has been punctuation-free for half a century, with no ill effects except incurable dullness.) When the message is so urgent the poet can’t stop for a stop or two, you worry about his blood pressure.
Herrera grabs his headlines off the front page—they’re a news recap of depressing tragedies from the past year or two: the forty-three murdered Mexican students, the Japanese journalist beheaded in Syria, the young black men killed by police. One poem is dedicated to the nine black pastors and parishioners murdered in a church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, just weeks before the book was published. About the only poem to reach further than the day before yesterday is an elegy for a black farmhand lynched in Texas in 1916.
The dominant note is outrage, but rage takes poetry only so far. The usual problem of political poetry is that, if the politics are your politics, the message is superfluous; if they aren’t, the message is bullying. The masters of political poetry over the last century—Yeats, Auden, Lowell, Hill, Heaney—never let the message destroy the fidelities or ambivalence of language. If that seems no great difficulty, find a single decent poem written against the war in Vietnam, or Iraq, or Afghanistan. For all Herrera’s honorable attempts to speak for migrant laborers, undocumented immigrants, and the poor, there’s scarcely a line worth re-reading. It’s the old argument out of Jonson, Poems of an Age vs. Those for All Time.
Political poems are only part of the book. Paging through Herrera’s dreary renderings of daily events, you realize that he has assembled a mini-anthology of poets whose heyday was the Sixties: Beats, mountaintop eco-warriors, and half the New York School. Here’s Frank O’Hara (“In Soho, NYC—at Dunkin’ Donuts of all places, a year ago—hanging out with Gerald Stern”), there’s Gary Snyder (“I sit and meditate—my dog licks her paws/ on the red-brown sofa”), and over there, why, it must be Bukowski:

you should have seen the Pig Act
the pig                 a real pig with a wig in flames
in pinkish pajamas & a cigar doing a Fatty Arbuckle shtick
he even ordered 18 eggs over easy with 18 sides of sourdough

Herrera reads at a poetry festival. Herrera writes elegies for Jose Montoya, Philip Levine, Jack Gilbert, and Wanda Coleman. Herrera rescues a white dove. This isn’t life transformed by confession, it’s the diary jottings of a poet doing the poet thing—that sickly sweet perfume is the smell of rotting orchids.
Herrera is so eager to please, so insistent on having his populist heart in the right populist place, it’s hard to dislike him. A number of poems are produced en face in Spanish, a nod to the poet’s heritage (he’s the son of migrant farm-workers), though the translations had to be provided by one of his friends. Despite all the worthy messages, too many of these poems stagger into sentimental gush (“and the moon the wild sickle swan and/ i ascended/ through the fire”), uplifting drivel (“Wanda Coleman word-caster of live/ coals of love// in gratitude/ we stand & rise”), images that would embarrass even Ashbery (“the dog violins that sniff-sniff you”), or just plain silliness (“your voice dooby-dooby-doo-wop/ paint me the flying coat color of flame & tutti-frutti”). Then there are passages that would confound Augustine or Champollion:

O, what to do, chile peppers, Mrs. Oops
Dr. What, Mr. Space Station unscrewed
The Redbook of Ants says you better run
No sirree, LOL, blowin’ my bubble gum sun

The publicity flacks have done the poet laureate no favors by proclaiming that “at the heart of his work is the poet as technician of multiple registers, advocate of multicultural voices and . . . devotee of interbeing, that is, tearing down the walls that separate us personally, culturally and globally.” Interbeing! The disdain of its enemies won’t drag poetry down, only the insidious pitchman’s language of its friends.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Artemio Sanchez was born with eight feet.
In school the Mexican kids called him
El Ocho Patas, Eight Feet. In his adult years
el ocho patas was obsessed with shoes.

With Sylvia Plath

One day
el ocho patas came upon Sylvia Plath

a swarm of bees
flew above their heads

a blue stasis
filled the kitchen

while they sat and talked
and an ominous oven stood idly by

the tv ariel
whinnied like a horse

her two children
played on the endless floor

Sylvia and el ocho patas
talked about poetry

as if that was all
there was in the whole damned world

meanwhile the world
looked the other way

Thursday, January 07, 2016

Why Brown Boys Die

El ocho patas
knows why brown boys die

shot while they walk
in the hood

while they ride in cars
down the wrong street

while they buy cigarettes
at Family Mart

while they talk
to brown girls

while the sun
beats down on them

while the rain
soaks their bandanas

while they proclaim
their macho ways

while they run
and jump over fences at night

while they trespass
on apartments not of their own

while they breathe
somebody else's blue oxygen

while they stand on the corner
of a forbidden boulevard

el ocho patas
knows why the brown boys die

Tuesday, January 05, 2016


Chamaco worries about losing his mojo
like the blind sheik.

His smile
going out of style.

His jump
not brown enough.

His barrio
squirting everywhere.

Being mistaken
for Waldo.

His anti-bicicleta

His toothpick
tasered for picking teeth.

His mojo on fire
like a Buddhist priest.

His shoes
just dull shinelas.

His bigote
more of a mustache.

His  mojo
climbing all over New York City.

Monkey this
monkey that.

Time tastes
like lime.

Chamaco worries that the night
will pave the way.

He’ll copyright mojo
if he has to.

Que no respeta
his jetas.

His verse
become a rubberband.

His footprints on the moon
wiped clean by pinche Armstrong.

Chamaco worries that aluminum cans
have lost their childhood.

Chamaco worries 
about his invisible scars.

Chamaco whistles
to reassure himself he’s still there.

Like a hot knife through butter
the barrio whistles back.

His concha
too big for his shell.

His enchiladas
son peladas.

Chamaco worries
about his mojo.

His words
escaping him.

His skin
again refusing to be brown.

His barrio
jumping ship.

His loco
not being crazy enough.

His coco

His mojo
is a mess tonight.

Saturday, January 02, 2016

Red Poet (Documentary Film about Jack Hirschman)