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.