Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Here Lies Lalo—Abelardo Delgado

I must admit that I was skeptical about this collection when I received it. The poet Lalo—Abelardo Delgado (1930 – 2004)—was an activist for social justice and a central figure in Chicano literature. I am ashamed to confess that I expected ranting and moaning. Instead I found a vibrant, engaging consideration of life, the universe and everything...with a Chicano twist. Though many of his poems take a uniquely Chicano perspective, Lalo ought never be pigeonholed.

Though many poems concern politics, Lalo makes political poetry beautiful because he focuses on emotion, not policy.
stupid america, hear that chicano
shouting curses on the street
he is a poet
without paper and pencil
and since he cannot write, he will explode
Political poetry is hard. The two parts of the term hardly understand each other. A poet fails when he or she tries to debate, analyze or support an argument. Elizabeth Alexander got it right at Barack Obama's inauguration:

Say it plain: that many have died for this day.
Sing the names of the dead who brought us here,
who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges,

picked the cotton and the lettuce, built
brick by brick the glittering edifices
they would then keep clean and work inside of.
But all too often political poems try to argue in verse, or more frequently, argue in prose, and are soon reduced to an editorial. Not Lalo: the fact that his poems have political implications is secondary to the fact that it captures emotion with skillful language:
stupid america, remember the chicanito
flunking math and english
he is the picasso
of your western states
but he will die
with one thousand masterpieces
hanging only from his mind
Lalo's style is a wild ride of sound and image, often mixing languages and voices. He uses rhyme in different ways in different poems, even occasionally writing in metric verse.  (In case it's not clear, the second stanza is not a translation of the first; Lalo switches languages back and forth throughout this poem.)

que te alcancen mi beso y mi abrazo
felicitando el hecho que hoy es tu día,
que en la palabra mi corazón pierda un pedazo
al dicirte, feliz cumpleanos, esposa mía.

after all these years together we have learned
to assume, without too much trouble, each other's identity
and in all these years how often i've yearned
not to take for granted the fact that you are an entity.
But even in his free verse, sound and rhyme play an important role. Lalo often likes rhyming couplets at the beginning and end of poems; sometimes he combines English and Spanish to do this. Occasionally a rhyme requires some awkward syntax, but usually the rhymes leap naturally, spontaneously, from the page. Alliteration, too—just the beauty and fun of language—are sometimes an element:

to scunner and not to hate,
to scupper and keep the taste,
to hide under the thick scurf
of scurrile life that yearning
to scurry itself leaps out
and is able to see its own scut,
obsolete as old scutage.
Here Lies Lalo is a great collection and tribute. Much of the publicity surrounding Lalo and this book focuses on his activism for social justice. I want to emphasize that his poetry is more than that. “Preguntas Pesadas”, for instance, sets aside ethnicity, nationality and discontent to peer deep into human questions. Here, the motifs of sleep, questions and definitions, and the tender concern for another, remind me of Jorge Luis Borges.

for some strange reason i cannot explain
i woke from my usual unperturbed sleep...again,
trying to define you...
          a bottle...that's it, one with no bottom
so that many can pour themselves into
but none can be contained within.
that glass
          from which the bottle is made
is very sensitive
          very sensuous
and desirable
and it can accommodate
   and all can rub themselves
into the sides
               and the sides are warm
but nonetheless
made of glass.

Poetry News in Review

I wanted to let you know about a great website I found: Poetry News in Review.

If you will allow me to lift some text straight from the website, "Poetry News in Review is a weekly curated and aggregated newsletter intended for anyone with an abiding interest in poetry of all kinds and all languages.  The encapsulated stories are linked to the original sites without commentary. While much of it is current, there is, from time to time, a story or review that refers to earlier publications."

You can see the current issue here, and sign up for a weekly e-mail.

Up next: Here Lies Lalo: the collected poems of Abelardo Delgado.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Wild Horses, Wild Dreams – Lindy Hough

Wild Horses, Wild Dreams collects the poetry of Lindy Hough, founder of the magazine Io and North Atlantic Books.  The poems range from 1971 to 2010, so we get the opportunity to look at an entire writing career.  In her preface, Hough mentions Ezra Pound, H.D. and William Carlos Williams as influences.  I do see the similarities, to H.D. in her early work and Williams in the later.  Here I think Hough comes up short for the same reason that Williams does.  Her poetry is often simply the stuff of everyday observation.  I am reminded of someone—not necessarily a poet—chatting to me about what she has been up to since I last saw her.  Her poetry is better than Williams’s, and we are spared notes left on refrigerators and “Dude, that wheelbarrow is so cool,” but I often found myself waiting for the poetry to start. Her titular piece, for instance, begins

     Jacqueline moved onto land
     where a heard of horses already lived

     It became obvious they were no one’s,
     had drifted up and down this coast
     for years, a bother to many.
     They were not a bother to her.

She continues for pages with the same MO: chatting about the horses.

     They stick around near the water’s edge.
     J’s gotten good fences so they don’t straggle
     down onto the highway, get themselves killed,
     her sued.

     They big eyes are serious.  They look at you with no
     guile.  That’s why she loves them.

A few poems degenerates into polemics, which again I can best imagine a friend delivering over coffee:

     Because the gun lobby is unopposed
     Because Charlton Heston played Moses,
     standing on the mountain with the flowing beard,
     arms uplifted, holding the Ten Commandments
     People see him as The God of Guns
     like his tough western persona which
     gives authority to the concept of a citizen’s
     “right to bear arms”, an idea left over from 1776.
     They contribute to the NRA
     thinking only of defending themselves.
     We’re the only industrialized nation
     in the world with such a lack of
     gun control.  Most European countries
     don’t allow guns in their borders.

That last stanza particularly seems to escape any definition as “poetry”.

Nevertheless, Hough gets much more lyrical when she gets less political.  Her earlier poems have a kind of eerie dreaminess at times:

     What she already knows
     is a rich tangle
     of possibility.

     Threading through
     the lover’s hair,
     knot by knot,

     living with him to unravel
     the sequel to the mermaids.
     Not always searching.

One poem I particularly enjoyed was “Seeing: To the Mailmen”, which I’ll put here in its entirety.  I felt from this poem a sense of structure, image, complex metaphor and focus.

     I would wish, growing up
     in a round dance
     that if I made a picture
     you would not dilute, ex-
     tend, wash further
     the colors beyond the border.

     You would stop the eye there
     and he sense given to the eye
     by the eye; the colors therein
     and not extend.

     Even so, it would not be enough.
     The picture would have to sing, not only
     be seen; as an ocean or a far off
     coyote is heard, the eye seeing
     and the ear listening, breath & pulse
     of the joy of living pushing out
     though the chest and throat
     to the world.  Keep coyote
     particularly in mind: full white chest,
     head thrown back to the moon, his howl
     a statement to all and the heavens—
     outlasting Geronimo, the lion, the red wolf—
     I am here.  Know that I still exist.

     A decent wish.  Hoping for
     a decent pleasure,
     for the seer, whether watching
     or hearing or reading,
     loving or unloving.

As I was reading this collection, thinking about Hough’s style and topics, I came across one poem I found fascinating because it considers exactly this.  In “The Poet’s Métier” Hough asks what her style might be called.  She responds, “I am a cat on a fence…  There’s a skittering between my eyelids, a sort of imbalance only righted walking very carefully along a fence, & then down another, and another.”  In the poem she wonders how to classify her style, and whether her uncertainty indicates that “it engages me but no one else.”  Her conclusion: “I’d rather be a cat, walking successive winding fences, silent and moonstruck.”

I find this an apt metaphor, and salute her for her candor.  Her poems do wander like a cat on a fence, and like a cat, no plan or purpose is necessary other than to be a cat.  If you feel compelled to follow a cat on its perambulations, this collection may well be for you.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Blood Honey – Chana Bloch

Chana Bloch’s strength lies in image and metaphor.  Her style of free verse is simple and fairly typical of poetry today.  Her subject matter, too—themes of life and death, family and culture—are not unexpected.  It is the sudden and surprising image or metaphor that begs to be read again and again--not from confusion, but from the sense that such a line needs to be savored--that makes her poetry engaging.

Wild Honey

A puddle of sun on the wooden floor.
The infant crawls to it, licks it,
dips a hand in and out,
letting the wild honey
trickle through his fingers.
Then a voice from on high—
Look at the pretty color!—
Wipes up the glory with a rag of language

A Life on Earth
An adult heart is the size of a fist, he said.

And what does the heart do?
Hoists itself up each morning into the weather.
A fist is not just a sign of defiance:
four fingers and a thumb can grasp.  And hold.

And what does the heart hold in that tight little fist?
The string of its life on earth,
taking the tug of it, letting it fly,
not letting it fly away.

Sometimes the surprise is more deliberate, and Bloch reveals a deft control over her words and an admirable wit.  One of my favorite stanzas, discussing her mother, reads:

Things are easier between us lately.
She’s not so carping. Is even willing to listen.
One would almost think death
had mellowed her.