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.

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