Photo by Blue Flower Arts
Although one could trace the emergence of Chicano literature to the New World observations of Cabeza de Vaca, this genealogical exercise is akin to linking, as some scholars do, the comic fantasies of Aristophanes to the pulp spectacles in Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories
For our purposes, Chicano literature got going with the historically instructive corridos
, or ballads, that emerged after the end of the U.S.-Mexican War, songs about romance and revolution and the life-threatening perils of both.
Recently appointed United States Poet Laureate, Juan Felipe Herrera utterly understands this marriage of song and social responsibility.
His latest collection, Notes on the Assemblage
, brings a sorrowful beat and a doleful swagger to subjects as urgent as the Black Lives Matter movement and the daily swell of atrocities weathered in Mexico.
Last September the world was shocked when 43 students from a rural teachers’ college in Mexico disappeared. The missing were said to have been incinerated at a dump by a drug gang working with local police. Since December only two of the students have been identified, and in both cases the families disbelieve the official story.
Herrera gives voice to the victims of this horrific tragedy in his poem “Ayotzinapa,” writing “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.”
The chorus of the disappeared intones: “we are/not disposable.”
In Notes on the Assemblage
, the 66-year-old Fresno, California-based poet does not shy away from the ugly thread of police-related murder that seems to have run through the whole of 2014.
In “Almost Livin’ Almost Dyin’” Herrera arranges victims of cop violence like Eric Garner and Michael Brown in the same urban lament with slain peace officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
Although the book rings with a necrotic vibe, not all the focus is on violent death. Herrera’s collection hums in dark, brassy vibration with tribute and respect. There is actually quite a lot of eulogy in Notes on the Assemblage
, a lot of better-late-than-never praise for writers like Wanda Coleman and Philip Levine.
The targets for his tributes are across the board. Herrera’s voice goes out to sick relatives, dead friends, art as well as detention centers; he extols Kant and Kenji Goto, and does not forget Trayvon Martin.
Linking themes as disparate as the LA Riots and avant-garde Italian cinema, there is a tone of casual esotericism in his verse. Herrera’s lines often ape e.e. cummings, and more or less assume the reader’s familiarity with the dadaist Hugo Ball. However obscure his arcana might be, the poet’s voice remains gracious and non-exclusive.
If there is a brotherhood out there, he seems to say, it is forged around the pangs of threat that compel people to unite and to incite.
As far as Chicano literature is concerned, those corridos
that started it all went on to find their most recognizable form over a century later with the work of Rudolfo Anaya before happily culminating into a kind of universal crossover appeal with the adolescence-centered stories of Sandra Cisneros.
Herrera’s work, sticking to the strictures of sound and symbol, offers ample example that this socially conscious class of literature might work best as it approaches song.
On Wednesday, November 4, Palo Alto College (1400 W. Villaret Blvd.) welcomes Herrera — who is the first Chicano/Latino United States Poet Laureate in history — as part of its Heritage Month 2015 programming. After kicking off with an introduction by Texas Poet Laureate Carmen Tafolla and San Antonio Poet Laureate Laurie Ann Guerrero (noon-1:15pm in the Legacy Room), the free event continues with a reception and book signing (6-7pm in the Performing Arts Center), to be followed by a reading and discussion (7-9pm in the Performing Arts Center). For details, visit alamo.edu/pac/heritage-month
Notes on the Assemblage
by Juan Felipe Herrera | City Lights | $14.95 | 100 pages