Like a lot of Latinos at the mercy of anthologies that meet their brown quota by sticking some Borges next to a fable about a holy tortilla, I’ve become accustomed to forgiving many an editorial oversight. With the publication of Chicano Poet 1970-2010 (Aztlan Libre Press, 370 pages, $23), I’m going to have to pardon myself for not knowing much about Reyes Cárdenas, a Central Texas writer whose decades of work has recently been collected by San Antonio’s Aztlan Libre Press.
Cárdenas calls himself a “Chicano Poet,” which to him has always meant: “A concern for justice and equality and rights for all. Or at least a conscious attempt at it. Though it is just as natural to drift away from it momentarily.”
His works came to be collected in a relatively simple way, he explains: “Juan Tejeda and Anisa (Onofre) started a publishing business, asked if I would send them some material.” In 2004, Cárdenas, who sees the biggest threat to poetry as its “lack of an audience,” took a great deal of his distribution into his own hands by putting his work online in the form of Blogspot site Chicano Poet. Characteristically humble about the enterprise, he says his blog has “made him a few friends.”
The collected Cárdenas, which takes inspiration from barrio aesthetics as well as political iconography, is a tax on categorization. Chicano Poet gives readers sonnets about Pachucos versus UFOs as well as impassioned prayers that a grandson need never go to war.
Cárdenas’ work is replete with pop and media imagery in a way that seems mannered, but, according to the poet, is a kind of causal duty. “A lot of my poetry takes into account current events in politics, music or art. From Vietnam to the Beatles and whatever is current news.”
Cárdenas takes his literary influences from all over as well. “Once you love a writer you don’t forsake them. I guess my early influences were Walt Whitman, Hart Crane, Dylan Thomas, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, during the ’60s and ’70s when I was developing my poetry,” says the man who for most of his life has worked as a machinist, a job he writes off as “mechanical and not too exciting.”
He has never once entertained the idea of not writing poetry, and as far as his involvement with Chicano causes, Cárdenas is equally bound. “Whatever I can do with my work, I will do,” he said.
Though he moved from Seguin in 1998, Cardenas supposes the town “helped formulate my poetry and to some extent my life as any small conservative town forms anyone’s life.” A married man with six grandkids, outside of a few poems he writes about family, he seems most comfortable focusing on the darkness of the work that surrounds him. In “An Elegy for John Lennon,” Cárdenas uses the death of the singer to meditate on assassinations and the perverse arena of the American TV culture. “Like a lot of people, I was watching Monday Night Football,” said Cárdenas, about where he was when he got the news that Lennon had died. “I really admired the work he was doing.”
With works like “From Aztlan to the Moons of Mars,” and “Adamski & Eve” Cárdenas’ poetry is lousy with sci-fi imagery, sexy UFOs and émigrés to the stars, and he chalks this up to the genre’s ubiquity during the Cold War. “During the ’50s my parents would always take me to every sci-fi movie that came to the local drive-in theater, so I guess that’s where I got my interest in it,” he recalled.
There is also much judgment in Chicano Poet. In the section about “Mr. Incognito,” Cardenas writes about a fawning literary fascination with Russian poet Joseph Brodsky and “other Soviet … and eastern European writers with the same backgrounds” that takes precedence over Latino concerns. His “Robinson poems” are so bleak and unnerving, it is hard to imagine this family man from Central Texas crafting them.
“Actually, Robinson is a character created by Weldon Kees,” informs Cárdenas, “He wrote four poems about a person named Robinson. I took that dark character as an example of white people and just expanded his life into a few more poems.”
Chicano Poet makes it obvious that Cárdenas is well read in many areas. So, has he ever felt pressure to make his work less worldly and complicated for the sake of clarity?
“I don’t feel that my work is complicated at all,” says the author of “I Never Was a Militant Chicano,” a poem that explains, “but only because/I’ve always wanted/more than a revolution/ can provide.”
Reyes Cárdenas reading (feat. L.A. David)
5pm Sat, Oct 5 (reception to follow)
1913 S Flores