Craig Santos Pérez

2009

 

Some Clarifications y otros poemas (Arte Público Press, 2007)

by Javier O. Huerta

$10.95, paper. 54 pp. ISBN: 978-1-55885-500-7.


review by Craig Santos Perez


Some Clarifications y otros poemas, Javier O. Huerta’s first book & winner of the University of California, Irvine’s 2005 Chicano / Latino Literary Prize, begins with an “Advertisement.” The first paragraph reads:


The majority (if not all) of the poems in this collection are to be considered as imitations. No, they are more modest than that; they are experiments in the act of imitating. They were written with the chief purpose of ascertaining whether the poet could be removed from the center of the creative act. Readers accustomed to the adventurous language of many contemporary poets may find these poems to be too unoriginal and may even describe them as derivative. “I expected a profound breath,” they may say, “but found only a lazy yawn.” No word could be more insulting for a poet than derivative, but the author reminds his readers that the derivative nature of his poems is intentional He intended to write poems derived from another source other than himself. Many of the poems borrow from more than one source, and many of the poems imitate other imitations […] The author offers this collection as nothing more than a record of his early attempts towards a poetics of modesty. (vii)


True to form, this preface imitates Wordsworth’s “Advertisement” to Lyrical Ballads (1798), in which Wordsworth wrote:


The majority of the following poems are to be considered as experiments. They were written chiefly with a view to ascertain how far the language of conversation in the middle and lower classes of society is adapted to the purposes of poetic pleasure. Readers accustomed to the gaudiness and inane phraseology of many modern writers, if they persist in reading this book to its conclusion, will perhaps frequently have to struggle with feelings of strangeness and awkwardness: they will look round for poetry, and will be induced to inquire by what species of courtesy these attempts can be permitted to assume that title. It is desirable that such readers, for their own sakes, should not suffer the solitary word Poetry, a word of very disputed meaning, to stand in the way of their gratification; but that, while they are perusing this book, they should ask themselves if it contains a natural delineation of human passions, human characters, and human incidents; and if the answer be favourable to the author’s wishes, that they should consent to be pleased in spite of that most dreadful enemy to our pleasures, our own pre-established codes of decision. 


As Huerta asserts, his “Advertisement” is intentionally derivative, resituating the author at the margins of the creative act. At the same time, the author displaces the original center with a new voice. Huerta’s “Advertisement” continues:


Readers may also demand an explanation for the bilingual nature of the poetry. (Some monolingual readers may even ask—as several friends of the author who only read in English or in Spanish already have—whether they can acquire a copy of the book at half-price.) Although he finds satisfaction in the linguistic symmetry, the author never intended for half of the poems to be in English and the other half to be in Spanish. The choice of language actually relates to the author’s fear that he would be accused of theft because of excessive imitation. In order to guard himself against such a charge, he attempted to conceal the sources for poems by writing imitations of English poems in Spanish and vice versa. No other special reason exists for why a poem written in one language could not have been written in the second language. (viii)


As the title reflects, Some Clarifications y otros poemas weaves poems in English and Spanish, with a few poems working within both languages. Since I don’t read Spanish and I couldn’t find the book at half-price, the bilingual nature of this book raises the question: is this book worth the purchase price for those who don’t read either Spanish or English? To answer this question, we must ask (as Wordsworth compels): do the poems contain “a natural delineation of human passions, human characters, and human incidents”? 


From one of the most powerful poems in the book, “Toward a Portrait of the Undocumented”:


The economy is a puppeteer

manipulating my feet.


(Who’s in control when you dance?)


Pregnant with illegals, the Camaro

labors up the road; soon, I will be born.


I am the heat

captured by infrared eyes.


(Had you no life before this?)

(Are you not the source of that warmth?)


I am a night shadow; when la migra

shines spotlights, I disperse.


A body snatcher, I steal faces

and walk among the people, unnoticed.


I wear anonymity like an oversized

trench coat; now and then, I flash.


(Is your name perverse?)

(Is your skin not your own?)

(are you not flesh?)


Read me: I am a document

without an official seal.


(Who authored you?) (6)


The emphasis on imitation—of de-centered creation—also reflects Huerta’s portrait of the undocumented speaker as “a body snatcher” stealing faces. If the undocumented must live with the questions, “Is your skin not your own?” and “Who authored you?” then Huerta’s poems become ways to flash towards difficult answers. In “Coyote”, a prose poem, we read:


“Tu jefe es coyote,” my cousins said. I was only six, so I pictured Father on all fours with tongue out, panting, on the prowl. “No seas tonto,” my cousins teased and laughter spread. I tried to smile. They never heard his paws scrape, scrape our window screen. Never saw him tear up our couch or knock over the kitchen table. They never heard my father growl. They did not have to take a trip to visit the razor wire. They were not speechless when keepers opened Father’s cage. They did not spend sleepless nights dreading they, too, would grow gray fur and fangs. They did not understand. No, they never fought the urge to howl. (9)


This poem cuts through any naive teasing at the moment of “razor wire,” when we realize that perhaps the cage is a real cage just as the razor wire becomes a real, marked border of mysterious transformations. In Huerta’s work, the real and the magical cross. In “Blasphemous Elegy for May 14, 2003,” Huerta elegizes 19 immigrants who died from heat exhaustion after the trailer they were being smuggled in, along with nearly 100 people, was abandoned before it reached Houston. The poem begins: “exhale: breathe out, give off, let out, send forth, throw out, cast out, blow, blast, fan, gasp, heave, huff, pant, puff, whiff, whisper, whistle, sigh, wheeze, disembogue, expectorate, expel, ooze” (37). All the words in English that mean to “exhale” become transformed by the memory of those who were denied breath in the trailer. Further in the poem, Huerta proposes that we memorialize the “19 journeyers” by abstaining our breath for a period of 24 hours “so that one year we might come to asphyxiate the 14th of May. I offer this proposal not for the sake of vengeance but for the sake of proving to ourselves that we are, indeed, more than human” (38).


Not only does Huerta address the difficult experiences of immigration, he also writes about love and language in truly unique ways. In “H,” he considers the visual element of the letter:


a chipped tooth


the top rung of a ladder


an I tipped over


an empty spool


a TIE fighter


a thumbtack on the bulletin board


a bookshelf with no books


a broken accordion


an invisible man sleeping on a bench (10)


Huerta sees the imaginative possibilities in small things, like a single letter, to larger events, like the tragic trailer. In Huerta’s work, everything possesses the potential for transformation. In “On a Portrait a Friend Sketched of Me,” Huerta again sees beyond the surface: “hair: sparrow’s nest / eyebrows: two black centipedes inching towards each other / forehead: storm clouds/ nose: a marble statue of a naked woman from behind /eyes: left and right thumbprints / beard: ashes / lips: two lovers in a sleeping bag” (47). The same playfulness we see in these poems about words and images is also apparent when Huerta writes about love:


Mythical Lover


There was a man who loved. It is not important to know his name. Only that he bought his beloved some flowers. It is not important to know what type of flowers. Only that he placed them, along with a brief note, underneath her windshield wiper. It is not important to know her name. Only that he misspelled it. Later he received a phone call and denied leaving the note and flowers. It is not important to know how long they talked. Only that the receiver, now and then, lightly touched his lips. (27)


One might think that combining poems in English and Spanish about such diverse themes and in such diverse styles (besides mixing prose and free verse, Huerta also includes a dramatic scene and a mock interview) might create a jumbled composition. In the “Advertisement,” Huerta writes: “Readers of superior judgment may further fault this collection for failing—as many first books do—to provide a satisfactory organizational structure. Feeling discomfort at the idea of a miscellany, readers may blame the author’s wrong-headed obsession with imitation for his apparent disregard for ‘architecture’” (viii). Huerta’s response to this critique is that his collection “takes air, all of its different types, as its unifying principle.” He also notes that his first name, Javier, is often mispronounced as “have air.” He encourages us to take notice of “kites, hurricanes, hot air balloons, electric fans, hiccups, howls, windshields, candles, eagles, angels, whirlwinds, umbrellas, prophecies, clouds, trench coats, lips, veils, jokes, and tomorrows” (ix).


Throughout Some Clarifications y otros poemas, Huerta encourages us to let go of our “pre-established codes of decision” and to simply find pleasure in the possible and variable airs of poetry. This is not a difficult thing for the reader since the poetry itself thwarts any pre-established codes that we might have about immigration poems, love poems, poetic devices, or language itself.

Review

Bio

Craig Santos Perez is a co-founder of Achiote Press

(www.achiotepress.com) and author of from unincorporated territory

[hacha] (Tinfish Press, 2008). His poetry, essays, reviews, and

translations have appeared in New American Writing, Pleiades, The

Denver Quarterly, The Colorado Review, and ZYZZYVA, among others. He

blogs at http://craigsantosperez.wordpress.com/.