|Luis Alberto Urrea (saveethnicstudies.org)|
Of course not everyone can do this, but some writers foreclose the possibility without even trying. It is even endemic in undergraduate and in some cases high school literary education, when all writers should be encouraged to try all genres and forms, and Urrea offers a model of how one might do this. He has published three books of poetry, one book of short stories, four novels, two memoirs, and three works of nonfiction, and teaches at the University of Illinois, Chicago. Despite our being in the same city for nearly a decade, I have never seen him read or even come across an announcement for his reading, though perhaps that will occur at some point in the future. His work has garnered many awards, among them: the Christopher Award for Across the Wire, his first book, a nonfictional work; the Colorado Book Award and the Western States Book Award for The Fever of Being; the American Book Award for his memoir, Nobody's Son: Notes from An American Life; and the Lannan Literary Award and a finalist selection for the Pulitzer Prize for The Devil's Highway.
The poem below is one of those seemingly simple but actually complex works. It's a litany, consisting of the anaphoric refrain "All the vatos," whom he ironically notes will never be in a poem, though, as we see, they are. And he presents them in their diversity, the poem taking on many different notes and tones as it unfolds, full of humor, social critique, absurdity, linguistic registers and languages, realness as documentary as a snapshop, yet so lyrical that it's almost song--it could be sung--the first half issuing the same call, appeal, even perhaps an apostrophe (to those homeboys), the second half of each line, after the caesura, mostly but not always in trochaic trimeter (the entire line is trochaic pentameter), as in "down por vida homeboys" or "arms around their sisters"-- '~ '~ '~ --which endows each response with a feel that is not that of the usual English iambic (penta)meter, but something closer to Spanish (vato, gato, hombre, libre), yet also strikes the ear as perfectly appropriate. We know from the rhythm what's coming even though we don't know what's coming, so we experience a twinned sense of anticipation and surprise.
There are microclimates in this poem. One of my favorites is when the poem becomes self-reflexive towards the end, and another is at the very end, when with artful simplicity it combines history, politics, culture, resistance, into just a few lines, invoking the discourse that many young and old Xicanos and Xicanas have had remind themselves in the face of societies that would erase or efface or reduce their humanity: "All the vatos beautiful young Aztecs / All the vatos sons of Guadalupe / All the vatos bad as la chingada / All the vatos call themselves Chicanos...." I'd say the vatos couldn't have asked for a better tribute, and without a doubt, Luis Alberto Urrea is the ish!
hymn to vatos who will never be in a poem All the vatos sleeping on hillsides All the vatos say goodnight forever All the vatos loving their menudo All the vatos faith in la tortilla All the vatos fearing the alarm clock All the vatos Wino Jefe Peewee All the vatos even the cabrones All the vatos down por vida homeboys All the vatos using words like ranfla All the vatos who woke up abandoned All the vatos not afraid of their daughters All the vatos arms around their sisters All the vatos talking to their women All the vatos granting their foregiveness All the vatos plotting wicked paybacks All the vatos sleeping under mota All the vatos with tequilla visions All the vatos they call maricones All the vatos bleeding in the alley All the vatos chased by helicopters All the vatos dissed by pinches white boys All the vatos bent to pick tomatoes All the vatos smoked by Agent Orange All the vatos brave in deadly classrooms All the vatos pacing in the prisons All the vatos pierced by needle lightning All the vatos who were once our fathers All the vatos even veteranos All the vatos and their abuelitos All the vatos proud of tatuajes All the vatos carrying a lunch pail All the vatos graduating law school All the vatos grown up to be curas All the vatos Jimmy Spider Tito All the vatos lost their tongues in Spanish All the vatos can't say shit in English All the vatos looking at her photo All the vatos making love till morning All the vatos stroking their own hunger All the vatos faded clear as windows All the vatos needing something better All the vatos bold in strange horizons All the vatos waiting for tomorrow All the vatos sure that no one loves them All the vatos sure that no one hears them All the vatos never in a poem All the vatos told they don't belong here All the vatos beautiful young Aztecs All the vatos warrior Apaches All the vatos sons of Guadalupe All the vatos bad as a la chingada All the vatos call themselves Chicanos All the vatos praying for their children All the vatos even all you feos All the vatos filled with life eternal All the vatos sacred as the Sun God All the vatos Flaco Pepe Gordo All the vatos rising from their mothers
Copyright © Luis Alberto Urrea, "hymn to vatos who will never be in a poem," from Vatos, El Paso: Cinco Puntos Press, 2000. All rights reserved.