Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Poem: Luis Alberto Urrea

Luis Alberto Urrea (
I have always been drawn bothto poetry that is very complex in its forms and meanings but also, conversely, to poetry that appears to be simple but turns out to be complex. Such marks some of the work of Luís Alberto Urrea (1955-), a writer I have unaccountably never featured on this blog, though I greatly enjoy his work. Urrea was born in Tijuana, Mexico, and grew up in the United States. A prolific writer, he (like Kwame Dawes) belies the genre-specificity so dominant in contemporary American literature culture, representing an older model of the person of letters, who just writes, and writes well.

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.

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