A response to an art installation by Roberto Sifuentes and Guillermo Gómez-Peña about social issues surrounding the U.S.–Mexico border, this poem, like the installation, concerns itself with migration, assimilation, and identity politics. Cárdenas creates a sense of a border in two ways, using visual effects and “code switching” (sentences that begin in one language and end in another). Cárdenas deploys this technique with a twist: her language mimics alliterative verse, but rather than Old English, she uses English and Spanish (“Old Chicano English”). By staying true to the convention of Old English poetry, she also creates jagged white space—a border—moving down the page. In this way the poem comments on itself, making its meshing of two languages one of its themes: “Language lies across the barbed lines.”
Cárdenas also invents phrases that become portraits, at times using expressions that can make the reader wince (“the river rats who ride his wetback”). The speaker pokes fun at those who favor blending in by concealing or playing down their indigenous ancestry (“the Hispanic hodgepodge hiding their Indio”), and elsewhere considers Latinos who welcome the newly arrived immigrant, as well as those who resent him or her (“la raza who receive him, la raza who repel him”).
2. “Somewhere to Paris” by Richard Blanco
While riding on a train somewhere between Italy and France, Blanco revels in his between-ness, coming to identify with “the arc of space / I travel through” in the same way that one strand of his work dwells on what it means to be both Cuban and American. In this particular poem, the act of writing helps the speaker (and us) more fully inhabit this middle space. The “clack” of “every stitch of track” and the other internal and slant rhymes are hypnotic, creating an elemental experience: “If I don’t know / where I am, then I am only these heartbeats, / my breaths.”
3. “Across a Table” by Steven Cordova
“I’d glad you’re positive,” a man announces in the opening line of Cordova’s poem, and another replies, “I’m glad you’re positive, / too.” Though the conversational tone and iambic regularity of the lines imply that the speakers are at ease with each other, the word “positive” has a double meaning, announcing HIV as the unspoken subject. The first stanza ends with a comma and a pause, telegraphing what follows: the speech becomes hesitant, and the stuttering rhythm conveys the awkwardness of the moment.
The final lines return to regular iambic rhythm when Cordova’s poem pays homage to the late poet Thom Gunn: In Gunn’s poem “Terminal,” a healthy partner helps his companion downstairs, watching him “bring down his feet / As if with that spare strength he used to enjoy.” Cordova’s “knives” and “forks” function in the same way: they “do the heavy lifting now.”
4. “One Morning” by Emmy Prez
Picasso’s work never abandons, completely, what he calls the recognizable world. For instance, even when he distorts the human body, one never doubts that it is the human body. In a similar way, “One Morning” by Emmy Pérez evokes narrative while resisting it. The poem sketches a recognizable place (“yellow pines” and “adobe” suggest the Southwest) interspersed with descriptive phrases that seem to tell a story (“I look at myself in / a mirror of weather”) but never reach a tidy resolution.
Reading this poem is a matter of trusting its journey rather than expecting to arrive at an understanding of a conventional meaning. Phrases such as “rain trenzas” (“trenzas” is Spanish for “braids”) acknowledge that Spanish is part of this linguistic landscape and so contribute to what could be called a conceptual rhyme. Just as rain braids water, the poet is braiding two languages to form something new.
5. “Cultural Stakes; or, How to Learn English as a Second Language” by Kevin A. González
Touching on divorce, joint custody, and visitation rights, González constructs a sustained portrait of a son and his father: “Don’t ask him what compelled him / to call you today, eighteen months later, / & never admit that his absence / was a moist towel stuffed in your chest.” González fleshes out his family’s past with a poignancy that is not sentimental. Gambling and alcohol, it seems, might have doomed his parents’ marriage, but the poem does not set out to evoke sympathy. Rather, one senses that the son relished the weekends he spent with his father (mostly at a place called Duffy’s), weekends when he became adept at pool and darts: “Fruit will be rolling inside the slot machine; /darts will flash by like hubcaps.”
6. “The Fire” by Deborah Parédez
A dramatic suicide attempt plunges the reader into a literal drama: “The night Tony decided to end it all, / bathing his head and limbs in gasoline / and igniting himself into effigy in the third floor dressing room of the theatre. . . .” These opening lines are end-stopped to emphasize the physical separateness and differences between Tony and the man working in “the scene shop” who ends up rescuing him.
When the rescuer enters and saves Tony’s life, the enjambed lines move with a skilled deliberateness (“you stayed calm, moved / quickly, took all the necessary precautions,”) that will characterize a different kind of “saving” at the end of the poem. The final stanza depicts the speaker as “a bright girl, ablaze / and reckless” who is becoming a player in a romantic drama of her own.