Poem Guide

Juan Felipe Herrera: “Blood on the Wheel”

Tracing the many conflicting meanings of the word "blood."

Blood on the Wheel,” Juan Felipe Herrera’s effusive, energetic catalog of violent extremes, may sound almost improvised; the poem passionately leaps from scene to scene, phrase to phrase, reacting against the pervasive injustice that Herrera notices and envisions in the United States and beyond. And yet the same poem evokes puzzles and mysteries, working both to see, and to see beyond, the grounds for outrage in a day’s or a year’s headline news. Like much of Herrera’s work, it shows roots in West Coast Chicano/a experience even while it exults in crossing national, regional, social, and linguistic boundaries. “Blood on the Wheel” uses its unruly textures and its array of rhetorical effects (some of them linked strongly to oral performance) to become at once public and hermetic, collective and yet idiosyncratic: the poem ends up on fire with a mission that we can follow but may never entirely grasp.

Now the poet laureate of California, and the author of two dozen books of verse and prose, Herrera began as a writer and performer who worked both in Spanish and in English, sometimes within the same piece. Amid the West Coast Chicano/a movement of the early 1970s, Herrera joined “street theater groups,” as he has said in interviews, “that worked with musicians to do performance poetry.” That early work inflects his later verse. The live energy of performance infuses the couplets and lists of “Blood on the Wheel,” propelled as it is by repetitions, catalogs, and syntax (or the absence of syntax) that lets listeners stay in the moment. The poem invites us to acknowledge the many ways in which it can be heard—as performance, as incantation, as sermonlike denunciation, and also as a series of riffs and anti-realist takes on the interconnection of Detroit and Texas, poet and society, “the Groove Shopping Center” and the mysterious “Macho Hat.” On the one hand, it sprawls in many directions, all over its imagined map; on the other, it holds itself together around the many implications of one complicated word.

That word, of course, is “blood,” which comes to represent (among other things) violence, guilt (as in “blood on our hands”), life itself, vigor, a common humanity, and familial or communal loyalty (“blood ties”). Blood connects everything to everything, every body to every other body: we American readers (Anglo, Chicano, or otherwise) might be connected by our culpable ignorance, by an outrageous and especially American devotion to violence, and by a kind of loyalty to one another that—if it does not destroy us—might save us instead.

Much of the poem makes sense as an exploration, a rapid-fire list, of all the meanings blood can hold. At first it means danger, pollution, and destruction, linked obscurely to “night soil” (feces) and then to “tattoos hidden,” perhaps in prison, perhaps by ex-gang members and ex-cons. Blood appears on the Virgin Mary in the third stanza, perhaps as a sign of modern American sin, perhaps instead as a promise of salvation; next, a nameless city runs with “the blood of the worker rat” or “the clone governor” or a maid, because all human blood, to the naked eye, looks the same. Like almost any liquid, blood once shed is no respecter of straight lines—it can run rightward or leftways, in s’s or in z’s. Herrera goes on to find blood-guilt in gangster rap, “blackened and whitened in news,” blood in the rape culture that blurs the lines between violence and sex, blood in the necessarily grueling struggle of agricultural workers (such as the lettuce pickers organized by Cesar Chavez) for better conditions and a living wage. There is blood, guilt, inescapable and sinful violence in an America that rewards action movies such as The Terminator, a “box office smash hit”; that acquits O.J. Simpson; that generates the terrorist Timothy McVeigh, who blew up a federal office building in Oklahoma City in 1995. Such figures are our vicious, inverted nobility: we may as well call them, if we call anyone, “sir.”

Herrera’s quick changes of scene—and his consistent central symbol—let him flip back and forth between two apparently incompatible goals: first, the openness of political protest (which requires some clarity, so that we know who denounces what, for whom); second, the dreamlike depths of European and Latin American Surrealism, where the dominant images must defeat prose sense. Why is there “blood on the couch” in the fifth stanza? Is the “screen” a TV screen, or the screen in a confessional?  What is “his whitish blood ring”? Why “dog blood… through my sheets”? We are not to know; we may never know.

Yet Herrera cannot stay away from characters, nor from ethical imperatives, for very long. “Blood from a kitchen fresco” extends the poem from prisons and televisions, symptoms of troubled nations, into a space where a family might feel at home; that family might include a grandmother, a daughter, and a father. It might also include “alligator jacket teen boy Juan,” who sheds blood, or whose blood is shed, perhaps in a bowling alley: “Mercy Lanes #9.”

Such attacks on an American culture of violence, on American machismo and American capitalism, could be monotonous in other hands, but Herrera avoids monotony by flipping through scene after scene, mixing vividly unambiguous phrases with sites where we might not know what exactly he wants us to see. Consistent deployments of poetic form—in particular, anaphora, where phrases and words repeat at the outset of lines—also serve to hold the poem together. These moments where symbols fly out of the grasp of semantics, where the poet’s prophetic, denunciatory energy has propelled him away from the world of material things, retain our attention even as they tease, or repel, our interpretive skills.

“Blood” occurs most often as the first word in a line, the start of a repeated phrase: “Blood on the night … Blood on the sullen chair … Blood in the tin … Blood driving … Blood driving … Blood in the border web.” Such initial repetitions give the poem an organization that is easy to follow, especially out loud. Anaphora in American English poetry has strong associations with Walt Whitman and with the young Allen Ginsberg, both precursors for Herrera’s visionary-radical program. Anaphora also encourages lines, and whole poems, to stretch out rather than to drive toward a predetermined end. Working against that expansion, towards closure, are moments of syntax, completed sentences, or—more often—of questions: these moments help Herrera make the poem seem open-ended, without letting it fall apart. Herrera also uses epistrophe and mesostrophe, repetition at the end and in the middle of successive lines. Such devices keep the poem organized as music is organized, invoking the call-and-response modes of gospel songs and spirituals, such as the song Herrera quotes for the poem’s epigraph, “Ezekiel Saw the Wheel.”

That song and its words have many versions. Some (such as Woody Guthrie’s) attack corporations and profits in explicit terms; the oldest and most familiar versions of the song, however, describe Israelites “dressed in white” transported from Egypt, slaves delivered from bondage, and in the chorus (drawn from Ezekiel 1:14–28) a great divine wheel that turns as God has willed it, “way up in the middle of the air.” This wheel—like capitalism, blood, or human nature—connects everything to everything else. And unlike capitalism this wheel suggests a divine plan: in the Biblical source, the floating wheel signifies “the likeness of the glory of the Lord.”

Yet Ezekiel’s vision—like Jeremiah’s, like Herrera’s—rebukes a “rebellious nation” (Ezekiel 2:1) even while it foresees eventual redemption. The Americans in Herrera’s poem, like the Israelites in Ezekiel, appear to have conquered themselves, to have succumbed to their own sinful, violent aspects: they also go out of their way to subjugate border-crossers, to mistreat “African Blood Tribes” and indigenous (e.g. “Mayan”) peoples. Herrera has said that Mexican heritage “is always connected to the indigenous history of the Americas”; those connections, which Anglos often ignore, provided an ideology for the Chicano movement of the 1970s, with its vision of Aztlán, the once and future, indigenous and Mexican, continent.

Herrera grew up in a Spanish-dominant household, and he has continued to mix English and Spanish within as well as between poems. Though “Blood on the Wheel” does not use very much Spanish, what Spanish it does use is crucial. Maquila, short for maquiladora, refers in Mexican Spanish to a factory producing goods for export, and can connote “sweatshop”; a maquila oración would be a factory (or sweatshop) prayer. Such prayers might ascend from “my Mexican hoodlum blood,” or from the “bilingual yard,” or for that matter from “the Groove Shopping Center”: in Herrera’s Americas, where borders are for crossing, anybody can end up almost anywhere.

The distinguished critic Lauro Flores writes that Herrera’s work crosses and challenges the borders not only of nations but of genres, playing a “game of interaction with other artistic forms (music, painting and theater)” while exceeding “limits imposed by the traditional notion of ‘poetry.’” Visions of excess and of interconnection, both shameful and saving, reach out across “Blood on the Wheel,” across maps of the United States, Mexico and other countries, as they reach out beyond this poem into the rest of the book where it first appeared. In Border-Crosser with a Lamborghini Dream (1999), “Blood on the Wheel” inaugurates a series of shorter texts with “blood” in their titles, all about blood ties and the shedding of blood: the fierce “blood gang call” (“Calling all tomato pickers, the ones wearing death frowns instead of jackets”), the comic “blood mouse manifesto,” “2pac blood,” “aztec blood sample,” and “ezekiel’s blood,” inspired by the vision of resurrection in Ezekiel 37: 1–14: “in that burial we found each other. We picked up/ the bones.”

In this particular poem, though, the resurrection has yet to come: the litany of sometimes fatal dangers runs from the exploitation of agricultural workers in Iowa and California to the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s to domestic violence to an apparent infanticide “in a Greyhound bus.” Could all these sins have a common root, a common modern character?  As Herrera writes near the end of the poem, “Could this be yours? Could this item belong to you? / Could this ticket be what you ordered, could it?”

Those crucial late lines make up just one of two couplets in the poem without the word “blood.” Indeed, they ask whether the poem’s “blood” belongs to “you.” And it may: by participating in American consumer society, drinking the coffee we buy, eating foods made from soybeans, accepting the protection of the state police and the “Army ventricle Marines,” many of the people most likely to read this poem must have some blood on our hands, even if we carry some Mayan blood too. Herrera’s vision of blood in circulation, of symphonic interdependence and interconnection, is also a vision of guilt and of contagion, “in the Groove Virus Machine.” We readers must be at once oppressor and oppressed, infected vectors of a culture that plays like one big “mob orchestra”: the crowd of the poem, the crowd that chants the poem, participates in its own indictment, in the indictment of a system we serve.

Can life, on either side of any border, become less harsh, get back on track? Herrera suggests that it can, but only if we attend to still more meanings for complex, common words. “Fast” equals “speedy” but also “durable,” that is, hard to break or counteract. Thus “Blood be fast,” in the final sentence of the poem, means not only that blood runs rapidly (when it is shed, as in action movies) but that blood should give us durable connections to one another, as through extended families and family histories, past national borders. Blood links grandmother to daughter, can link farmers or workers in Iowa to their counterparts in California, and if our imaginations can become as capacious as Herrera’s expansive poem attempts to make them, “blood” guilt can even do the work of “blood” inheritance. If we can feel our share in what goes wrong, in the damage our civilization can do, if we can envision those interconnections, we might work together to make it less wrong. It is a quick hope, but better than none at all.

Originally Published: September 25th, 2012

Steph Burt is a poet, literary critic, and professor. In 2012, the New York Times called Burt “one of the most influential poetry critics of his generation.” Burt grew up around Washington, DC and earned a BA from Harvard and PhD from Yale. She has published three collections of poems: Belmont (2013), Parallel Play (2006), and...

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