The deadline for former students to submit poems in memory of Chicano poet and UC Berkeley professor Alfred Arteaga was yesterday at 3pm. (He passed away earlier this summer; he was born on Cinco de Mayo and died on the 4th of July; he would have appreciated these coincidences immensely.) The poems are to be collected in a booklet by the Department of Ethnic Studies. I, one of his former students, did not submit anything and have yet to write a poem in memory of Alfred. Perhaps Neruda’s words are appropriate here. In Confieso que he vivido, Neruda remembers being solicited for some verses on the death of Che Guevara and explains why even years later he has not yet written them.

Pienso que tal elegía debe contener, no solo la inmediata protesta, sino también el eco profundo de la dolorosa historia. Meditaré ese poema hasta que madure en mi cabeza y en mi sangre.
I think such an elegy should contain not only the immediate protest but also the profound echo of dolorous history. I shall meditate that poem until it matures in my head and in my blood.

One does hear a profound echo in Tennyson.

And “ave, ave, ave” said,
“Adieu, Adieu,” for evermore.

These lines allude to "Catullus CI," the elegiac lament for Catullus’ brother.
multas per gentes et multa per aequora uectus
aduenio has miseras frater ad inferias.
ut te postremo donarem munere mortis.
et mutam nequiquam alloquerer cinerem.
quandoquidem fortuna mihi tete abstulit ipsum.
heu. miser. indigne frater adempte mihi.
nunc tamen interea haec prisco quae more parentum
tradita sunt tristi munere ad inferias
accipe fraterno multum manantia fletu.
atque in perpetuum frater aue. atque uale.
Travelling through many nations and through many seas
I have come, brother, for these poor funeral rites,
That I might render you the last dues of the dead
And vainly comfort your dumb ashes,
Because Fortune has robbed me of your self, alas,
Poor brother, unfairly taken from me.
But now, meanwhile, accept these gifts which old custom
Of the ancestors are offered in sad duty
At funeral rites, gifts drenched in a brother’s tears,
And forever, brother, greetings and farewell. (trans. Guy Lee)
Tennyson: “nor can any modern elegy so long as men retain the least hope in the after-life of those whom they loved, equal in pathos the desolation of that everlasting farewell, ‘Atque in perpetuum frater ave atque vale.’”
The need to meditate an elegy long enough for it to mature both in one’s mind and one’s blood may explain why Tennyson spent a decade and a half writing In Memoriam, A.H.H. Modern elegies tend to focus not on the loss but on what can be gained by the loss. The loss of Arthur Henry Hallam leads Tennyson to doubt and ultimately to renew his faith in God.
He names his son Hallam.
“Elegies are artistic responses to events the natural emotional response to which is sorrow, which Webster’s defines as “deep distress and regret (as over the loss of something loved).” I feel we understand too little about the psychology of loss to understand why the creation of beauty is so fitting as a way of marking it—why we bring flowers to the graveside, or to the funeral, or why music of a certain sort defines the mood of mourners. It is as though beauty works as a catalyst, transforming raw grief into a tranquil sadness, helping the tears to flow and, at the same time, one might say, putting the loss into a certain philosophical perspective. Recourse to beauty seems to emerge spontaneously on occasions where sorrow is felt. In the 1980s, when so many young men were beginning to die of AIDS, the gay funeral became a kind of art form. The victims would plan their funerals with care and originality and fill them with what had given beauty to their lives. The beauty embodied the values they had lived by. Again, in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, impromptu shrines appeared all over New York City. They were all more or less the same, and very moving: votive candles, flowers, flags, balloons, sometimes scraps of paper with poems. They were the immediate vernacular responses to the immense sadness that overcame everyone in New York. The mood was elegiac rather than angry, and the shrines were the outward expression of hearts broken by what was perceived as the end of a from of life. ‘Nothing will ever be the same’ was the common remark in those first days after 9/11.” (Arthur C. Danto, The Abuse of Beauty, 111).
I remember learning somewhere that in some Mexican communities in Texas when it was still Mexico families would hire people to mourn for their loved ones at funerals. These mourners-for-hire were used to assure that the proper amount of grief and sorrow were expressed at funerals. I understand this is not unique to those communities.
Reginald Shepherd in a response to a comment by one of his readers here on Harriet claims, “I never said beauty.” Perhaps he never does use the word, but beauty is exactly what he means when he speaks of autonomy, lyric, and freedom.
(I first wrote the above in past tense—claimed, did, was, meant, spoke—before changing it to the literary present. Maybe Reginald has the literary present in mind when he says, “I write because I would like to live forever.”)
I wanted to find the actual “beauty” comment, but it is a great credit to his posts that the comments stream is too large for me to find it.
And it is a tribute to the respect and love Harriet readers feel for him that the announcement of his passing by Emily Warn has received up to now 59 comments.
In The Aeneid, Virgil pays respect to the pathos felt in Catullus’ everlasting farewell. Aeneas sends off the fallen young prince Pallas with the following:
"More of the same drear destiny of battle
Calls me back to further tears. Forever
Hail to you, my noble friend, my Pallas,
Hail and farewell forever." (trans. Robert Fitzgerald)
“Oda a Federico,” though published a year before Lorca’s execution, can be read as a sort of elegy with all its premonitions of death. In the ode, Neruda writes, “porque por ti pintan de azul los hospitales.” Once when he gave a talk on Lorca years after his death, Neruda was asked why he had written that hospitals are painted bright blue because of Lorca. Neruda first said that asking a poet why he has written something is like asking a woman her age. Then he explained that blue is the most joyful color and that Lorca brought joy everywhere he went and that Lorca’s joy would transform even the sadness of hospitals.
I took a class with Alfred in the Spring 2007 semester. One time after class Alfred joined a group of us at the Bears Lair on the Berkeley campus. He told us he was working on a book on Aesthetics. Alfred was all about the beautiful. I think he and I agreed there at the bar that “El Louie” by Jose Montoya is one of the most beautiful elegies ever written. Perhaps if it had not been written by a Chicano—it could never not have been written by a Chicano—it would be more widely read and studied.
In Chicano Poetics, Alfred says, “When I write about Chicano poetry, one of the first examples that comes to mind is José Montoya’s “El Loiue.” I’m sure this is so because the poem strikes me as being thoroughly Chicano. It is, after all about the high life and tragic end of Louie Rodriguez, exemplar of urban youth subculture; it is an elegy for a pachuco.”
There at the bar Alfred and I recited our favorite parts of “El Louie” from memory.
"Hoy enterraron al Louie.
And San Pedro o san pinche
are in for it."
"Kind of slim and drawn,
There toward the end,
Ageing fast from too much
Booze y la vida dura. But
Class to the end."
"Era de Fowler el vato,"
"He dug roles, man,
And names—like 'Blackie,' 'Little
Louie . . .'
Ese Louie . . .
Chale, man, call me 'Diamonds!'"
"And 'Legs Louie Diamonds' hit
On some lean times . . ."
"His death was an insult
Porque no murio en accion-"
"He diead alone in a
Rented room—perhaps like in a
Bogard movie."
"The end was a cruel hoax.
But his life had been

Originally Published: September 13th, 2008

Javier O. Huerta's debut collection Some Clarifications y otros poemas (Arte Publico 2007) received the 31st Chicano/Latino Literary Prize from UC Irvine. He is also the author of American Copia (2012). A graduate of the Bilingual MFA Program at UT El Paso, Huerta is currently a PhD student in the...

  1. September 15, 2008
     Francisco Aragón

    Great post, Javier. One of my favorites is Llanto por Ignacio Sánchez Mejía

  2. September 16, 2008
     Don Share

    And I'd add Miguel Hernández' "Elegía" for Ramón Sijé.