Diasporican Poets Mixtape: Side Two
In my last post, I commented on five poems by diasporic Puerto Rican poets published in 2015. Here, for side two of my mixtape, I will comment on some Diasporican poems published during the first eight months of 2016. Thank you for sticking with this overextended remix!
06. Martín Espada, “El Moriviví.” In Vivas to Those Who Have Failed. W.W. Norton, 2016.
Espada is widely celebrated as a Nerudian poet, and his 2006 collection The Republic of Poetry, a Pulitzer finalist, works as a song for Neruda’s/Allende’s Chile even as it echoes the Nuyorican Spirit Republic. So it’s at once surprising and refreshing to see Espada go Whitmanesque. “Vivas to those who have fail’d” is of course a line from Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” but the title perfectly captures Espada’s songs of solidarity with and affirmation of the oppressed and the dispossessed.
At the same time, the turn toward Whitman points to another side of Espada: breathless, earthy, self-disclosing. As a Nerudian poet, Espada is often read in painfully solemn terms, but he’s always had a great sense of humor, evident in his frequent use of comically long titles that sometimes set up punchline-poems as short as a single line. One such poem from Vivas is titled “Chalkboard on the Wall of a Diner in Providence, Rhode Island the Morning After George Zimmerman Was Acquitted in the Shooting Death of Trayvon Martin, an Unarmed Black Teenager” and features an epigraph from Dr. King. While I won’t reveal the four-word punchline, it’s clear that humor here becomes a way of glossing the traumatic, the unsayable.
Still, Vivas doesn’t shy away from the elegiac—the aforementioned poem is preceded by “Heal the Cracks in the Bell of the World,” a lovely prayer for the dead at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, that dares to affirm: “Now the bells pass the word at midnight in the ancient language / of bronze, from bell to bell, like ships smuggling news of liberation / from island to island. ”
From a Diasporican perspective, a key poem is “El Moriviví,” an elegy for Espada’s father, the iconic photographer, photojournalist, and activist Frank Espada (1930-2014). Moriviví is the Puerto Rican name for a particular plant whose leaves close when touched, and it translates as “I died I lived.” Here, the moriviví personification captures the elder Espada’s simultaneous resilience and sensitivity, as well the many personal and political rebirths of that generation. The poem’s long, Whitmanesque lines allow Espada to tell his father’s story with a documentary attention to detail:
When the riots burned in Brooklyn night after night,
was a peacemaker on the corner with a megaphone. A fiery
chunk of concrete fell from the sky and missed his head
My mother would tell me: Your father is out dodging
In my critical study, I briefly read Espada’s first book The Immigrant Iceboy’s Bolero (1982), which features black-and-white photographs by Frank Espada, as an exploration of the limits of a documentary poetics of diaspora. “El Moriviví” works as a continuation of that exploration, as the elder Espada, at poem’s end, survives by becoming invisible on film: “The doctors scrutinized the film, / the grainy shadows and the light, but could never see: my father / was a moriviví.” As a celebrated photojournalist, the elder Espada succeeded at the documentary enterprise, but as a diasporic icon, he also strategically “failed,” only fully visible in the afterlife, and in a personal and community history of rebirths. ¡Que viva El Moriviví!
07. Aracelis Girmay, “The Black Maria.” In The Black Maria. BOA Editions, 2016.
To say that the “The Black Maria” is a poem/sequence “about” Neil deGrasse Tyson is misleading, since Girmay’s shape-shifting poetics resists thematic “about-ness.” What is true is that Girmay uses the scene of the young astrophysicist staring at the sky from his childhood home in the Bronx as a point of departure to investigate the fate of bodies in space. As Girmay notes, in this context the “black maria” refers to the dark basins on the surface of the Moon or Mars, which early astronomers misidentified as seas, but also metaphorically to the violence done to black and brown bodies by technologies of power and their visual regimes (I’m thinking back to “Black Maria” as the name of Thomas Edison’s early film studio, and also as an old slang term for paddy wagons).
The eight numbered sections of “The Black Maria” appear toward the end of the book as part of a section with the same name, whose opening poem is also called “The Black Maria.” That opening poem begins with a list of names such as “malcolm,” “trayvon,” “audre,” and “lolita” (presumably X, Martin, Lorde and Lebrón). This pan-diasporic social genealogy is further complicated later in the “The Black Maria” sequence, as Tyson’s boyhood telescope blurs with a telescopic lens taking aim at the boy on the street and then zooms in on the reader:
the boy who has been turned, by now,
into “the suspect,” on the roof
with a long, black lens, which is,
in the neighbor’s mind, a weapon &
depending on who you are, reading this,
you know that the boy is in grave danger.
Eventually, the boy transmutes into the speaker’s own newborn son, confronting her with “the seeming limitlessness of my body’s dark.” Reading across and along all these contexts, “The Black Maria” emerges as a timely denunciation of the violence done to black and brown bodies, and especially boys’ bodies, but also as a celebration of those very bodies, of their resiliency and radical imagination across generations: “Today you study stars, / today you write.”
Inasmuch as it claims the Black and Boricua Tyson as part of a genealogy of radical Afro-diasporic imagination, “The Black Maria” is very much of a piece with Girmay’s previous books Teeth (2007) and Kingdom Animalia (2011), which have already established her as one of the major poets working today. Like those books, The Black Maria powerfully fuses Girmay’s African American, Eritrean, and Puerto Rican cultures and histories from a translocal and pan-diasporic perspective. What’s startling here, though, is the degree of metaphoric and cultural and linguistic density. Even with the benefit of author notes and prefaces that explain key references, such as the complex legacy of Pushkin in Eritrea, we readers must become agents of the cultural work of diaspora, willing to confront “infinitely black pages” and to “name every air between strangers.”
08. Emanuel Xavier, “Sometimes We’re Invisible.” In Radiance. Rebel Satori Press, 2016.
Xavier’s list poem forcefully juxtaposes mass-media events from a given year with italicized instances of violence against young queer and/or trans people of color, thereby dramatizing a tension captured in its opening couplet: “what we choose to remember / what we choose to forget.”
Such a poem might seem heavy-handed or gimmicky were it not so smartly done. For one, Xavier provocatively places these instances of violence against “mariposas/brown lives/queer lives/ trans lives” next to a range of headline-worthy events, from the release of the iPhone to Tupac Shakur’s murder and the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. The implication here is that violence against bodies of color matters only inasmuch as it’s buzzworthy or if it happens elsewhere, and that queer and trans bodies in particular remain illegible in the framework of hegemonic liberalism (the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is one of the mass events Xavier lists).
This poem was written before this summer’s shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, but it takes on an anthemic quality in its aftermath. Xavier, a key figure in New York City queer Latinx literature and culture since the release of his self-published chapbook Pier Queen in 1997, is also a celebrated performer, working in, yet revising, the Nuyorican poetry tradition. Ever since I saw Xavier perform the poem live this summer at the LGBT Center in New York City, “Sometimes We’re Invisible” has become central to how I think about the Pulse tragedy. The poem prefigures the media’s whitewashing of the tragedy, as well as its insistence on covering the event through a racialized framework of global terror, occluding the materiality of queer and trans Latinx bodies. As sentimental as the poem’s last lines are—“Splendid is our survival / Our history is sacred and worth remembering”—, they also mark the poem as an ofrenda/offering, and the poem’s centered lines become wings, echoing the images of flight throughout:
may our souls linger over fields/prayers
our names/stories remind them
we are worth love
“Sometimes We’re Invisible” is not the only standout in Radiance. Also noteworthy is the opening poem, pointedly titled “Rhetoric of Empire,” where the speaker imagines his absent father, only to conclude that “In his absence, I have conquered my own kingdom.” In Xavier’s poetics, identity is radiance (light, energy), and like Keith Haring’s radiant babies, we’re all in the process of becoming.
09. Raina J. León, “Southwest Philadelphia, 1988.” In sombra : (dis)locate. Salmon Poetry, 2016.
The core of this poem is a compressed narrative about a father (“Papi”) buying ice cream for his children, wherein the speaker becomes aware of the family’s “stain history”: her brother “fair-skinned and universal” and herself “Black and not.” At the same time, the poem includes quotes and comments in the margins that both expand upon and complicate the poem’s auto-ethnographic charge. Looking like an experimental riff on the “track changes” function of Word, this secondary text in a smaller font consists of the father’s grumbled complaint “Miss, why we always gotta wait? We were here first. My children were first!” and of this startling gloss, which concludes the poem:
only for us
Blackness was catching
pecking ravens in flight
In emphasizing the tension between “us” and “them,” this secondary text underscores the main text’s scoring of racialized urban space, but the oblique beauty of its “pecking ravens in flight” also destabilizes the relatively linear narrative of the rest of the poem. León—a founding editor of The Acentos Review, a crucial platform for independent and socially engaged Latinx poetics over the past decade—uses this same technique strategically in several of the other poems in sombra : (dis)locate, most memorably in the epic “Scrying: Cartography of Black deaths” and in the radical écriture of “On all sides, named,” with its block of justified text built from riffs with the word “black.” In the context of the book, “Southwest Philadelphia, 1988” also functions as a commentary on Afro-Latinx invisibility and hyper-visibility.
In a Diasporican light, this poem, and León’s work more generally, is also important for offering a race-and-class-conscious “Philly Rican” perspective, moving us beyond an already canonical text such as Quiara Alegría Hudes’s Pulitzer-winning play Water by the Spoonful. A shoutout also must go to the opening poem in sombra : (dis)locate, with its nifty translingual oraciones (sentences/prayers) and its defamiliarizing of visibility politics: “stilled-pool brujería (what i see in blur).”
10. Vincent Toro, “Décimarina.” In Stereo. Island. Mosaic. Ahsahta Press, 2016.
Okay, I’ll admit it: a big reason why I picked this poem is because it’s a décima, a form to which I am both existentially and poetically committed. As poet, playwright, and performer Toro notes, the décima is a ten-line octosyllabic stanza rhyming ABBAACCDDC, and it has a rich tradition within Puerto Rican poetry and song. With its mix of musical structure and folk narrative, the décima would make a nice complement to the bop, the corrido, or the rap poem in any vernacular poet’s bag of tricks. Consider this my poetic service announcement: let 2017 be the year of the décima! (2 + 0 + 1 + 7 = 10, as in its number of lines). Now back to our regularly scheduled prosody…
Actually, there are four décimas in Toro’s debut collection Stereo. Island. Mosaic, all called “Décimarina,” but my focus here is on the second one, with the subheading “Queens, 1955.” Its opening four lines are an impossibly elegant poetic distillation of the mid-twentieth century Puerto Rican Great Migration:
Cast from the hillsides. Shipped as freight
from one isla to another.
Swiped like orphans from their mothers.
The promise of work hung like bait.
Not only is the social commentary on point, but the octosyllabic lines are tight, whereas in some of the other décimas Toro takes some vernacular liberties with the syllable count. From there, the poem takes us to LaGuardia Airport and beyond, concluding with the tragicomic diasporic realization that “Few will rise […] to reclaim their sunburns.”
Certainly, there’s a lot more than décimas to Stereo. Island. Mosaic, a book whose title nods to its stereophonic Afro-Taíno glyphs, and whose verbivocovisual explorations are also choreopoems that score our inner and outer islands. (Toro’s theater background seems crucial in this respect.) There are “Taínobelisk”s and daring “Ricanstruction”s (echoing the band of the same name) that range from projective “oceanic / speech” to out-of-order numbered sentences that read like outtakes from a notebook of a return to a psychic island (with a Césaire epigraph to seal the ordeal).
This is as formally daring and self-assured a debut poetry collection as you will read without taking off the headphones from your eyes. (I don’t know what that means either, but I’ll keep reading Toro to figure it out.) And then, right at the end of the book, there’s this: ”This island is a bridge / between the Orishas / and the astronauts.” This décima geek digs it, and you just may too.
When I began this mixtape, I envisaged two sides with five tracks each, focusing on poems published in books, since so many relevant books have been published over the past twenty months. However, every mixtape can use some bonus tracks, and besides (b-sides!) such a list would feel incomplete without acknowledging the important Diasporican poetry being published online. So here are two online bonus tracks.
11. Lydia Cortes, “A LADY.” In Nuyorican Women Writers Anthology. Volume One. Edited by Nancy Mercado. Center for Puerto Rican Studies (Hunter College), 2015.
Carefully curated by Mercado, a leading Nuyorican poet and editor, the ongoing Nuyorican Women Writers Anthology features established figures such as Sandra María Esteves, Magdalena Gómez, María Teresa “Mariposa” Fernández, María Aponte, and Mercado herself, alongside newer voices such as J.F. Seary and Jani Rose. Standouts from the anthology include four poems by Amina Muñoz Ali, one of the poets published in the foundational 1975 anthology Nuyorican Poetry, and two poems by Lydia Cortes, a veteran of New York’s downtown poetry scene whose adventurous work should be much better known. The first Cortes poem, “Man Brought Down,” is a gut-wrenching elegy for Eric Garner, while the second poem, “A LADY,” is an unforgettable, barreling blast of (punk/feminist?) poetic prose. With its run-on stream of all-capitals and its performative use of slashes, “A LADY” wears its O.G. Boricua heart on its post-Beat sleeve, but its diagnosis of the city is utterly contemporary: “I LOOK UP SEE THEY’RE PUTTING UP ANOTHER FANCY HIGH RISE BUILDING FOR HIGH RISEN FANCY PEOPLE/ GONE THE PEOPLE WHO WORKED IN FACTORIES THE MANUFACTURING AND PRINTING BUSINESSES.”
As brilliantly acidic in its populism as anything by Pietri (Cortes’s friend), “A LADY” is also an interior monologue that stages an encounter with the titular lady: in the speaker’s mind, the lady tells her (in Spanish) that she’s waiting to receive her Social Security to return to Puerto Rico. By the time the poem ends with the speaker in tears and the loaded phrase “COSA DE FAMILIA” (“A FAMILY MATTER”), the poem has unfolded into a manifesto on the precariousness of self and family in the neoliberal city, and on the diasporic imagination as both curse and survival mechanism. And who can say no to a poem with the guts to proclaim “ONLY UNA AMERICANA LOCA WOULD WEAR THAT”?
12. Joey De Jesus, “The Erasures of NOCT.” 2016.
I know nothing about “The Erasures of NOCT” other than what it says on the poet’s blog, which I came across earlier this summer. According to the blog, De Jesus wanted to “write about the demonization of blackness and the damage caused by the internalization of white supremacy in a non-white body,” and so De Jesus produced erasures of a how-to book on black magic that the poet had come across around the time of Michael Brown’s murder.
With their concentric circles and the contrast between the often heavy markings and the white space of the page, De Jesus’s erasures are not only visually beautiful, they also hint at the ways in which writing is always “other” against the whiteness of the page, and also the ways in which writing is (working through and from) an act of violence. The source text’s insistence on ritual (black magic) and its imperative register (how-to) echo the rhetorical violence of white supremacy, and against that backdrop the words that De Jesus foregrounds acquire an even greater significance: on one page they become something as indelible as “you are a miniscule shadow figure / a smell of damp burial.”
Of course, these erasures can’t be understood outside of a politics emerging from and centered around “those of us who do not have the luxury of abandoning our identity in pursuit of craft,” as De Jesus, echoing Lorde, perfectly put it in a 2015 essay. Ultimately, De Jesus’s “The Erasures of NOCT” and Mercado’s Nuyorican Women Writers Anthology are reminders to privileged-professor-me that the craft of poetry is for many of us inseparable from the ongoing and largely invisible labor of sustaining the communities that in turn sustain us, and I thank them for their work. Let those be our poetry’s foundations.
Originally from San Juan, Puerto Rico, Urayoán Noel is the author of the poetry collections Buzzing Hemisphere/Rumor Hemisférico (2015), a Library Journal Top Fall Indie Poetry selection; Hi-Density Politics (2010), a National Book Critics Circle Small Press Highlights selection; Kool Logic/La Lógica Kool (2005), an El Nuevo Día Book of the...