Printer Friendly

Ascendance and Abjection: Reading Latina/o Poetry in the Summer of Trump.

THE EXCHANGE BETWEEN DONALD Trump and Jorge Ramos in August 2015, in Iowa, underscored the peculiar dynamic that defines the status of U.S. Latinos. When Trump had the Mexican-American reporter removed from the press conference, his security guards served as apt stand-ins for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. And when the billionaire told the esteemed Latino journalist to "Go back to Univision," Univision served as a synecdoche for Mexico, which in turn serves the nativist imaginary as a synecdoche for Latin America. Trump thus undermined his appalling either-or metric for discerning the place of Mexicans in the U.S., whether or not they are citizens, as if to say: not only will I send back to Mexico the "rapists" and "criminals"--the "bad ones" who nonetheless define the entire population--I'll deport your best should they have the gall to ask a presidential candidate to explain his immigration policies. (1)

On both sides, the aftermath was swift. As is the wont of an authoritarian strongman and erstwhile casino mogul, Trump doubled down. He ridiculed Ramos as a nobody, when he is arguably more visible, popular, and well-respected than any English-language network news anchor. Trump even misnamed him, calling him Jose Reyes, thereby revealing his hard-boiled New York City provincialism. Jose Reyes is a common name, but Trump seemed to conjure it from his subconscious. The former (and now current) New York Met, the Dominican Jose Reyes, sauntered to the sparkling white plate of Trump's mind with reggaeton pounding from Shea Stadium's speakers.

Meanwhile, the campaign against all things Trump continued apace, from the Twitter hash-tag #dumptrump, to his ongoing banishment from Univision--as if he had been banned from Mexico via Miami, where Univision is headquartered--to becoming Mexican public enemy #1, even featuring in TV ads there for a match between the U.S. and Mexican national soccer teams. His praise for Operation Wetback (1955) in subsequent interviews only intensified his enthusiasm for deportation. In his imaginary, deportation isn't a necessary if unpleasant act but a "humane" pleasure, with an honorable lineage, from FDR through Eisenhower through Trump.

With alternately coded and naked racisms, Twitter wars and bombastic pronouncements, the Trump-Ramos encounter thus assumed the forms of a performance poetics, replete with figuration, indirection, and condensation. The exchange and its aftermath enacted the historical tension between the ascendance of Latinos--undergirding Trump's rhetoric is the fear of Latino hordes transforming the nation--and their abjection, the persistent forms of abuse and diminishment to which Latinos are subjected in the public sphere. Reading through the prism of this tension illuminates not only the ability of Latino writing to pinpoint and critique the paradoxes structural to the U.S. empire. It crystallizes the ways in which Latino poetics grapples with the questions of citizenship scorching the headlines during what has been called "the Summer of Trump." In this harsh light, Latino poetics reveals a generative capacity to invent and build from states of belittlement resilient, innovative languages of belonging, joy, and triumph.

Such an understanding of Latino poetics underscores the nimble responsiveness of Latinidad as an aesthetic strategy developed to exorcise ghosts, to mock the threat of expulsion, and to enter the teeming estuaries and cesspits where multiple languages and historical trajectories meet. Tensile, disobedient, errant, and fugitive, in recent Latino poetry Latinidad ascends and descends at irregular intervals, where it contests the suppositions of "the Summer of Trump" on the grounds of a public poetics. Crucially, these qualities are not just the province of Poetry, with a capital P, though that is arguably their provenance. Victor Hernandez Cruz's essays, Helena Maria Viramontes's lyric novels, and Daniel Borzutzky's fables, among other innovative Latino texts, display the haunted and frequently oblique figures, images, and forms of interiority and artifice that explode generic distinctions between poetry and prose. Above all, they share an abiding intensity defined by energy, dis-ease, and an emphasis on language as the basis of politics. As a loose congregation of writers working across the country and across the aesthetic spectrum, Latino poetry converges on a shared intensity in the face of dissolution. This quality joins different poets in different times and places--Clemente Soto Velez, Gary Soto, and Christopher Soto (of the Undocupoets)--in the same field. In this frame, Latine? poetry emerges in a crux of ascendance and abjection in unexpected, uneven, and subterranean ways. The refusal to acknowledge the reality of these historically persistent relations is a hallmark of "the Summer of Trump." Surprisingly, as we will see, this disavowal is shared by Trump and Ramos alike. .


Recent high-profile awards for Latino writers--Junot Diaz's Pulitzer Prize and MacArthur "genius" grant, Eduardo C. Corral's Yale Younger Poets Prize, and Juan Felipe Herrera's Poet Laureateship--have put the tensions between the cultural ascendance of Latinos and their civic abjection in sharp relief, thereby highlighting an asymmetry between the Republic of Letters and the Republic of Super PACs. Theirs is not merely a demographic ascendance, though it is certainly that. Trump's supporters are aware of the census figures: there are 55 million Latinos in the U.S., making them the largest minority. Nor is the ascendance focused on Latinos as a voting bloc or on their consumer spending power, as Arlene Davila examines in Latinos Inc.: The Marketing and Making of a People. Rather, Latinos are changing the cultural forms of North America, in precisely the ways that Cruz predicted in his seminal essay "Mountains in the North: Hispanic Writing in the U.S.A.": "Spanish and English constantly breaking into each other like ocean waves" (8990). In these contexts, the draconian laws passed in Arizona and Alabama, the rhetoric of "anchor babies," the failure of the DREAM Act, and the fever dreams animating Trump's "big, beautiful" border wall are predictable reiterations of historical tensions.

For Latinos, these tensions are not especially new, nor is Trump the first xenophobe with a megaphone. I would hypothesize that Latino poetics has always done its cultural work between the poles of ascendance and abjection. This contradiction haunts texts as varied as Jose Marti's "Our America" and Gloria Anzaldua's Borderlands/La Frontera. Contradictions between resistance and assimilation and dispossession and belonging have long been of central concern to Latino writers. "The Summer of Trump" was meant to denote a season that passes. In the U.S., however, it has been an endless summer, from early-nineteenth century dreams of Latino autonomy in what is now Texas to the undocumented "Dreamers" seeking the right to pursue college educations free of the fear of deportation. The mass deportations of President Obama, who is known as the "deporter in chief" by immigration activists, have contributed to making the number of undocumented residents in the U.S. the lowest it's been since 2004. A chilling precedent to these deportations is the "decade of betrayal," the historian Francisco Balderrama's term for the 1930s, when a million U.S. residents of Mexican descent were deported, 60% of whom were U.S. citizens. Then, from 1942 to 1964, the Bracero Program brought 5 million Mexican laborers to the U.S., where they were "vilified and valued," in Alicia Schmidt Camacho's enduringly apposite terms (63).

Speaking of echoes, the documentary film The Endless Summer was released in 1966, in the midst of the Black Civil Rights Movement, and on the cusp of the Chicano and Puerto Rican movements. The film isn't about Latinos, of course, but it carries an uncanny symbolism pertinent to the dynamic at hand. The title reduces the film's premise to its pith: with sufficient time and resources, it is feasible to follow the summer across the globe, effectively suspending temporality to search for "the perfect wave." In following two surfers around the world--thus animating the ways in which leisure, privilege, the pursuit of pleasure, and indulgence in nature can be leveraged into art and the good life--the film dramatizes a perverse inversion of Latino labor, and in a suitably global frame. Following the seasons is precisely what field workers and migrant laborers do year round, year after year, simply to survive. For migrants, rather than the conditional--If money and time then endless pleasure and adventure--a more uncertain calculus prevails, with many more ifs and a categorically different endless.

Consider Viramontes's Under the Feet of Jesus, which follows 12-year-old Estrella and her migrant family into California's fruit fields. When the family's battered station wagon enters a migrant labor camp in the book's first pages, Viramontes enacts the proliferating conditionals that culminate in a single certainty:
    The silence and the barn and the clouds meant
   many things. It was always a question of work,
   and work depended on the harvest, the car running,
   their health, the conditions of the road,
   how long the money held out, and the weather,
   which meant they could depend on nothing.
   Estrella watched Perfecto's hand scratching the
   back of his head with uncertainty. His skin was
   like the bark of a juniper tree. (4) 

The film's taglihe--"In search of the perfect wave"--likewise has an uncanny echo with the rhetoric of anti-immigrant, anti-Latino nativism over the decades. It is no coincidence that Victor Hernandez Cruz reappropriates the wave as a figure of concussive transformation. A wave is an implacable force that has to be stopped by the gigantic wall that must rise, to underscore nativism's metaphorical imprecision, in the desert, where there is no water at all.


To untangle how Latino writers hold in tension these seemingly divergent vertical trajectories--ascendance on one end, abjection on the other--I'd like to offer some working definitions. "Abject" comes from the Latin abjectus, meaning lowly or humble, though another cognate of the latter word is more cutting: humiliation rings down the longue duree, echoing in the processes of alienation and assimilation that have circumscribed Latino experiences in the U.S. Yet Latino poets do not ascribe to a uniform prescription for abjection, nor do they agree that this state is defined exclusively by powerlessness and desperation. Take this constellation of poets and their signature works--Rafael Campo's HIV poems; Jimmy Santiago Baca's and Miguel Pinero's prison poems; Sandra Cisneros's cockeyed love poems; Carmen Gimenez Smith's searing motherhood poems; Lorna Dee Cervantes's rape and domestic violence poems--all of which orient toward abjection differently. For many Latino poets and writers, abjection can be disarmingly generative, as we will see in some of the examples to follow.

Ascendance is trickier to define. The low hanging fruit is that the U.S. will become a majority minority nation, and that its demographic destiny is a Latino one. But this sort of futurism obscures the long presence of Latinos in what is now the U.S., documented by the Recovering the U.S. Hispanic Literary Heritage Project of Arte Publico Press and by scholars of nineteenth-century Latino Studies. How is it possible, then, to be so old and so new simultaneously, to have been here before Anglo-Europeans and to be seen as constantly arriving? Raul Coronado's breathtaking literary history of Latino writing in what is now Texas in the first half of the nineteenth century offers a clue. A World Not to Come: A History of Latino Writing and Print Culture argues that Latino history and identity are grounded in failed ideas, quelled uprisings, thwarted attempts at autonomy, and a different path to modernity than that of Anglo-America. This "history of false starts, of dreams that failed to cohere" (394) suggests that narratives of ascendance that tend too closely to arrival, newness, and success deploy ahistorical tropes that perform the ideological work of assimilation while erasing ongoing injustices. This dynamic pertains even in more recent historical markers. Take the Chicano movement slogan, for instance: "we didn't cross the border, the border crossed us." It's most apparent in the blind-spots in Jorge Ramos's confidence, his our time has come outlook. Ascendance, then, to be understood in its complexity, must enfold a rigorous historicism into a futurist horizon.

The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature has rightly been critiqued for sacrificing historicism for triumphalism. General editor lian Stavans described the NALL shortly after its publication in 2010: "In the last several decades, Latinos finally have been entering the middle class. This anthology not only explains the forces behind that economic move but justifies the move. It is a book that all middle-class Latinos need, proof that we've made it: We've arrived" (cited in Gruesz, 339-340). Kirsten Silva Gruesz critiques this reasoning by pointing to its ahistorical class politics: "It takes some doing to tease this bootstrap narrative of integration out of the anthology's selections, but the larger message is unmistakable: the satisfying heft of those pages constitutes proof that Latino literature was. The unanswered question of what it was seems beside the point" (340). Part of what Gruesz is driving at is the irony of Stavans resorting to identity politics, given that he has often said that Latino writers are best when they reach for universal forms, that coded language for white, heteronormative, western.

Oddly enough, Ramos falls into a similar trap, obscuring the dehumanizing aspects of the present. He has said that he would be excited if either Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz is elected president for the sole fact that we would have a Latino president. This is a strange identity politics, devoid of content, that relegates to the past specific Chicano and Puerto Rican histories of dispossession and ongoing struggles for the rights of the undocumented. This is not to discount Cuban-American experiences such as Rubio's or Cruz's, or the depths of their hardships, but to emphasize the need for comparative Latino histories within and in relation to the U.S. After all, it is a juridical, not to mention an ontological, impossibility to be an "illegal" Cuban, given the preferential treatment enduring from the Cold War. Would the arrival of Rubio or Cruz, and their anti-immigrant politics, be read as ascendance or abjection, or both? This contradiction is deeply rooted. Schmidt Camacho writes of Americo Paredes's iconic poem "The Mexico-Texan," from 1934: "There remains a paradoxical relationship between the poem's construction --as a rendition of complete and total abjection--and the poem's reception as the foundational statement of border Mexican identity" (58). Might the same be said of El Louie or Oscar Wao, even Jorge Ramos or Sofia Vergara?

In these contexts, Coronado's conception of the term "Latino," which he applies retroactively (he uses the term "proleptically") to early-nineteenth-century Spanish Americans, accentuates the threat posed to Trump's nativist nationalism by Latino cultures. For Coronado, "Latino" "refers less to a subject-position than it does to a literary and intellectual culture that emerges in the interstices between the United States and Spanish America." Without "clear temporal and spatial boundaries," "it is precisely the non-national specificity of 'Latino' that makes the term particularly useful, given the intractability of the nation as an overpowering concept in organizing fields of knowledge" (29-30). Latino poetics thus has its origins in multiple interstices--North-South, English-Spanish, citizen-"illegal," arrival-departure, and ascendance-abjection--that persist to this day.


Many writers have found purchase on these tensions. Here I want to highlight briefly work by some of the most astute dissenters in the endless summer--Herrera, Viramontes, Borzutzky, and Gimenez Smith. Herrera presents perhaps the most complex case. When he was appointed U.S. Poet Laureate in 2015, it was obviously notable because he was the first Latino to be so named. (He was also the first Latino Poet Laureate of California.) Most reports led with some variation on this theme, noting that he is the son of migrant workers from Mexico. I am wary of making too much of these awards, given the risk of resorting to post-racial tropes that reproduce bootstrap narratives and reduce identity politics to a zero-sum game of representation. But this particular recognition has generated fascinating questions and possibilities. What do we make of (and, more significantly, from) historical arrivals such as Herrera's?

A 2015 forum on Latino poetry in the Kenyon Review online, where CantoMundo poets shared new titles from their influences, offered one path. Rosebud Ben-Oni began with some personal history: "During my university days, Latina/o authors and poets were largely relegated to elective courses [...] my student days were, unfortunately, the pre-Eduardo C. Corral Slow Lightning years." If Latino poetry only becomes visible and legible to mainstream U.S. literary culture--to the "American" canon, the Po Biz, the workshop, and the "big" prize--in 2012, when Corral became the first Latino to win the Yale Younger Poets Prize, how do we assess the long arc of Latino poetics? How do we incorporate Marti, Julia de Burgos, and William Carlos Williams, poets who can be read as Latino "proleptically," in Coronado's terms (29), let alone the movement poets? In these contexts, questions of periodization become more urgent and unpredictable. Ben-Oni's constricted temporality is produced in part by exclusion from the canon and its corollary: the outsize attention given to, and the undue pressure put on, exemplary texts and writers. This dynamic tends to obscure the structural constraints that limit the opportunities of most writers of color while effacing their less visible though significant successes.

The mainstream media attention to Herrera's milestone was relatively robust, as was the social media chatter. Even so, I worry that the praise was not a vehicle but the thing itself--the ascendance substituting for the work still to come and the journey here obscuring the books that carried him. What happens, then, when we read Herrera for the first time, or reread him in the light of his ascendance, and not just watch videos of his readings as Poet Laureate? I have often been asked, after all, even by scholars in other fields of literary study, Who are the Latino poets? Or, which Latino poets would I know? These used to be tricky questions, given their request for representative, canonical, and "famous" poets. After Junot Diaz (A.J.D.), most everyone "knew about" Latino literature, but even voracious readers, intellectuals, and literature professors struggled to name a Latino poet. I can't count how many times I got: You mean like Neruda?

With Herrera as Poet Laureate this question assumes a new ease, though one that remains troubled. Yet now is the crucial moment for North Americans to read Herrera. For at least as notable as the fact of his migrant background is the incongruence between Herrera's poetics and those of previous poets laureate and perhaps of the decorous bearing of the position itself. His propulsive, surreal, vernacular, and restlessly experimental aesthetics are present to varying degrees in Gwendolyn Brooks, W. S. Merwin, Charles Wright, and Charles Simic. But no previous laureate has Herrera's antic, improvisational, oracular, unfinished, messy, unruly, indeed uncivil qualities, and most dissonantly, his wild shifts in registers of multiple languages and his critiques of U.S. imperialism and capitalism through a hemispheric lens.

Take the example of Mayan Drifter: Chicano Poet in the Lowlands of America, where Herrera turns both the ethnographic lens and the Other's gaze on himself. This Gonzo version of Borderlands/La Frontera--an auto-ethnography, or undocumentary, of prose, poetry, and photography--details Herrera grappling with his Americanness via encounters with indigenous Maya. In Chiapas he's definitely not Mexican, and he's not even really Chicano; he's American, a "suburban Zapatista" with "a fancy-colored backpack" (17,15). Books like this one keep me asking myself: how in the world was he named Poet Laureate of the U.S. and in so timely a fashion, just before "the Summer of Trump" surfaced from the submerged historical main?

"187 Reasons Mexicanos Can't Cross the Border," the title piece of Herrera's 2007 collection (29-35), anticipates Trump's rhetoric. The list poem is comprised of 187 "because" clauses, with the heavy use of anaphora that marks one of Herrera's signature modes: the Whitmanian surreal. The poem toggles between cataloging the onslaught of dehumanizing forces ("Because we can read about it in an ethnic prison") and taunting the nativists with the endurance and audacity of Mexicanos and Latinos ("Because we'll dig a tunnel to Seattle"). With two provocative references, the title, "187," condenses this dialectic. 187 refers to the California police code that a police officer has been shot in the line of duty. This bold numerological index to Herrera's anti-imperialism--"Because the CIA trains better with brown targets"--suggests that the endless summer is defined by violent encounters between the surveillance state and its marginal subjects. Proposition 187, the second reference, is the California ballot initiative passed in 1994. This comprehensive measure made undocumented immigrants ineligible for all social, public, and medical services, and it essentially deputized state and local police as agents of la Migra. (It was later struck down.) (2) Herrera's poem is thus a piece of absurdist theater. In dramatizing the proposition's warrant digit by digit, line by line, the accumulating, regular waves of utterances--187 breakers on the nativist shores--erode the logical bulwarks of nativism and exult in the compromised but certain resiliency of Latinidad.

The disorienting logorrhea, virtuosic allusiveness, rejection of high seriousness, and call-and-response in Herrera's public reading of this poem at the Ruskin Art Club in L.A., on November 19, 2007, exemplified the poet's role not as a representative of the people but as a participant in creating a collective poem. For him, the text is a score modified and improvised in real-time, noisy feedback and all. On this occasion, Herrera revised the published version, which begins, "Because Lou Dobbs has been misusing the subjunctive again." This line puts readers on their toes: how many can explain with any facility the subjunctive mood? A few. How many can guess the ways in which Lou Dobbs and other nativists misuse it? A multitude, I imagine.

It has always been risky enough to see Herrera as a representative voice of Latinos and Chicanos given his idiosyncratic style and their internal diversities. Now his position makes him the voice of the U.S. Here it gets trickier, given his long advocacy for the undocumented. Herrera even theorizes an undocumented aesthetic practice, "Indocumentos/Undocuments," in one of the "Aztlan Chronicles" in 187 Reasons Mexicanos Can't Cross the Border. These buoyant, playful, verbally excessive typewriter prose passages assume a journalistic quality in the manner of Allen Ginsberg's auto poesy, his cross-country tape recordings in the "first word, best word" vein. For Herrera, the undocumented produce an eerily similar dynamic to that of the 1930s, when "the political status of Mexican migrants," as Schmidt Camacho writes, "posed a troubling problem for Mexican American intellectuals." Consequently, she argues, "the search for the proper political form for contending with the fragile agency of migrant people doubled as a search for the aesthetic forms that could register their cultural value" (40-41).

This is the double task that Herrera takes on in his unflinching style. His concept of hemispheric citizenship, for example, flashes up in the documentary poem "A Day Without a Mexican," also in 187 Reasons. The poem records the signs carried in the May 1, 2006 march in Los Angeles in support of the rights of the undocumented. One handmade banner reads "Yo naci en America soy Americano ok," and it is held by a young Chicano on top of a porta-potty (62). The sign's tone, form, and location are not coincidental to Herrera's poetics; rather, their "found," anti-poetic qualities underscore the exasperated claim to belonging that flies from a symbolic site of abjection and impermanence, the portable toilet. "Undocuments" like this one shape a poetics bold, nimble, and furtive enough to remap Latino identity on the ontological and linguistic grounds of its most vulnerable and invisible--the n million undocumented residents. (3)

Unlike Herrera, Viramontes's fiction is grounded in a social realism reconfigured through a lyric syntax and sensibility. Under the Feet of Jesus mines a space where abjection and ascendance clash, spark, and explode in Estrella's world-weary pubescence. The title is a sleight of hand: the novel doesn't really address religion. Instead, the mother stores the children's papers (the birth certificates proving their U.S. citizenship) below her altar. Unfortunately, they're of little consequence, as the family is hunted by the border patrol and marginalized from the institutions of American life--schools, hospitals--and alienated even from the products of their own labor, subsisting on a diet of pilfered fruits and substandard vegetables.

Viramontes's aesthetic critique of false representations and alienated, racialized female labor participates in a Chicana tradition exemplified in Sun Mad, Ester Hernandez's well-known parody of a Sun-Maid raisins box. Estrella's coming-into-consciousness likewise involves the recognition that her hardship and sacrifice are erased:
    Carrying the full basket to the paper was not
   like the picture on the red raisin boxes Estrella
   saw in the market, not like the woman wearing
   a fluffy bonnet, holding out the grapes with
   her smiling, ruby lips, the sun a flat orange behind
   her. The sun was white and it made Estrella's
   eyes sting like an onion, and the baskets of
   grapes resisted her muscles, pulling their magnetic
   weight back to earth. The woman with the
   red bonnet did not know this. Her knees did
   not sink in the hot white soil, and she did not
   know how to pour the basket of grapes inside
   the frame gently and spread the bunches evenly
   on top of the newsprint paper. She did not remove
   the frame, straighten her creaking knees,
   the bend of her back, set down another sheet of
   newsprint paper, reset the frame, then return to
   the pisca again with the empty basket, row after
   row, sun after sun. The woman's bonnet would
   be as useless as Estrella's own straw hat under a
   white sun so mighty, it toasted the green grapes
   to black raisins. (49-50) 

In New York City, where nearly every bodega sells Sun-Maids by the counter, my students are taken aback, in a moment of Brechtian theater, by the "weight" of this passage. The pisca is too far from their hyper-urban lives, but the after-image burned in their retinas by point-of-sale marketing dislodges their consumer identities from their developing intellectual selves.

The language of Estrella's knowledge, her burgeoning epistemology of refusal, is clearly weighted with metaphor. Mitchum Huehls numbers the book's similes at a hefty 216 in 176 spare pages (357). The transformative dimensions of this coming-of-age novel--Estrella's awakening, her empowerment--are hence fraught with multiplying figurations. Her ascendance to the rickety roof of the barn, where the novel ends ambiguously, is nested in her family's abjection, which appears inescapable, an endless summer. This condition emerges from a particular site of abjection, childhood. With its "non-citizen" or "citizen-in-training" historical modes, in this book childhood becomes a perpetual state that prematurely ages those enduring its endless summer. Like my students, readers are challenged to respond to Viramontes's metaphorical turnings by replacing the family's humiliation with their incorporation into the body politic. By stretching the family's horizon in their imaginations, they figuratively impart to them the possibilities that inhere in the dominant culture's children. (4)

If Viramontes is the poet's novelist, Borzutzky is the storyteller's poet. His recursive, labyrinthine fabulas are haunted by state violence, from his parents' Chile during the Pinochet dictatorship to his present home of Chicago, where Rahm Emanuel's hauntingly similar neoliberalism is replete with police torture, union busting, and the privatization of education. Broadly understood, Borzutzky's writing joins narrative and prose turns in recent North American poetics, exemplified by Bhanu Kapil, Claudia Rankine, and Juliana Spahr. For these writers, the basic unit of a poem is the sentence, alternatively fragmented and elongated, expansive, flowing, repetitive, and uncertain of itself. In Borzutzky's poetry, to write homo economicus, the neoliberal project's human ideal, entails representing the body enduring humiliating blows. This is the affect and effect of said project: blows from above, from boot heels, from out of nowhere, from everywhere at once, and from neighbors and strangers alike.

To write this condition, Borzutzky's sentences circle around entrenched, repetitive, and grotesque forms of violence--sadist, scatological, necrophiliac. In a video poem he presented at the Program in Poetry & Poetics at the University of Chicago on January 19, 2015, he narrates over an episode of Speedy Gonzales from 1955, the year of Operation Wetback. Borzutzky's video poem historicizes the ways in which the abjection of (im)migrant bodies is routinized through the logics of capitalism and the state. While the cartoon pans the border fence between Mexico and the U.S., mice in sombreros gathering in the shadow of an Acme factory, Borzutzky cuts through nativist and liberal nationalisms with the technocratic abstractions of the Chicago Boys. "Country A" and "Country B" trade bodies and resources. With "the wetbacks huddled in a circle under an enormous cactus to draw straws" to determine which mouse will "take one for the team," it's clear how little has changed and how suggestively Speedy Gonzales dramatized border politics four decades prior to the passage of NAFTA. (5) When the mice reminisce about their "one piece of cheese"--"how nice it was to take turns passing the cheese back and forth between our mouths. We licked each other's slobber off the dirty cheese that had been in who knows how many of our mouths"--the repetition morphs into a body politics. This subjectivity centers in the migrants' hardened yet delicate fingers: "there are countries in my starving fingers." "[T]he gas chambers in their collapsible little fingers" point in accusation at the transnational regime of neoliberal globalization, which, in Borzutzky's reckoning, harms our humanity, no matter how enlightened or generous we imagine ourselves or our nations.

Unlike Borzutzky's appropriation of popular culture, Gimenez Smith's angle on the tension between ascendance and abjection is based in a gendered experience of exclusion. Her "Parts of an Autobiography" is comprised of III numbered fragments, in mock-imitation of and mock-homage to the avant-garde that has confined "ethnic" poetry to autobiographical ("identity") forms of mimesis, systematically refusing entry to poets of color. The first three fragments disassemble the self into "parts." These "data bodies," to borrow Borzutzky's term from In the Murmurs of the Rotten Carcass Economy (65), are presented in the disjunctively linear fashion of Ron Silliman's Chinese Notebook:

1. My mother was a eater-waiter. She wrote rubber checks that kept our dysfunction afloat. She didn't cook or do windows.

2. Her life was difficult because she was a brown woman. This was and is indisputable.

3. She taught me to braid a rope of my hair out of the abyss of our class, poems for ascension. (33)

This intergenerational revision of the bootstrap trope induces whiplash. The hair braid snaps the Latina body from the feet to the head, and thus from manual to intellectual labor, and from the abyss to the apex. Modeled by a Spanish-speaking mother, these approximate bootstraps yank and knot the roots, encoding female labor with creative resistance. Such ascension from a state of abjection may be tongue-in-cheek, but it distills the ways in which the tensions I examine here are felt, embodied, passed down. "Poems for ascension" mock equally the brick-and-mortar walls of the nativists and the figurative walls of the avant-garde, greeting their exclusions with salvos from English, the common language of their divergent American dreams. By styling the abyss as the stage of arrival, proleptically concealed beneath the bedrock of the American dream, moreover, these "poems" appraise the hustle required for women writers of color to storm the gated Republic of Letters.

Gimenez Smith's "Parts of an Autobiography" begs a question. What is "indisputable" about Latino poetry? As Herrera's and Borzutzky's readings suggest, public performances can create sites of dis-and re-orientation that threaten the reproduction of a vertical hierarchy relegating Latinos to the abyss. If Rapunzel descends from the window to the ground, Latinidad ascends from below on braids, or waves, of hairy (as in perilous) language. The Angels of the Americlypse group reading at the University of Notre Dame on October 28, 2015, exemplified this "indisputable" quality--the fugue as a dissident public language. Resembling a mood more than a mode, model, or language, the fugue emerges from the subjunctive that Dobbs misuses, the "would" of possibility, an uncertainty pitched in the key of worlds (not) to come, to deploy Coronado's provocative title.

The four poets who performed in this celebration of Angels of the Americlypse, an anthology of "new Latin@ writing" edited by Gimenez Smith and John Chavez, have little in common aesthetically. Thematic convergences in the poems of Rosa Alcala, Gimenez Smith, Roberto Tejada, and Rodrigo Toscano, moreover, are obscured by their divergent approaches. Their poems look different on the page and sound different on the stage. With some exceptions, they publish with different sorts of presses. Yet when they read poems together--and here I have in mind, following Urayoan Noel, the poem as score, enacted by bodies in public space, with physical gestures and vocal modulations--they formed a collective body entering a fugue state.

A fugue has two definitions. First, from music: "a polyphonic composition based upon one, two, or more themes, which are enunciated by several voices or parts in turn, subjected to contrapuntal treatment, and gradually built upon into a complex form having somewhat distinct divisions of stages of development and a marked climax at the end." Second, from psychiatry: "a period during which a person suffers from loss of memory, often begins a new life, and, upon recovery, remembers nothing of the amnesic phase." The Angels of the Americlypse group reading enacted a declaration of Latino poetry as fugue, wherein individual voices of pain, transformation, and survival move unevenly toward a shared Latinidad. Yes, the climax remains on the horizon. Yes, the amnesic phase has passed, left behind in claustral tropes of assimilation. Instead, sedimented layers of historical memory are encoded in the muscle memory of fingers that type, write, touch, ache, and starve, as in Borzutzky's chilling figure of dehumanization and alienation, yet that grapple toward new subjectivities, collectivities, languages.

Alternating in subtly interwoven parts, the four poets read into and through each other's voices. Gimenez Smith and Tejada read from new series of poems, the former with pulsating rhythm and rapid pace, the latter with a lush, elevated diction and a counterintuitive searing calmness. Alcala, the only poet not to read from a series, punctuated Toscano's blistering, unhinged readings from his forthcoming Explosion Rocks Springfield--which formed the flexible, reiterative, and ardent spine of the fugue--with virtuosic readings of "Voice Activation" and "Paramour" from Angels of the Americlypse (6-8). Comprised of contrapuntal echoes, redirections, glances, and soundings, poems built to crescendo after crescendo on braids, or waves, of language. In their hands, Latino poetry as fugue is defined by intensity rather than abstraction, intimacy rather than cultivated detachment. This intensity is common to engaged conceptions of poetry, from Roque Dalton's "Poetry like bread" to Audre Lorde's "Poetry is not a luxury," but the Latino fugue state has a multiplier effect releasing additional waves of energy.

In introducing Borzutzky's selection in Angels of the Americlypse, Johannes Goransson hypothesizes that he "doesn't fit in smoothly with contemporary American poetry's scene." Not only is his writing "tastelessly grotesque," it "rejects the kind of refined distance that has long been the hallmark of American poetry." Like Borzutzky, the reading's four poets "bring in lineages, materials, and influences" (22) that challenge the dominant culture's security and complacency. In the fugue's high-stakes poetics, no comfort is taken in irony or detachment. Absent is the affect of cool, the smug attitude of poetry is a thing apart. In Alcala, Gimenez Smith, Tejada, and Toscano, together, this poetry of high stakes is one of companeros, family hard won, of mutual love and respect, of energy sustained over years of rejection, labor, triumph.

At the same time, the fugue invites. Before the reading, Tejada described his poems as scenes of seduction, which are, he suggests, crime and sex scenes alike. Here, the heart of the American darkness unravels in the kinetics of Latinidad, where abjection and ascendance meet. This mood is captured with a humor that taunts, dares, and ridicules the poets who would have it otherwise in one of Pedro Pietri's "Telephone Booth" poems:
    if you haven't had
   a nervous breakdown
   you haven't written
   a poem--you just
   interfered with A
   blank page minding
   its own business[.] (138) 

It's tempting to read this piece simply, as emblematic of Pietri's stand-up persona, his Dadaist anti-poetry. Yet the poem deftly dramatizes the existential stakes of Latinidad in the endless summer. For Pietri doesn't use "nervous breakdown" as a Hollywood euphemism, wherein "finding yourself" connotes bourgeois individualism gone wrong and in need of correction. Rather, he depicts the crisis of the colonized mind and its languages, as they circulate through the collective body and pulse through the individual's fingers. The fugue highlights this acute sensitivity in Latino poetry. Attuned to languages of oppression and liberation alike, it is an art of interfering with business as usual, from all aesthetic directions at once.

Adrienne Rich succinctly describes the imperative to literacy as a conditional: "you must write, and read, as if your life depended on it" (32). She wasn't anticipating the canned wisdom of a TED talk, and she wasn't interested in narrow forms of instrumentality, where reading is a means to an end--good grades, scholarships, jobs. Rather, she posits that reading is central to self-awareness and social consciousness and to building a just society. To place a premium on reading in a culture that militates against the close attention, patience, and discernment required to read well is a revolutionary act. Reading, as a practice of the intellect, but also of the body in a state of simultaneous calmness and alertness, remains a central pillar of the humanities. But Rich is most of all interested in how reading and writing stir the blood and the guts of a self, opening it up to be changed while also protecting it from the forces of destruction marshaled against it.

In the context of Latino poetry, and in the blistering heat of the endless summer, the stakes are indeed as high as Rich imagined them. Take just two examples. "Poets Responding to SB 1070," a Facebook page created by Francisco X. Alarcon, galvanized resistance to Arizona's draconian anti-immigrant law. The Undocupoets successfully agitated for publishers to change their citizenship requirements for book prizes, including the Yale Younger Poets Prize. Such literary activism honors the historical impetus of Latino writers toward social and political engagement, but with a difference: many of these activists, unlike those of the movement era who were largely U.S. citizens, have perhaps more to risk and potentially more to gain. Reading and writing Latino poetry "as if your life depended on it" would thus contribute to shaping a fluid subjectivity in time, one that historicizes the present and makes present the long history of Latinos in the U. S. If America is increasingly becoming a state in America, to the chagrin of the nativists, it is in part because Latin America has for so many years been the object of the north's derision and desire. Forged in their knotty intersections, Latino poetry's effervescent fugue emerges wearing the scars of history, by which it has been emboldened rather than chastened.

MICHAEL DOWDY is the author of Broken Souths: Latina/o Poetic Responses to Neoliberalism and Globalization, a study of Latina/o poetry. After teaching at the City University of New York for a decade, he is now associate professor of English at the University of South Carolina.


An initial version of this essay was given as a lecture at Eastern Illinois University, where it was sponsored by Latin American Studies and the Center for the Humanities, on October 14, 2015.

(1.) My account of and references to Trump and Ramos are drawn from widely available popular sources, including William Finnegan's New Yorker profile of Ramos.

(2.) Schmidt Camacho untangles the contexts and contradictions of Proposition 187 (211-212).

(3.) I examine Herrera's undocumentary poetics at length in "Reinventing Ecopoetics: Chicano Poetry's Undocumentary Turn," Aztlan: A Journal of Chicano Studies 41.1 (2016): 7-39. Also pertinent is Rosa Alcala's Undocumentaries (Exeter, UK: Shearsman, 2010).

(4.) On childhood, see Jeehyun Lim's "Reimagining Citizenship Through Bilingualism: The Migrant Bilingual Child in Helena Maria Viramontes' Under the Feet of Jesus," Women's Studies Quarterly 38.1-2 (2010): 221-242.

(5.) On Speedy Gonzales and media representations of Latinos, see chapter three of William Anthony Nericcio's Tex{t}-Mex: Seductive Hallucinations of the "Mexican" in America (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007).


Angels of the Americlypse. Readings and Colloquia. The Institute for Latino Studies and the Creative Writing Program. University of Notre Dame. 28 October 2015. Available at: <>.

Balderrama, Francisco E" and Raymond Rodriguez. Decade of Betrayal: Mexican Repatriation in the 1930s. Rev. ed. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2006.

Ben-Oni, Rosebud. "On Latinidad and Community: CantoMundo Poets Share Their Influences." Kenyon Review. 10 July 2015. Available at: <>.

Borzutzky, Daniel. In the Murmurs of the Rotten Carcass Economy. New York: Nightboat Books, 2015.

--. "Reading by Daniel Borzutzky." The Program in Poetry & Poetics. The University of Chicago. 29 January 2015. Available at: <https://youtube/A3_aF3SbK5c>.

Coronado, Raul. A World Not to Come: A History of Latino Writing and Print Culture. Boston: Harvard University Press, 2013.

Corral, Eduardo C. Slow Lightning. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012.

Cruz, Victor Hernandez. Red Beans. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 1991.

The Endless Summer. Dir. Bruce Brown. Monterey Media, 1966. Film.

Finnegan, William. "The Man Who Wouldn't Sit Down: How Univision's Jorge Ramos Earns His Viewers' Trust." The New Yorker. 5 October 2015. Available at:. <>.

"Fugue." Unabridged. Random House. 14 December 2015. Available at: <>.

Gimenez Smith, Carmen. Milk and Filth. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2013.

Gimenez Smith, Carmen, and John Chavez, eds. Angels of the Americlypse: An Anthology of New Latin@ Writing. Denver: Counterpath, 2014.

Goransson, Johannes. "Borzutzky." In Gimenez Smith and Chavez, 21-22.

Gruesz, Kirsten Silva. "What Was Latino Literature?" PMLA 127.2 (2012): 335-341.

Herrera, Juan Felipe. 187 Reasons Mexicanos Can't Cross the Border: Undocuments 1971-2007. San Francisco: City Lights, 2007.

--. "187 Reasons Mexicanos Can't Cross the Border." Reading at the Ruskin Art Club. Los Angeles, California. 19 November 2007. Available at: https://youtube/W8Ben-in5zQ>.

--. Mayan Drifter: Chicano Poet in the Lowlands of America. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1997.

Huehls, Mitchum. "Ostention, Simile, CatachresiS: Misusing Helena Viramontes's Under the Feet of Jesus to Rethink the Globalization Environmentalism Relation." Discourse 29.2-3 (2007): 346-366.

Pietri, Pedro. Selected Poetry. Ed. Juan Flores and Pedro Lopez Adorno. San Francisco: City Lights, 2015.

Rich, Adrienne. What Is Found There: Notebooks on Politics el Poetry. New York: Norton, 1993.

Schmidt Camacho, Alicia. Migrant Imaginaries: Latino Cultural Politics in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands. New York: New York University Press, 2008.

Toscano, Rodrigo. Explosion Rocks Springfield. Albany: Fence Books, 2016.

Viramontes, Helena Maria. Under the Feet of Jesus. New York: Penguin, 1995.
COPYRIGHT 2016 World Poetry, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2016 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Dowdy, Michael
Publication:The American Poetry Review
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2016
Previous Article:How to Optimize Your Flesh Prison.
Next Article:Confessio Amantis.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters