of my illiterate
in a deceiving
contract for life
The death of Francisco X. Alarcón earlier this month has been on my mind as I wrap up my 3rd year reading and work through exams this week. Reviewing his book, Canto Hondo/Deep Song was a revelatory experience for me. Through following and engaging with Alarcón’s singular minimalist poetics, I learned a lot about precision with the line as well as how much weight can be carried via emphasis. But it was his commitment to representing and singing for those who suffered that moved me the most.
His death remains a constant source of conversation in the Latin@ literary community, mourning and celebration following each other in a complex cycle that would’ve pleased el maestro. As shown in the poem above, Alarcón was well aware of the contradictions to be worked with in being a Chicano; even an X in a name can be a metaphor for the multifaceted tension of identity and self.
I write this post the night before my final 3rd year exam. Diving into my own sense of tradition and identity in Latin@ poetics has been an emotional journey. I have had great community throughout – from my CantoMundistas, to readers of my poems and books, as well as those of you who stop and read these Influences. Thank you. Thank you as well to the great teachers I’ve had, in the classroom and on the page.
“Mexican” Is Not a Noun – Francisco X. Alarcón
to forty-six UC Santa Cruz students and seven faculty arrested in Watsonville for showing solidarity with two thousand striking cannery workers who were mostly Mexican women, October 27, 1985
In celebration of the release of my digital chapbook, The Book of Flight (Essay Press), this week’s Influence will be focused on work that I feel is in spirit with the project.
First up is Sei Shonagon, who I wrote about in October. I had reason to return to her lists in The Pillow Book recently, and continue to marvel at the surprise-charged prose:
16. Things That Make One’s Heart Beat Faster
Sparrows feeding their young. To pass a place where babies are playing. To sleep in a room where some incense has been burnt. To notice that one’s elegant Chinese mirror has become a little cloudy. To see a gentleman stop his carriage before one’s gate and instruct his attendants to announce his arrival. To wash one’s hair, make one’s toilet, put on scented robes; even if not a soul sees one, these preparations still produce an inner pleasure.
It is night and one is expecting a visitor. Suddenly one is startled by the sound of raindrops, which the wind blows against the shutters.
The cumulative effect of sensory details is at turns charming and striking. It becomes a matter of where the writer leaves you: When the “wind blows against the shutters” it takes one’s breath as well as the narrative away.
Another writer whose work has meant more and more to me in the past few months is Yahia Lababidi. Here’s a sample from his collection, Signposts to Elsewhere: aphorisms & other tailored thoughts:
The personal made universal is art’s truth.
Impulses we attempt to strangle only develop stronger muscles.
The irony of the writer is that of a private person in a public profession.
Venom poisons most the people who carry it.
What I see as the “tailoring” of the aphorisms and thoughts in this collection is something akin to a fingerprint. Throughout, Lababidi does a great job of tempering the didactic and distant nature of the aphorism with a bit of down to earth humor and wisdom.
Here’s another sample:
Dreams: what get us through the night, and oftentimes the day.
Tattoo: graffiti on a masterpiece.
Disgust can be constructive as a spark igniting transformation.
It is not lovers who compose poetry, but Love.
This last line especially speaks to me about the nature of what it means to be a writer, that there is a purpose beyond ink on page at practice through us.
“In the book of flight, plastic bags are brought in to do the work of clouds.
Dead leaves rest in the margins.
Grass clippings, eyelashes, fingernails: errata in the book of flight.”
(José Angel Araguz from The Book of Flight)
Happy to announce the release of my latest online chapbook The Book of Flight published by Essay Press! Read it free online or download the chap in PDF here.
The Book of Flight is one of twelve winners in Essay Press’s first Digital Chapbook Contest. For this contest, Essay Press asked 12 recent Essay authors each to select and introduce a manuscript extending and/or challenging the formal possibilities of prose. I am honored to have my manuscript selected and eloquently introduced by the innovative author Misha Pam Dick.
Here is a brief description of the chapbook:
“José Angel Araguz’s The Book of Flight is a chapbook of aphoristic, fragmentary writings in the style of Ramon Gomez de la Serna’s greguerías and Pablo Neruda’s The Book of Questions. Described by Misha Pam Dick as “a four-part microtreatise-poem. Like aphorisms that don’t preen, or fragments that don’t mourn,” The Book of Flight lives somewhere between the insight of haiku, the personal heat of tanka, and the everyday tone of a poet’s notebook.”
This project is especially meaningful to me as it represents the culmination of many of the ideas and insights I have followed and exercised throughout various notebooks and other projects over the past ten years. “Clock Ode” in Reasons (not) to Dance as well as “Zoot Suit Riot” and “Moth Season” in Everything We Think We Hear are good examples of precursors to the sensibility that is in full force in this project.
Please read and share this free chapbook and stay tuned for the other eleven selections from Essay Press!
Thanks to Andy Fitch, Maria Anderson, and Aimee Harrison for all the hard work in putting together the chapbook. Thanks toAndrea Schreiber for the cover art and Courtney Mandryk for the cover design. And an extra special thanks to Misha Pam Dick for selecting the manuscript and writing the introduction!
Once upon a time, I was a young poet reading through an anthology of Latin American poetry when I came across a poem by João Cabral de Melo Neto that just blew me away. I wrote the poem down in a notebook – it was in Spanish, translated from the original Portuguese – to translate into English later, which I did, happy to be in conversation with the poem.
The thing is when I discovered this poem years ago, I had it in my head that it was made up of only one part, and so for me, the poem was only one section long. And this one section is lovely. See for yourself:
Weaving the Morning – João Cabral de Melo Neto* translated into English by José Angel Araguz
One rooster alone does not weave the morning:
he will always be working with other roosters.
One to pick up the cry that he
and throw it to another; another rooster
to pick up the cry of the previous rooster
and throw it to another; and other roosters
with many other roosters crossing
the sun-threads of their rooster cries,
so that the morning, made of a soft fabric,
goes on being woven among all roosters.
Later, I rediscovered the poem and learned that the poet had written it with two sections, not just one. And what’s worse, that second, new (to me) section was kinda clunky (again, to me). Again, see for yourself:
And taking shape in this fabric, gathered,
stored and waiting where everyone will enter,
entertaining itself in the awning
(morning) sets down its frameless plans.
Morning, a canopy woven of such airy material
it rises by itself: a globe of light.
So there I was, mistaken and shaken. Was the poem I ran into in the anthology misprinted? Or had it been printed at the bottom of a page, and had younger me – floored and amazed by that first section – not turned the page when I copied it down? What else but poetry can have us slipping past ourselves like this?
There were also the questions of translation: Was the poem in its entirety a finer product in the original Portuguese? Should I consult other Spanish translations? What is a translation but a reaching into the material of memory, other’s and one’s own?
Now, my goal in sharing this story – well, not really story, more snapshots of poetic fumbling – is not to make a case against the second section, but to share the poem (it’s charm can withstand my fumbling). I also wanted to engage a bit with ideas of memory and enchantment (charm, enchantment: très magique) and how both work in specific ways in poetry. The way the roosters build off each other’s cries is much like the way one poem is answered by another, and how one memory is blurred and built upon by another. One reads and writes, in order to read and write some more.
In a recent postcard exchange with Edward Vidaurre, I held onto my earlier enchantment as I wrote the first section of the poem out. I figured, hey, the first section’s the best part and there’s only so much room on a postcard for a poem plus my own meandering explanation at how I failed to remember the second section initially.
So, really, this is a tale of failure. Speaking of: As I prepared to write this blog post, I flipped through my sketchbook, remembering distinctly that I had sketched a rooster sometime in the past, had the image of it vividly in mind (see above).
Alas, when I found the image, it was no rooster:
*p.s. Here is the poem in the original Portuguese as well as the Spanish translation I worked from:
Tecendo a Manhã – João Cabral de Melo Neto (original)
Um galo sozinho não tece uma manhã:
ele precisará sempre de outros galos.
De um que apanhe esse grito que ele
e o lance a outro; de um outro galo
que apanhe o grito de um galo antes
e o lance a outro; e de outros galos
que com muitos outros galos se cruzem
os fios de sol de seus gritos de galo,
para que a manhã, desde uma teia tênue,
se vá tecendo, entre todos os galos.
E se encorpando em tela, entre todos,
se erguendo tenda, onde entrem todos,
se entretendendo para todos, no toldo
(a manhã) que plana livre de armação.
A manhã, toldo de um tecido tão aéreo
que, tecido, se eleva por si: luz balão.
Tejiendo la mañana – João Cabral de Melo Neto translated into Spanish by José Antonio Montano
Un gallo solo no teje una mañana:
precisará siempre de otros gallos.
De uno que recoja el grito que él
y lo lance a otro; de otro gallo
que recoja el grito del gallo anterior
y lo lance a otro; y de otros gallos
que con otros muchos gallos se crucen
los hilos de sol de sus gritos de gallo,
para que la mañana, con una tela tenue,
vaya siendo tejida, entre todos los gallos.
Y tomando cuerpo en tela, entre todos,
erigiéndose en tienda, donde entren todos,
entretendiéndose para todos, en el toldo
(la mañana) que planea libre de armazón.
La mañana, toldo de un tejido tan aéreo
que, tejido, se eleva de por sí: luz globo.
They staunched the wound with a stone.
They drew blue venom from his blood ……….until there was none.
When his veins ran true his face remained
lifeless and all the mothers of the village
wept and pounded their chests until the sky ………..had little choice
but to grant their supplications. God made ………..the boy breathe again.
God breathes life into us, it is said,
only once. But this case was an exception.
God drew back in a giant gust and blew life into the boy
and like a stranded fish, he shuddered, oceanless.
It was true: the boy lived.
He lived for a very long time. The toxins
were an oil slick: contaminated, cleaned.
But just as soon as the women
kissed redness back into his cheeks
the boy began to die again.
He continued to die for the rest of his life.
The dying took place slowly, sweetly.
The dying took a very long time.
Francisco de Quevedo, my bespectacled friend above, was known for having a life philosophy which, at its core, believed that we begin dying the moment we are born. One could argue that this is simply a way of choosing a side in the old “is the glass half full/half empty” query. There’s a subtle, complicated optimism, though, to his statement, that is easy to miss. One gets a better sense of the man’s thoughts in another quote:
Polvo serán, mas polvo enamorado.
Which roughly translates to: Dust be , but dust in love .
2015 was a tough year. About midway through, I found myself in the hospital due to some stomach issues. Having one’s life fall from them, even for a moment, is humbling. On the ground, in the dust, humbling. But then, as this week’s poem describes, there is the “giant gust” that brings us back to life, and returns us to our dying. Ahmed’s poem wins me over each time I read it for the way life is evoked in several actions, and moves from reality and rite to a hopeful, complicated reconciliation.
As the first week of the new year ends, I want to wish all of you who pay me the compliment of visiting this blog and visiting my poems the best in all aspects of your lives. I wish you another year of being dust, but dust in love.
Time once again for my end of year reading – which technically this year is more of a first of year reading – so however you feel fit to see it, please do. See it, that is.
I have been busy the past 3 weeks reading through the last leg of my reading list for my exams later this month. Here be the last stack(s) of books:
If you’re like me and can’t see a photo of books without scanning to see who’s in the “crowd,” here’s a short list of what’s visible:
a book on haiku poetics; Borges’ Dreamtigers; A Sense of Regard (essays); By Word of Mouth (William Carlos Williams’ translations); Pablo Neruda and the U.S. Culture Industry; Without a Net by Ana Maria Shua; two books by Octavio Paz; Rigoberto Gonzalez’s Butterfly Boy (sans-book jacket, esta frio!); La Otra Mirada (microrrelato anthology); William Carlos William’s Paterson; Complete Works and Other Stories by Augosto Monterroso; Takuboku Ishikawa’s Romaji Diary/Sad Toys; Conversations with Mexican American Writers (interviews); Sandra Cisneros’ My Wicked, Wicked Ways; Rosa Alcalá’s Undocumentaries; Pat Mora’s Aunt Carmen’s Book of Practical Saints; & flanking the stacks: William J. Higginson’s The Haiku Handbook; Juan Felipe Herrera’s Half of the World in Light.
I took a break last week to record a few readings from Everything We Think We Hearby the Ohio river after eating our annual Christmas Eve Eli’s BBQ. Below is the video and text of “Jalapeños” and “Holiday Policy.”
Looking back, I realize these two poems are a good example of the kind of range I was going for in this collection. “Jalapeños”is a kind of homage not only to the chili pepper but also to Yeats, family, and Corpus Christi, all refracted via nonlinear, lyrical momentum. “Holiday Policy,” on the other hand, is driven by a more linear narrative, but is subverted in its story within a story framework.
Jalapeños – José Angel Araguz
Pickled, you gleam, a smile hiding its teeth. Photo negative from Picture Day, money missing from my pockets, that smile. I can live without money; without food, I’m useless. Hunger is a tide: I walk down when it is low and see more. Over time, you’ve taught me to fashion sensibilities after what I can tolerate. When I am old and gray, and have eaten enough, I will tolerate everyone. When your darkness first cracked, did everyone go silent as you spilled out your many, tiny moons? And did he think himself a sky, the first to place your moons upon his tongue? Or was it only later, after biting into your body, thinking his own body turned water, that the first looked down and found, piled in his hand, the dunes of ellipsis you keep inside? You are commas, keep each bite separate. You are semicolons, a tip of the hat to greet the day. Shape suggestive of the J in my name. Shape suggestive, period. My aunt threatening with you if I ever cussed. Sting of I should’ve known better than to. Without you, I am useless. Corpus Christi Bay begins to glisten with you. You keep riding on the color of the waves, mocking, many and mocking. Family pickled. Family sharp with vinegar. Family broken with bites. Hunger is a tide: when it is high, I remember I cannot swim. Through skin and seed, my filthy existence resumes, after the sting.
Holiday Policy – José Angel Araguz
My friend, who with his white beard and wide chest looks like Santa Claus, tells me of working at a liquor store and having to take polaroids of people paying with a check. He did this when he was my age, but because I am my age, my friend becomes Santa with a camera and nametag, standing as straight as steel bars on windows, watching me buy my liquor. He laughs telling the story, but the Santa whose eyes are hard on me is silent. Under white eyebrows, I see myself already doubled, following the motions of the story: white flash, pen collapsing on the counter, bottles pointing fingers from brown paper bags, fluorescence hum below the words: Holiday policy. The photo hangs like a tongue out of the camera’s mouth, my face slowly appearing from gray-white to a grainy, blurred reflection. It was enough to put cash in their pockets, as if it had been there all along, says my friend in the story, who himself dissolves into the friend in the room, grown quiet, as if he could hear himself speaking in the memory I would later have of him after he died, and disappointed that there isn’t more to him than stories like this one.
P.S. Check out my Instagram account (joseangelaraguz) for two more shorter readings!