lyrical alignment: The Book of Unknown Americans

I haven’t shared one of my lyrical alignments in a while, so I’m excited to share this one. I’ve also gone ahead and created a new category for them on the side there, so one click can take you to my collective formal experimentations across the years.

henriquezThis week’s lyrical alignment comes from Cristina Henríquez’s novel The Book of Unknown Americans (Knopf). While the novel’s main narrative details the migration and lot of the Rivera family who come to America from Mexico to find a school that can accommodate their daughter, Maribel, who has suffered brain damage from an accident, the novel also presents the stories of the neighborhood the family finds themselves becoming a part of. These “unknown Americans” hail from a variety of countries and represent a spectrum of latinidades; each one tells their stories in every other chapter. Henríquez’s gift for voice is evident in these monologues that go into the struggles of migration and survival.

When I do a lyrical alignment, I first find a passage of prose that calls to me on the level of language: a range of lyrical turns, an engaging metaphor, or, as is the case here, strong voice. I then try to find a phrase I connect with sound-wise. Here, I was caught by the natural pause at the end of “street” in the first six words. From there, I rewrote the excerpt in my notebook, making sure to keep each line to six words. To my surprise, the full excerpt I was writing out naturally ended in a six word phrase. I’m still spooked by the serendipity of it.

Aside from the lyrical quality of the voice and prose, this excerpt also hit home in that it has a character following a line of thinking that I am familiar with, in particular the feeling of being both “seen” and not “seen” at the same time. This kind of stereotyping/profiling very much makes one feel unmistakably “unknown.” Henríquez’s accomplishment in this passage is the evocation of a voice; the argument remains personal while creating a space where the reader can dwell alongside the character.

*

The Unknown American

lyrical alignment by José Angel Araguz
drawn from Cristina Henríquez’s
The Book of Unknown Americans

When I walk down the street,
I don’t want people to look
at me and see a criminal
or someone that they can spit
on or beat up. I want
them to see a guy who
has just as much right  to
be here as they do, or
a guy who works hard, or
a guy who loves his family,
or a guy who’s just trying
to do the right things. I
wish just one of those people,
just one, would actually talk to
me, talk to my friends, man.
And yes, you can talk to
us in English. I know English
better than you, I bet. But
none of them even want to
try. We’re the unknown Americans, the
ones no one even wants to
know, because they’ve been told they’re
supposed to be scared of us
and because maybe if they did
take the time to get to
know us, they might realize that
we’re not that bad, maybe even
that we’re a lot like them.
And who would they hate then?

*

Check out Cristina Henríquez’s novel, The Book of Unknown Americans (Knopf).

* sharing toys with Takuboku Ishikawa

Tanka are my sad toys.

Takuboku Ishikawa

Takuboku Ishikawa (1886 – 1912) said the above statement at the end of an essay, explaining how he approached the form with the intimacy of a diary.  They were “sad” because he wrote them while unhappy – they were “toys” because they were useless to society.

This outlook is better understood within the context of Ishikawa’s short life which was burdened with illness and poverty as well as a frustrated ambition to be a novelist.  He felt his gift for tanka was useless and felt his novels and essays were of more value.  This misplaced ambition opened up in him the possibility to really give himself to his tanka.  Despite his outlook, he is known to have said that on “unhappy days…[there is] no greater satisfaction than to write tanka.” *

* luchadores, yo *
* these were my sad toys *

Since landing in Cincinnati, I have been busy revising poems and putting together a new manuscript.  In working through this notebook from two years ago I came across my notes from first reading Ishikawa’s work.  His ability to channel restlessness and desperation into short lyrics moves me to this day.

There is also that spirit, that high, of going on a good writing jag .  Ishikawa had a famous three day writing spree where he only stopped to walk through graveyards.

The  poems I wrote after reading him delve a bit into the past – into childhood – back when I would play with the toys above – little luchadores I would keep in a box under the kitchen sink.  His directness with the line – which can be grasped in the lyrics below – helped me wrestle past myself towards a clearer line.

*

excerpts from “Sad Toys” – Takuboku Ishikawa

like a stone
that rolls down a hill,
I have come to this day.

*

Fallen leaves of late autumn, destined to decay!
Following them in sympathy, I hurried to start my journey.

*

Not knowing where the wind has gone that blew it from its twig,
This stray leaf, bewildered and lost, has fallen on my sleeve.

*

her black pupils
absorbing only the light of this world
remain in my eyes

*

as boys born in mountains
yearn for mountains,
I think of you when in sorrow

*

waiting til I was dead drunk,
she whispered to me
those many sad things!

*

these poor thin hands
without power
to grasp and grasp hard!

*

bristling over the way
my moustache droops,
so like the man’s I now hate!

*

Happy drooping!

Jose

* I found some useful information on Ishikawa for this post here.

* w. s. merwin & the friday influence

Dusk in Winter – W. S. Merwin

The sun sets in the cold without friends
Without reproaches after all it has done for us
It goes down believing in nothing
When it has gone I hear the stream running after it
It has brought its flute it is a long way

***

 This week on the Influence: W. S. Merwin!

What I love about Merwin’s poem above is how he gets in so much into a few lines.  Not only the brevity but the subject matter.

We are told that the best novels throughout history deal namely with family/love relationships, that there is so much to said within those frames of humanity.  Equally, poems are said to be about either love, life, or death.

What the stock objects – rain, leaves turning colors, rivers flowing, waiting in line at a grocery store – serve are to open up something everyone can identify with while following along with the poet to see how it is they see it.

That personal take on things – whether it is evoked in turns of phrase or particular images and narrative – is the fingerprint on the poem, the echo of the soul passing through the words (through the world, through the reader), what it is that teaches and awes in a poem.  It is the hardest thing to achieve: singularity, an indelible presence.

Merwin’s work in translation (his Neruda’s Twenty Love Poems has been the standard for years) comes through here in the way he turns a sunset into a fable of sorts, works the images down into the emotions they evoke.  The starkness created by not having punctuation cues me in as a reader to engage with the poem, to follow the logic of the phrasing as it unfolds, each turn a little surprise along the way.

***

rains, yo

The rainy season has officially begun here in Eugene.  In honor, here’s one more by Merwin:

To the Rain – W. S. Merwin

You reach me out of the age of the air
clear
falling toward me
each one new
if any of you has a name
it is unknown

but waited for you here
that long
for you to fall through it knowing nothing

hem of the garment
do not wait
until I can love all that I am to know
for maybe that will never be

touch me this time
let me love what I cannot know
as the man born blind may love color
until all that he loves
fills him with color

***

Happy filling!

J

(photograph found on: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2008/sep/26/poster.poems.rain.poetry)

* Louise Bogan, an update & the friday influence

Roman Fountain – Louise Bogan

Up from the bronze, I saw
Water without a flaw
Rush to its rest in air,
Reach to its rest, and fall.

Bronze of the blackest shade,
An element man-made,
Shaping upright the bare
Clear gouts of water in air.

O, as with arm and hammer,
Still it is good to strive
To beat out the image whole,
To echo the shout and stammer
When full-gushed waters, alive,
Strike on the fountain’s bowl
After the air of summer.

***

This week on the Influence: Louise Bogan.

This poem takes me in right away with its music: word choice plays out the water in its w’s and r’s, and the fountain later in the m’s.  The pacing also adds to the musical element.  Note the choice comma in the fourth line “Reach to its rest, and fall” which mimics the flow of the water.

The stanza structure also plays out the concept.  The first two stanzas have their symmetry, four lines each, rhyming couplets. Then there’s the drive and rush of the last stanza, its rhymes a bit more scattered, the form there hidden and changing as water does in a fountain.

All of these things come together to make the poem an experience with several layers.  Safe to say: they don’t, ahem, make them like this anymore.  Or enough.

This poem took on a new life for me after reading The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker (a novel every poet would be charmed by).  In the book, the main character tells a story about how he read Bogan’s poem to a crowd and how the reading of it aloud really affected somebody, to the point that the person, not a regular reader of poetry, came up to him and asked about “that fountain poem”.

This scene makes me think about what poems have had that effect on my life, have hooked into me and taught me something.  It is my goal to write something that will have people asking about it later, something worth reading.

**

In other news, if you take a look up top you’ll see I have added an official page for my chapbook The Wall.  On it is ordering information, some very kind words from Naomi Shihab Nye, and a photo from the day I received my copies.  I got to pick up my copies straight from the printer.  They came in a white box very similar to a cake box.  Sadly, no cake.

**

Here’s one more by Bogan:

Solitary Observation Brought Back from a Sojourn in Hell – Louise Bogan

At midnight tears
Run in your ears.

***

Happy running,

J