Sunday, October 4, 2020

Review: Every Day We Get More Illegal by Juan Felipe Herrera

Every Day We Get More Illegal by Juan Felipe Herrera
Reviewed by Greg Gilbert for Cholla Needles

With all books, but particularly poetry, titles matter. Who is this “We”? What is meant by “More Illegal”? More illegal than what? The publisher is City Lights Books in San Francisco. Think of City Lights, and various writers of note emerge: Ginsberg, Bukowski, Kerouac, Burroughs, and the eternal Ferlinghetti, now 101 and still writing. With City Lights, there arrives a question of audience. Who is the poet addressing? Published in 2020, this is a contemporary work, perhaps even an urgent appeal, so let us go and make our visit.

The cover offers a clue, suggestive of a high resolution photograph, the dark areas assembling into a partially obscured face, half in repose, half vigilant, perhaps an indigenous visage, a countenance for the reader to assemble. The art is titled “Detention X,” and is by the author, markers on found cardboard. The dedication begins “for all the migrants, immigrants and refugees suffering from the border installations within the United Sates, at the border crossing and throughout Latin America.” The dedication is “for a borderless society and world, made of relentless unity and giving.” Is it likely that refugees suffering at border crossings are the intended audience? If not, then whom?

Herrera’s book is as much a study of text as of white space. Pages that are haiku brief, “Your consciousness / is ever expanding /                onto infinity.

Other pages give us short prose poetry paragraphs, journal entries, one titled “America We Talk About It.” “ . . . First I had to learn. Over decades – to take care of myself. Are you listening.” The entry describes the “pebble by pebble” discovery of his “true inner self.” In 120 words, he pushes away his heritage only to learn “too late there was no way I could bring them back I could not rewind the clock.” It concludes with a quiet finality, “Now we – are here.” This is a book about discovery, passages that appeal to our better natures, our affluence, our complicity, and our common humanity. The poem “Basho & Mandela” sets out two paths that converge on a single destination: “freedom.” [See the poem, and hear Hererra read this poem by clicking here - source: The New Yorker]

As we follow Herrera’s journey, his love of poetry and language is a given, and an appeal to pay attention. Some readers may take offense and feel unfairly indicted by his words at times. A 480 word prose poem, “You Just Don’t Talk About It” employs the “You” that can only be the reader, perhaps those who would purchase a book from City Lights, and offers a litany of sorrows. The poem begins “Lissen: you just don’t,” and sets out the horrors and vanities that frame our lives, “. . . you prefer the holiday merchandise the rational vacuum you just don’t care about the pushed out the stopped out the forced out the starved out the fenced out the shot down the cut back the asphalted out on the other side of the track the suicide the hanged w/ a bedsheet . . ..” And then in direct address, “I know you heard this all before you have the smart language your lawyers lawyers for your lawyers you have your corporate privacy but you do not notice you do not walk you do not enter you do not get near you stay there where you are at this moment you do not care about the coldshot murder in the car at the tip of your open mouth gun you do not care . . ..” Indeed, one may read blame, and/or one may read a voice crying in the wilderness.

In “Don’t Push the Button,” Herrera equates the button to “wall of Patrols,” to a “30 billion dollar aircraft carrier,” and references an “off-kilter” that is “beyond Milton and Sappho / it is beyond Pas and Ko Un it is beyond all the African / drummers . . ..”  Following this are pages where the importance of isolated lines are framed by expanses of white space. “underneath the code of the wall things are always / in motion /                              while we wait to cross.” And several pages later, the poem “Ko Un Says,” concludes, “there is a line of quail leading to the meadows / outside the city the persimmons are exactly / the color they should be.”

This is the point where the poet, having made his “pebble by pebble” discoveries and given voice to the twin forces of inhumanity and economic division and the color of the perfect persimmon, shifts his focus to labor, “Touch the Earth (once again).” Here he invokes the “we.” “This is what we do:”  Here are the cotton truck drivers, tobacco leaf rollers, washer women, cucumber, spinach, beet, and poultry workers, the services too numerous to list, “the winery workers & the lettuce & broccoli / & peach & apricot & squash & apple & / that almost-magical watermelon / & . . ..” And “notice: / how they touch the earth – for you.” At last, you & we find common ground.

Now the poet speaks of his journey, his family in “Enuf.” He describes how he used to think that he “was not American enuf.” He describes his “hobo torn-pants get-up with my Shinola sideburns.” He tells how he was “an expert at signing my mother’s Alien Registration Card.” He writes, “this is not a poor-boy story / this is a pioneer story / this is your story / America are you listening.” After an introductory four line stanza, a main body of 57 lines, the poem concludes with one couplet: “used to think I was not American enuf / now it is the other way around.”

     Address Book for the Firefly on the Road / North #3

     when we reach
     the family shrine
     made of twigs bitten cloth
     shrubs & dirt

     we bow

“Interview w/a Border Machine” describes a guard’s questioning of an Indian woman, Xochitl Tzompantli, and demonstrates the gulf between the keeper of the border and a woman whose name translates to Skull Rack Flower. This is the poem that says everything that matters. It is the reason to purchase this book. The next poem is in many ways what follows the border crossing, “Color Tense,” which describes the loss of color, the loss of bronze, sienna ochre, and then the faces, noses, scarves, stories, the long abiding dreams of a culture. “I am not a paid protestor” invokes a call and response approach to poetry that with comic overtones sets out the absurdity of an interrogation. In other poems, friends leave to avoid capture. In another, tears are shed for “there is a girl          up ahead / made of sparkles       is she                me or / is                                she /       dead / / On the custody floor /                                         105.7 degrees.”

And then the book dreams of tomorrows. The “we” is employed, “after we unfold and lay upon the carpets after the waters / wash away our wounds and scald our scars / we will speak of our mother and fathers who . . ..” From here the book frames dreams of a cultural heaven surrounded again by vast avenues of white space.

     we will chant our many births
     about the abyss and the aurora
     about the sacred dizziness as we broke
     through all the cries of wars and redemptions of being

             — this blurred world

The politics of the present epoch and the personal views of “you,” the reader may interfere with the reading of these poems, but the voice of “we” is an appeal to reach beyond the walls that encircle and glimpse the hearts of those seeking redress from war, famine, and despair by fleeing to America. This is a work that moves through phases to a longed for Promised Land. The postscript offers a final hope: “We must develop a sense of oneness of 7 billion human beings” – Dalai Lama.

                Every Day We Get More Illegal is not about a people breaking more laws with each passing day, but of a people who see their dream of America withering. While they, their children, their grandmothers and grandfathers, their families become more illegal, the poet Juan Felipe Herrera uses his considerable poetic talent to reach out to “us.” This is a beautifully expressed call to our common humanity. 

One additional comment: Nearly 20 years ago, I read
Loteria Cards and Fortune Poems: A Book of Lives by Juan Felipe Herrera with linocuts by Artemio Rodriguez. The poetry was wonderful, and the woodcuts equally wonderful. Juan Felipe Herrera was appointed U.S. Poet Laureate for 2015-16, the first Latino to receive this honor. I recommend both books.  - Greg Gilbert

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Cholla Needles Arts & Literary Library has the following books by Juan Felipe Herrera available locally in our library for your enjoyment:

Border-Crosser With A Lamborghini Dream
187 Reasons Mexicanos Can't Cross the Border
LoterĂ­a Cards and Fortune Poems: A Book of Lives
Love After The Riots
Notes On The Assemblage
Mayan Drifter
Half of the World In Light
Every Day We Get More Illegal

Books in our library are donated by individuals to share with our entire community. 

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