This post originally appeared in Bryant Park Blog
On Tuesday, June 10th, the Byrant Park Reading Room welcomed four poets representing Letras Latinas, a Latino-American writers’ organization at The University of Notre Dame. Francisco Aragon of Letras Latinas and Bryant Park impresario Paul Romero brought together a roster of poets from around the country with deep ties to the Spanish-speaking world. Barbara Brinson Curiel, Carmen Calataud, David Tomas Martinez, and Pablo Miguel Martinez put on a rich and engaging reading with plenty of bilingual and cross-cultural wordplay thrown in.
Barbara Brinson Curiel began the evening with tales and allegories drawn from a full life in Northern California. Her first poem, “My Father Comes Home from Work”, describes a sweating, grunting Chicano patriarch stomping in after his shift at a Bay Area slaughterhouse. The women and children in the household, Curiel among them, are made to focus exclusively on his gestures and desires. In revisiting the memory, Curiel expands her child’s point of view to incorporate adult detachment and an abundance of sensual information- the Formica table, shirts being starched, the tenor of the family’s silence.
Not surprisingly, experiences like these helped lead Curiel to feminism. Her second poem was a whimsical re-working of the Red Riding Hood tale, with a newly empowered Grandma as the heroine. (The old woman fights off the wolf herself with the absentee woodcutter’s axe, then offers it to the young girl.) The third poem was another feminist fable of sorts and the centerpiece of her new book. It’s a long narrative about “Mexican Jenny”, a real-life sex worker in pioneer Colorado. Curiel researched this notorious Southwestern figure at length and invented stories to fill the many gaps in the historical record, creating three alternate endings- and even alternate beginnings, such as a fantasized childhood in Acapulco, Mexico. This sympathetic reconstruction is also woven together with a variety of textures and physical sensations, including Jenny’s breathless escape into the night with only a stolen silk shawl for protection.
Most moving of all for me were Curiel’s tender remembrances of her early adulthood, long days of exhilarating freedom roving across sprawling suburban landscapes and foggy fields. One poem took the form of an improvised recipe for tamales. While Curiel didn’t pick up her mother’s recipe, she did “inherit her capacity for invention,” and scours her small town for the right kind of corn meal. Eventually she feels empowered to make all kinds of daring dishes. Curiel’s last poem recounted a romp in the corn fields outside Stockton, California- another indelible moment in the glow of a shooting star.
Then came Carmen Calatayud, a woman whose focused passion and sharp, hungry eyes make her slight frame seem bigger than it is. Small blue-green stones around her neck and fingers seemed to soak up the streetlights while she absorbed her surroundings in a single glance. “Can I get a little political?” she asked with a wan smile, and the audience tittered. That gentle sarcasm quickly opened up into full-throated declamatory poems railing against injustice.
The first one was written in response to Arizona’s Orwellian SB1070 law, which legalizes racial profiling. She spoke in detail of the gruesome deaths of migrant women in the Sonora desert as a direct result. Her second poem was in a similar vein, describing the voice of a homeless woman in Washington, D.C., Caltayud’s current hometown. I wasn’t sure how much of this woman was invented and how much was recorded, but her stark story and bitter tone rang true for me. “Dawn is worse than the night,” her lapidary words went, reminding us that home is more than a place to sleep.
Calatayud’s pithy writing became more personal with “What Matters: A Life in Five Parts”- five short poems to encapsulate her five decades on Earth. In quick succession I heard her attention move from pleasure to mortality, from aesthetics to philosophy, and finally to acceptance or appreciation. It was a magnificent- if somewhat abstruse- attempt to describe the process of spiritual maturation, how consciousness shifts and priorities change.
Then the personal blended with the political again, as she described her Spanish father recalling that country’s Civil War. Calatayud and her father process this psycho-emotional quagmire with heady metaphors of anarchy traveling through DNA strands before surrendering to shared rage and grief. “How are Franco and George Wallace still alive?” she asked incredulously. (I suppose this poem takes place before Franco’s death in 1975.) After an aside about the Mayan Calendar, she closed with a deeply reverent reading of Joy Harjo’s incandescent “Fire”.
David Tomas Martinez was a strikingly different physical presence at the mic, practically pouncing on his audience with few preliminaries. He is tall man with a broad chest, tattooed over much of his visible skin. His voice is a honeyed baritone with an intriguing mix of muscular guile and effeminate inflections. The poems themselves were dense jungles of similes delivered in a mesmerizing rant, perhaps a holdover from a fast-talking adolescence on violent San Diego streets. “It’s still hard to believe that anyone would actually want to listen to me,” he mused half to himself during his recitation.
His brilliant new book is an extended meditation on machismo. “Memory is a fist to the eye,” his first poem claimed, wrestling a number of ethereal themes down to earth. His second poem envisioned his father as a “caged jaguar”, stuck in the cramped spaces of received male identity. These were stirring reminders that those who dream of domination are usually are the most powerless.
I would call his poem “The Mechanics of Men” a Chicano street tough’s answer to the late Seamus Heaney’s “Digging”- a classic account of the poet’s defection from male lineages of work. In this case, though, the role models are morally questionable and the local economy has shallower roots, leading to a more extended narrative quest. The poem describes Martinez’s stint in a shipyard as a “job to babysit [him]”. The materials themselves (hoses, brass fittings, etc.) serve as little more than metaphors to get to something better, in this case a feminist education.
The next poem told a gripping story from Martinez’ reckless teenage years about hotwiring a car to commit a murder; fortunately, it all goes wrong. “No murder for you tonight,” says a goofily personified Christian God, just a plate of papas fritas at home. The closing poems were similarly harrowing: blocking a door to stop a rape, fractured hipbones. I for one am deeply thankful that Martinez managed to escape this collective madness and emerge into truer forms of self-expression, and I look forward to his future work.
The slack jaws in the crowd moved back into place as the cautious and soft-spoken Pablo Miguel Martinez took the mic. This gentle figure spent most of his time on short, solemn meditations. The dominant themes were “brown ghosts” “brown faces”, and “brown skin”- superficial differences reified into snap judgments and discrimination. He is a teacherly poet enamored of his family’s history and the broader history of Latin Americans, using his memories and fantasies to create accessible portraits of their social worlds.
Towards this end, he steadily worked backwards and forwards in time. After reading a fantasized “telegram”, he moved forward into a lyrical portrait of his father’s funeral. Then back to an earlier memory of his father and uncle applying for work as printers. Although they had come together in response to an announcement of two open positions, they were met with disdain. “I cain’t have two Pedros,” Martinez read in a perfect Texas twang, imitating the white employer. “I don’t want no trouble.” Martinez captures the terrible ache of this moment with an admixture of verbatim recall and his own laconic observations.
Next we were transported to present-day Napa Valley where, Martinez told us, Mexican and Filipino migrant workers can be seen everywhere… except in town. He imagined them in tangled “labyrinths of lettuce, beet and grapes”, unable to reach for much else. Casting his eye further back into time, he then read an epistolary poem to Malinche, an Aztec woman who famously served as translator for the brutal conquistador Cortes. Once again Martinez captured the moment with the simplest of imagery, depicting a woman spiritually possessed by the “red-bearded language”. He closed with an ekphrastic poem inspired by a Brazilian photographer, a “fractured sonnet”, and a charmingly ham-fisted invocation of thePadrinos and Madrinos of Latin music. It was a litany modeled after Mexican Catholic recitation of the names of saints, equal parts parody and homage. It was a the perfect ending to a very charged evening; I think we were all in need of something light-hearted after so much injustice, so many painful comings-of-age.
Whatever else may be said of these poets, they are documenting an essential part of the modern (and future) American psyche. We are only beginning to appreciate the momentous clash of Anglo and Latin cultures on our soil, a collision that is creating new peaks and valleys in our literature. Broad-minded organizations in the American heartland like Letras Latinas provide much-needed inspiration in a political environment rife with repression and isolationism. Thank you to all the readers and organizers. I am very glad that poets such as these are finding their voices in English and I hope that we can hear them afresh in polyglot New York.