Juan Felipe Herrera’s early life as the child of migrant workers has profoundly conditioned his work
Half of the World in Light:
New and Selected Poems
Juan Felipe Herrera
2008, University of Arizona Press
Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole
IF STUDENTS of Juan Felipe Herrera struggle to identify the most common threads that run through a corpus of writing as voluminous as the doyen of Chicano poetry’s interests are diverse, they would do well to consider this poet’s background.
The only son of itinerant Mexican campesinos whose labours dragged them from harvest to harvest across the US south-west, Herrera’s early life as a migrant worker has profoundly conditioned his work.
But what we must consider here is not so much how this impermanent, nomadic existence at the muddy end of the Chicano experience gave content itself to his poetry – although social concerns, questions of cultural nationalism and the immigrant perspective are prominent themes in his work – but how it helped to nurture his transient tastes and versatility.
What appears to be an important characteristic of a body of work over 35 years that has resulted in 24 books, a broad portfolio of essays and other published works, and more prizes and awards than any other Chicano literary figure, is the extent of Herrera’s appetite, an eclectic desire to savour every inspiration and a penchant to try every expressive spice. In those topics he considers important, however, there is always a unique stamp of assertiveness.
Indeed, one might go so far as to say that this wanderlust – both real, through tours, and metaphorical, through his extensive, almost unlimited, range of activities as a creator, educator and performer – may only have been circumscribed through poetry. Poetry is Herrera’s only permanent home, and has been ever since he met Alurista in his teens in San Diego and they forged a longstanding creative and spiritual bond.
Kaleidoscopic creative impulse
This kaleidoscopic creative impulse but also a process of personal development is much in evidence in Half the World in Light, which embraces the many styles and subjects that can be found in Herrera’s work since he began writing. Winner of the 2008 National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry, this collection begins with early material from A Certain Man and moves through 13 subsequent collections into new, uncharted territory. It includes a CD of the author himself reading 24 selected poems.
As Francisco Lomelí highlights in his “Foreword” to this volume, Alurista’s influence is apparent in Herrera’s early work, which emphasizes the cosmological and indigenous dimensions of the identity many Chicano cultural nationalists were fashioning for themselves in the 1960s and 70s through references to the mythological homeland of Aztlán and bilingual devices.
What also shines through early in his work, however, is a reluctance to confine his language and tone to familiar territory, and Herrera has been described as “alluvial”, making a restless effort to tramp across different terrains and experimenting with the rainbow tendencies and outlooks that he finds on the way, beginning with the Beat and Hippie generations. In “Gallery of Time”, he writes:[…]
the rhythm of jesus steps
the texure of buddha’s eyes
the harmony of tláloc’s heart
the oil of vishnu’s fire
Social perspectives sometimes emerge in a commotion, as if the mood of the period has borne down on the poet, yet are interwoven with a humour that gives them universal context. Indeed, Herrera is often at his witty best when addressing the world outside the US, the universal mark of a great poet. It is of great importance that Chicano, and Latino poetry more generally, strives to speak to the world in this way. In “Simple Poet Constructs Hunger”, he writes:
Give me Bulgaria,
its demolitions, its contempt for Communism, its pâté of thick-backed
administrators grasping at the old regime.
My nose? You ask. The State has eaten it.
In his more recent work, there is a recurrent vision of a devastated Middle East and palpable anger that the poet constantly and urgently seeks to bring to the attention of his America. In “Enter the Void”, Herrera writes:
I enter the void,
it has the shape of a viola:
Israel, Jenin, West Bank, Nablus – a rubble boy
shifts his scapula as if it was his continent, underground
Gazaground, I want to say
I ride the night, past the Yukon, past
South Laredo, past Odessa, past the Ukraine,
old Jaffa, Haifa and Istanbul, across clouds,
hesitant and porous, listen –
they are porous so we can glide
into them, this underbelly, this underground:
wound-mothers and sobbing fathers […]
The restless Salvadorean visionary Roque Dalton found it impossible to separate his poetry from his militancy, but chose revolution as a means of exorcising his ghosts.
There is a restlessness linked to a similar, albeit contemporary and realistic, awareness of the unjust residing just beneath the surface of Herrera’s work. But he has chosen poetry itself as his catharsis. He tells us so in the final verse of this groundbreaking collection, “Let Me Tell You What a Poem Brings”:
Before you go further,
let me tell you what a poem brings,
first, you must know the secret, there is no poem
to speak of, it is a way to attain a life without boundaries,
yes, it is that easy
Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books