Urban experiment

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what i’m on by the Mexican-American Luis H. Valadez is a strong first book of poetry that defines a new urban poetics, says Oscar Bermeo

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what i’m on
Luis H. Valadez
2009, University of Arizona Press
64 pages

Reviewed by Oscar Bermeo

LUIS H. VALADEZ’S debut collection, what i’m on, goes deep into the circumstances of growing up Latino in the suburb of Chicago Heights, Illinois, and emerges with a rich examination of personal history that is both evocative and experimental.

Starting from his initial poem “dear reader: this is what i thought on easter day” Valadez brings the reader right into the poet’s dilemma of simultaneously looking back on a life lived and moving forward with that life:

this work wrestles with itself, despite the temptation to project tar.

I give you what I have to give.

Of utmost importance, the environment taught me that this work
didn’t have to be a platform from which to extract revenge against my
existence.

Valadez’s speaker continues to wrestle between the details of his life against the decisions forced upon him. The modern urban environment is filled with similar stories but Valadez’s poems rise above these common tropes with bold leaps into experimental and fractured narratives that look to bring together the disparate pieces of the speaker to help him reach a new path.

Bouncing between scenes of a distressed childhood in Chicago Heights and astrological images, Valadez looks for the answers to a new path both within himself and in the stars with poems that dissect the various sections of his city with different astrological locations.

This is where Valadez’s collection loses the momentum of its opening frame and makes the reader work to piece together the entire history of the speaker by making vague references to the past distracting from the strength of his narrative.

The strongest and most unexpected poem in the collection “Stabbed in the Neck” is the poet penning his own obituary.

Luis Valadez (29) died on July 11, 2012, hours before his thirtieth birthday, in
what at press time investigators are ruling a homicide. He was shot seven times
in the back and then stabbed once in the neck while painting over the LKN tags
on his seventy-one-year-old mother’s garage.

Poems of this nature typically draw from the Mikey Piñero “A Lower East Side Poem” aesthetic, where the poet romantically outlines the details for their funeral. There is no such romance in Valadez’s poem; this account reduces the speaker/victim to snippets from a note found next to the deceased’s body, which serves as his last writing, and observation from the detective at the scene. The detective even has to address a ludicrous question about whether the victim was murdered or killed himself because the details of the final note lead the press to believe no one could make it through such a life. Valadez dispels the urban trope of the noble glorious gangster death with a more probable and dour recounting that is effective and striking.

By going past the surface story, staying grounded in his surroundings and unflinching in his personal observations, what i’m on is a strong first book of poetry that delivers realistic insights and defines a new urban poetics.

Oscar Bermeo is an award-winning poet, educator and literary events co-ordinator from the Bronx

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