Poetry of Resistance
Voices for Social Justice
Francisco X. Alarcón
Odilia Galván Rodríguea
(University of Arizona Press)
In 2010, Arizona passed a "reasonable suspicion" law --- SB 1070 --- one that specified that the state and local police could stop and question any person that they suspected of being in the United States without proper papers. In protest, nine Latinos chained themselves to the doors of the legislative chambers in Phoenix, and were soon arrested and hauled away.
Two professors, one of the University of California, Davis, the other at Arizona State University, set up a video on YouTube showing the protest and its results. An appropriate page was set up on the internet, and visitors were invited to write poems about SB 1070, and Arizona, and such churlish laws. All this was augmented by an additional insult from the legislature, HB 2281 --- which banned all "Ethnic studies" in Arizona high schools.
In the last five years, some 3,000 poems have been posted, and over a hundred have been collected here in this volume, Poetry of Resistance.
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It is often difficult for a reviewer to treat a collection of didactic poetry. The rage is so visceral that it cannot show the clarity and dispassion that the poetic vision demands. In other words, understatement is not the usual way to express outrage; it is hard to maintain balance when one would write about the systematic contempt for outsiders that is the American way of life. Thus, one could argue that the poetry of outrage is an oxymoron, yet some like Imamu Amiri Baraka, James A. Emanuel and Etheridge Knight have proved that with restraint and equilibrium, such a bridge is possible.
One of the best here is "Ghost Town" by Gerardo Matus,
Doña Rosa left early this morning
She loaded everything she owned in her car
and said good-bye to us. She went to Utah.
The little girls from the house next door
don't cry anymore. Yesterday, their mothers
took them away. They're heading to Chicago.
The school, up the hill, is empty
The few children who stayed today
are not coming back tomorrow.
They'll leave with their parents tonight.
The poem is subtitled "24 HOURS B4 ARIZONA'S SB 1070," and more or less works because the author distances himself from the dimwittedness of what he is reporting.
In a similar way, using judicious irony, James O. Michael writes, "After we walled off Canada, / we built another wall down south, / from the California beaches / to the Rio Grandy's mouth . . . ." and concludes,
American's Great Wall had turned
our country into a jail.
In another example of gentle restraint, Sonia Guitiérrez writes, in "Grandchildren of the United Fruit Company"
America, America, America!
The children are here;
they have arrived
to your Promised Land,
sprinkled with pixie dust,
paved with happiness
America why do these children
overflow your limbo rooms?
Why are the children corralled
in chain link fences,
sleeping on floors
Finally, in what is a memento mori, Martín Espada, in "Isabel's Corrido:" "Marry my sister so she can stay in the country" and so he says OK and they rehearse all of it for the migra including the probable questions, wild imagined questions born of desperation and fear:
We heard rumors of the interview: they would ask me the color
Of her underwear. They would ask her who rode on top.
We invented answers and rehearsed our lines. We flipped through
immigration forms at the kitchen table the way other couples
shuffled cards for gin rummy. After every hand I would deal again.
The agony of the hidden "illegals" is played out in ten short stanzas, and when Isabel is found dead (brain tumor) the narrator, "I imagined my wife / who was not my wife, who never slept beside me, sleeping in the ground."
wondered if my name was carved into the cross above her head, no epitaph
and no corrido, another ghost in a riot of ghosts evaporating from the skin
of dead Mexicans who staggered for days without water through the desert.
The tragedy of a whole peoples revealed, peoples whose identifier had been changed to "illegals" --- a whole class of people merely seeking a place to work and make a life and feed their children. The poems here rail against the strong-arm tactics, the forced emigration; we have in one gentle Corrido the dolorous tale of one of "bare feet and long black hair" who succumbed to a culture that she could barely understand. "After she left, / I found her crayon drawing of a bluebird tacked to the bedroom wall."--- Carlos Amantea