April is National Poetry Month, a time to highlight the splendor and the strength of the written word. Across the country, poetry lovers are hosting literary readings, writing workshops and conversations about why verse evokes joy, surprise, pride and other emotional responses.
Latino poets, attuned to the concerns of the present moment, hold a special place and inspire us to look at our surroundings more closely and perhaps more critically.
Here are 8 poetry collections, including a recently published one by Richard Blanco, President Barack Obama’s inaugural poet, that help us understand the complicated world we live in.
A recently expanded and republished collection that originally came out in 1992, "Snake Poems" quickly became a landmark book of poems for Chicano literature. The late Francisco Alarcón, a descendant of the Mexica (Aztec) people, came upon a collection of invocations compiled by a Mexican priest, and then responded to this text by reclaiming their purpose and language with his own trilingual book of poems. His imagery draws frequently from the natural landscape, and his tone is characteristically optimistic and inspiring: “water’s/ the heart of/ the mountain// its voice: a jaguar/ of echoes// el agua/ es el corazón de/ la montaña// su voz: un jaguar/ de ecos// ca atl/ iyolloh/ in tepetl// itozqui:/ ocelotl/ in caquitzi.”
“Forced to leave home, but home/ never leaves us,” writes Blanco, the son of Cuban exiles, who examines what it means to be an immigrant, an exile, or a refugee. In his search, he doesn’t necessarily seek answers, but kinship in the stories he encounters, as in the poem dedicated to the DACA DREAMers: “Como tú, I question history’s blur in my eyes/ each time I face a mirror…Como tú, I woke up to/ this dream of a country I didn’t choose, that didn’t choose me.” But the book doesn’t stop at lament, by naming America’s shortcomings, it asks us to imagine a better home, “a kingdom with no king,/ a city with no walls, a country with no name,/ a nation without any borders or claim.”
Embracing the word “pocha,” Borjas shifts its power from pejorative to restorative in these poems that celebrate the daring of Chicano youth (“Let’s scare the white people with our Spanglish”), a love of Mexican culture (“I’ll eat [tamales] with scrambled eggs and some green smoothie or// with my woke non-Mexican boyfriend on my Ikea plates”), and the blessing of being at peace with oneself (“I will die like an abrupt breeze/ because my mother was born like an abrupt/ breeze and a lonely candle lit in a patio/ needs someone to solve its flame”). Though the speaker recognizes what is surrendered when one acculturates into American society, she concedes: “I’m not allowed/ to forget/ where I came from.”
“Where […] were the books with contemporary Latina poets?” Cruz wondered, and the answer led to this stunning anthology of poems that “move beyond simple categorization. They are a resistance, pushing back against the idea that there is one monolithic, singular Latina/x voice or identity.” These 15 voices include Natalie Díaz, who is Mojave and an enrolled member of the Gila River Indian Tribe; Carolina Ebeid, who is of Cuban and Palestinian ancestry; and Sandy Florian, who is a half-Colombian, half-Puerto Rican native of New York. Their subject matter is expansive and sophisticated, and always, like Ada Limón’s words, thought provoking: “Beauty, in its optimal world,/ denies all its adversaries,/ says, Boo, says, Who’s there?// And the ugly parts scatter.”
Set in 1990s East Harlem, during the rise of hip-hop, Perdomo’s poems introduce a hardscrabble crew known as The Crazy Bunch, which includes Skinicky, the poet always ready for inspiration: “Bro, poems were falling from the rooftops, flailing out the windows; sometimes you’d pick up the corner pay phone and a poem would be calling collect.” Tragedy will befall this vibrant black and Puerto Rican community, bringing to a halt the merriment but not the struggle to tell the tale: “How to describe that sound when the birds flutter like a deck of cards being shuffled? Where to find your uplift & hallelujah, hosanna & hero, campana & chorus?”
Selected for the 2018 Andrés Montoya Prize by Ada Limón, who notes that Restrepo Rhodes “unravels the violence of Colombia’s Thousand Days’ War, the history of rape culture and femicide, and the weight of carrying historical trauma.” Indeed, even the future, though tinged with hope, will not arrive unscathed, a hard truth implicit in the title “prayer for the children who will be born with today’s daggers in their tomorrow eyes.” Yet an arresting imagery illuminates the dark corridors of these poems, offering some solace: “little birds, singing their own names in the key of lost,/ fluttering, covered at night, interminable night,/ with a fist & a gun,/ for hushing.”
Punctuated by startling woodcuts that depict the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, Salas Rivera delivers a powerful indictment about the disconnect between the dire experiences of Puerto Ricans and the detached perceptions of Americans. A sequence of phrases is footnoted in Spanish, at times providing additional insights that will not be understood by English-only speakers, mirroring the lack of understanding and communication between the U.S. and the Caribbean island. Some entries are poignantly succinct: “help” is footnoted as “filas,” referring to the exasperating lines to receive aid; others offer a jolt of reality, like footnote 54, which announces the start of classes, and that a student asked for $25 in order to eat.
In the Latino household, gender norms are either changing or upholding traditional values and the ways in which men and women interact. Both come with compromise and sacrifice. Scenters-Zapico explores the old and the new ways of navigating machismo in this stellar collection whose title references the classic bulería, a hilarious cautionary tale about spinsterhood made famous by Doña Concha Piquer in 1940. Scenters-Zapico brings her own brand of cutting humor: “I don’t want to be the woman// whose skin dissolves into the caldos she makes/ for her dying parents. That kind of woman cries alone/ because she has no fat husband to make her cry// in a home of her own.”