Urban Funk Chiquitas






Last year Bryce Milligan, publisher of Wings Press in San Antonio, began a new poetry series devoted to launching young Texas Latina poets in his city. He calls it Poesía Tejana, and it’s a first in Texas, though as I discovered from writing a history of Texas poetry (West of the American Dream: An Encounter with Texas) it was women who first established Texas poetry, and still control its range and themes. To put that history into a few phrases, women saw the land as extensions of their own bodies, and when exploitation, slaughter, and genocide occurred, they saw these outrages as violations of their own flesh.

Now it’s the turn of young brown women from the old Spanish seat of Texas to speak of self and land. These are first books by four poets to date: Nicole Pollentier, Victoria García-Zapata, Celeste Guzmán, and Mary Grace Rodríguez. Milligan has hit upon a good formula: chapbooks of some forty pages each, with a logo on the cover showing an open palm surrounded by a century plant, with the title printed inside a die-cut window. Each book has a statement by the poet, a photo, and a brief biography. The poems, printed in brown ink on cream-colored paper, are compact, and by turns blunt, breezy, even gossipy.

The difference between these kids, born after 1970, and the white ranch wives and city folk of the 1930s, is startling. The early poets — Lexie Dean Robertson, Anna Bassett, Vaida Montgomery — turned everything into garden metaphors, obedient plants squared up in window boxes or roadway trim, behaving themselves in a fiercely masculine environment. Everything in their thirties verse is veiled and cryptic social comment, usually against the excesses of men. The women lamented the last straggling Indians going north, the bison bones left on the prairies, the vast waste of the oil booms, the plunder of forests — all the sins of frontier capitalism, but without being too plain about it.

The new generation, on the other hand, talks from experience about teen-age pregnancies, hard-drinking fathers, bad uncles, poverty, and hard times, the struggle to be female in a society of second-class citizens. They remind me of a remark of the Austin blues singer, Toni Price, who says that it’s okay to be on the poverty line, if you can handle it — that’s where all the experience is. The young women who composed these first poems write to the bone, and have stories to tell.

Nicole Pollentier’s book, Smolt, takes its title from the salmon old enough to go to sea. She may be the craftiest of the four, and has an ear for musical phrases which float just out of reach of the reader, who must chase after her sense like a butterfly collector.

boy with wedgewood eyes tried other things tied crystals to his forehead gave blessings to ambulances partook of the holy bread at breakfast lunch and dinner bowed down at three but no he said his baggy jeans his tambourine god left hollywood and took to the streets hangs in back alleys …

—”ryan, thanks for the offer”

Here is “thanksgiving” Chicana-style:

the year of the turkey and his ripped leg it was son of a bitch in the blue room over that one it was me and my mother walking tight ropes tight fisted smiling big for la familia giving thanks he, cursing jesus dividing us in parts cris wanted to know if my dad was mad no sé, I kept my thoughts…

Smolt is divided into four stages, from Eggs to Parr, the hatchling fish, to the adolescent Smolt, and the adult Salmon. The poems are a coming-of-age narrative, a favorite theme in Texas but new for Tejanas. She closes her book with “the poem / is the keeper of the word / (I) am only a map.” We may infer a certain holiness attaches to her calling as poet, a kind of literary curandera, and that she understands the original connection women struck for Texas poetry — she is the land.

Victoria García-Zapata’s Peace in the Corazón gives us a different sense of journey — starting with a love poem and ending with the title poem about finding peace within. But this is no easy trip; she makes us feel how hard it is to grow up needy, second-class from the outset.

Sunday at the cat walk boys and girls in their best Esprit, GAP, y Saks, y yo vestida de homemade…


Religion doesn’t work its wonders anymore, she tells us in “Incarnation,” with the accent on flesh in the title. It isn’t an abstract God she worships, but

what really matters

Gives me faith faith in familia

my only church

Some of these poems move into powerful questions laid claim to by the Hispanic imagination: the power of dreams, the haunting of the soul by unnamed sorrows, and the spectre of a malicious lover. All this is compacted into “El dueño del dolor,” about “the sad one / who stalks me,”

The one who’s on a roll three girls pregnant two unborn babies died from your rage I rescued mine in time

Once you tried to strangle me with an electric cord because of your homophobia and jealousy…

Makes me wonder wonder why why must this shadowy shadow shadow me

The book ends where we began, with a love poem “para Adám” (“Peace in the Corazón”), a vapory lyric about “dust in the spotlight / sunbeam sneaking / through window.”

Dust to make me smile just to look at

Dust I can not hold on to

Talc on the fingertips faint till you decide to fade like dust yet dust returns

These women tell us only love can square things with a world gone mad, and they defend their right to be loved and impregnated as a deliverance from weakness, from mere empty childhood at the mercies of troubled parents. Pregnancy is not an encumbrance but a gift, and the protagonists of these poems grow wings by becoming parents. All four say often in their poems that the times are too troubled to depend on anyone but oneself. Yet the lyrics are also about power wrested by becoming women too early, before their time: “Chingáo, girl, / starin’ at each other, we’re / tryin’ to figure out / how we got so old at 21 / or 22” writes Celeste Guzmán.

Celeste Guzmán’s Cande, te estoy llamando (Your Name is Cande), clings to family more than the others. This is the real tension of the book — being pushed too hard into the world, not quite giving up the affections of a big family (inventoried in her acknowledgements, including the Candelaria Rodríguez Lozano of the book’s title). She’s very good on her specialty, urban funk:

Tonight, our tongues are hot from booze, Marlboro Reds, and all that cussin’ and spittin’ about those evil dogs called men.…

The males who plague them, “puros cabrones” (pure goats), are as essential as air, “And that’s why we love ’em. / Watch ’em. / Tend to ’em.” And the bar named in this poem (“By the Liberty Bar Window”) is indeed taken as a kind of liberation from mere childhood:

We ain’t searchin’ for shit outside this liberty glass window that keeps us away from traffic and our parents.

“To my unborn daughter,” Guzmán’s closing poem, opens with a fist in your face:

The world so far has been an open wound I’ve licked, tasted, salted, wrapped, unwrapped and sewn. It has filled the hollows of my pits, the ridges of my vulva.

The poems are earthy, blunt, sexually charged, and as pungent as anything in Whitman on the body. Her daughter is a prize taken from love itself:

Yes, you’ve come to me like the whiff of cologne he leaves in my sheets. I can smell the sweat from your hair and the moistness formed between your small, fleshy thighs.

Mary Grace Rodríguez’s Long Story Short opens on a tough little song, “Apologia to mi Madre,” which signals where we are going in this book. Here is a daughter who loves her mother, but who also pushes her away to live her own life. Mom here “buys heart fast / into teachings of Sisters of Holy Adoration,” and can give no useful counsel about love or the rights of a contemporary woman:

What would my mother say to me now if she knew I invited you to stay the summer?…

My mother, the pretty face, eclipsed by the feast days of her eldest daughter.

I love you, Mom—

he may marry me.

Rodríguez is the most self-consciously literary of the four poets. She has a more mannered approach, as in this passage from “At Times I Am Not This Body, but the Ancient Document of a Leaf Falling to the Ground.”

When I run along the banks of the San Antonio River, so unlike the banks along the Rio Grande, I hear again the voice of Enriqueta, the mid-wife curandera who asked me to close my eyes.

When her voice comes in that manner, my footfalls become petitions for a young incarcerated man, that he might walk along these banks, breathe in this city air…

Such language suggests the real game in San Antonio poetry is to stay fresh, in the language of the streets. Any slip back into literary English, the sort formed a few generations ago with “footfalls become petitions,” is a risk. But there’s a nice close to this book, “Of the Woman with a Plan,” which demonstrates Rodríguez knows where to go for real language:

It’s she and the garlic you smell on your fingers before turning off the water boiling on the stove for the tea.

The four poets are no mere urchins of the barrios. Pollentier studied at Brown University and U.T.–Austin, and is already well published, as is García-Zapata, who attends Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio; Guzmán graduated from Barnard College, and is now an actress and playwright; Rodríguez works at the University of Houston. These women knew one sort of life in San Antonio and now live another. But their poems dwell in that first world, where all the energy is.

Paul Christensen is a poet and professor at Texas A&M University. His new book, West of the American Dream, is forthcoming from Texas A&M University Press.