The Expansive Self
I would not want to live in a literary barrio,” Tino Villanueva said during a recent interview, and there’s little chance that he will. Widely recognized as one of the most important Chicano voices, Villanueva has the reputation of being demanding in his critical judgments yet generous with his attention; and his voice is increasingly known for being both cosmopolitan and democratic. Reginald Gibbons, former editor of TriQuarterly and an award-winning novelist and poet, recently wrote that Villanueva exhibits what W.E.B. Dubois called “double consciousness,” the deep knowledge of two different cultures in a society. “Tino has found a way,” Gibbons said, “to write of both worlds [Chicano and Anglo] that makes sense, I believe, to all readers, even those who might be isolated in one of those worlds or the other.”
Martín Espada, poetry editor of the Massachusetts Review and an acclaimed poet himself, describes Villanueva as an important part of the vibrant Hispanic literary community that began flourishing in Boston during the Eighties. “He influenced an entire generation of Latinos,” Espada said. During that period Villanueva also began to publish an internationally focused literary magazine, Imagine, whose quality of presentation reflected Villanueva’s other considerable gift as a painter.
A persistent theme among writers who have responded to Villanueva’s work is a recognition of his literary sophistication. Anne Marie Stock, in Bilingual Review, notes that Villanueva’s “insistence on identification-as-process rather than on identity-as-product” offers an alternative for “the binary oppositions” that critics often use when dealing with works associated with migrant culture. Considering the work from another perspective, Frederick R. Worth of Randolph-Macon College has written that Villanueva’s “entire career can be characterized as a conscious arming [of] himself with words for the purpose of salvation, of reclamation of self.” Espada reminds us, too, that Villanueva’s is “not an oral street poetry, or a poetry in danger of lapsing into rhetoric.” It’s not surprising, then, when one considers the range of sources reflecting on his work, that Villanueva has the reputation of being one of the few writers in the country who writes well, even brilliantly, in both Spanish and English. How did that happen?
A lot of sophisticated people grow up in highly literate, multicultural environments wherein conversation about history, art, and aesthetics is a normal part of daily interchange. Villanueva didn’t. In fact, he didn’t start learning English, he said, until he began going to school; but even his school days demanded rapid and frequent changes of place and rough outdoor labor in all kinds of weather. Born in San Marcos in 1941, he was a part of a family of migrant farmworkers who were also strict Presbyterians: “no playing cowboys, marbles, or baseball on the Day of the Lord.”
After graduating from high school, Villanueva worked in a furniture factory for four years, until he was drafted into the Army and posted to the Panama Canal Zone. A Panamanian friend introduced him to Spanish-language poetry, especially that of important nineteenth-century figures like Rubén Darío (pioneer modernist of Nicaragua) and José Martí (the lyrically political poet also known as the George Washington of Cuba). His tour of duty over, Villanueva returned to San Marcos where he enrolled in Southwest Texas State University. Well into his twenties but just starting college, he began writing poems in Spanish and English – determined, he said, to master both languages.
Like the roads followed during the days of stoop labor in the fields, Villanueva’s journey to literature and what he considers the redemptive power in it took a labyrinthine path. As a teenager watching television, as he describes in the powerfully elegant poem “Convocación de palabras” (“Convocation of Words”), he wrote down vocabulary he heard but did not know, looked up the words in a dictionary – impecunious, kibbitzer, postprandial, querimonious, etc. – and copied the definitions in workbooks he keeps with him still. His background didn’t promise to produce an exceptionally literate internationalist with a Ph.D. in Spanish literature, but one emerged anyway; and he even got his doctoral dissertation published: Tres poetas de posguerra: Celaya, González y Caballero Bonald. He’s now teaching Spanish at Boston University and, during the summers, English at M.I.T.
Villanueva didn’t arrive arrive instantaneously at excellence. Fired by the English Romantics he was studying in a sophomore class, he wrote a poem and took it to his professor, Ben Archer, who told him bluntly he was writing nineteenth century poetry that sounded like it might have been produced by George Jessel. As a corrective, Villanueva recalled, Professor Archer “read to me what another poet had done with the same theme of war: e.e. cummings’ ‘i sing of Olaf glad and big’… as I heard him recite it, I detected cadences that appealed to me.” Archer sent him to a creative writing teacher, Norman Peterson, who, “in no more than fifteen minutes,” had a major effect: “He showed and read to me passages by poets so different from each other” – Dylan Thomas, Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso, T.S. Eliot. Immediately young Villanueva went to the bookstore downtown and bought as many books by “these new-found poets” as he could.
Thomas immediately sang to him; and in Villanueva’s first volume, Hay otra voz poems (1972), one sees and hears an assimilation of his early, sonically rich master:
I saw the first leaf fall, its lilt and love light chilled; … I saw the first leaf fall, flung by the dumb dreams of Summer
– “I Saw The First Leaf Fall”
Although his subsequent verse would not be as intensely alliterative as numerous poems in this first volume, there has remained an incantatory yet meditative quality. In Crónica de mis años peores (1987), poem after poem is marked by clusters of sacramentally heightened phrasing: “el emblema de mi fe” [the badge of my faith]; “nadie me ungió de salvación” [no one anointed me with salvation]; “Lejos de todo dios” [So far from God]; “el rito liberador del agua” [the liberating rite of the water]; “la ablución del baño semenal” [the ablution of the weekly bath].
Villanueva does not present his art from a religiously creedal perspective, though his poems often ring prophetically – a dimension of his work compatible with Romanticism, the idiom that first guided his voice. We also hear echoes of another form of Romanticism – French Existentialism – when, both reportorially and ritualistically, he insists on the possibilities of creating oneself through choice and will: “… hoy me pertenezco, / soy la fundación de la que creo / y no de lo que fui” [“… I belong to myself now, / I’m the root of what I believe, / not what I was”] (“Empezando a saber” / “Beginning To Know”).
Similar concerns modulate the voice that narrates Scene From The Movie GIANT (1993, winner of the American Book Award). The meditative quality of this episodically structured book-length poem is as powerful as the electrically charged social study in it. The adult speaker vividly recalls the afternoon during his boyhood when he saw Giant, and through the force of memory he even tries to rescue the cringing child from the pain that came from the anti-Mexican-American bigotry portrayed in the film. Strengthening the authority of the poem is a sacramental tone that confesses the speaker’s limits while affirming his capacity for growth.
This doubling of understanding is especially seen in the closing section of Part II, “Without A Prayer At The Holiday Theater,” whose title, like numerous parts of the book, operates simultaneously on two levels: the secularly conversational and the contemplative. A painful admission opens the poem: “What the screen had released through darkness was too / Much for a single afternoon. Without words, the child / Began to feel mortal … He had failed.” The piece closes, though, with the resonance of prayer: “Be / in me my rock and my redeemer, the Eternal Defender / of my soul. Mend now my spirit, O God, weaver of the / good, that I may walk away from here feeling whole.” The internal rhyme at closure – soul / whole – moves one from ragged pain to a sense of order that embodies hope.
Villanueva’s most recent collection is a chapbook gathering of ten poems driven by the dynamics of memory and a writer’s confrontation with the blank page: Primera Causa / First Cause (1999). A list of several titles suggests how directly and how consciously Villanueva continues to develop the concerns that have been with him from the early years of his career: “Memoria que no cesa / Memory That Never Ends”; “Imaginé un papel / I Pictured A Page”; and “Teoría de la redención / Theory of Redemption.” The Cuban-American novelist and poet Virgil Suárez recently told me, “I read and re-read [Villanueva’s] poems for their simplicity of words, their directness of message.… [He] sets a courageous example for all of us.”
“I’m a human being first,” Villanueva said, responding to a question about how he sees himself. “In terms of nationality, I’m an American, since I was born in the U.S. and have gone through the educational system of this country. I also carry an American passport. In terms of an ethnic label, well, again, I’m an American, but I’m also an American of Mexican descent who along the way has formally learned and taught himself to express himself in both English and Spanish.… In the end, I’m just a writer.” There are complexities of concept and tone in the statement that are akin to the markedly inclusive spirit of his work.
A long poem, “At The Holocaust Museum: Washington, D.C.” (published in Partisan Review in 1997), shows Villanueva apparently changing the direction of his attention. In reality, though, he is extending in this poem the concerns that have been with him since the beginning of his career: the intense relationship between self and other. His approach is predominantly contemplative, though he is keenly alert to the terrible pain in the other and a burning need for personal responsibility in himself: being as vivid as the self, the other becomes a part of the self. Reginald Gibbons has called this quality of Villanueva’s consciousness “political compassion.” Looking at his accomplishments from another direction, Martín Espada said that, along with Gary Soto, Villanueva “virtually invented a genre of poetry,” serious literature about farmworkers. “That in itself,” Espada added, “guarantees Tino a place in literary history.”
Where then is Villanueva’s work heading? He recently said that after he finished Scene From the Movie GIANT he “began to feel an irresistible attraction toward Penelope, Odysseus’ wife.” What might we expect from that? Who knows? The process of discovery can take a writer many places; but the range of Villanueva’s concern has always been inclusive – and read carefully, his work shows that he carries a great tradition with him.
James Hoggard’s most recent books are the novel Trotter Ross, Medea In Taos & Other Poems, and the translation of Stolen Verses & Other Poems by Oscar Hahn.
Books By Tino Villanueva
Hay otra voz poems. 1972, Colección Mensaje.
Chicanos: Antología histórica y literaria. 1980, Fondo de Cultura Económica.
Shaking Off The Dark. 1984, Arte Publico; Bilingual Press, 1998.
Chicanos (Selección). 1985, Fondo de Cultura Económica.
Crónica de mis años peores. 1987, Lalo Press. Crónica de mis años peores /
Chronicle Of My Worst Years (translated by James Hoggard). 1994, Northwestern University Press.
Tres poetas de posguerra: Celaya, González y Caballero Bonald. 1988, Tamesis Books.
Scene From the Movie GIANT. 1993, Curbstone Press.
Primera causa / First Cause (translated by Lisa Horowitz). 1999, Cross-Cultural Communications.
Primera causa que me nombra
Escribo dejo de escribir escribo.Otras veces me distraigo y me levanto.Me vuelvo a sentar y me siento otro,y es mediodía un jueves contra el sol.Escribo y como el salmista sigo escribiendoa fin de dar con los versículos que faltan,con la justa entonación de lo que importa.Escribo porque escribo y pasan minutos,pasan nubes.Y puesto que ya es tarde,todo va oscureciendoy se empieza a dibujar un cielo constelado.Entretanto, me dejo llevarpor la condición de la memoria– primera causa que me nombra –que me persuade a escribir sobre lo escrito.Ser y seguir siendo:soy el que sólo existe mássi está escribiendo.
First Cause to Name Me
I write I stop writing I write.Sometimes I get so distracted I walk away.When I come back I’m a different manand it’s noon on a Thursday against the sun.I write, and like the psalmist I keep at it,always searching for that missing verse,the one with just the right tone for meaning.I write because I write and time passes,clouds pass.And now, with the advent of evening,things turn to duskand stars get drawn out across a darkening sky.I, meantime, trail offinto a state of memory– first cause to name me –to move me to write upon things that are written.To be and to continue to be:a man, making more of lifeonly in writing.
– Tino Villanueva (translated by Lisa Horowitz)