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Villanueva: The Artist as Migrant BY ELZBIETA SZOKA CHRONICLE OF MY WORST YEARS by Tino Villanueva Translated by James Hoggard Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1995 POETIC EXISTENCE and the process of self-creation through language and art are the first notions suggested by Chronicle of My Worst Years, the most recent, bilingual collection of the poetry of Chicano writer and painter Tino Villanueva. The cover characterizes Villanueva’s poems as “impassioned personal utterances” voicing “complex and compelling historical, literary, and cultural questions.” Translator James Hoggard remarks in an afterword that Villanueva’s detachment combined with his intense subjectivity evoke the ancient concept of a “prophetic poet, a figure who has traditionally functioned simultaneously as outsider and insider.” Poetry translations are always challenging, and particularly complicated when the poet creates meanings using purely verbal devices rather than images or associations of ideas. Villanueva’s work combines all these methods, but Hoggard’s best translations are of those poems where the role of the self-important word is secondary. Chronicle is a record of the painful transient childhood and adolescence of a migrant farm workerpresented from the perspective of a boy who is growing to become a poet and for whom language is the path to freedom and art is a form of redemption. The harsh reality of his “worst years,” presented in the Chronicle directly as often as indirectly, brings out the boy’s sensitivity and wisdom. The contrast between the “epic” world of Villanueva’s migratory experience and his “poetic” perception of that reality is one of the most original characteristics of this volume. The poem that opens this collection is “History Class,” recounting the divided education and divided experience of Mexican Americans toward the end of the 1950s. Villanueva describes his encounter with a bigoted teacher who told his students to “beware of Mexicans” because “They are a Elzbieta Szoka is a professor of literature at Columbia University, following several years at St. Edward’s University in Austin. great deal more treacherous than Indians.” According to the author’s notes, the English quotations in the poem are taken from The Adventures of Big-Foot Wallace, the Texas Ranger and Hunter, which his high school history teacher read to his pupils in the 1950s. It is the most stylistically direct and ideologically engaged poem in the book. Yet even in such an explicit account, Villanueva cannot escape his linguistic double meanings and original imagery: To keep from crying out the anger boiling up in me I bent over my desk like a human question mark; I imagined myself in another state, however, I was falling each time toward humiliation’s dense abyss, the persistent theme of my time. In Villanueva’ s poems “incidents become metaphors, and metaphors become modes of perception that keep two points of perspective in harmony,” writes Hoggard. The language, the poet’s main concern, does not simply point to objects other than itself; it states facts and describes ideas. Such is the case in “An Almost Biblical City: Chicago,” which calls Chicago an almost biblical city / that grandly spoke with power in many languages.” The magic of Chicago goes far beyond the immediate reality of a melting pot. It transcends the social and cultural contexts of a multicultural city and moves beyond them toward a mystical “light and meaning.” The ’50’s ending and words and more words filling up my zones of orphanhood, I invented a life different from the one I had: I the child developed by the paradox of sleeping at home and living like an anonymous lover in the almost biblical city that grandly spoke with power in many languages. And it felt good to say its name, to unfold the map and look for it again and again next to the lake covered with light and meaning. The power of words that are able to create reality is also noticeable in other poems. “Convocation of Words” dramatizes hu morously Villanueva’ s attempt to master English in the process of “multiplying” himself, by conjuring the words whose history he made his own. I summoned them at the altar of my desire raising them by necessity into memory. In the fertility of a moment I was multiplying myself: affable prerogative egregious. “Chronicler’s Story” successfully reconciles two opposing sides of the poet’s heritage through the process of inhabiting “other words / while seeing everything at once and staying awake.” In his prayer to Tlacuilo, an Aztec scribe in charge of the codices, Villanueva asks: “give me light and power to restore / the ruins of the land and the natural order / of broken time.” In his prayer to Alvar Ntniez Cabeza de Vaca, “disoriented Castilian wanderer,” he asks: You, almost natively bilingual, flowing in the drift across Texaztlan, make the waters of a river you forded beat against my memory so my land will resound letter by letter beneath my fist, so my recitation of these customs will be severely, desperately precise. Hoggard refers to Villanueva’s poetry as an example of “unforced elegance” and as “emblematic of a major portion of the American psyche that, whatever the ethnic point of reference, has traditionally been associated with the promise of energy and the pain of estrangement.” Villanueva’s “unforced elegance” consists of writing in an accessible manner yet avoiding the traps of plainspeech poetry that sounds best in songs. That is certainly one of the most remarkable qualities of Chronicle, a masterpiece of bringing together apparently opposing concepts. Also worth noting is an implicit analogy between the transient life of a migrant worker and the permanent intellectual and emotional distress of an artist. Stagnation and motionlessness are as foreign to Villanueva’s vision of reality as mainstream America is to the young boy whose voice is heard in all the poems. THE TEXAS OBSERVER 21