A Into the Green, 1973 Tino Villanueva 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 “Convocation de palabras” 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, Gonzalez 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 newfound poets” as he could. Thomas immediately sang to him; and in Villanueva’s first volume, Hay otra voz poems ilation of his early, sonically rich master: I saw the first leaf fall, its lilt and love light chilled; I saw the first leaffall, 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 Cronica de mis anos peores poem after poem is marked by clusters of sacramentally heightened phrasing: “el emblema de mi fe” [the badge of my faith]; “nadie one ungio de salvation” [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 ablution del ban 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 fundacion 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” I Similar concerns modulate the voice that narrates Scene From The Movie GIANT \(1993, winner of the American Book 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. 24 THE TEXAS OBSERVER MAY 12, 2000
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