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spacer.gif   POETRY WONDER: LUIS J. RODRIGUEZ
Posted by : cj on Monday, February 20, 2006 - 03:17 PM
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Chicago Poetry Reviews: Click Headlines .
My Nature Is Hunger
new and selected poems: 1989-2004
by Luis J. Rodriguez
Curbstone Press
Reviewed by C. J. Laity


It is almost impossible to count how many great poets have risen from Chicago's performance poetry scene who have moved to carry on their work somewhere else. Luis J. Rodriguez is but one of many who have influenced this city in great ways and who have helped to shape the poetry scene into what it is today. Rodriguez is the founder of Tia Chucha Press, once the publishing wing of the Guild Complex during its heyday. He also was one of the organizers of the original Neutral Turf Chicago Poetry Fest, which today's modern Chicago Poetry Fest is to a large degree based upon.

In 2005, Rodriguez released this collection of new and old poems. My Nature Is Hunger is about as good as a greatest hits poetry collection gets, with samplings from Luis Rodriguez's previous books Poems Across the Pavement, The Concrete River, and Trochemoche, as well as forty-five pages of new work. Peppered with the Mexican language in an east LA accent, this is one of the greatest books of political poetry out there today, touching upon subjects such as homelessness, poverty, racism, and war. The book also touches upon the theme of families, torn and in despair ("Victory, Victoria, My Beautiful Whisper") with the suggestion that this urban dilemma is not necessarily the fault of anything except the individuals' inability to get along with each other.

Throughout this body of work, it becomes apparent that these are not poems born out of Rodriguez's imagination, but gigantic truths that he has actually witnessed or that he is related to by blood:

There is a child dressed in black,
fear sparkling from dark Indian eyes,
clinging to a headless Barbie doll.


(from "Running to America")

Each poem stands alone like a tiny story, or more accurately a tiny scene from a story, such as in the poem "Meeting the Animal in Washington Square Park" (a poem that is also performed on Rodriguez's spoken word CD My Name Is Not Rodriguez which can be heard on Poetry World Radio).

Each poem tends to have a climax, often occurring at the end of the poem. Let me get my beef out of the way, with the admission that it is a minor beef and that it doesn't in the long run subtract from the importance of this book. Sometimes the climaxes come off a bit too forced or melodramatic:

The last I heard, he played only
when the heroin in his body
gave him a booking.


(from "Palmas")

Some of these climaxes come off as anti-climaxes, especially when enough has been said already to invoke a particular emotion and then we get the feeling the forced climax is better left unsaid, subtracting from that emotion instead of adding to it. There are also times when not enough is said and the story is wrapped up too quickly with a melodramatic climax. Either way, there are a couple of moments when we feel that the vantage point is from the opposite side of a keyhole, that we are not there in the entire space with the happening, and I don't think it is intentional. Thankfully, these couple of instances are not common among the breath of the work, but they usually do involve vague bouts of crying:

She looked at me as if sorry.
We exchanged fingers
then kissed, and I cried,
kissed and cried into the moments
of my first suckling.


(from "Black Mexican")

or even

Inside the Buick are four children.
They press their faces
against the water-streaked glass
and cry through large eyes:
Mirrors of a distant ocean.


(from "They Come To Dance")

For the most part, however, the melodrama is the very thing that keeps the reader engaged:

It brought me to life, out of captivity,
in a street-scarred and tattooed place
I called body


(from "The Calling")

And a majority of the time the vantage points are superb:

Dudes would buy her drinks and she brought the drinks
over to me. Laid back against a plush seat,
I silently toasted their generosity.


(from "The Bull's Eye Inn")

or

The back of a woman's head in front of me.
But in the mirror just lips, enormous
as they rubbed the sides of the plastic rim.


(from "Lips")

Rodriguez is a master at creating character. He makes these characters his own, even if they are based on real people. These characters come to life for the reader remarkably well considering the brevity of the poems that create them. Rodriguez holds a great empathy for his flawed, urban characters:

Something about being so mad
and taking it out on a car.
Anybody's car.
I mean, cars get killed everyday.
I understood this pain.


(from "Somebody Was Breaking Windows")

Rodriguez is also a master at creating a sense of place for the reader, so that we are brought right into his dark world of memory. With the exception of the few instances mentioned above, his voice allows the reader a wonderful sense of being there:

Home for now. Hidden in weeds.
Furnished with stained mattresses
And plastic milk crates.
Wood planks thrust into thick branches
Serves as roof.
The door is a torn cloth curtain
(Knock before entering).
Home for now, sandwiched
In-between the maddening days.


(from "The Concrete River")

Rodriguez's comparisons are often simplistic though highly effective, such as the extended metaphor of his words replacing his tool belt. Often, Rodriguez is so focused during his metaphors and similes that remarkable details emerge:

I wish I were that guy. Then I wouldn't be
this chock-faced pirate on city seas.
Then I wouldn't be this starved acrobat of the alcoves
loitering against splintered doors.


(from "Jesus Saves")

Great attention is also given to the gestures of his characters. This heightens the power of the imagery Rodriguez creates:

They come to dance
and remember
the way flesh feels flush
against a cheek
and how a hand opens slightly,
shaped like a seashell,
in the small
of a back"


(from "They Come To Dance")

Another strength Rodriguez has is his ability to address an audience and to know who that audience is. Sometimes this audience is apparent, such as when he talks directly to "Civilization," and other times there seems to be a mysterious person present that Rodriguez is confessing to.

The virtue of this poetry is Rodriguez's honesty. He is not afraid to talk about rough subjects such as sniffing paint as a child or being in a gang. Although this book is filled with hope, the honest tales of poverty and oppression can be grim at times. Rodriguez throws in a few very humorous anecdotes to break the tension, such as the story of a rooster with an identity crisis, or the tale of his war with cockroaches, or the episode where he is mistaken for a member of the rock band Los Lobos.

Rodriguez's performance poetry roots are represented here with poems such as "Watts Bleeds" and also through his references to people in the Chicago Poetry Scene. Anyone who has been in Chicago's poetry scene for more than fifteen years knows that when Rodriguez writes the following words:

She rises from a chair and slides toward the stage
with satin feet over a worn-wood floor.
She bears down on the microphone
like a blues singer about to reveal
some secrets. A fever of poems in her hand.
She seizes the mike and begins her seduction.


(from "Don't Read That Poem!")

he is talking about slam poet Patricia Smith.

His vision of Chicago is not always positive, however:

In Chicago, depressed neighborhoods
are dotted with vacant lots like missing
teeth in an old man's mouth . . .


or

If heartache were a city it would be Chicago.
If suicide had eyes, it would be the lonely gaze
Of skyline at the edge of lake.


(from "Mother by the Lake")

But it is startling to witness major moments in Rodriguez's life happening at familiar places:

But every time we argue
and then get back together
we are like two legs
parting
to give birth.


(from "At Quenchers Bar When You Said Goodbye")

Whether it is Humboldt Park, Logan Square or a local poetry venue, this book is filled with local nostalgia, which makes it a classic piece of Chicago literature, even if the author has since moved to LA.

One of the biggest crimes committed in the production of this book was the editing of Rodriguez's poem "Notes of a Bald Cricket". This poem is the Mexican equivalent to Allen Ginsberg's Howl and should have been offered in its entirety, rather than just giving three sections of it. Finding the poem cut down in size like this was like finding the short version of "Teenage Rhapsody" on a Best of Queen album. Rodriguez is in his top form during this poem. Every one of his strengths combines into this one great piece of work. The editors of this book could have very well chopped out the shorter, less enthusiastic work (specifically pages 76 thru 84) in order to make room for this dynamo of a poem. You'll have to get a copy of his 1998 book Trochemoche to experience the poem the way it is intended.

It's wonderful to see Rodriguez's writing style mature as the book progresses in a chronological order, however my favorite pieces remain his older stuff. Though Rodriguez develops a keener sense of rhythm and form in his new work, much of the energy and detail is sacrificed in exchange. But the new work comes off as more optimistic and less rebellious and therefore serves as a fitting end to this monumental collection. Rodriguez takes the opportunity in his new work to express his philosophies more directly and with less metaphor, making clear certain ideals that one could only interpret from the older work. And in the last poem of this book, Rodriguez gives a final splash in the face to anyone who by this time has not woken up:

The outlaw life, idealized, symbolized,
even kids who've never truly lived are "killas;"
it's in the rhymes, in the bass, in the rhythms
from inside bouncing cars or yawning windowpanes.
Tatoos on facesóthey're saying, you can't change this;
you can't change me.


and

The only empowering course that echoes,
that ripples, that takes on new shapes as it goes outward.
Not downólateral to the rest of us.
It took me a while, but I learned to fall sideways.


(from "The Wanton Life")

If you would like to order a copy of My Nature Is Hunger or other books by Luis J. Rodriguez through Amazon.com Click Here.

For more information about the publisher, Click Here.

For more information about the author, Click Here.

--C. J. Laity

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