In his new collection of poetry, The Tijuana Book of the Dead, Luis Alberto Urrea shows just what a total all-around writer he is. More known, perhaps, for his prose, like the novel The Hummingbird’s Daughter, and his brutal non-fiction The Devil’s Highway (highly recommended), he has in fact, like Sherman Alexie, been a poet all along.
One poetic influence running through The Tijuana Book of the Dead is Charles Bukowski, the patron saint of southern California, where Urrea grew up, and another all-around writer of fiction and non-fiction, as well as poetry. What seems to happen with poets who write fiction, like Bukowski and Urrea, is that their poems, or many of them, tend to be stories, rather than, say, moments. Take Urrea’s poem “Typewriter,” about his childhood beginnings as a writer, and where he gives a nod to Buk. Unfortunately for reviewers, Urrea’s best poems are long, but here’s the relevant excerpt:
I had a book by Stephen Crane,
so I clacked out second hand
Stephen Crane. Richard
Brautigan wrote really short poems,
so I beat out Brautigans.
then I read Jim Morrison’s book
& locked myself
in the bathroom, bellowed
second rate Morrison.
a $4.95 Bukowski.
a $1.98 Wakoski.
I hammered my way
through second hand books.
it was beautiful
Also nice to see a nod to Diane Wakoski, a former teacher of mine, but the Bukowski influence in Urrea begins in the form—the short lines and the heavy enjambment, leaving plenty of space on the page for the reader to fill in with her own imagination. This is the opposite of the dense, long-lined poetry, which I also love, but which needs to be read more slowly. The Bukowski style lends itself to lightness, flowing down the page like a desert stream.
Also, Urrea’s language itself, which is normal everyday american dialect, or what Tony Hoagland would call ‘diction.’ No big words. Mostly regular sentences that make sense, not a lot of fragments. But note that when I say american dialect I also mean here the inclusion of spanish words and phrases, because that is a part of America, from Los Angeles to Puerto Rico. So for example, a section of “Irrigation Canal Codex”:
Till el vato’s so alucinado he thinks
He can run free, thinks
The trucks with spotlights are motherships, thinks
He see Villa shooting cars on I-25, hear Tlaloc, god
of storms, calling, water to water,
Rain to rain, mud to mud—feed me your tears—I
Thirst—I will feed your daughters, I will
Sweeten the fields, I will ease your heat—and
Se large el guey
Down the alley, out
Dirt road, cuts
Under freeway, jumps
Where that homey last year drove his troca
Into the ditch
Note also that the spanish words are not in italics, like some writers and publishers would want. Italics ‘tell’ the readers to read those words as foreign, from another country and culture. But like Junot Diaz and Cormac McCarthy, Urrea recognizes that spanish is as much a part of America and american culture (and american history!) as english, and for many americans (not all, but many) the mix of spanish words into english sentences feels nothing but natural. But note too that Urrea isn’t overwhelming non-spanish-speaking readers so much that they can’t figure out what’s going on. For example, any careful reader can figure out what ‘alucinado’ means. And also the very americano ‘troca,’ a spanglish word certainly not used much in Mexico. But, we get it, we get what it means, both by sound and context, and in fact this mix adds a richness of sound to the poems.
People in Urrea’s poetry are chicanos: borderlands folks, spanish-, and english-, and spanglish-speaking people from both sides of the border. In fact, a few poems are entirely en español, appearing (rightly I think) untranslated, as a way to show the multiplicity of languages in the borderlands: many of the people Urrea writes about will be able to understand the spanish and english poems, and if not, well, that’s a little like what life is like in states along the border.
More than the format, and perhaps even more than language, is Urrea’s desire, like Bukowski’s, to show the beauty, and sometimes the humor and absurdity, of the everyday, the common, common people and common things, and by that I mean also a willingness that is also political to talk about lower class life. I.e. the poor. The difference is that while Bukowski wrote irreverently towards everything and everyone (including himself), Urrea holds nothing but reverence for the world he inhabits and describes, and in this way carries the influence of another poet who wrote about the poor: Pablo Neruda, who also employed the short, enjambed line in much of his poetry. And in fact, towards the end of this collection appears Urrea’s “Lines For Neruda.” Again, length prevents including the whole thing but here’s a taste:
The first poem I read
was the ragged V scrawled
in a brown sky by gulls
escaping the garbage dump at sunset
cutting under clouds
over the apartment blocks
going to a sea I knew
was there across the city
but never saw.
If that is not the influence of Neruda I don’t know what could be. The birds. The sea. The nostalgia. Though what a contrast between Neruda’s ever-present sea and Urrea’s as a child in Tijuana. Because though Neruda did write about, and for, the poor, he never lived as a poor kid by a garbage dump. And yet, still, there is beauty, bringing to mind another spanish-influenced poet, William Carlos Williams, and his poem about the beauty of broken green glass in an alley.
All that said, Urrea is similar to Sherman Alexie (to whom he dedicates a poem in here) in that he’s writing about life as a person of color to a largely white audience. Not that those worlds are separate—as a kid growing up in San Diego, he’s well-versed (pardon the pun) in american (and especially californian) pop culture, like music from The Doors to Concrete Blonde. And the things of pop culture pop up everywhere: STP oil, Camel cigarettes, cheeseburgers, Dr. Pepper, tv. And he also mentions reading other american literary icons like Edward Abbey and Jack Kerouac, who both wrote about the american southwest. Still, much as Urrea seems to have loved certain aspects of white american culture, he has some words for certain Americans:
Illegal Alien, adj. / n.
A term by which
An invading colonial force
By identifying them as
An invading force
Not a typical poem by Urrea, but powerful, and worth sharing. In fact, it would make a good bumper sticker or t-shirt (Note to Urrea: If you’re reading this, get these made and sell them on your book tour!). And while anger does burble up occasionally in The Tijuana Book of the Dead, the tone of the whole collection is more either sad and/or nostalgic. Remember that The Tibetan Book of the Dead is a ‘guide’ of sorts, on how to die, what to expect, and how to approach death with dignity. This too feels like a spiritual guide somehow, even ending with a “Hymn to Vatos Who Will Never Be in a Poem,” which, though humorous, feels like a hymn to the dead. Or the dying, to the chicano-borderlands culture dying off, and/or for the culture that existed, as Urrea reminds us in “Definition,” before America, before american culture tried to kill it off.