Avant-Latino poetry

Left to right: J. Michael Martinez (photo by Jensen Larson Photography), Rosa Alcalá (photo by Josh Bowen), and Rodrigo Toscano.

When Vladimir Mayakovsky memorably proclaimed that “without revolutionary form, there is no revolutionary art,” and Renato Poggioli wrote that “the avant-garde image originally remained subordinate, even within the sphere of art, to the ideals of a radicalism which was not cultural but political,”[1] and Marjorie Perloff (now famously) asked “what if, despite the predominance of tepid and unambitious Establishment poetry, there were a powerful avant-garde that takes up, once again, the experimentation of the early twentieth century?,”[2] they weren’t talking about the current work of a new cohort of Latino/a poets who transect extrusions of renegotiated identity consciousness within extremities of conceptual aesthetics.

But, in retrospect, they kind of could have been.

Developments within the past seven or eight years have vastly exceeded the extent of experimental inquiry that had ever existed before in US Latino/a poetry. What by now can be legitimately regarded as an emergent generation of younger Latino/a poets is taking to task the inheritance of academic Latino/a identity and, by gaming its language, rendering this tensile form more pliant in order to better fit the identity of the layered, contested, and changing Latino/a subject in the contemporary world. These poets, by exploring the limits of poetry as well as Latino/a identity through a diversity of aesthetic and cultural incursions in their writing, articulate a new Latino/a poetry that in turn proposes a new view of Latino/a identity, one that grants more agency to divers potentialities than to conformist restrictions imposed from the past: a condition I regard as the avant-Latino.

J. Michael Martínez’s Walt Whitman Award–winning collection Heredities (2010) combines various aesthetic approaches — allusion to colonial manuscripts, juxtaposition of anatomic diagrams, disembodied dialectic, parataxis — to deconstruct the mythologies that had previously defined the foundations of Chicano/a identity. In the poem “Binding of the Reeds: The Banishment of Topiltzin-Quetzalcoatl,” Martínez presents a new way to regard the Toltec myth of Topiltzin, the tenth-century ruler of the Toltecs. Topiltzin, with his four possible fathers (some divine, some earthly), a historical figure at times recorded as one and the same as Quetzalcoatl, the godly plumed serpent, is distinguished in the Toltec codices as the ruler who abandoned the practice of human sacrifice in spiritual ceremonies. The historical uncertainties of Topiltzin’s existence, lineage, and even era are factors of his legacy reconstituted by Martínez’s poetics of indeterminacy. The poem begins with an epigraph from the sixteenth-century missionary Fray Diego Durán, who seems to confirm the deistic qualities of Topiltzin. The poem itself, spatialized on the page, takes on five distinct parts, insinuating the Five Suns of the world’s history according to Aztec eschatology. (And with vertical dividing lines to add to the effect, it looks a lot like something Apollinaire or Mallarmé might do.) The middle sections in italics denote interactions between the longer myth’s main characters, a story of betrayal and spite. The left and right sides of the page separate, in narratological terms, discourse and story,[3] in other words, what happened and what is recorded. The upper left reads: 

No longer the human
frame for world’s sake
bones    the weight
and bend of sacrifice
my life   for the sky’s fall
between this long dying
flesh in war against flesh
to you I tell in vision
and glance once gone

The corresponding right reads:

He writes: 

                and the dead speak:
relentless horizon: unwilled harrow:

                spindle through the lake
that is wind
                & lineage:

solstice spilled
                 on stone:[4]

The intertextual reference to Fray Durán, alongside the phrasal fragments and use of colons to separate images, takes a Poundian form, that of the Cantos Pound — the poetry coheres through a series of disjunctive sutures — demonstrating what Perloff means by her question about taking up the experimentation of the early twentieth century. This is an ideogrammic method applied to Mesoamerican mythology. The poem is crammed with vagueness, and its strokes lend only the slightest impression of its context.

Take as another example Martínez’s seven-part, seven-page poem “Aporia,” which begins with the following section:

[1] The Signified Seeks the Body

I said, The Chicano shapes identity like an icicle fingering down from the roof’s edge. Pushing the hair back from your face, you said, Yes, translucence freezes about its own boundaries, declaring the noun from the water. I said, The name seeks to root in the arterial cavity; the tendons turn from the blood like foreshadowing.[5]

All seven parts of this prose poem proceed in this manner of disembodied dialectic — an indeterminate I and an indeterminate you — thereby expressing the feeling of doubt denoted by the title and asserting identity in essentially interrogative terms, rendering the affirmation of identity as interstitial. The three sentences, less a thesis-antithesis-synthesis than a Grecian strophe-antistrophe-epode, treat the nominal subject of Chicano/a identity with indirect gestures and invoke metaphors that are wholly unfamiliar. The first sentence likens the growth of Chicano/a consciousness to ice pulled down by gravity, a far cry from the hot-blooded, tropical clichés to which we’re so accustomed. The second sentence distinguishes water from “the noun” it forms as it freezes, treating water as a dynamic, the whole phenomenon a reminder of how fluid and translucent identity invariably is. The third sentence avoids the term heart and its wealth of connotations, opting instead for the more surgical “arterial cavity,” emphasizing corporeality, while the ambiguity in the word “turn” and the disconnect that hinges in the word “foreshadowing” leave one with a feeling akin to synesthesia. In this vein (sorry), the poem concludes with the following section:

[7] History Gathers in the Name We Never Are

You said, An infinity with origin is the speech you foster. I said, I don’t speak Spanish, I am Hispanic. You said, Pan hisses in the center, the Gods rise like bread from the noun; our syntax is the bond to the divinity we are. I said, Sin taxes the soul, the name; our grammar is a construct of guilt. You said, Teach the children to read the sin. I pick up my coat, empty the pockets of lint, pennies. Icicles finger down from the roof’s edge.[6]

Like Martínez’s Heredities, Rosa Alcalá’s collection Undocumentary (2008) invokes multiplicity and indeterminacy in its construction of a new Latino/a poetic. Richly textured with abstractions and visual arrangements, Undocumentary blends the connotations of “documentary” and “undocumented” to suggest an intercourse between genres as well as classes. The title poem of the collection includes the lines

Keys strike against
the footage of the past
to defer the weight
of the camera

Asking, who is
the scab of me
when no meatpacking walkout
can suffice?[7]

Like Martínez’s poems, Alcalá’s poem sidesteps directness, ironically through the presentation of particulars; there is no reason akin to syllogism that unites theme and specifics — the poetics in operation are of suggestion. Furthermore, there is double entendre everywhere; keys, strike, footage, weight, scab, and meatpacking are all words with simultaneous, multiplicitous meanings, and the stanzas lean on these confusions. Engaging avant-Latino poetics, the ambiguities brought about by the poem’s vocabulary — and ending with an interrogative statement — branch out in Deleuzean rhizomatic dimensions,[8] performing a gamut of insinuations that all tangentially pertain to class concerns grounded in the Latino/a context that Alcalá and her chapbook establish ipso facto.

Alcalá ends her collection with the poem “Job #4”:

How to transcribe tragedy?
(A secretary, a good secretary, asks.)

Do I use a dictation machine?
Look blankly at the boss
and let fingers for a moment feel
reproach? How can I plan my wedding
as I cross out crutch words? When will I depill
my jacket? When everyone is dead
will the droopy bow of compliance
get caught in the material
of inquiry? There is no line of escape,
holidays are finite systems
blurring supermarket cake
into rising
rent. The body, charged
with documentation, has its own shorthand:
now the turncoat gland, now the gut’s
tactlessness. What’s the worry?
The transcript never gets read
for what it is: a stutter relieved
of spare consonants,
the art of rote aversion.[9]

Here Alcalá enacts an important aspect of the avant-Latino: that of being a discourse that is not centrally, or even nominally, or even peripherally, Latino/a. The circumstances of cultural identity and context are available to the reader, but the poem exhibits no urge to posture in an inherited, ethnocentric discourse of oppression; there is a latent sense of gender conflict, but even this is intuited rather than explicit. In her essay “Avant-Garde or Borderguard: (Latino) Identity in Poetry,” Maria Damon claims that while “poetry as a discourse enables subjectivist expression, this does not mean that people simply talk about their experiences, but that they create experience and subjectivity in the process of meaning-making, of poeisis.”[10] In “Job #4,” Alcalá transforms a rich philosophical question into a minute sliver of ostensible experience, reversing the dynamic of Proustian digression; Alcalá moves from big to small, synthesizing the sum of questions into a surprising conclusion: “the art of rote aversion.” Her poem, as is true of the whole of Undocumentary, plays with metonymy and synecdoche. She crafts bits and pieces of language, thoughts, and what feel like experiences into a part-for-the-whole representation that the reader can glean is not totally accurate in scale. It often feels like the book is stone sober in its faithful representation of issues you can’t quite put your finger on. In Undocumentary, Alcalá’s invocation of the cinematic is supported by a style reminiscent of Eisensteinian montage — that is to say, the clarity of the image and the drama of the cut stand out more than the substance of a story.

The conflation of artistic genres within conceptual Latino/a poetry is most dynamically presented in Rodrigo Toscano’s Collapsible Poetics Theater (2008), where the text doubles as poetry and stage directions, emphasizing subversive ideas such as “social-psychological crisis,” the “trans-modern,” and the drive to “recombine” paradigms of thought along a proletarian historical continuum. Selected by Marjorie Welish for the National Poetry Series, Collapsible Poetics Theater has been publicly performed — with ensemble performers holding scripts in their hands, thereby not truly embodying the text and hence not deeply performing it. But setting aside critical judgment of its public performance, the written text of Collapsible Poetics Theater as a transcript of hybridities — hybridities of genres, languages, and politics — is remarkably subversive and thoughtful. As Carlos Gallego has noted (before Collapsible Poetics Theater was published, granted), “Toscano’s poetry, rather than reinforce conventional notions of what is understood as the Chicana/o experience, questions the ideological necessity for such identity reinforcement.”[11]

Consider the part of Collapsible Poetics Theater called “Pig Angels of the Americlypse: An Anti-Masque for Four Players.” By calling it an “anti-masque,” Toscano signals that this will invert the proportions of a traditional Jonsonian masque by paring down the set and amplifying the dialogue. And by beginning with stage directions (opening with the assertion that the players “can be of any age, gender, or accent”[12]), the piece immediately introduces a salient power dynamic laced with a wryness evocative of Beckett: a subversive authority meting out instructions that commence the play before the play can commence. Then there’s a dimension of visual poetics, instructed by the statement that “Text in {brackets} is either contact zone/stage instructions or translation of text {not to be pronounced during performance},”[13] distinguishing a hierarchy of reading when this book is regarded as poetry. The spoken parts immediately introduce code switching between English and Spanish; the play hinges on absurdities rendered through translation (e.g. “puercos […] sin destino” meaning “pigs without destiny”), the discourse working toward the statement that “Se busca (por lo mínimo) un Brasileiro mas Mexicano que un Argentino gringo” “looking (at least) for a Brazilian more Mexican than an Argentine gringo.”[14] As the text of an anti-masque, the dialogue is essentially anti-dialogue, building images from a palette of multilayered Latino/a sensibility that resists meaning in the manner of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry of Bruce Andrews or Steve McCaffrey. Of this kind of radical poetry, Ming Qian Ma argues that “the risk of losing meaning as such, to the extent that it is a critique of meaning, has to be absolute or irreversible; and the getting beyond the established meaning, insofar as it is a questioning of the productive mechanisms of meaning, precludes any promise or possibility of a return to meaning.”[15] And while it is certainly true that Toscano’s collapsible poetry does mutate through variances of non-meaning, his “Pig Angels of the Americlypse” ends on a note that sums up quite well the new poetics of the avant-Latino, even if spoken in switching codes suitably uncertain in its tenor:

{P1} The way out?
{P2} Art goes art goes
{P3} Away …
{P2} And back …
{P1} In …
{P3} And out …
{P4} “Yo persigo una forma que no encuentra mi estilo,
              botón de pensamiento que busca ser la rosa” —

               I pursue a form that doesn’t find my style,
               mind’s stem that strives to be the rose
{P2} Contrive
                the themelets
{P3} Se busca …
{P1} Songlets of sorts, yeah?
{P4} Yeah …
{P2} Mm hmm …[16]

1. Renato Poggioli, Theory of the Avant-Garde, trans. Gerald Fitzgerald (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1981), 9.

2. Marjorie Perloff, 21st-Century Modernism: The “New” Poetics (Malden: Blackwell Manifestos, 2002), 4.

3. Patrick Colm Hogan, Cognitive Science, Literature, and the Arts: A Guide for Humanists (New York: Routledge, 2003), 115.

4. J. Michael Martínez, Heredities (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2010), 24.

5. Ibid., 11.

6. Ibid., 17.

7. Rosa Alcalá, Undocumentary (San Marcos: Dos Press, 2008), n.p.

8. Gilles Deleuze Gilles and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, trans. Brian Massumi (London: Continuum, 2004), 7.

9. Alcalá, Undocumentary, n.p.

10. Maria Damon, “Avant-Garde or Border Guard: (Latino) Identity in Poetry,” American Literary History 10, no. 3 (1998): 479.

11. Carlos Gallego, “From Identity to Situatedness: Rodrigo Toscano and the New Chicana/o Poetics,” Aztlán: A Journal of Chicano Studies 32, no. 2 (2007): 130.

12. Rodrigo Toscano, Collapsible Poetics Theater (Albany: Fence Books, 2008), 35.

13. Ibid., 36.

14. Ibid.

15. Ming-Quian Ma, Poetry as Re-Reading: American Avant-Garde Poetry and the Poetics of Counter-Method (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2008), 175–76.

16. Toscano, Collapsible Poetics Theater, 4.