Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi Speed Reader

By Kelle Schillaci, Dorothy Cole

MARCH 8, 1999: 

Border-Crosser with a Lamborghini Dream
by Juan Felipe Herrera (University of Arizona Press, paper, $15.95)

Not since I first discovered the raw intensity and explosive verbal entanglements of language in early beat poetry have I come across such an absorbing and powerful voice as Herrera's. In poem after rich, delicious poem, Herrera redefines not only his talents, but his vision of an unabashedly urban landscape torn by prejudice, disease, violence and an underlying hunger for love and connection.

The previous works of this poet and performance artist, including Love After the Riots and Mayan Drifter: Chicano Poet in the Lowlands of America, established Herrera as one of the most acclaimed Chicano poets today. With Lamborghini Dream, he stretches his voice even further, drawing the reader into a dizzying world of image and sound: "Get loose/after the dayglow artery of a fix./Power outages propel us into cosmos definition,/another forty-million-New-Dollar-Plantation Basilica,/or is it tender chaos?"

Written in a style that demands to be read aloud, Herrera's words have a soul, backbeat and spinal cord all their own. In some cases, they are confined to a strict formation, sliding evenly down a page. As the book progresses, the words become unruly, scattering themselves across the page, separating, reconnecting, forcing pauses and reconciliation. But what is form without meaning?

As the title suggests, Herrera explores life as a border jumper--the urgency of escaping one land versus the cruelty of arriving at a dream vision quickly shattered on the new soil. What about the corporate American machinery? What about the "semi-skull workers and rotting epistemology"? What about the "fancy ass lingo" of another mouthy Chicano poet? No, this poetry isn't merely about sound and word; it's about Herzegovina, Kazakhstan, Tijuana and Tecate. It's about ezekiel's blood, abandoned blood, and blood from the native son. It's about searching out the sacred in an otherwise bloody minefield.

"Mystery evades me. Shadows crumble./Without attention, i locate the love void & yet,/i know all is well. My blood rocks to a bolero/out of rhythm, a firefly's bolero that is,/the one in the dog eye."

Poetry, by nature, isn't something easily judged, juried or explained. Herrera's hallucinatory lines and limber, bilingual language antics are impressive by my standards, but you really have to grab the book and read it for yourself. Read it out loud. (KS)

The Climate of the Country
by Marnie Mueller (Curbstone Press, cloth, $24.95)

This is a well-written book that tells two stories at once. Unfortunately, the less interesting of the two gets the strongest play. The story that is pictured on the cover and touted in the liner notes is about the experiences of Japanese-Americans imprisoned during World War II in what were, essentially, concentration camps. That story is told in reasonable detail and with conflicts personified in several believable characters. The other story is more difficult.

Mueller's main characters are a Caucasian labor organizer and his wife, whose marriage goes through a crisis partly as a result of their involvement with and championing of their Japanese friends. They are obviously stand-ins for the author's own parents. (The book jacket reads: "Marnie Mueller was the first Caucasian born in Tule Lake Japanese American Segregation Camp in northern California where her father, a pacifist, and mother, a teacher, were working.")

For the most part, the Jordans--Esther (a teacher) and Denton (a pacifist)--are sympathetic, well-rounded characters. Esther is especially memorable in her struggle to fit into society as a good wife and mother while feeling that her intellect is being stifled. Flashbacks and memories reveal episodes in their own childhoods that partially explain the kind of parents and partners they have become. Esther's worries, though, are easier to understand than her husband's are. As a Jewish intellectual in a time of open anti-Semitism, her internal gender and ethnic battles make sense. Denton's behavior regarding his marriage, on the other hand, comes off as both predictable and inexplicable. Maybe back in the 1940s a busty, blonde nurse showing interest was enough to explain inexcusable behavior. But it's out of character for the way Denton is written, and we could all do without the lengthy sex scenes.

Having said that, I'd say Mueller has probably done at least as well as Ingmar Bergman has in trying to understand her parents' relationship. In other words, it rings pretty true. The battles between different factions at the camp-- i. e., moderate prisoners versus radical prisoners versus rigid administrators versus the military--provide a vivid backdrop and go a long way toward explaining the personal and physical tension the couple experiences. Maybe her next book will really be about the camp at Tule Lake. But this one is definitely worth reading in the meantime. (DC)

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