Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Border Poetry


[Artemio Rodriguez, linocut] 

In 2006, I spent two of the best months of my life in Marfa, Texas, thanks to a residency from the Lannan Foundation. While there, I drove several times to the sleepy, charming, dentist and drug-infested Ojinaga, explored the raw, alarming Ciudad Juarez, which reminded me a bit of provincial Vietnamese cities, discovered the bluesy, heartbreaking voice of Lydia Mendoza, goofy reggaeton and the Tejano corrido, which predates certain aspects of gangsta rap. I ate Mexican goat, tripes, drank good, cheap Carta Blanca, “old school,” someone told me, shook hand with the brave photographer Julián Cardona, whom I met through poet Bobby Byrd. I also rode four buses to get from El Paso to San Ysidro, crossed into Tijuana, where I was given a tour by David Ungerleider, Jesuit priest and founder of the Universidad Iberoamericana. He showed me the US/Mexico border fences, then sent me these images:





THE SKELETON ADDRESSES FELIPE:
“IT’S BETTER FOR YOU TO ANTICIPATE…
THE DAY OF THE DEAD WON’T BE LATE,
AND THIS FRIDAY 4,000 NAMES
OF CHILDREN, WOMEN AND MEN
WILL BE REGISTERED ON THE FENCE–
IN BLACK AND WHITE A GREAT DISASTER
FROM A DOZEN YEARS, AND NOT BY CHANCE.
AS FOR YOU, YOU’LL BE CALLED ON LATER
TO BE YET ANOTHER MIGRANT DEATH.”

In two long essays in Vietnamese, I wrote about my border experiences. I also translated four corridos into Vietnamese, one into English, which I posted on the International Poetic Exchange blog, after this lead in:

Scholar/blues harmonica player Adam Gussow, one half of Satan and Adam, pointed out that the familiar gangsta themes of drugs, guns and cop killing were present on the very first blues record. Written by Perry Bradford, “Crazy Blues” was recorded by Mamie Smith in 1920. Its last verse:
Now I’ve got the crazy blues
Since my baby went away
I ain’t had no time to lose
I must find him today
I’m gonna do like a Chinaman, go and get some hop
Get myself a gun, and shoot myself a cop
I ain’t had nothin’ but bad news
Now I’ve got the crazy blues.
Those blues.
Tracing the blues to the late 19th century, Gussow explains:
“1890s saw the coming-of-age of the first freeborn generation of black southerners, a generation that enjoyed an unprecedented freedom of travel although hemmed in by lynch law and vagrancy laws), a new freedom to determine the contours of one’s sexual personhood, and a freedom, too, to live out the violent outlaw identities of mythic “bad niggers” such as Stagolee and Railroad Bill. In the midst of virulent racism and violent repression, the blues emerged out of a creative tension between black grievance and disillusionment on the one hand and black freedom and expressive license on the other.”
There was another American musical genre, developed also in the 19th century, that dealt with issues of white hegemony. The Tejano corrido is much less well-known, however, partly because the songs are in Spanish. Scholar Dan W. Dickey explains:

“Events in Texas between 1836 and 1848 resulted in the colonization of the lower Rio Grande area by white empresarios. The gradual displacement or subjugation of the Mexican people there provided the basis for more than a century of border conflict between the Anglos and the Mexicans. During the struggle against the Anglos, the corrido form developed in the area and became extremely popular. In [Américo] Paredes’s words, the borderers’ “slow, dogged struggle against economic enslavement and the loss of their own identity was the most important factor in the development of a distinct local balladry.”
Fighting a losing battle, they sang of defiance. Here’s a Texas ranger-killing corrido:
Jacinto Treviño
Ya con ésta van tres veces
que se ha visto lo bonito;
la primera fue en McAllen
en Brownsville y en San Benito.

En la cantina de Bekar
se agarraron a balazos;
por dondequiera volaban
botellas hechas pedazos.

Esa la cantina de Bekar
al momento quedó sola;
nomás Jacinto Treviño
de carabina y pistola.

“Entrele rinches cobardes,
el pleito no es con un niño;
querían conocer a su padre,
¡yo soy Jacinto Treviño!”

Decía Jacinto Treviño
que se arrastraba de risa:
“A mí los rinches me hicieron
los puños de la camisa.”

Decía el sherife mayor
como era un americano:
“Ay que Jacinto tan hombre,
no niega ser Mexicano.”

Ya con ésta me despido
aquí en presencia de todos;
si me quieren conocer
los espero allá en Matamoros.
My rough, real rough, translation:
Jacinto Treviño
This makes 3 times
beauty reveals itself;
the first was in McAllen,
then Brownsville and San Benito.

In Bekar’s cantina
a shootout erupted;
shards of broken bottles
flying everywhere.

In Bekar’s cantina
only one was left,
only Jacinto Treviño
with rifle and pistol.

“Come in here, cowardly rangers,
you’re not messing with a kid;
if you want to know your father,
that’s me, Jacinto Treviño!”

Jacinto Treviño tried to stifle
a laugh as he spoke: “To me,
rangers are only suitable
to sew my shirt cuffs.”

The sheriff then spoke
as an American: “Jacinto’s
too much of a man, there’s
no denying he’s Mexican.”

With this I’ll take my leave
from all those present here;
if anyone wants to find me,
I’ll be waiting in Matamoros.
Corridos are often about real people and issues, crimes, outlaws and murders, but they aren’t necessarily anti-gringos. After Kennedy was assassinated, dozens of corridos were composed in praise of the late president’s ideals. As an outlet for the disenfranchised, however, many corridos remain songs of grievances. Texas billionaires don’t do corridos. Kings, presidents and deciders, no matter how wobbly, speak in slogans. Serfs and slaves sing the blues.

……………………….
Months after my corrido post, mexikan0 at hotmail dot com sent this comment:
In the Jacinto Treviño corrido I think there is a paragraph missing.
This corrido was taugth to me from a Matamoros citizen, carpenter by trade and musician by heart. He was already on his late 60’s early 70’s when he taugth me the Jacinto Treviño corrido around 1993. His last name is Buenrostro but I can not remember his first name.
 

The missing paragraph goes like this:
“Entrenle rinches cobardes
bandidos de la ocasion
creyeron que era en pan blanco
con tajadas de jamon”
[“Come in here, cowardly rangers,
opportunistic punks who
thought this was white bread
with slices of ham.”–tr. L. Dinh]
And if I remember correctly, it goes between these paragraphs (or whatever they are called):

Esa cantina de Becker
al momento y quedó sola
nomás Jacinto Treviño
de carabina y pistola.
“Entrele rinches cobardes,
que’l pleito no es con un niño;
querían conocer su padre,
¡yo soy Jacinto Treviño!”
So… it should go like this:

Esa cantina de Becker
al momento y quedó sola;
nomás Jacinto Treviño
de carabina y pistola.
“Entrenle rinches cobardes
bandidos de la ocasion
creyeron que era pan blanco
con tajadas de jamon
Entrele rinches cobardes,
que’l pleito no es con un niño;
querían conocer su padre,
¡yo soy Jacinto Treviño!”
As you can see, I also made some corrections and added traditional mexican grammar contractions like instead of “que el pleito” it should be “que’l pleito” .
These grammar contractions are important when you want to sing the corrido and stay in rhythm and sync with the band.
I have no way to assure that what I am saying is correct, but I wanted to express my opinion based on my experience….thanks.


…………………………………..
In Tijuana, I was also given a book by Roberto Castillo Udiarte (born 1951), a poet, fiction writer and translator, most notably of Charles Bukowski. “My writing is a response to what’s happening in Tijuana,” he said in an interview. “Sometimes it can be Tijuanarchy.” La Prensa San Diego has anointed Udiarte “the Godfather of Tijuana’s counterculture,” not a small claim in a city with such a vibrant and funky subculture. I translated a long poem of his:

VITA CANIS
Amorous compliments
allow humans to fly
like small angels.
We are, without exception, angels
who were expelled from the sky;
angels who roam the earth
with wings much atrophied
from familiar deaths
and small quotidian wars.

Angels populating mountains and rivers,
forests and thousands-year-old deserts;
angels plucked yet filled with happiness
who wander smoking and drinking tequila
in cities that are labyrinths of pleasures,
cities that are imaginary maps.

Angels who fall in love easily
with the small details of life,
childish winks and unchecked lust;
angels who fall in love with the queen,
as well as with a petite waitress
at the eaterie closest to home.

Angels who travel fearfully
on planes, ships and endless trains;
who shoot pools and play dominoes
while the night music sings
in tones derived from poetry
or simple adolescent love notes.

Angels who snort lines of coke
with eyes as brilliant as stars;
angels who know miracles,
histories of worlds distant from
those who could only get there
through the artifices of words.

Angels of human smiles,
sweet carriers of beliefs
and splendid hearts in flames,
of words pleasant to the ear
and caresses that remind us
we are made of joyful skin.

Angels who cry silently
over small daily defeats,
who survive street battles
and cold death threats
because they have hope
like a whisper in the heart.

Angels who are passionate
about daily trifles,
glasses of beer and fruits,
and when they make love,
make little white feathers fly
inside a cheap motel room.

Angels who, after all, stir
their memories of wings
before going to sleep
to dream earthly dreams
where desire and memory
are their lives’ sustenances.


II

I don’t envy the heroes of this world, however. From infancy, I carry a river, weeping willows and killdeer birds, a familiar affection and amazement before life’s wonders, a precocious infatuation and consequences of primary indifference. Fifty winters I’ve walked directionless sharing liquor and books and logs of a local pine; autumn presented me with raining leaves and desert winds; spring the intoxicating freshness of its flowers and honey and summer loving skins made golden by brewing suns.


III

But it wasn’t all honey and readings. I’ve struggled. I’ve battled against armies of ignorance and ignominity, against caustic words of envy, the venom of commotions, deadly jealously and an insecurity with a soldier mask; many times I was conferred the flag of triumphs, other times I was defeated by the bites and laughs of hyenas. From these defeats I’ve healed my wounds with the salt of time. In my veins I keep the lemonaded memories of familiar deaths.


IV

They have also murdered my friends in fields teeming with hawks; I’ve lost family to liquor, mental illnesses and old age; I’ve been covered by the swampy waters of depression and sadness; suicide was a shadow accompanying me on a night of impotence and I know corners where the cockroach licks his last hours. That’s why I’ve locked in a small trunk of oblivion the bitterness that provokes evilness and a rash in the soul; I’m always on guard against envy and deadly decoys, resentment and a lack of stamina to walk through the night.


V

I am an unrepentant enthusiast,
that’s why my texts change courses constantly.
Themes, colors, styles and tones are imposed on me at times by reality,
at times not; but these details exist that were constructed inside me,
a specific world, true images, for example:
my first visit to the San Diego Zoo,
the rocky majesty of La Rumorosa,
a beautiful and vigilant woman in the plaza of Rosarito,
the sight of a leprous trash picker in a Narvarte slum,
the swaying boats one October night in La Paz,
the sudden appearance of hundreds of iguanas in Cancun,
a lovely sunset in the sea of Puerto Escondido,
the grandeur of the whales in Laguna Ojo de Liebre,
a carnivalesque hallucination at the port of Veracruz,
the murder of workers one spring afternoon in San Cosme,
the most beautiful girl walking down a dusty street in San Jose,
meeting with male and female friends in the hot spots of Hermosillo,
the death of my grandfathers and legendary grandmother,
the unexpected death of my brother Robert Jones on a lunar eclipsed night,
a blind hemiplegic playing a guitar in Balboa Park,
the unjust raid on my house in Playas de Tijuana,
the endless nights of madness on Avenida Revolución,
the massacre at McDonald’s in the Summer of ‘84,
the luminous births of my four daughters: Gabriela, Carlota, Daniela, Trilce and of my granddaughter Isabella,
the illegal who got ran over and died at the International Boundary,
the sensation of infinity in front of the seas and deserts of Baja California,
a huichol dawn opposite a water mirror at who knows where,
the sensual voice of Dirdreu O’Donohue four nights a week,
cheerful saturday mornings with the radio shows of Sancho Viejo,
a letter written on the road in 1950 addressed to Neruda,
suffocating steam from the wet earth after a summer rain,
a film by Robert Bresson entitled Mouchette,
certain lines of poetry that grant me clarity about the world,
the inescapable absence of Marilyn Monroe,
some bluish color that comes from infancy,
the repetitive and relentless adagio of Albinonni,
musical discoveries of the master Brian Eno,
certain male and female friends that are already difficult to forget,
family gatherings on certain weekends,
a few erotic fantasies on nights of involuntary wifelessness,
certain nights of pleasure and voluntary insomnia,
an afternoon when suicide was an inescapable shadow,
certain love pacts, a little kiss on peach-like skin,
little bites of passion on the neck of the night,
all the pieces of an enormous jigsaw puzzle that I’m always assembling,
which form my life, and at times appear in my texts,
and are suddenly difficult for me to read in fear of reopening wounds,
or else, because time has shown me that these texts
are no longer valid and yet, I keep writing
my testimonies because, as my friend Estela says,
I’m only a novice of humanity.


VI

This way, then, unfit for daily life and habits, I fly to this city inflamed by violence and ethyl and I find places set aside for enjoyment and recovery; the palm hat of my grandfather grants me dignity and offers me the passkey to conversations and experiences of those who desire to share the stories of their blood, stories of love that remain on the skin of the heart, graffiti that no magic brush could cover because many of us are still romantic guys.

[first published in Fascicle]

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