TOP SHELF: Culturally Relevant Poetry

(Originally published in the April 12, 2012, edition of The Monitor.)

April is National Poetry Month, and there is no better time to discuss a few volumes with particular value to readers in the RGV. McAllen native Jan Seale is now the 2012 Texas Poet Laureate, and her 2005 collection The Wonder Is has been re-released with additional poems included. This compelling retrospective, spanning nearly four decades, serves as the perfect introduction to Seale, whose voice—often bemused or slightly detached, but always compassionate—perfectly fits her role as steward of culture and language. Let me single out a few favorites. “Borderwomen Triptych” explores the fellowship of women, a sodality that cuts across artificial divides of ethnicity and geography. “Feast Day at Jémez” reveals the longing of cultural outsiders to be part of celebrations that are forever beyond them or to find their own equivalent holy path: “I wonder how to belong,/how to read the god that drums my heart.” “The Fire-eater of Reynosa” marvels at the almost redemptive catharsis that comes from watching someone cheat death.

Another important volume was reissued this year: Curandera by Carmen Tafolla, one of the madrinas of Chicano/a poetry and newly appointed Poet Laureate of San Antonio.  Originally intended to celebrate the volume’s 40th anniversary, this edition—which includes historical photographs of the Chicano literary movement in San Antonio, a new afterword, and a new foreword by Dr. Norma E. Cantú—was issued early so the emerging librotraficante effort could ship copies to Arizona, where Curandera, along with many other works of Mexican-American literature, has been effectively banned.  This vital ur-text explores not only the variegated topology of Hispanic experience (“and when I dream dreams…,” “cop car’s bulleted brains,” “ancient house”), but also its unique voices and social registers (“los corts,” “¡ajay!”).  Many pieces serve as discussions of the creative process and literature (“caminitos,” “quality literature”), underscoring reality: although they have now been “critiqued in the PMLA,” Chicano/a authors are still attacked in Arizona and elsewhere.

While I highly recommend both collections to secondary English teachers in the Valley, perhaps more accessible to elementary students—especially those in bilingual education—is Steven and Reefka Schneider’s Borderlines: Drawing Border Lives, a sort of portraiture in three media: Reefka’s charcoal drawings of character types and individuals; Steven’s clear, accessible, English verse, which echoes the drawings, adding cultural context and political nuance; and the agile Spanish versions crafted by José Antonio Rodríguez.  The synergy of these media makes Borderlines a perfect entry-level poetry text for younger students.

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