Chile Con Karma

Juan Felipe Herrera's flavorful language fuels his latest book.

With his latest collection, Notebooks of a Chili Verde Smuggler, performance poet and professor Juan Felipe Herrera delves even further into autobiography, evoking the landscape of his childhood--conjuring the pain and beauty of growing apart from the American mainstream, yet still desiring to fuse with it.

It's an impressive effort, full of cavalier grace and bawdy intelligence. No one but Herrera could have assembled something this unexpected without succumbing to the postmodern clichés of pastiche and collage.

Herrera has always mixed personal and public approaches to poetry with varying degrees of success. Herrera's search for his Indio heritage continues to provide the subject for much of his writing. But here, the search is enriched by lyrical moments that remind us once again why poetry is indefatigable amid the wreckage of religious, philosophical and political systems. Herrera's poems are like votives lit to Mary inside a bombed-out church: gorgeous in their honest yet otherworldly illumination.

Memory is at the heart of this book, and Herrera's vivid recollections of friends and family are indelible. There's his childhood buddy Sonny, "who sang 'Silent Night' to a charred iguana in the fields next to a busted house." There are "the Menchu monster girls with the mascara of fright futures and disaster wishers." And then there's the stray cat Herrera's mother cradled in the years following his father's death. Indeed, these hard, gritty memories anchor the book, allowing Herrera's more fantastical pieces to resonate against the larger import of the immigrant experience.

Although technically a mélange of poetry, prose, memoir, journal entries and a screenplay, each piece in Notebooks possesses the wild language and offbeat humor of performance poetry. What sets Herrera's work apart from this genre is his sparkling wit and his ability to see things from an international perspective.

But Herrera's global outlook isn't always cynical; he's quite capable of celebrating our weird, wonderful planet, as he does in "My Plutomobile," the vehicle of his imagination, which

Runs on Che's last stroll in Buenos Aires
Runs on the trilobite shape of love
Runs on cashew butter fried salmon
Runs on Prague midnights
Runs on Vietnamese coconut water
Runs on student strikes in UNAM
Runs on a Nordic fjord
Runs on ozone in the saxophone
Runs on Selena's return
Runs on Arabic strings
Runs on Aymara potatoes
Runs on plutonium drums & a taste of bachata
Runs on the tight weave of a Guerrero straw hat
Runs on the solar winds of a Tzotzil huipil
Runs on posh & mescal & pulque & chichi

It's not every day one encounters a poem so encyclopedic in its commitment to language and cultural cross-pollination.

Of course, there are speed bumps that limit Herrera's fast-paced, all-consuming creative powers. He discusses some of these obstacles in a series of letters to Victor Carrillo, a fellow poet and professor in the California State University system. It's in these poems that Herrera tests himself and his thoughts on the necessity of poetry in a world where it is largely deemed unnecessary.

In "Undelivered Letters to Victor #1," he addresses the notion that what Chicano writing needs is its own equivalent of Jackie Robinson: "You point your finger at me and say that if one Chicano or Latina makes it, then we'll make it. The East Coast publishing centers will start dialing your number, you say. You mean a kind of literary intimacy, a Latina pulp osmosis? Is that it, Victor?"

Yet even as Herrera challenges Victor's ideas about the future of Chicano writing, he acknowledges the truth of his friend's assumptions: "We are the real thing, you tell me. Been breaking new ground for decades, inventing ourselves, a new set of categories, fresh art forms, an authentic discourse, we been hashing it out, without much to go on, except this fiery salsa fuel inside." Clearly, Herrera is aware that a people's struggle can be sentimentalized, but that doesn't make it any less of a struggle.

But the finest poems in Notebooks are also the funniest and most fun--pop-culture paeans like "Hispanopoly: The Upwardly Mobile Identity Game Show" and "Three Surefire Ethnic Sitcoms," a hilarious recipe for truly bizarre programming. Other poems that are as brilliant as their titles include "Subcomandante Chihuahua Speaks to World Finance Ministers & the World Banko" and "Ever Split Your Pantalones While Trying to Look Chingón?"

As touching as it is tickling, Notebooks is not to be missed. As Herrera writes in his poem "How to Make a Chili Verde Smuggler": "An explosion was the secret. The flavor, let's call it a flavor; it set out on its own."

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