It was difficult to decide which poet’s collection to feature on an Inauguration Day that is itself devoid of poetry. Today’s event did not feature an inaugural poet, and in a country where the majority of the citizenry did not vote for him—and a huge majority of voters voted for his opponent—January 20, 2017, was a drizzly, prosaic day.
But the United States is a diverse and pluralistic culture, and a symbolic day deserves an important selection. The anthology Poetry of Resistance: Voices for Social Justice (University of Arizona Press, 2016), edited by Francisco X. Alarcón and Odilia Galván Rodríguez, seemed an apt and obvious choice for an alarming, confusing, resistance-filled day.
The volume includes some ninety voices raised against oppression and mistreatment of immigrants, and in doing so it upholds the dignity of humanity. One of the nicest aspects of the volume is the diversity of the names—roughly seven dozen of them reflecting perspectives of non-majority writers.
And their foci are also diverse, though united in overarching purpose. Poems in the volume address class divisions, racial discrimination, domestic violence, the environment, and natural disasters. The volume foregrounds Chicanx/Latinx voices while including others, and that is an unusual and welcome approach.
I appreciate the straightforward honesty of the volume. For example, “Poem With a Phrase of Isherwood” by Francisco Aragón, is written to Jan Brewer, the former Governor of Arizona, and it pulls no punches:
Cruelty is sensual and stirs you
Governor, your name echoing the sludge
beneath your cities’ streets. It spurs
the pleasure you take
whenever your mouth nears
a mic, defending your law … your wall.
The poem describes Brewer’s face, “its contortions and delicate sneer,” as it recalls her demeanor at public events.
So many of the poems are very beautiful in their treatment of children and families. Jorge Tetl Argueta offers an example in “Nuestros niños y niñas” / “Our Children.” He writes,
Nuestros niños y niñas
tienen vocales y coraje en sus corazones
Nuesros niños y niñas
no son extraterrestres o ilegales
son como los niños y niñas
de todo el mundo
In English, this portion of the poem says,
They have voices and courage in their hearts
Are not aliens or illegal
They are like all children
Of the world
Our children, the poem reports, are “Hermosos como el agua” / “Beautiful like the water.” And this resonates with me, like all the best poems do: all children are beautiful; it is true.
Some of the poems talk directly to those they address, like a small poem by Karen S. Cordova, again addressing an Arizona law targeting immigrants. The poem, “Sonnet for Police Officers Charged With Enforcing SB 1070,” begins by asking the officers responsible for carrying out the law to “please remember” …
racist code for “without papers” is WOP;
your ancestors were strangers here—their toll
seeded your freedom. Bullies kick kids. Stop
striking la genre, who only see hope,
when they risk their lives to clean stained toilets,
The poem concludes by imploring these officers to “Protect us from threats / to Señora Liberty: pendejos / and their white bigot fence ‘round Chicanos.”
So many poems avoid talking about the messy world. In our daily lives, the mail comes, the TV hums, inelegant messages accost us from all sides. Yet a poem generally deals with more essential and beautiful things, leaving out the noise, just as an outdoor photographer might PhotoShop power lines from a landscape.
But these poems let messy, complicated life be messy. In, for example, “Border Inquest Blues,” Odilia Galván Rodríguez writes,
at what crossing
could my poems
or water to offer
who cross so many
miles of misery
perched on trains
with clipped wings
who only fly
in their dreams
but decide to search out
the promise of a better life
at any cost
It’s a compelling question, and those of us who cower today within what we believe is, or should be, a “sweet land of liberty,” must begin to ask such things, even if—especially if—our own families are not the ones under threat.
Poetry provides a way for things to happen, and this anthology offers many excellent models for our shared march forward.