Juan Felipe Herrera is a protean figure, a one-man dynamo: an actor, activist, professor, musician, author of thirty books, and now the first Latino Poet Laureate of the United States.
His personal story is extraordinary. His parents were migrant workers, constantly on the move across California. He found an alternative path when he won a scholarship to UCLA, and the harsh realities of the migrant workers’ life were replaced by books and ideas. He went on to receive a Masters degree from Stanford and then an MFA from Iowa, something of a badge of belonging for any up-and-coming poet.
But he has never forgotten where he came from, and across most of his work we see life’s hardships silhouetted against the sun-kissed landscapes of California. If his is a story of personal reinvention, then this finds echoes in his writing. Besides his eclectic poetry and film scripts, there are dazzling books for children and young adults, several of which have garnered big prizes. Notes on the Assemblage is yet another fabulous work.
Here, as always, Herrera defies categorization. At one moment he writes about social issues – the 43 murdered Mexican students, Syria, police killings of African Americans. Then you turn the page and Herrera has become the heir of Wallace Stevens – a trickster, a master of language that dances in the mind. There are also the joyful echoes of Ginsberg and the Beats, ee cummings, and Burciaga.
This collection consists of eight sections, each named for one of the poems therein. The first section, “Ayotzinapa,” is arguably the strongest. “Ayotzinapa” and “And if the man with the choke-hold” are powerful works of social protest. Punctuation-free, they come across as artful streams of consciousness, wails, laments too deeply felt to take a breath. The other great protest poem in this collection, “We Are Remarkably Loud Not Masked,” is narrated by a marcher recalling the names of the murdered – Trayvon Martin, Freddie Gray and others – and mixing past (the lost lives) and present (“we march touch hands lean back leap forth”).
Herrera’s social conscience underpins the book but does not overwhelm it. Poems such as “En la media medianoche”/”In the mid of midnight” are paeans to imagery (rumba and chocolate!) and language, and they defy meaning. His command of form across the whole collection includes modernist experimentation, dialogic poems flowing in Spanish and English, odes to the recently deceased, and ekphrastic poetry inspired by the art of Lazo, Albizu and others.
Notes on the Assemblage consolidates Herrera’s reputation as a fearless innovator and a great poet. Bravo, maestro. Ha hecho de nuevo!