WHAT HAPPENED WHEN JUAN FELIPE HERRERA
U.S. POET LAUREATE CAME TO THE CAPITOL THEATRE
“What happened to the students?”
Juan Felipe Herrera,
U.S. Poet Laureate of the United States asks,
speaking to the pueblo in Yakima
at the Capitol Theatre on Monday
in May, after spending the day
with students at the college,
“…and you’re smart, you write
from the heart…” This is a pueblo
right here, and Juan Felipe Herrera,
…they were going to be teachers,
and he asks them about the 43,
What happened? Do you know?
What happened in Ayotzinapa?
We wanted funds for our rural school
…queríamos fondos para nuestra escuela rural.
…to say to the mayor that we wanted funds
for our rural school for teachers
No/somos/desechables//We are/not disposable…
The idea of the Poet Laureate in Yakima.
The reality of his presence at the Capitol,
the community gem.
I leave a Little League game
in the second inning, my grandson pitching,
walk into a row and sit beside a father and son.
Angelica and Alex, mother and son,
walk in and sit with me, minutes later.
We ski together, the three of us.
Yesterday, Angelica brought ensalada de nopales
to our home, a celebration for the young.
Notes on the Assemblage opens
with a three-poem section called Ayotzinapa
and an epigraph from Phil Levine,
beginning, From the ferocity of pig…
for all the dead, for all of us, for the 43 murdered
students with their dream of teaching
to Michael Brown and Officer Liu and Officer Ramos,
naming names, asking, “Why does the street divide
as we pass by…why do we not speak?”
Starting there with context,
our laughter from here on out
connected by tenuous thread to outrage,
Juan Felipe Herrera coaxes each of us
in our seats at the Capitol Theatre to speak
each word after him, 187 reason why Mexicans
can’t cross the border. Our word being,
“because.” Because, because, because,
and now we’ve heard Juan Felipe read
and we’ve responded and we can go online
and read the poem to ourselves out loud
in our living rooms and gardens,
and read the reasons Juan Felipe didn’t get to
last night with the time allowed
and pretend we hear him responding to us,
because, because, because, because, because,
five times in a row like that the way Shakespeare
wrote never never never never never
five times in a row in King Lear…
We can do that. We had so much fun
at the reading, we laughed so much,
and we followed along doing everything
Juan Felipe asked, and now it’s the day after
and looking back, it all seems so much
more serious, the words, the fragments,
and I ask myself, What happened to the man
in the blue derby wrapped with a black ribbon,
the man in the blue plaid shirt and the glasses
with white rims? What happened?
What happened in that moment?
What happened in Ayotzinapa?
We were having so much fun
we almost forget the journey we’ve been on,
traveling like this, with the poet.
After the reading I get two books,
Half of the World in Light, his new & selected,
Lotería Cards and Fortune Poems:
A Book of Lives, and the big book falls on my head
in bed when I can’t read any more
and I don’t know how long I held it after I could no longer read.
“I didn’t want to be condemned to history
or condemned to anything I felt I had to say.”
In the morning I look at my notes,
remembering the students from the night before,
at attention, blossoming in inspiration.
“A round dance, up and down the rows,”
Juan Felipe called it as it happened,
“I want to become you, you want to become me.”
He tells us of his brother Bobby battling cancer
and things he puts in his poems pineapples, corn,
wooden masks, prickly eyes and ocean liners.
“Everybody say, ‘Calabaza skin.’”
Going in and out of poems and talk,
talking, “If we mistreat animals we’re going to find them
a little later in the crossing…I can’t believe how brave
our families are…We were all super bilingual,
we wore bilingual capes. My hair was bilingual.”
Juan Felipe tells us of a poem made
in an unoccupied water tank that police
were using for stolen bikes.
He recounts the joy of our struggles.
“In the middle of the book
we’re going to find yellow flan on our shoulders.”
And finally he says to all,
“Go back and find your seed voices.”
I’m alone with his books on the porch
and open A Book of Lives, fortune poems
from Lotería Cards, linocuts by Artemio Rodríguez
news cuts for our time, and the poems by Juan Felipe.
They break open the chances for today.
I’m gambling now, and this is my life.
Who thirsts? El Brujo asks. “Here is the water.”
Adam and Eve naked in the corn field.
Adam’s right hand covers his cock,
El Brujo holding up the water,
a row of hands emerging from corn, waving.
The cuts by Rodríguez swing dangerously
close to my eye and Juan Felipe matches them,
“…so many bodies in butter sauce.”