“Strapped between Another Transaction and Catastrophe”

Roberto Tejada’s poems are shaped by a singular poetics guided by political passion. Pained, embattled, and historically mindful, the dense and shifting set pieces of his new book, Full Foreground (Arizona, 2012), coruscate with an urban sensibility created by decades spent in the US and Mexico. Sublime, they produce “...fuck-yes abundance glow for me.” The political contours of life between these two unparalleled national neighbors, whose overlapping histories co-determine each other, find an elaborate and varied poesis in this collection, distinct in some ways from 2010’s sometimes Latino LA-centric Exposition Park. (A continuous lineation too separates this book from the many prose poems of the previous one.) Poems journey from Memphis to Mitla in the Oaxaca Valley, from Chiapas to Puebla and Mexico City, and finally back to his native Los Angeles, whose “...intelligentsia ... is anathema to the Industry / ... when it all functions at lower best / Electronic velocity to deepen capital’s / culture in the digital West an onslaught...” Temporal depth in Tejada means the origins of European colonization in the Americas, the subject of his first book Mirrors for Gold, and signaled above by the capitalized “West.” Unpunctuated, the above passage’s relentless cutup of phrases yokes together a propulsive sentence-line ambiguation, all underscored by left political vehemence.

Of Tejada’s aesthetic, Urayoán Noel asked in these pages: “Bataillean raza, perhaps?” This collection’s response is a dirtier style, diced into a partial vernacular, one that’s on somebody’s side. But the mode remains complex: strangely original, worked over, full of the advanced effects of neoliberal wreckage, with a decidedly mediated immediacy the product of appropriations and other methods, as with the afterword prose poem, on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks:

                                                                                                                                An example is this—it should
      have been enough for us, 

      to find me without recourse to oppose, but it wasn’t, it wants me there, strapped between another      
      transaction and catastrophe, like voice, for whose sake, I who am nothing, like it without cease. An  
      example is this— say the kingdom in all its dust and debris, all the money guaranteed in cataclysm, on
      television, here together with me, our dividends in fourfold to enhance the hereinafter.

Torn from a necessarily attenuated declaration (“like voice”), the lyrical prose here transacts the remainders of disaster capitalism on television. Doing different voices—from the objective (“this is an example”), to the hermetically personal (“it should have been enough for us...but it wasn’t”)—a whole (im-?) personality rises fervently in the poems’ altered futurity, and thus the pointed irony of “...to enhance the hereinafter.”

And just a few pages into Full Foreground the waves of negation (formal abruptness in contrasted polymorphic line and stanza development) and violence (some content moves in this direction) wash in: “At the place come to a head by the assassins...”; “...foaming at the mouth and painting from the punches / or so the predators...” Both quotations are drawn from “If Even Such Miracles Are Rare,” whose first and third sections are lush, large, jammed with a rewired, invented sense of ligature (“Nocturnal nakedness in the clump field is / a clod of seedcake wrapped in oil paper”), as with much of the poetry here. The second section begins, “A year before the insurrection, I was terrified in my dream,” making oblique reference to the Zapatista rebellion. A departure from the others, this section’s surprisingly “found” voice, an expression of ordinary resentments and concerns, is notable for its lack of fuss (“...down the valley outside Comitán”):

That dream, the one of promised things, no work, no say,
no belonging, is just the envious people tormenting me. They want me

               to leave behind a weave of sickness.
They are angry since I built my little house. 

Against easy household management in an age of global capitalism (the illusion of “dividends in fourfold,”) titlelessness reigns throughout. The book comes in ambitious, topical sections. Chief among the subjects: the political and cultural dynamics of the North American continent’s neoliberal history. Many have given Mexicanidad, Chicanismo, Mestizaje—cosmopolitan terms for Mexico and Latin America’s expanding cultural frontiers—significant critical diagnosis. Their conceptual actuality (i.e. their historical content of neoliberalism) becomes palpable, ferrying forth in the critical lyric of Tejada’s three organizationally distinct volumes of poetry. In the untitled poem, “Three blind mice finger the alphabet song into ream is,” the aforementioned historical themes, complex and continuous, are relentlessly wrought. The poem continues:

                                                                          ...ream is
my handle and spout by the culprits who, police

announced on Tuesday, were 
chiefly married professionals
of whom you would have suspected nothing
but a sort of devotion 

In the churning lines that follow, the culprits will turn out to be participants in violent horrors but also average professional people. But first a vivid street scene interlude: 

                                   Not unlike any other
relevant inquiry into the world, I mean the norm, not
the appearance, one of having been ransacked, about

a figure staggering among the arbitrary
pyramids of mango, tangerine, and medlar, around
the Chamula market, to the murmur of
children in church, the shuffle of feet
of knees over pine needles, but also
incense in rising seams, the shape of eggs
and bottles of Pepsi

This journalistic, notational departure, where each object is adequate symbol, studies and persists with difficult expressions of the transformations of Mexico in recent decades—slaughter has become inescapable as ordinary life is rammed up next to the horror. The pyramidal piles of various foodstuffs in San Cristobal de las Casas’ Chamula Market (in the Chiapas of the Zapatista Movement) are there when the paramilitaries terrorize various political groups, activists, families, and journalists, an act as commonplace as it is rapacious in these late and brutal stages of the so-called Drug War:

                                          Something powerful
is lending lesser credence
to protracted visions fueled by a utopian
hope, the resentful people who want to do
me harm, or maybe the earth where the house was standing dangerous, I don’t know
what animal of well-being and destruction
led me to releasing bullets
between the eyes of the entire family,
propping up the little ones up
against the bedroom wall

Here are “powerful” contiguities and simultaneities. A sketch of the automated conduct of the murderer, still repulsive, manages not to cheapen the historical scene. If Roberto Bolaño’s works, according to his own account, were all variously dedicated to the lost-in-the-Dirty-Wars generation of Latin American leftists, Tejada’s works owe a similar allegiance to late capital’s izquierdistas, veterans of IMF Structural Adjustment Program (“El Modelo”), anti-globalization, and recent Occupy protests. The poem continues:

not that anything can be said,
or why this is a real person and the men
and women slaughtered in rural Mexico
are not compared to the public executions
of the official party’s presidential
candidate or secretary general

The above marks a forgotten space, beyond the televised assassination of PRI presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio, for consciousness of the unnamed dead: the Dirty War never ended. In Mexico as in the US, the Drug War is its latest, lucrative iteration. A breakneck shift in the poem follows, with the economies of desire and pathos subsumed by a capital permeated social order. In the opening question, another tone of voice arises:

                                          But is there room
enough for the pockets of my breathing

and the haptic glance with which I spread
the firmness of a lover’s crevice against
my tongue, in consonants voiced

and unvoiced, hands dirty with the kind
of stroking that would sell you

a syringe, or the taste of money
I spend in the lube-city wet
dream, a share of compelling
stories to tell the master who
will reward me with license
over those in whose image 

of a meaningful life I’d come
to play a prominent role 

Full Foreground’s title suggests a cramming close-up, the disappearance of depth, a certain index of the present, one where the negativity of critical reflection faces difficult headwinds. There’s also the suggestion of the constantly shifting context necessary to poetic development: each detail of the poetic line is a kind of foreground. And Tejada lets loose a surge of radically evocative surfaces, anchored in the historicity of the recent past’s connections to the transformations of North America since the time of European conquest. His openness to contrary motion in a poem makes for a strong, even objective poetic enigma. 

The three titled and organizing sections of the book (“If Even Such Miracles Are Rare...” “Full Foreground,” and “Amulet Anatomy”) contain mostly untitled poems, punctuated by graphically bold but minimal slogans in “three-word clusters,” as he remarks in the book’s endnotes. These enframed clusters mark out a televisual image of language, paradoxically full but themselves under-explained: “DUMP DITCH KIND,” “HOUSE TONGUE TRACK,” “PRICK PEEL SHED.” The phrasal units here pun and veer toward contradictions of body and real estate, capturing the poetic work of the collection, as it traces the occluded relations between our bodies and infrastructural realities. Elsewhere Tejada’s intellectually felt poetry of estrangement struggles forth in an imaginative mediation of strophe and syntax.

bite a menace along the breakers I’m

craving this lavender black of sundown
in surfacing mounds of snow and when
we forego our soundness formal draped
or continuous as night figures 

along Richmond Avenue or Ashland 

This winter beachscape unsettled by urban and desirous raptures (“craving this lavender black of sundown”) later strikes a more pronounced political tone:

market by the name of liberal assets unleashing
in patterns uncontrolled so lawless
and brutal a concentration of wealth
and surplus such magnitude of deprivation
ever thriving to be more dissatisfied or
satisfied in a culture at odds internal devoid
of all patterns in civic life neither tolerant
democracy nor the promise of a unified
collective wager will survive its sway
as the final arbiter of social good.

Quick and reckless shifts traverse the line breaks as sentences lapse uncannily in and out of the cramped but contagious flow. Linking rhetoric unbuckles and swerves (“dissatisfied or / satisfied in a culture at odds internal devoid”) in a passage at odds with the thesis of seamless market coordination: “so lawless / and brutal,” surplus wealth under capitalism being a “magnitude of deprivation / ever thriving.” Discursive tension abounds, but Tejada proceeds by leaps, teasing vocabularies of decisive political intervention out of bureaucratic sense.

“Full Foreground and shortcomings of this intercourse,” begins one of the strongest untitled poems, which measures technocratic idioms of the right against the ecstatic disorientation of the aesthetically progressive postmodern, overdriven poem:

if our voices mattered amid this kind of predictable
thinking, institution of secrets civil-silenced
or stammered-over without filling the gaps
in an ecstatic state

                                of clashing
consonants when it all comes off the jack-end
behind the back-alley store-front in pull-back
sway I mean I couldn’t care less

about anybody’s private life, but it helps
explain why total incompetents, with no
knowledge of the language or society, are
running the show

Its codes of discourse embattled in unstable situations, this poem sees the clear complementarity of the fight for the city alongside the one for a progressive literature. Political anxiety and romance overlap with criticism of injustice. Interlocked, expression breaks open again, as does a decentered futurity singing our present impairment. Such is the globalized reconnaissance of this book. Over ten years ago, Román de la Campa wrote: “Latinos, Latin Americans, immigrants, exiles, refugees, border peoples, rafters—it’s becoming difficult to define the legal or ontological status of this fluid diaspora...in the United States.” Fulgurant scintillations from the Latino Metropolis’s future-past, Tejada’s ambitious poetry derives its own difficult power from subtracting the prosaic and euphemistic veneer applied to the situation of both Latinos and Latin Americans. The results continue to be as sobering as they are inspiring. 

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