Poetry & Race Roundtable        (page 11)

Francisco Aragón (continued):

“The moment where the white writer only mentions the race of people who are not white.”

I have a confession to make. There is poem by Robert Hass whose title I can’t recall. It’s a poem I heard him read in public many years ago, probably in Berkeley. And there is a passage that depicts a scene, it might be outside a 7-11, a convenience store, a liquor store, I don’t recall which. And the speaker of the poem casually references “the Chicanos” (this I’m fairly certain of--some things just engrave themselves) who were hanging out nearby. When I heard that poem, and he uttered that passage, I experienced something that felt like comfort or satisfaction when hearing those words (“the Chicanos”) leave his lips. As if there were a certain validation in “seeing” someone like myself depicted in a poem by this poet. But something has happened. With the passing of time, that poem, that passage in that poem, has come to resemble or feel like what I’m going to call cardboard country. I am not ascribing intention here, only what this passage has come to feel like to me. As if the speaker of the poem were privately admitting: Here is a passage in my poem where I’m going to use the phrase “the Chicanos” and demonstrate to you how hip and with it I am: I know what Chicanos are and that they exist in my home state, California. Perhaps just like another example of flora and fauna? Now I don’t think Robert Hass intended his poem to be “racially complex.” But I have begun to wonder why that passage needles at me the way it does. Probably what I need to do is search out that poem again, and re-read it in its entirety. But it has fascinated me that I have remembered him reading a poem that contained that phrase, “the Chicanos.”. Does anyone here know the poem?

By way of comparison, here is a passage of a poem by another California-based poet, who also attempts to depict ethnicity:

         while the dark, blocky girl,
         cheekbones and features of an ancient
         stone mask, walks past
         with her baby, sneaking a look
         at those darling lace half-socks […]

The scene is San Francisco’s Mission District, where I was born and raised. My relationship to this poem, in contrast to the Hass poem, has not deteriorated over the years. The poem is “Art&Life” by August Kleinzahler, from Earthquake Weather (Moyer Bell, 1989).

I’ll end, for now, with a passage by another favorite poet, a former teacher, only to illustrate another depiction of race—in this case within a poem about AIDS, also set in San Francisco, blocks from my childhood home:

         I walked him home through the suburban cool
         By dimming shape of church and Catholic school,
         Only a few, white, teenagers about.
         After the four blocks he would be tired out.

I heard Thom Gunn read this at the San Francisco Art Institute from the manuscript that would shortly be published as The Man With Night Sweats. It was a benefit reading for I forget what charity and he was sharing the stage with Robert Pinsky, another former UC Berkeley teacher. “The J Car” is the only thing I remember about that evening.

—Francisco Aragón

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