Luis Rodriguez's My Nature is Hunger
Of all the poets I have met and listened to in my years as a reluctant Angeleno, Luis J. Rodriguez remains-in my mind-the most distinctive, and lasting with his narrative style and uncompromising eye. His new collection, My Nature his Hunger: new and selected poems: 1984-2004 reinforces this truth while illustrating Rodriguez’s evolutionary shift as a poet, a man, and a social commentator.
Rodriguez’s new book contains 26 new poems paired with selections from previous books; Poems Across the Pavement (1989 Tia Chucha Press), The Concrete River (Curbstone Press 1991), and Trochemoche (Curbstone 1998).
Nature reintroduces the reader to some of Rodriguez’s signature pieces: “Running to America,” a gritty, in-your-face testimonial to immigrants who brave the dangers of crossing the U.S./Mexican border in search of a better life; “Tia Chucha,” a cheerful, loving tribute to Rodriguez’s eccentric and spirited aunt after whom he named his publishing company, Tia Chucha Press; and “Watts Bleeds,” a retelling-and an allegory-of Rodriguez’s triumph over his early, tumultuous youth in Watts, which despite Watt’s well-documented history of poverty and violence, may some day, as Rodriguez predicts, “bloom, you trampled flower, come alive as once/you tried to do from the ashes.”
The new poems reveal a man who is willing to explore and sometimes resolve issues he addressed in his earlier work. In the poem “Black Mexican,” (Concrete River, 1991) a narrative about Rodriguez’s south of the border encounter with a young adolescent Mexican prostitute, Rodriguez outlines the young woman’s circumstance with a frustrated and angry, but not unsympathetic eye:
She walked up
with dreams of America
and yellowed teeth.
She came in the caricature of a voice,
sliced across her belly
and eyes of hiding in mud fields
as family sounds
closed in on her, carnivorous like dogs,
murmuring how pretty she is,
how it doesn’t hurt,
and the fathers,
all slamming into her
until she could squeeze into herself
Though Rodriguez’s anger, irritation and helplessness in the face of the young woman’s situation are successfully illustrated in the above passage, he imparted to the young woman a humble history as well as a sense of weary dignity. And since time will inevitably alter a man’s perspective on many things, especially in regards to women, the reader will welcome Rodriguez’s new poem “Chuparosa” (Hummingbird), a tender comparison of the author’s wife to the underrated, but majestic qualities of a hummingbird:
A chuparosa once got caught below the window awning.
It moved end to end, fear in its flutter,
As I watched it try to escape.
Unable to do anything, I directed its path
With my eyes. For a moment, it was Trini held,
In the paralyzing mud/mode she often falls into.
I knew the bird would find a way out
As Trini always does, drawing on her
Intensity of decency that scares
Most people whose decency
Is mostly a burden below thin veil.
Rodriguez deftly and provocatively re-defines himself in the multi-layered poem “My Name’s Not Rodriguez,” an all-encompassing journey into the possible realities of who the author is/might have been/could be. Yet, Rodriguez has taken the passionate anger that marked his earlier work, mixed it with a well-developed sense of humor, as in the poem “The Cockroaches I Married,” a whimsical tale about the life-long, Sisyphan battle against the against these primeval pests; added an elegant, melancholic tone, as in “Time and Nature,” a poem that explores the complex and difficult relationship with the author’s mother, and then distilled these qualities into an almost august disposition. The acuity of Rodriguez is still there, but now it is the marked difference between a steak knife and a scalpel.
My Nature is Hunger reveals a turning point in the continued maturation of Rodriguez as a poet and visionary, but leaves the door open for further contemplation of the many roads Rodriguez may travel in the near and not so distant future.
My Nature is Hunger: new and selected poems: 1984-2004, Luis J. Rodriguez, Copyright 2005 Curbstone Press, $14.95, ISBN: 1-931896-24-0, 149 pages
(Note: This review previously appeared in Subtle Tea Aug/Sept. 2006)