Herrera, Juan Felipe. Notes on the Assemblage. City Lights. Sept. 2015. 168p. ISBN 9780872866973. pap. $16.95. POETRY
As he assumes his post as the 21st U.S. Poet Laureate—the first to be Latino—Herrera is releasing a visually acute, punch-in-the-gut collection that shows off both his craft and his heart. Wound even more tightly than his previous collections, including Half the World in Light, his 2008 National Book Critics Circle Award winner, it begins somewhat abstractly with clouds—“how they fray/… where there is fire and/ thunder-face behind the torn universe”—then moves to the sometimes horribly, terribly concrete. The students of Ayotzinapa (“they fired their guns they burned us they dismembered us in trash bags they threw us into the river yet we continue”), police violence (“And if the man with the choke-hold pulls the standing man down why does he live”), ISIS beheadings (“i write in danger/ for lives in danger i — i/ am Kenji Goto”), the murder of African Americans (“5 minute jury/ April 15, 1916 Waco, Texas shackled & dragged — lynched/ you live on// Trayvon Martin face down”), and the burdens of Mexican heritage (“all this has to do with/ The half, the half-thing when you are a half-being”)—all are given an urgency that makes readers feel their real weight.
Yet if Herrera starkly addresses issues of social justice, you can toss out the worn phrase topical poet. Throughout, he works bigger, touching on life’s grace, turbulence, and sheer physicality (“it was my breath upon you/ … revealed by the moon and the moon the wild sickle swan and/ i ascended/ through the fire”) even as he crosscuts his fierce social consciousness with a surreal grasp of a sort of cosmic beauty (“embrace me on the table of the prayer-woman and the anthill dish/ let us go to Carrara to sing to the Count of Sulfurs and ciphers and reefs”). A series of elegies are both affecting and punch-drunk with imagery (“paint me the flying coat color of flame & tutti-frutti/ paint me the face color lion,” says the ode to José Montoya). As always, Herrera’s signature language is immediate, visceral, in the moment, sometimes razzy-jazzy, and compacted to create intensive feeling. “Jestered ochre yellow my umber Rothko/ divisions my Brooklyns with Jerry Stern/ black then oranged gold leaf & tiny skulls” opens one poem in the section “i do not know what a painting does,” proving that he does know what poetry can do. Some readers will find this section rather dense, but as they work to provide connections, they’ll get a great appreciation of how poems are created. VERDICT Urgently written and important to read, even if Herrera weren’t in the Library of Congress limelight. [See Prepub Alert, 6/14/15.]—Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal