lyrical alignment: Richard Rodriguez

This week’s lyrical alignment is drawn from an interview with writer Richard Rodriguez conducted by Hector A. Torres for the book Conversations with Contemporary Chicana and Chicano Writers (University of New Mexico Press).

louiskahnI came across the passage below from a journal entry during my third year doing the PhD. I remember being struck by Rodriguez’s apt and rich metaphor in response to being asked about style. Not only is the narrative he develops through anecdote compelling, but the way he pivots its meaning towards his own writing process at the end really hits home with me. It’s the kind of statement that acknowledges the form and method side of writing but also allows for the fluidity and surprise that lie at the heart of the best writing.

In setting the prose into verse, I settled on working with five words per line; while the poem ends unevenly outside this structure, it almost feels appropriate. The last line is four words long, and that space where the fifth word would be feels like a space where the reader is allowed to think about the question being asked at the end. This question, furthermore, is one of those wonderful questions that echoes itself back as not a question. Not sure how to articulate this last bit fully, other than to add that some questions can simultaneously sound like requests for an answer as well as like statements we’re unsure of.

Richard Rodriguez responds to the question “How do you define style for yourself?”

lyrical alignment by José Angel Araguz
drawn from an interview with Richard Rodriguez
conducted by Hector A. Torres

There was a great architect
called Louis Kahn, a wonderful
modernist architect. He had on
staff at his architectural firm

in Philadelphia a kind of
guru or a mystic or
something. This guy used to
go with him — I think

he was Buddhist — to these
architectural sites where they were
going to build the building
whether it was in Bangladesh

or Houston or wherever it
was. They would sit there
for several days and see
the same site from different

angles, several shadows, several times
of the day, and they
would ask the question: What
does this space want to

become? It seems to me
that’s all I ask when
I write. When I look
at the blank page, I’m

trying to decipher in it:
What does it want to
tell me? See, it’s almost
as though when I write

I’m cracking it open,  you
know what I’m saying?

from Conversations with Contemporary Chicana and Chicano Writers, ed. Hector Torres (University of New Mexico Press)

lyrical alignment: The Book of Unknown Americans

I haven’t shared one of my lyrical alignments in a while, so I’m excited to share this one. I’ve also gone ahead and created a new category for them on the side there, so one click can take you to my collective formal experimentations across the years.

henriquezThis week’s lyrical alignment comes from Cristina Henríquez’s novel The Book of Unknown Americans (Knopf). While the novel’s main narrative details the migration and lot of the Rivera family who come to America from Mexico to find a school that can accommodate their daughter, Maribel, who has suffered brain damage from an accident, the novel also presents the stories of the neighborhood the family finds themselves becoming a part of. These “unknown Americans” hail from a variety of countries and represent a spectrum of latinidades; each one tells their stories in every other chapter. Henríquez’s gift for voice is evident in these monologues that go into the struggles of migration and survival.

When I do a lyrical alignment, I first find a passage of prose that calls to me on the level of language: a range of lyrical turns, an engaging metaphor, or, as is the case here, strong voice. I then try to find a phrase I connect with sound-wise. Here, I was caught by the natural pause at the end of “street” in the first six words. From there, I rewrote the excerpt in my notebook, making sure to keep each line to six words. To my surprise, the full excerpt I was writing out naturally ended in a six word phrase. I’m still spooked by the serendipity of it.

Aside from the lyrical quality of the voice and prose, this excerpt also hit home in that it has a character following a line of thinking that I am familiar with, in particular the feeling of being both “seen” and not “seen” at the same time. This kind of stereotyping/profiling very much makes one feel unmistakably “unknown.” Henríquez’s accomplishment in this passage is the evocation of a voice; the argument remains personal while creating a space where the reader can dwell alongside the character.


The Unknown American

lyrical alignment by José Angel Araguz
drawn from Cristina Henríquez’s
The Book of Unknown Americans

When I walk down the street,
I don’t want people to look
at me and see a criminal
or someone that they can spit
on or beat up. I want
them to see a guy who
has just as much right  to
be here as they do, or
a guy who works hard, or
a guy who loves his family,
or a guy who’s just trying
to do the right things. I
wish just one of those people,
just one, would actually talk to
me, talk to my friends, man.
And yes, you can talk to
us in English. I know English
better than you, I bet. But
none of them even want to
try. We’re the unknown Americans, the
ones no one even wants to
know, because they’ve been told they’re
supposed to be scared of us
and because maybe if they did
take the time to get to
know us, they might realize that
we’re not that bad, maybe even
that we’re a lot like them.
And who would they hate then?


Check out Cristina Henríquez’s novel, The Book of Unknown Americans (Knopf).

* a colorful lyrical alignment

This week’s post features a lyrical alignment of an excerpt from Victoria Finlay’s book Color: A Natural History of the Palette. This is the kind of nonfiction book that tries to break down information through story and personal recollections. Finlay writes of her travels to the places where particular colors are made and goes into the details of their physical and historical make-up.

I read this book back in 2012 and still find myself citing several of its jewels of knowledge with people. One particular moment in the book lends itself to being read on its own like a poem. In the excerpt (lyrically aligned below), Finlay recounts one scientist’s metaphorical explanation of the color of the sky. Enjoy!

The Color of the Sky

a lyrical alignment 

“…to explain the color of the sky, [John Tyndall, nineteenth century British scientist] would use an image of the sea.” (from Color – Victoria Finlay)

Think of the ocean, he would say,
and think of the waves
crashing against the land.

If they came across
a huge cliff
then all the waves would stop;

if they met a rock
then only the smaller waves
would be affected;

while a pebble
would change the course
of only the tiniest waves

washing against the beach.
This is what happens
with light from the sun.

Going through the atmosphere
the biggest wave lengths –
the red ones –

are usually unaffected,
and it is only the smallest ones –
the blue and violet ones –

which are scattered by the tiny
pebble-like molecules
in the sky,

giving the human eye
the sensation of blue.
Tyndall thought

it was particles of dust
which did it;
Einstein later proved

that even molecules
of oxygen and hydrogen
are big enough to scatter

the blue rays
and leave the rest alone.


Happy scattering!


* gabriel garcia marquez: a lyrical alignment

This week’s poem is a lyrical alignment from Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s prologue to his short story collection Strange Pilgrims.

In his prologue – entitled “Why Twelve, Why Stories, Why Pilgrims” – Marquez details the journey of his stories, how some have traveled with him for years and others arrived unexpected. I remember marveling at the openness with which he shared his patience with the ineffable act of writing as well as the depth of his memory. He finishes this “story behind the stories” with a short account of a dream he had. It is this account that I’ve decided to lyrically aligned. What moves me most about Marquez’s account of his dream is the innocence of the revelation on mortality he arrives at by the end.

I had a similar revelation while watching Terminator 2 as a kid. Another dream, this one on film: the main character, Sarah Connor, imagines herself standing at a chain-link fence, watching kids play. The entire scene is without sound. Then a nuclear explosion goes off in the distance, which she seems to be the only one aware of. The viewer watches as the blast from the explosion lays waste first to the playground, kids,  and then to Sarah, who screams to herself in silence. Young, I replayed this scene over and over before I slept, each time trying to imagine the nothing implied by the silence and black screen at the scene’s end.

Looking back on it, Marquez’s dream of a party is a better scenario 🙂

* cosas de rosas *
* cosas de rosas *

“…I dreamed I was attending my own funeral,” – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

a lyrical alignment from Marquez’s “Strange Pilgrims”

walking with a group of friends
dressed in solemn mourning
but in a festive mood. We all
seemed happy to be together.
And I more than anyone else,
because of the wonderful
opportunity that death afforded me
to be with my friends from Latin America,
my oldest and dearest, the ones
I had not seen in so long. At the end
of the service, when they began to disperse,
I attempted to leave too, but one of them
made me see
with decisive finality
that as far as I was concerned,
the party was over. – You’re the only one
who can’t go – he said. Only then
did I understand
that dying
means never being
with friends again.


Happy againing!


* another bolaño lyrical alignment

Here’s another lyrical alignment from Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives.

I came across this paragraph “re-aligned” in some old notes from 2008. The scene is of the enigmatic Ulises character described via another character’s story of him. I often describe Bolaño as a poet’s poet. His writing, like that of Borges, is infused with signs of a rich reading life and often speaks on the craft in an infectious and serious way. The text below creates a fable out of thin air that evokes real places and real struggle.

* is land, no? *
* is land, no? *

Two Islands – Roberto Bolaño

a lyrical alignment*

One day I asked him where he’d been. He told me
that he’d traveled along a river that connects
Mexico and Central America. As far as I know,
there is no such river. But he told me he’d traveled
along this river and that now he could say he knew
its twists and tributaries. A river of trees
or a river of sand or a river
of trees that in certain stretches
became a river of sand. A constant flow of people
without work, of the poor and starving,
drugs and suffering. A river of clouds
he’d sailed on for twelve months,
where he’d found countless islands and outposts,
although not all the islands were settled, and sometimes
he thought he’d stay and live on one of them
forever or that he’d die there.

Of all the islands he’d visited, two stood out.
The island of the past, he said, where the only
time was past time and the inhabitants were bored
and more or less happy, but where the weight
of illusion was so great that the island
sank a little deeper into the river
every day. And the island of the future,
where the only time was the future,
and the inhabitants were planners and strivers, such
strivers, said Ulises, that they were likely
to end up devouring one another.

*text from The Savage Detectives


Happy anothering!







* william james: a lyrical alignment

So, earlier this week, THIS happened:

* bling bling *
* bling bling *

I’m delighted to share the news of my having become married. 🙂

Those of you who’ve followed me on the Influence for a while may have caught me speaking about a previous divorce. I’m happy to have been keeping up this blog long enough to show that life has turns and revolutions, and that life moves on.

In keeping with this spirit of movement and (new) connections, enjoy the lyrical alignment below, in which William James connects more than a few dots for us. James’ knack for being at turns psychologist, philosopher, and mystic (usually all in one paragraph) always impresses me.


The Charm – William James

a lyrical alignment from The Will to Believe

Who does not feel the charm of thinking
that the moon and the apple are,
as far as their relation to
the earth goes, identical;
of knowing respiration and
combustion to be one; of
understanding that the balloon
rises by the same law whereby
the stone sinks; of feeling that
the warmth in one’s palm when one
rubs one’s sleeve is identical
with the motion which the friction
checks; of recognizing the difference
between beast and fish to be
only a higher degree of that
between human father and son;
of believing our strength when we
climb the mountain or fell the tree
to be no other than the strength
of the sun’s rays which made the corn grow
out of which we got our morning meal?


Happy charming!


* buffett – a lyrical alignment

Sometimes the best advice about the poetry life comes when trying to find out about yourself in non-poetry ways.

This rather blank statement springs from a recent reading of Susan Cain’s book Quiet: the power of introverts which takes on the idea of introverts (and extroverts) both as personal, social, and cultural phenomenon.

One of the finer points I walked away with was that for extroverts going out (a frightening concept in my world) is a way to recharge. Having that simply put really put some of the people in my world in perspective. If going out to a party is someone else’s cup of tea, that’s awesome. I’ll just be at home with my, uhm, cup of tea.

Another fine point came when Cain quoted Warren Buffett on his approach to business. I’ll let the man speak for himself about what he terms his “inner scorecard”, but damn if the parallels aren’t there for the poet – how one must focus, and focus a long time and in their own way, to get the work that matters done.

* yeah, but what's it mean? *
* yeah, but what’s it mean? *

Inner Scorecard – Warren Buffett

a lyrical alignment from Susan Cain’s book “Quiet: the power of introverts”

I feel like
I’m on my back
and there’s the Sistine Chapel,

and I’m
painting away.
I like it when people say,

Gee, that’s
a pretty good-looking
But it’s my painting,

and when
somebody says,
Why don’t you use more red


instead of
It’s my painting. And I

don’t care
what they sell it
for. The painting itself

will never
be finished. That’s one
of the great things about it.


Happy abouting!


* bolaño: a lyrical alignment

I recently reread Robert Bolaño’s novel “The Savage Detectives.”

I first read it in 2008. I had just moved to Oregon after completing my MFA, two years in NYC that were a combination of awe and awful. To be a young poet anywhere is to be confused and enchanted – and able to use words like “confused” and “enchanted” in regards to oneself without the slightest blush (blogging allows me to hide any possible blushing).

I was elated to find in Bolaño’s world a gang of poets that were as breathlessly falling apart as I felt. Six years later, and the book hasn’t lost its charm. Bolaño’s writing is overwhelming: he goes from inundating you with insider literary namedropping with the air of gossip and conspiracy to creating astounding metaphors that drive home the depths of human despair.

Or something like that.

The aligned below is a secondhand account about the reading habits of Ulises, one of the main characters of the novel whose adventures throughout the book prove him worthy of his namesake.

* some books may have been damaged during the making of this novel *
* some books may have been damaged during the making of this novel *

Making the Ink Run

aligned from Roberto Bolaño’s novel “The Savage Detectives”

He was a strange person. He wrote in the margins
of books. I’m glad I never lent him any
of mine. Why? Because I don’t like people
to write in my books. You won’t believe this but he
used to shower with a book. I swear.
He read in the shower. How do I know? Easy.
Almost all his books were wet. At first I thought
it was the rain. Ulises was a big walker.
He hardly ever took the metro. He walked
back and forth across Paris and when it rained
he got soaked because he never stopped to wait
for it to clear up. So his books, at least
the ones he read most often, were always a little
warped, sort of stiff, and I thought it was
from the rain. But one day I noticed that he went
into the bathroom with a dry book and when
he came out the book was wet. That day my curiosity
got the better of me. I went up to him
and pulled the book away from him. Not only
was the cover wet, some of the pages were too,
and so were the notes in the margins, some maybe
even written under the spray, the water
making the ink run, and then I said,
for God’s sake, I can’t believe it, you read
in the shower! have you gone crazy? and he said he
couldn’t help it but at least he only read
poetry (and I didn’t understand
why he said he only read poetry,
not at the time, but now I do: he meant
that he only read two or three pages, not
a whole book), and then I started to laugh,
I threw myself on the sofa, writhing in laughter,
and he started to laugh too, both of us laughed
for I don’t know how long.


Happy laughing!


* flynn: a lyrical alignment

I had so much fun with last week’s lyrical alignment (quiet, proper, inner fun, of course) that I’ve gone ahead and cooked up a new one!

This week, I’m taking a passage from Gillian Flynn’s novel Gone Girl, a thriller about a wife gone missing. The excerpt below is from the perspective of the husband as he meditates on the rocky stage he was at spiritually before the disappearance. Of course, he is the prime suspect.

My saying of course above is exactly the kind of sense of expectation the excerpt below riffs on. Given that it is a thriller, I knew I could expect one of a number of plots. There were expectations.

So much of writing is playing in and out of (and through) expectations. Writing is an art whose medium, words, belongs to everyone. Each word carries an expectation, that plays off the next, and so on. What makes a piece of writing more than the words on the page is how well the writer draws the world – your world as well as the world around you – into orbit with what’s happening at the level of language.

What drew me about the novel is how great a sense Flynn has about relationships. I read quickly, at turns rooting for the couple, at times worried.

In an effort to avoid any spoilers, I’ll stop there. Flynn does a solid job.

* you ain't seen nothing already *
* you ain’t seen nothing already *

The Same Dog-eared Script

aligned from Gillian Flynn’s novel “Gone Girl”

For several years, I had been bored. Not a whining,
restless child’s boredom (although I was
not above that) but a dense, blanketing
malaise. It seemed to me that there was nothing
new to be discovered ever again.
Our society was utterly, ruinously
derivative (although the word “derivative”
as a criticism is itself derivative).
We were the first human beings who
would never see anything for the first time.
We stare at the wonders of the world, dull-eyed,
underwhelmed. “Mona Lisa,” the Pyramids,
the Empire State Building. Jungle animals
on attack, ancient icebergs collapsing,
volcanoes erupting. I can’t recall a single
amazing thing I have seen firsthand that I
didn’t immediately reference to a movie
or a TV show. A fucking commercial. You know
the awful singsong of the blase’: “Seeeen it.”
I’ve literally seen it all, and the worst thing, the thing
that makes me want to blow my brains out, is:
the secondhand experience is always better.
The image is crisper, the view is keener, the camera
angle and the soundtrack manipulate
my emotions in a way reality can’t
anymore. I don’t know that we are
actually human at this point, those of us
who are like most of us, who grew up with
TV and movies and now the Internet.
If we are betrayed, we know the words to say;
when a loved one dies, we know the words to say.
If we want to play the stud or the smart-ass
or the fool, we know the words to say.
We are all working from the same dog-eared script.


Happy scripting!


p.s. Please check out the latest (and first!) issue of The Merrimack Review, including my poems “Icarus” & “La Esquina,” here.

* borges: a lyrical alignment

This past week, I found myself reading the essay “Verbiage for Poems” by Jorge Luis Borges (found in On Writing, Penguin Classics), and coming across a marvelous paragraph – emphasis on the ‘marvel,’ something of strange weather patterns moving across the sky in the middle of an ordinary afternoon about this paragraph.

In my enthusiasm, I found myself reading the words aloud to myself as I would a poem, which naturally led to my writing them out in my notebook. I pushed my fascination further by rewriting the prose into lines (loose iambics).

I present the fruits of my efforts below, calling it a lyrical alignment, something of what chiropractors do to backs – but hopefully less painful 🙂

There is a tradition of this kind of thing, a branch of ‘found’ poetry (Jose Garcia Villa immediately comes to mind as an early ‘aligner’). I enjoy reworking prose in this manner both for the way it keeps my ear sharp as well as for how it allows me to sink into the diction and phrasing of a writer.

I hope to share more of these as they come up in my reading and note-taking. For now, enjoy how Borges redefines the way you look at nouns.

* a rainbowhurricanehailstorm of a writer *
* a rainbowhurricanehailstorm of a writer *

“The world of appearances…” – Jorge Luis Borges

The world of appearances is a jumble
of shifting perceptions. The vision of a rustic
sky, that persistent aroma sweeping the fields,
the bitter taste of tobacco burning one’s
throat, the long wind lashing the road,
the submissive rectitude of the cane
around which we wrap our fingers, all fit together
in our consciousness, almost all at once.
Language is an efficient ordering of the world’s
enigmatic abundance. Or, in other words,
we invent nouns to fit reality.
We touch a sphere, see a small heap
of dawn-colored light, our mouths enjoy
a tingling sensation, and we lie to ourselves
that those three disparate things are only
one thing called an orange. The moon itself
is a fiction. Outside of astronomical
conventions, which should not concern us here,
there is no similarity whatsoever
between the yellow sphere now rising clearly
over the wall of the Recoleta cemetery
and the pink slice I saw in the sky above
the Plaza de Mayo many nights ago.
All nouns are abbreviations. Instead of saying
cold, sharp, burning, unbreakable,
shining, pointy, we utter “dagger”; for
the receding of the sun and oncoming darkness,
we say “twilight.”


Happy twilighting!


p.s. Please check out my poem “De Soto National Memorial Park” in the latest issue of the Rappahannock Review here.