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!

José

* 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!

Jose

* 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
painting.
But it’s my painting,

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

 

instead of
blue?
Goodbye.
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!

Jose

* 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!

Jose

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