Skip to main content

The poet as Marcello Mastroiani, and Fellini back with us directing, shooting the movie of the L.A. riots of 1992 (the sure aftermath of La Dolce Vita, in the American remake that starred Ronald Reagan). The poem as film, with urban devastation as a backdrop for cinema spectacle. Instead of a whimsical score by Nino Rota, Juan Felipe Herrera provides a Surrealist whimsy of shortened lines, a flickering imagery that fails to fully unfold along a linear logic; his fractured images titillate, amuse, surprise, disturb.

These are the titles: "7:30 pm/ Thursday," "7:35 pm," "8:00 pm," "8:35 pm," "8:37 pm," etc. The poems play like brief edits of time, jump-cuts up to the moment. Whereas Ginsberg proposed Buddhist breath units as a measure of poetic line, and Williams an American phraseology, Herrera makes explicit use of the forms of another medium as measure and line break. He slashes and bags his lines like freeze-dried flowers, like a Pop Art Modernism, a post-Modernist fin- de-siecle Futurism (Marinetti's enrapture with the Modern as precursor to Fellini's bemusement over its decay). The brittle shards of imagery glow with energy strangely absent from most North American poetry in its contemporary confessional, testimonial mode:  

The TR-3 spins at 75 kilometers. Florence Street, an egg. Eat, she says. Photographers? Yes, only for you, she says. Eat it, she says in Italian. We go by the country, a miracle is in the making. People are running. Where are the children? A scoop about the raped women in Bosnia. Their elongated scarves are the clues, Marga whispers into my tiny ear.

("3:03 am," from the `Friday' section); really, it's like a long poem with these juxtaposed stanzas, or a poem cycle, with segments that do not stand alone well (film being moving imagery that merges, flips, changes - one or two images fall out of context). And, like Mastroiani's world-weary character, Herrera's gaze in these poems is semi-detached, quizzically fascinated by the continuing urban crisis for which the riot serves as apt metaphor. 

The protagonist in these poems drives through the riots in a Triumph TR-3, watching Rome burn through the flames of urban America. This book is a ticket, a note of inquiry left on that burnt out vehicle - the 20th century - a century that promised the moon, Revolution, a world of labor-saving devices, and ends with charred aspirations imploding, Modernity collapsing in on itself as urban centers spew new dangers across a darkening planet in an ever-expanding oil slick. Herrera writes from that edge.