This review first appeared on Fourth & Sycamore.
Despairing of God
I went to the desert
to seek my own saint.
– from Sonoran Desert Sutras, page 84
The surface of Luis Alberto Urrea’s newest volume of poetry, The Tijuana Book of the Dead (Soft Skull Press, 2015), is sprayed with the guttural desperation of a group of people struggling to survive. Directly below that layer is the deep well of resilient resignation of a group of people used to being in that position. The characters sparsely populating Urrea’s pages (including the poet himself) are covered in dust, dried blood, and liquor stains, but they persist.
I was born into hills
Where tubercular girls
Brought up their lungs
In mortal hymns
Coughed their spume
Into steel cups
And dumped their singing
In the mud.
-from The Tijuana Book of the Dead, page 153
Urrea was born in Tijuana, Mexico, to a Mexican father and an American mother, and his prolific writing has focused on the experiences of immigrants, emigrants, and residents of northern Mexico and the American southwest. He was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction for his 2004 book The Devil’s Highway, and his novels, poetry, and nonfiction have won or been nominated for numerous other awards. He teaches currently at the University of Illinois-Chicago.
The Tijuana Book of the Dead is, as I said, a book of desperation, of lichen clinging to rocks to survive and being scraped off by human beings just as desperate but more capable, of filthy water slaking dry throats in the Arizona desert, of pulses accelerating to match the pace of the approaching patrol chopper. This is the skin of the book. The heart of the book is the thin, lacerated beauty blooming in the midst of this broken struggle to subsist. Urrea refuses to make his book merely a political treatise against errant immigration laws, white American xenophobia, and income inequality, though these themes are inescapable. Nor does he gloss and polish life in the land of his birth. His eyes are those of a man who was born in a place, left it, and now holds in his frame a swirling and slowly settling ambivalence. This land is beautiful, this land is a mess. These people are beautiful, these people are spit upon. Having lived most of his life absent the material needs of his subjects here, there is an admiration in his voice, though it never clouds his frankness. There is a removed tenderness, an abstract affection at work in the midst of bleak stanzas like blossoms growing from the rusted hulks of automobiles.
My sisters brought undocumented scents to sweeten
the valleys. Their perfume settled on roadsides, misted
over bloodstain, rattlesnake, bootprint, guard dog, flash
light: illegal exhalations, unlawful breathing tainted
with cinnamon, coffee, filling cries like sugar in the bellies
– from Codex Luna, page 17
His characters are no saints–at least not most of them–though there is a mysticism to many of these poems that it feels cliché to refer to as the desert variety. This is a mysticism of pregnant moons hanging low over scorched rocks, of rosary-and-gun-toting prophets sheltering children running for a border. In place of saints there are drunks, there are absent fathers, there are drunk, absent fathers. There are depressing flirtations in seedy bowling alleys, inevitable extortions from opportunistic tow-truck drivers, profane verbal salvos from angry gang members. These are lives pressed to the brink, escaping how they can, and these verses grant humanity even to their antagonists. There are those also who lack the verve for escaping to vice and instead eek out an existence how they can.
prayers to…the truck tire mercy god,
the roving dog-pack god, raindrop god, sunrise god,
to grant just one more hour of heat, one short century more
of warmth, one small well-fed holy life
– from Ditch Turtles, page 97
When the Book of the Dead stays in this borderland between want and sufficiency, third world and first, it sings like a scratchy, feverish love song to a land and a people the poet knows dearly. The book’s escapes to modern Chicago and other locales familiar to Urrea are presumably an attempt to both cast a contrast with the sun-baked towns of his childhood and also to show that people are people everywhere, equally desperate, but these diversions are usually distracting and break the spell of the book’s focus. While good poems on there own, they decenter the lives Urrea so skillfully highlights otherwise. A leaner volume would have better distilled the inescapable predicament these words spring from, but these breaks from the course are mercifully few.
The Tijuana Book of the Dead is a volume of poetry with blood in its veins, pumping through its heart, and occasionally spilling on the broken concrete. It is grim at times, but speckled with grace notes of beauty and tinged with the light of empathy, a light that here mimicks the rusty red of the desert sun.