Luis Urrea’s latest volume of poetry opens with an intimate morning scene: “you, who can’t believe your Ma rose at 4:45/ to fry one huevo and a slice of bologna/ laid on corn tortilla — border benedict—/ here’s your chance to drag home/ $80 a week, for her electric. Food.” With subtly wry wit and an introspective approach, the Pulitzer Prize finalist hones in on such isolated moments of human drama in “The Tijuana Book of the Dead,” a collection that rails against systems of oppression while celebrating the vitality of America’s Southwest cultures.
In response to the book bannings and abolition of Mexican American studies in Arizona, the Mexican American author has released his first volume of poetry in 10 years. By traversing the Mojave Desert, inner-city streets and the homes of his beloveds with a sharp eye, Urrea conducts a close survey of the borderlands and the lives tied up in it — lives characterized by tedious workdays, song and story, fear and aching longing. “The Tijuana Book of the Dead” turns the landscape of the U.S.-Mexico border into a theater of human activity, drawing on Mexican and indigenous myths to give personal vignette a sense of vast proportion.
Urrea takes readers on a narrative journey that avoids strict delineations between Mexico and the United States, between Spanish and English, between the suburbs of East Los Angeles and the “barbed embrace of/ the border fence.” Boundaries, in essence, are made to disintegrate through the merging of road song and lamentation, elegy and sutra, haiku and hymn. In a panoramic road map of the Southwest, the compact world of the book shifts, without warning, between settings and languages: A poem may take place at once under “a colonia moon, a barrio moon, a suburban moon.”
Urrea has an instinctive understanding of the relationship between the physical and the musical, writing in language that is at once pictorial and melodic. Songs of yearning emerge from his reminiscences on the smells and sounds that characterize his journey, from the primal to the sentimental: “Orphanage smell of smoke and pee,” women perfumed with “soap and/ wildflower shampoo and/ fruit gum and/ Marlboros,” strains of “banda music chasing white egrets from the estuaries w/ their tuba blasts.”
He shies away from a formal study of racial tension for a contemporary meditation on real-life moments. We are beckoned to “listen/ it’s our story, it’s our song,/ you’ve got to hear.” His remarkable ability to convey the grit of hardship with lyrical beauty is a testament to his skill as a writer; with painterly detail, he injects images of “chapped wooden hands” with a striking sense of realism. Not one to sugarcoat the truth, Urrea crafts intelligent, confessional compositions laced with vitriolic social commentary.
The preoccupations that surface again and again in his poems — family, sacrifice, love, poverty — become the voice of a people and give depth to a wide scope of shared human experiences. Trauma after trauma — some as private as a broken typewriter, some as public as the onstage rape of a child — convey feelings of quiet despair. And through crisp, unpretentious diction, we are given an intimate glimpse of his border: a place where “these illegals, these fucking greasers, these wetbacks,/ these narcos, these gang-related Hispanics, these beaners” are revealed to be only “maids in sweaters, men in workboots and Levi’s … working for kids, for families for parents,” in a community where “everybody was poor/ and we/ among them.”
A gorgeous and sensitive expression of cultural identity, Urrea’s collection gives shape to a distinctive landscape and its people, compelling readers to engage with him in a discourse on marginality. In a bold move, he tidily sums up in “Arizona Lamentation” the prevailing American attitudes toward Mexican immigrants as if awaiting a reaction from a listener armed with new knowledge of who these people are and how they came to be:
“We had family values, we had clean sidewalks.
“Then these strangers came. These mudmen.
“They invaded our dream
“And colored it.”
Danielle Shi writes about literature. Contact her at [email protected].