Many people are intimidated by poetry, so let me, a poet myself, offer a frame: Poetry is not pieces of fiction chopped up and dropped at random on the page. If it helps as an entry point, though, you might imagine the synergy between such pieces. Poetry takes longer to read than nonfiction — at least it should, since poetry does not explain but transports and, in so doing, transfigures. Poetry is not for processing with the mind to reach a conclusion or argument. It is an adaptogen; it gives you what you need, whether that’s a punch in the gut or a healing of the heart. In his full-length poetry collection, “Every Day We Get More Illegal,” Juan Felipe Herrera does it all.
Herrera, who was the United States poet laureate from 2015 to 2017, is speaking to you and not to you, depending on who you are. He toggles between English and Spanish, sometimes with translation, sometimes without. Check yourself: do you criticize or complain when you come across language you don’t understand? Are you assuming you should have access to everything because “this is America?” The Spanish serves as a door: sometimes, it’s closed (no translation), showing you the boundaries of identity. Sometimes, it invites you to understand. But Herrera makes it clear that, despite whatever caricatures we have had imprinted in our minds about immigrants, working-class people, border crossers, people who speak Spanish natively, he is not asking for your permission to be who he is. Nor is he asking for your pity.
He is not saying “pity me” when he writes to himself and others like him from the voice of discrimination and oppression: are you a Segmenter without eyes or heart or blood. He is showing you what it’s like to be constantly questioned for who you are, constantly being told you are not who you are and simultaneously that you are what you are and that is against the law. He is showing you what that’s like so well that those of us who are willing — those of us who are open to our humanity — can feel our bones hollowing out through his literary radiation.
“Every Day We Get More Illegal” is not, as my implicit biases led me to assume, a plea for equality via sob story. It’s a declaration. An indictment of the unremitting, gratuitous, self-congratulatory hypocrisy of our self-appointed city-on-a-hill nation. You’ve heard such duplicity called out before: For so many, this is decidedly not the land of the free. But you have not seen it in Herrera’s clothes, bodies, chants, dust-coated belongings, adaptations, interlocutions, sidewalks, skin, land, bones. This is the brilliance of Herrera’s work: through the poetry — that is, the white space, the words, the places where they separate into new lines — you see human beings. It’s not all about avoiding deportation and climbing over walls and barbed wire fences and all the other bloodless two-dimensional ideas we’ve got in our minds thanks to our racism-soaked, white supremacist culture rabid for comfort, ease and enemies. Herrera obliterates the stereotypes of the migrant, the farm worker, the low-income resident, the person who breaks her back for your seamless convenience. He simultaneously puts skin on such experiences, blowing up the stereotypes — i am not a paid protestor, he writes, arguing with one of those gaslighters who is so common to the woodwork of America — and ignoring them altogether not in an inspiration-porn way or a way that asks those who are under the blanket of brutality, but in a total-human-package way.
The last word in Herrera’s collection is esperanza. Hope. This is on-point defiant. This hope has backstory: ongoing oppression. This esperanza says to hell with your bullying and your lies about who we are and what we’re worth. We do not give in to your smorgasbord of injustice: We hope. At the same time, this word, as well as the rest of Herrera’s words, ultimately defy translation. What they need is to be invited into your body so they can be experienced.
Read more of the July 1-7, 2020 issue.