Poetry Review: Leticia Hernández-Linares’s Mucha Muchacha

Mucha Muchacha, Too Much Girl
Leticia Hernández-Linares
(Tía Chucha Press, 2015)

Illo for review of Leticia Hernández-Linares's book.Reading through the collection Mucha Muchacha, Too Much Girl by poet, spoken word artist, and educator Leticia Hernández-Linares, I found myself impressed time and again by the ambitious elasticity of the poetics present on the page. In works that she calls poemsongs, which link this contemporary work to the traditions of flor y canto (“in xochitl in cuicatl” or “flower and song”), Hernández-Linares brings together the immediacy of music and the urgency of contemporary politics.

The poem “Cumbia de Salvación,” for example, starts off detailing how “Legs wrap around each other / es la culpa del verso,” which presents the reader with the idea of a dance of salvation as compulsive embrace. The “verso” – a Spanish word that can mean both song lyric and poetry – is said to bear the blame (“culpa”) for this sudden union. In a way, the two lines that open the poem, each in a different language, evoke the legs that are brought together in this dance; it stands to reason then that if poetry is the reason for the dance, it is these two languages and the worlds they represent that need salvation. This connection is further emphasized as the poem continues:

What it is that en realidad
manda en mi país, no es,
el ritmo sabrosón del Salvador.
Es el peso, el dólar, el colón.

The braiding of English and Spanish continued here explores what is at stake in the reality of this speaker. “[Lo que] manda” or what governs in this dance, the reader is told, is not “el ritmo” (the rhythm) of the poet’s Salvadoran heritage; instead money is what dictates. It is called out here in three separate currencies: “. . . el peso, el dólar, el colón.” In doing so, the poem is stating that between the poetry of human relations there is the cold reality of money. This tension is underscored when one realizes (as explained in a note) that the italicized words in the poem “are samples or twists of the song ‘Sabrosa Cumbia’ by Marito Rivera y su Grupo Bravo.” Via sampling and twisting, Hernández-Linares performs a singular poetic move, namely the evocation of a singer making a song his or her own. If the meaning of a song is transformed by the person singing it, then equally the manner in which the lyrics are interpolated in this poem makes them new and distinctly part of the poem. Thus, along with the braiding of languages, the poet here braids in her musical sensibility. When the speaker later states

Are you watching? As I make deals
that keep me scrubbing to meet
the minimum on the statement

the reader is not only brought into the world of the poem but is asked to participate in the cumbia of meaning-making. The “deals” Hernández-Linares makes here and elsewhere in the collection involve the repurposing of personal and cultural materials for the sake of poetry. These are heavy materials; one need only note how the word for the Salvadoran currency, “colón,” evokes the Spanish-language name for Christopher Columbus, “Cristóbal Colón.” These poems arise from a life freighted with history; Mucha Muchacha again and again shows how the movement inherent in song and poetry can be a means to move with and beyond this history.

This idea of moving with and beyond political history arises again in “Porque no todos somos iguales.” Here, the speaker works through variations and riffs on the letter X:

X is for Xochitl, wilting burnt orange petals . . .

X fills in the blank of letras desaparecidas
of the son who went to join his mother . . .

X is greater than the number
of Central Americans disappeared
in civil wars . . .

Each formulation of the letter moves it away from abstract meaning and into the human lives these poems serve to document. By focusing on a single letter here, the speaker evokes the way language changes, and, as it changes, ends up connecting people and history. This evocation also serves as a challenge; while X in two of these formulations stands for an unknown number, their presence in this poem emphatically makes this unknown nature known. In giving such unknowns space in this poem, the poem asks the reader to live with the same awareness as the speaker who, at poem’s end, is

Parched for an alphabet without the letters
o t m or x, regateando las letras estoy,
to buy train tickets home for the dead.

It is important to note the inclusion of the letters “o t m” along with the aforementioned “x.” The OTM or “Other Than Mexican” border is referred to early in the poem as one needing to be crossed at great risk by family for work. Again, movement is implied. This time, it is the movement of human survival. In these poemsongs, Hernández-Linares seems to be looking for a way to account for those who go missing. In identifying them as X, she begins the poetic bargaining (“regateando”) for an elegiac understanding as well as the evocation of praise. To put it in musical terms, here one finds a poetics aware of every pause, caesura, and syllable of every song.

This last statement implies an investment on the part of the poet, one evident in the interpolation of the poet’s own original songs in a number of these poems. One such poem is “Luna de Papel,” lines from which, the poet tells us in a note, “can be viewed on the mural: This Place: A Tribute to Calle 24, located on Folsom and 24th Street, in the Mission District, San Francisco.” This information is important in providing the poet further means of making the most out of her materials. The world of Mucha Muchacha, ultimately, is composed of the many worlds represented by the poet’s sensibility and history. By bringing these worlds into confluence through word and song, the poet stretches the lyric poem to contain all that she is able to say.

In the case of “Luna de Papel,” the incorporation of an original song adds further complement and complication to a neighborhood ode:

Ya salió la luna
ya salió la luna
luz en mi cara
mi alma desnuda
Hay vienen los poetas
y las cantantes
vas a tener que contarles las penas

(The moon has come out
the moon has come out
light on my face
my soul naked
Here come the poets
and the singers
you will have to tell them your sorrows)

This song, which is half lullaby and half anthem, can be seen as a key into the rest of the poems of this collection. Speaking with the openness of the full moon, the poet, and the singer, Hernández-Linares has come to sing the sorrows and music she knows.
A CantoMundo fellow, José Angel Araguz has had poems recently in Crab Creek Review and RHINO Poetry. He is a PhD candidate in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Cincinnati. The author of six chapbooks and the collection Everything We Think We Hear, he runs the poetry blog The Friday Influence. His second poetry collection, Small Fires, is forthcoming from FutureCycle Press in 2017.

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