In February Jack aired an interview he did with the late poet Francisco X. Alarcón (1954-2016). The interview, conducted in 1991, touched on issues that continue to be relevant. On today’s show Jack wished to feature more recent work by Francisco X. Alarcón, so he asked his friend Rocío Rivas to help him present work from Canto Hondo / Deep Song, published in 2015. Rocío had been unfamiliar with Francisco’s work but responded to it deeply.
In his book, The Dancer and the Dance: A Book of Distinctions (2008), Jack wrote this about Francisco’s work:
In the Afterword to this important collection [From the Other Side of Night / Del Otro Lado de la Noche], Manuel de Jesús Hernádez-G insists on the “unity” of Francisco X. Alarcón’s life and work. Hernádez-G asserts that this poet presents us with “a unified erotic and activist vision,” that Alarcón has “a unified Chicano poetic voice, one that is both communal and activist.”
Whenever I come across such assertions of “unity,” I immediately begin to look for the contradictions, the “sub-texts,” which such statements seek to evade or deny. In Alarcón one does not have to look far. Francisco X. Alarcón identifies himself with the working class, yet he is the product of “elitist” institutions such as Stanford University; he identifies himself with the outlaw, even with the criminal, yet he is having mainstream honors heaped upon him: he was recently presented with the Fred Cody Award for Lifetime Achievement from BABRA, the Bay Area Book Reviewers Association; he was a strong candidate for California Poet Laureate. This is not to say that Alarcón’s view of himself is in any way hypocritical or even inaccurate: only to say that it is complex, multiple. We owe Alarcón a debt not because he achieves some sort of dubious “unity” in his life and work but because he is able to live with the manifold contradictions of his nature and situation and can give them free and varied expression—can even allow them to comment on each other. “Being a Chicano gay poet who has crossed several social, cultural, linguistic, and sexual barriers, borders, and taboos,” he writes in “The Poet as The Other,” “I have experienced a life full of contradictions and differences….” In “Reclaiming Ourselves, Reclaiming America” he adds, “My face, my body, my soul are in constant turmoil.”
Jack’s article goes on to remark about
the complexity of Alarcón’s situation—and the necessary doubleness of his art, which exists in both English and Spanish versions. (His art is, like his identity, “mestizo”—mixed.) At times, as Alarcón suggests in “Un Beso Is Not a Kiss,” the English version does not serve the Spanish well. Sonnet XXIII of Sonnets to Madness and Other Misfortunes has
bailando combatamos la tortura
de la tristeza que sólo la locura
cura con manos llenas de fortuna
This is translated by Alarcón’s longtime translator, Francisco Aragón, as
dancing let us resist the torture
of sadness that only madness
with its plentiful luck can cure
It’s a good, accurate translation, and the English makes a valiant effort to catch some of Alarcón’s intricate rhyming (“torture / cure,” “sadness / madness”). Unfortunately, it is unable to do justice to the central phrase, “la locura / cura,” which finds healing (“cura”) in madness (“locura”). (It has been suggested that Alarcón is not a “curandero” but a “locurandero.”) Similarly, one of the primary themes of Alarcón’s work is the problematical relationship between the I and the we—and, even more importantly, the shift from the I to the we. There are certain words which haunt this poet: one is dark or darkness (“oscura” —another word involving “cura”) and another is “otro” (“other,” as in the book’s title and the title of the essay quoted above). Sonnet X has “uno no es nada” (“one is nothing”) and goes on to assert that “un dia uno so tropieza con el otro” (“one day, one runs into the other”). At the end of the poem the poet is finally able to say “us,” which in Spanish is nosotros, a word affirming community by literally “including” the “other”: nos-otros.
This is “Familias Migrantes / Migrant Families” from Canto Hondo / Deep Song:
¡cuac! ¡cuac! ¡cuac!
los patos en pleno vuelo
repiten muy alto al pasar
para una gran “V” formar
en el cielo gris otoñal
¡cuac! ¡cuac! ¡cuac!
¿es así como prometen
una vez más retornar
como la gente que se va
al sur rumbo a su hogar?
quack! quack! quack!
the ducks in full flight
repeat loudly as they pass by
forming a big “V”
up high in the gray Autumn sky
quack! quack! quack!
is this how they vow
to return one more time
as the folks leaving town
to go home southbound?
Part One of Two