Let’s get one thing out of the way: the first Chicano poet to win the Yale Younger.
Depending on whom you ask, it’s either an enormous point of pride or yet another qualifier. Personally, I go for the former, because the cynics out in the literary world (and there are many) need a sharp reminder that the most prestigious poetry prize for a first book has never—never—in its nearly ninety-year history gone to a Chicano/a poet. Not to Gary Soto’s 1977 The Elements of San Joaquin. Not to Lorna Dee Cervantes’s 1981 Emplumada. Not to Alberto Ríos’s 1982 Whispering to Fool the Wind.
After 105 volumes, the 106th finally went to one of ours.
I say ours because one of the deepest pleasures of reading Eduardo C. Corral’s Slow Lightning was witnessing its balance, not necessarily between Spanish and English, but between literatures that have historically been indifferent to each other (or, at least, one side certainly has). Carl Phillips, who chose the book for the prize, writes of this as “estrangement,” an apt word to describe the sense of broken family that comes to mind when I think of Chicano literature and its repeated effort to be recognized as inextricably linked to the national conversation.
“The conflation…of Chicano material and traditional material (i.e., white prosody),” writes Phillips, “is an argument for (and enactment of) reconciliation and a reminder of differences…” While Phillips is speaking specifically about a sonnet sequence, the phrasing reminded me all over again of the particular challenge the Chicano/a writer has in reaching a national audience. The indifference toward the material of our cultural lives is so heavy (and downright poisonous in Arizona, where I live) that the pressure put on language and technical mastery can sometimes become all the more difficult to bear.
It’s a rare book that can withstand such a withering scrutiny, and Chicano/a texts get more than a hard once-over before they’re allowed into the spotlight. I think that’s one of the major achievements of this volume: if it’s the command of English you want,  it’s the command of English you’ll get. The book’s formal energy dictates its success; each poem is rigid in what it might wring out from its attention to various strategies, from the lyric to the elegy. A constellation of terrific ekphrastic poems (based—quite noticeably—on works by artists of Mexican heritage) signal how deeply wedded the book is to a sense of homage, to its very existence as reliant on the hard, groundbreaking work of previous artists.
Take my favorite poem in the collection, “Variation on a Theme by José Montoya.” From the opening lines, the poem privileged me—a reader of Chicano literature , a person who could recognize the sonic referent to Montoya’s “El Louie” immediately, like a song I hadn’t heard in a while. The rhythm was right at the surface of memory; not a line later came “Mister / No Contaron Con Mi Astucia.” Slow Lightning is going to be talked about as a breakthrough book for its audacious and bold placement of Spanish on equal terms with English, and though the code-switching is, in itself, a little dazzling, the real thrill for insider readers is the attention to a Chicano pop vernacular, for lack of a better phrase. Where else in American letters will I get such a generous helping of El Chapulín Colorado, Ester Hernández, ranchera song titles that drum up my own version of Robert Hayden’s Sunday mornings, and Jean Valentine (who I hereby declare an honorary chola)? It’s an eclectic and decidedly curious mixture but, at least to my eyes, utterly within my understanding, and it’s been a while since a book of poems has assumed I was already on the page (rather than letting me in, as most books tend to do, no matter how good they are).
I read the book on a plane ride from Peoria to Dallas , thrilled at reading a book I’d been anticipating for a while, but knowing, too, that it had come with a validation very few books get. I would stop after a few poems and reread some, asking myself if some were already jumping past the book and straight into the arms of an adoring audience (on the order of Lorna Dee Cervantes’s “Beneath the Shadow of the Freeway,” for example, or Sandra Cisneros’s “You Bring Out the Mexican in Me.”) “Self-Portrait with Tumbling and Lasso” might be one of those (it reads so defiantly, yet with a humorous bravado, an ars poetica in showgirl drag).
But my eye settles on page 38, the middle of the Montoya poem, and its breakdown of every father figure who’s ever strutted through a page of Chicano/a literature, bold and breaking, but yearning and conflicted, too. It’s a poem I know my dad could read and make immediate meaning of that assemblage. It’s almost entirely in Spanish—his language!—with just enough English intrusion to remind him that, despite where he is, his words come first. It’s not every book that can do that.
-  I was recently corrected for enunciating the word our as hour. “Just say are,” I was told. Okay, then.↩
- At a recent reading at the Tucson Poetry Festival, Corral generously defined ekphrastic to the audience, recognizing that those very formal energies are often exactly what make a general reader assume poetry exists in too-lofty heights. The word refers to a poem created in response to another work of art, like this.↩
- I am clean and articulate.↩
- Montoya is a well-chosen subject for homage, given his historical significance to many a Chicano/a writer, yet Corral’s poem also stands as marvelous and sly defense. I’ve trolled my fair share of online poetry debates on what, exactly, political poetry meant, and someone always had a backhanded way of acknowledging Chicano/a “production” from the 1970s, as if the sheer inspirational possibility of hearing someone like you speak from a stage could mean so little. Well, it’s 2012, and now we have some proof of just how vital those poems actually were. Gracias, Don Montoya!↩
- She’s not quite on the level of Chicano adoration as Morrissey, but give it time. Corral is a fan and so am I and surely other Chicano/a writers will start coming out of the woodwork. Orale, La Dream Barker!↩
- I bought my two copies (one for my sister, Elisa) at the Prairie Lights Bookstore in Iowa City. Not that they had my books in stock or anything…que gacho, Prairie Lights! But no hard feelings. I still spent over $140 there on about eight books. Because you’re an indie. And I believe in you. Will you believe in me?↩