Francisco Aragón



the iceworker sings and other poems
Andrés Montoya
Bilingual Press, Tempe, Arizona

In the days after he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, Octavio Paz said he hoped to be remembered for five or six poems. His statement suggested that he identified himself, above all, as a poet. It also implies that writing a good poem is one of the most difficult tasks there is. The late Andrés Montoya left us about forty pages of compelling, heartfelt lyrics. His collection, the ice worker sings, is made up of four sections. In section one, the three-paged "denial" begins:

     i am limping again
     across the huge cracks
     in the concrete city
     i call home. it's wet,
     rain falling for days,
     car fumes turning purple
     in the night.
     light bouncing
     off puddles created
     by a boy's
     despair
     as he kicks it
     with his friends
     in front of the shop-and-go
     by radio park, on the corner
     of Clinton and first streets,
     where they killed louie,
     where lion puts his mark
     in beautiful graffiti growling
     in reds and yellows
     as you drive by the bus
     stop and telephone poles
     and fences or whatever else
     he can tag his hope on.

Given that the scene is Fresno, one might be tempted to name Philip Levine or Gary Soto as models. The poet Luis Rodriguez, author of the memoir Always Running, seems a more plausible influence. A little later in "denial," we have:

     i keep running into things I know:
     a car busted on the side of the road
     like the bruised back of a boy
     …
     i keep running into myself:
     hungry and disgusted
     at the scars on my back,

These passages are characteristic of what there is to admire in Montoya's work, and also give us a glimpse of one of his recurring images. As in any good poem, Montoya is attentive to sound-the repetition of the consonant /k/ in the first four lines of "denial" suggests the hard surfaces of the city. The first several lines are also loosely glued together by the assonance of "home," "for," "boy's," "shop-and-go," "radio"…all the way down to "yellow," "pole," and "hope." In the context of this particular poem, the utterance "O" connotes or suggests an utterance often associated with one expression of despair, which seems to grip the characters in the poem-thus, here we have a successful marriage of subject and form (form in this case being sound). Notice, as well, what he does with his graffiti artist, giving him the nickname "lion" and saying that his "graffiti growls" "reds and yellows." This technique of talking about one thing in terms of another is handled by Montoya in a way reminiscent of the "creacionism" of the Chilean poet Vicente Huidobro. The Spanish "creationist," Gerardo Diego, wrote, in an early 20th century manifesto, about the rapport between two different elements that, when combined, produce something new and autonomous. Here is Montoya, the "creationist," at work:

     a huge army
     of petrified water standing at attention
     ("the ice worker sings")

     *

     the skin of the garage
     was peeling…
     ("1981")

     *

     the sun was yawning
     into the beautiful bruise
     of the horizon
     ("some days")

We have blocks of ice as soldiers, the garage as peeling—as if suffering from sunburn, and the sun as a sleepy sphere highlighting the attractively blemished horizon. "Creationist" poetry has also been called "cubist" and Kenneth Rexroth, when introducing Pierre Reverdy, wrote: "It is the conscious, deliberate dissociation and recombination of elements into a new artistic entity made self-sufficient by its rigorous architeture." There are passages in Montoya, then, that cause a similar effect as when reading Vicente Huidobro and Gerardo Diego. Take the beginning of "the ice worker speaks of endings":

     the moon has turned into an accusing street lamp
     and I keep hearing the loud breath of helipcopters

     and the incessant cough of guns going off everywhere—


That is vintage Montoya. The poem goes on to introduce elements of God and religion, which is another recurring motif in the collection. In this particular poem, Montoya is successful. The results throughout the collection, however, are mixed. In the second half of the book, he tends to rely more on statement and abstractions in ways-with their lack of image, simile, and metaphor-that aren't rhythmically interesting enough to sustain interest. Unlike, for example, this, in the first half of the book:

     Christ came walking up blackstone avenue
     and I dragged him into an alley
     and spit in his face. he didn't say anything
        and it pissed me off.
     I shoved a beanie of thorns onto the thin skin
     of his head and laughed…
     …
     the whole city came to look
              so we set him on the alley's
                         trash-can throne.
              all of us applauded, even you…

     ("the ice worker considers mercy and grace")

Indeed, there is an undercurrent of violence throughout the ice worker sings, and this brings us back to something we saw early on: "the bruised back of a boy", and "scars on my back." This image of a wounded and blemished back is emblematic. What's interesting to note is that it appears in both the first person and the third person—as if the speaker, on the one hand, were resisting identification with this image, and on the other, suggesting that speaker and author are one:

     hope exposing
     the savage hieroglyphics
     spattering his belly
     and back…

     ("the ice worker finds hope in cold storage")

     *

                            don't you see
     the scars on my back? my
     life made them.

     ("brittle green teeth")

     *

     we swam shirtless in ditch water,
     mud squishing through our toes,
     and never once did he say a thing
     about the purple-black welts on my back

     ("lágrimas)

It's this tension, this abiguity, that keep the poems from falling into first-person confessional poetry—or, rather, ineffective first-person confessional poetry.

Although the latter half of the book is less engaging , it does contain one of the collection's strongest pieces, "fresno night." Here, again, Andrés Montoya:

     ….
               off in the distance, perhaps on tulare ave,
     a cop's corrupt hand is finding its way around
               the neck of a boy suspected of being illegal

               and in the park, radio park, lovers laugh
     at the imagined future of their unnamed children,
               at the stories they'll tell as grandparents

             still savoring the breath of each other's skin.
     ….

The shifts and movement from stanza to stanza are skillful. Montoya is successful at incorporating his religious language because his rhythms are alert. His poem ends:

     ….
            here in this city i sit, the trumphet's trembling song
     fading away like an adulterous man, and I am left with car horns
            and gunshots and shouts and smells of grapes

            just about to rot on the vine, surrounded by wasps
     whispering lies and mothers weeping for children brainwashed
           with insanity, and I am determined to know nothing

     but Christ and him crucified.

And finally, there is a poem in the latter half of the collection comprised of short, numbered, titled pieces, called: "contemplations from concrete: nine movements." Here is one:

     #6 education

     I am learning
               the braille

                       of your breath
               the word

     your voice
                      leaping
             up from the page
                      into my mouth

What comes to mind are the "sides" in Victor Hernández Cruz's Tropicalization. In some ways, the ice worker sings is reminiscent of that collection—Victor Cruz evoking life on the Lower East Side. Here, it's Andrés Montoya's Fresno, perhaps with less humor, but with equal passion.

 

 

© 2003 Electronic Poetry Review