Actuality in the Time of Dispossession
A short review of Vital Signs: Poetry by Juan Delgado and photography by Thomas McGovern
Rosa Martha Villarreal
Vital Signs: Poetry by Juan Delgado and Photography by Thomas McGovern
Published on LatinoLA: July 21, 2014
Paperback: 128 pages
Publisher: Heyday (October 1, 2013)
In his essay, "The Metaphysical Poets," T.S. Eliot coined the term "dissociation of sensibility" to describe how language (in this case the English language) suffered a disconnect from the totality of experience.
This dissociation, which according to Eliot began in the 17th century and cemented by Milton and Dryden, has been subsequently aggravated by advances in technology, which continue to move us further and further away from the natural connection of experience and language. Language, thus, becomes stale, clich?®d, and meaningless. When people say "awesome," for example, they are removed from the concept of awe, wonder, the surprise that electrifies and stimulates us to our very tissue and blood. As Eliot stated, while language may have become more refined, "the feeling became more crude" (247). The task of the poet, thus, is to reunite experiential cognition to words, to organize the "ordinary man's experienceÔÇª[which] is chaotic, irregular and fragmentary" (247).
Says, Eliot, "The poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning" (248).
Poet Juan Delgado and photographer Thomas McGovern's Vital Signs (Heyday Books, 2013) portray the wonder and the possibility of miracle, the nexus between the ordinary and the wondrous as seen through the eyes of the dispossessed, those who live on the margins of modernity's promises. The vital signs of this miraculous world are everywhere: in the murals in the peripheries of great cities and in the proclamations of outcasts and mad men.
Both Delgado and McGovern achieve the synthesis of sensibility and meaning through visual allusion and dislocation of language.
In "Manuela" Delgado describes one of his protagonists:
Without official papers in a new country,
she briskly walks, and obscenely slow,
a foreign tongue slithers by; its scales are
the words she has not yet learned to trust.
The baby girl hiding in her belly's nest
will learn Quechua first, runa. the people
Though it is tempting to consign this book as merely political criticism of modern society's social apathy, the power of Delgado's dislocation of language and reintegration with experience goes beyond the obvious. The crucial poem in this thesis, I think, is "The Evidence is Everywhere." Like the visionary Regina in my novel Chronicles of Air and Dreams (Archer Books) who searches for the rebirth of the Indian world in the fragments of discarded letters and broken glass, the narrator in "The Evidence is Everywhere" can interpret the messages in the winds and silences.
From the sides of the mountains, waterfalls
of dust form, and during my pilgrimage,
the fate of lip-stained Styrofoam cups
will not unnerve me. Not worried
about compasses, I'll go by fences guarding
abandoned lots, through desperate patches of grass,
yellowing, past one-legged billboards of paper
and glue. Resting under the shades of bus stops,
I'll recite old tales to ward off the haunted
and the debris of family floods piling up.
When the voices on an updraft emphatically
circle like red-tail hawks, I'll recall
the tails of comets urging you to wrap
yourself in its flames and dissolve.
Entranced by a burning equal to yours,
I'll walk eighty miles, traveling by the routes
of my childhood candy wrappers.
[. . .]
When I predicted earthquakes in China,
Peru and Cucamonga, California,
I baffled my psychiatric ward.
After a nurse removed my handout
of The Seasons: Winter, wildlife appeared on the hospital grounds. A mule's deer's
antlers surfaced on the parking lot,
weaving among the staff's cars.
A coyote leaped into the patients' garden
and howled under a security light
as if to say: "I am here Where are you?
A roadrunner scooted across the lot, losing its long tail feathers.
All this had the staff checking again
if their office windows were latched.
Through the juxtaposition of imagery, the ordinary becomes a door to what Samuel Taylor Coleridge termed "the invisible universes": the greater pattern of enigma of our identity vis-?á-vis nature and perhaps God. Once again, the animals become messengers of the secret world lost in the noise of cyberspace and vanity. Delgado describes these prophets, our humble neighbors in these vast metropolises, as the "viejitas of our calle/ [who] guard our ni??os and barrio/ like the santos that line/ their window sills at night, " and who "Unlike us, they are not/ scared of living aqu?¡" ("Vencinos).
Juan Delgado continues to make his reputation as an intellectual poet, whose poetry poses philosophic rhetorical questions about the nature of our being and the possibility of miracles, the emergence of life in what appears to be inert. Mr. McGovern's photographs, likewise, force us to contemplate the ordinary for these vital signs of our inner identity.
Eliot, T.S. Selected Essays. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Company, 1950. Print.
Rosa Martha Villarreal:
Rosa Martha Villarreal is a recipient of the PEN Josephine Miles Literaty Award and the Independent Publisher Book Award for "The Stillness of Love and Exile "which has been optioned by Meganda Films, a Latina owned film company.