Sunday, February 20, 2011

Packinghouse Poet

I have spent the last week delightfully immersed in the poetry of David Dominguez, who wrote The Ghost of César Chávez and Work Done Right.  David is also co-founder and poetry editor of The Packinghouse Review from California’s San Joaquin Valley.  You should read this poet.

His narrative poetry struck multiple chords with me.  His images were evocative, from working at Galdini Sausage grinding pork, to driving his red pickup across the California desert, to setting the tile floor for his new house.  These images reminded me of growing up in Ysleta and working on Texas farms as a child. I hated the poverty of this existence, yet it also defined who I was.  There is a certain pride in work and in your body throbbing beyond any boundaries you imagined you could endure.  You identify with those who come home with pieces of pork fat wedged into their boots, with gashes on their arms and legs from their tools and machines, and with black grime etched into the folds of their dark skin.

Too often this country has turned its back on the working class and the working poor, not to mention the undocumented workers who harvest the food for American tables and build our houses.  We idolize Warren Buffett and the culture of wealth.  However, we don’t realize the meaning of the most radical recommendations for profitable companies and the ideal business climate: monopolistic or oligopolistic pricing power and predatory practices against hapless, powerless consumers.

What is best is a balance, between making money for entrepreneurs and their companies, and providing beneficial products and services for consumers, with protections against abuses.  I think we have lost that balance in this country.  The richest of the rich have dramatically increased their share of the nation’s income, while the bottom sixty percent of this country —yes the majority of the people— have seen their share of income shrink in the past thirty years.  Worse yet, multitudes have been convinced we need even less protection from the abuses of Wall Street, that we need to give more tax breaks to businesses and the super-wealthy, and that somehow these policies will rain money on the plebes below and return the United States to an idealized past glory.  Good luck with that.

But I digress, yet only slightly.  David Dominguez’s poetry brings us back to a focus on the working man, the pride and heartache of work, and the heritage of our families, Chicano and Mexicano.  This is what I think good literature should be: expertly crafted lines, unique images that spur thinking, and…and…a focus against the grain and against what society stupidly values, a view that unsettles our comfortable perspectives.  This kind of good literature fights against our über-focus on ‘material success equals what is worthy.’ This pernicious focus infected the literary world long ago, and transformed ‘what is good’ in books into only ‘what is entertaining,’ escapism for the masses.

What I believe propels David Dominguez’s poetry even a step further is his introspection. He wrestles with how his success as a writer and teacher has left him in an ambiguous place beyond obreros, beyond his father and grandfather, yet not quite an Americano:

At the register, the cashier glanced at my blazer.
“This it?” she asked, not “Hola, señor.”
Once, after weeding and hoeing my flower beds all day,
I came here to buy insecticide and Roundup,
and the same cashier asked me, “Cómo le va, señor?”
Like many, I prefer Macy’s over the swap meet
and would rather play a round of golf
alongside the wet eucalyptus clinging to the riverbank
than rise every morning to mow lawns
or gather with others on street corners,
praying for the chance to hop into trucks as underpaid
construction workers building housing tracts.
I’m spoken to informally in English if I’m clean
but in Spanish if I’m sweaty and dirty.
It happens all the time; I could bet on it:
the odds are as reliable as rope.

This strange, in-between existence has certainly been central to my life.  To succeed in the American literary world, you must write in English, perfectly and singularly.  You must appeal to what most literary buyers want to read (or at least a significant number of readers). This 'market appeal' often has nothing to do with obreros, or Chicanos, or issues that criticize the mainstream.  You must appeal to the lowest common denominator in this culture, and that is ‘entertainment that transports you somewhere, without making you think too much, without being too complex.’  As you, the writer, push forward into American culture (should you?), are you leaving more of yourself behind?  Who were you anyway?  Who should you be?  These questions have no easy answers.