Poems are tied to the land in instances where the language used in those poems speaks to the land in the people. These poems of place should be issued passports; their words establish an embassy of sorts, in the mind. Darwish's poems are the first that come to mind, but also those of Nazim Hikmet, although his land and home are the poems he writes to sustain himself throughout his years of incarceration.
In the poem "Flying Parallel" from Tim Z. Hernandez's Natural Takeover of Small Things, the author freeze-dries a moment of lower-order struggle, and relates it with animal fidelity. In that poem, a hawk has caught "a baby squirrel" in its "talons" and is deterred from scarfing on the baby squirrel by "another bird, smaller in size...pecking the head/ and back of the hawk, parallel to my window" (54). The poet captures "Three lives/mid-flight, each of them arguing about their differences," each of them on "parallel" lifelines. Maybe a state of constant struggle might lay the groundwork for an aesthetic infrastructure predicated on the thereness of place-permanence?
Hernandez adroitly enhances the ecology of the scene the Universe has gifted by pushing a place-based (Fresno, Ca.: the city) but equal parts dog-eat-dog (Fresno: the Darwinian chopping block) and ethnographically accurate (Fresno's cultural admixture, etc.) canvassing of Fresno. This does not an Ecopoet make per se, but all four animals (three plus speaker) seem equally tenacious about not being "prepared to let go," (54). That same tenacity pervades the poems in Hernandez's book, and provides a legend for the ensuing dread, debauchery, and auto-extirpation vis-a-vis Fresno.
According to the Poetry Foundation, Ecopoetics is "human activity—-specifically the making of poems—-and the environment that produces it" ("Ecopoetics," 2013). Even though it grew out of the ethos of Ecologists (not just scientists) of the late 70's, it has become an Inter-Disciplinary View Master. Jack Skinner, the editor of Ecopoetics, and Ecopoetic's most prominent booster says that Ecopoetics publishes work that explores "creative-critical edges between making and writing" ("Ecopoetics," 2013). I am not saying that Hernandez is an Ecopoet, but I am saying that it might prove useful to explore his new book utilizing that intersection between place and poem.
Hernandez writes, "Fresno is the inexhaustible nerve/ in the twitching leg of a dog/ three hours after being smashed/ beneath the retread wheel," and begins to visualize the "dead heat" and "a packing house...raided/by the feds just days before the harvest." Fresno County leads the nation's counties in agricultural products sold; it is a very real place which grows over 200 crops ("Fresno," 2013). I imagine a city guided by work and industry will naturally understand our country's most pressing concerns regarding immigration, the privilege of being able to work (even writing poetry), and evolution of a people, and communities, much differently than a more affluent, less working-class city.
Hernandez's first poem, "Home," serves as astringent foothold to the dusky poems that follow. The city of Fresno becomes the largest narrative knot in which Hernandez has equity, literally, emotionally, figuratively. Fresno is undoubtedly Hernandez's home, but it is greater than or equal to that as well; maybe, Fresno is a humongous rest area without a security guard, and Hernandez is methodically rattling all the vending machines, "muttering lines from an old movie/ starring Steve McQueen." Fresno just might be that mythological place that you can always visit (through verse) but can never come home to.
Whereas the first section in is invested with Ecopoetics, the second section, "San Joaquin Sutra," is a sinuous poem, in sections, and invokes saints that bear on the San Joaquin Valley, a place of back-breaking toil, exploitation, and profit. The San Joaquin Valley is also a place where millions of dollars are made by produce growers, but also a place where "The farmers buy their vegetables in supermarkets, you know" (66). Indeed, the second section smashes the syntax of the sacred, "Erasmo!...Saint Gabriel" (33), with "escapularios blessed in DDT showers" and exclamations of "Internment everywhere!" (36). As an organic mechanism "San Joaquin Sutra," is a something that vibrates when read, and so begs to be read, implores to be unfurled like slow music.
"San Joaquin Sutra," threads its way through a visceral inventory of Fresno’s sense of "where." It's outlier high and low, "--everything here sacred, you see/ the ditch banks and mass choirs alike/ pious families and albino-eyed field mice/ snarling at the sky" (30). Even the word "sutra," which means "thread" in Sanskrit, is more than an "exposition of ritual procedures" employed by Buddhists ("Sutra," 2013); in Hernandez's hand, a sutra becomes a venerable cascade of toner to the "Valley of Saints;/where holy preachers and Night Train drunk vagrants/ hobble their limbs in Oval Park" (29). In "San Joaquin Sutra," Hernandez invokes the stark nihilism of Denis Johnson in The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly: Poems Collected and New (1995) and even Underground with the Oriole (1971) by Frank Lima.
Hernandez even invokes saints which are tied to the land. For example, Hernandez calls to Gabriel, "patron saint of discarded dreams, / hear the cry of new voices suffering/ in methamphetamine fields/ where crouch the stillborn" (34). There's a feeling that Hernandez can summon the image of "the campos where dirty-faced infants/ crawl among swept gravel and jump rope" and "the Southside Wives Club/ into misshaped injections and unnatural jawlines/ --noses in the china cabinet" (34). Fresno is a place to be tolerated, despite its primordial influence.
One thing is certain: Hernandez has got an eye for detail that is dingy, dirty, half-caked with lodo. In his collection, there are "campesinos," "undelivered postcards," "trailer parks," and "foreclosure blues." Natural Takeover of Small Things concerns itself with "spent condoms" (31) and quotidian things, things the fathers of Fresno typically don't care about but should because it somehow represents that limbo, that precarious habitat the working-class must make a perch from. These poems are part and parcel of the San Joaquin Valley, so that in the end, they also explicate how the sense of home in the person changes after they’ve expanded past the original parameters of place.
Ecopoetics. In Poetry Foundation's Learning Lab Glossary. Retrieved from
Glossary of People: Ra. In The Nazim Hikmet Ran Archive. Retrieved from
Phelps, R. (2013). Fresno. In World Book Student. Retrieved from