The Common Good
March-April 1999

The Poet as Priest

by Aaron McCarroll Gallegos | March-April 1999

Luis Rodriguez grapples with the helter skelter

I suspect I am not alone in finding poetry one of the least accessible literary forms. Whether classical or modern, whether it rhymes or it doesn't, the abstractions of poetry have too often seemed detached from the world in which I live.

Trochemoche, the latest work by poet, author, and activist Luis J. Rodriguez, dispelled my perception of the medium's remoteness. This collection grapples with the helter skelter—the English translation of its title—of human existence and doesn't let go until it secures a blessing to convey to all of us.

Reverberating between the personal and the prophetic, the poems in this 92-page collection find in each experience the rhythm of life that can help us survive the most trying situations. As Rodriguez writes in "Careful Skeptic," "I don't know about angels; I do know/the miracle germinating at any crossroads/is what's learned."

For me, I suspect, some of the accessibility of Trochemoche comes from sharing the same East L.A. background as Rodriguez; many of his "emotion-scapes" are as familiar to me as the streets on which I grew up. Yet while it is important to note that Rodriguez is a "Chicano poet from East L.A.," to apply this label too liberally can ghettoize his sharp insight and obscure the breadth of his work. He writes in "Notes of a Bald Cricket": "I am Cortez's thigh, I am the African beard, I am the long, course hair/of the Chichimeca skulls, I am a Xicano poet, a musician who can't play music,/as a musician is a poet who works in another language;/There is a mixology of brews within me; I've tasted them all, still fermenting/as grass-high anxieties."

While filled with the heart and words of Chicano culture, Rodriguez's poems transcend the scope of race and ethnicity. The topics he addresses in this book—relationships, justice, love, and the irony of daily life—are, or should be, the subjects that envelop us all. It is this universality, cloaked in the specific encounters of his life, that makes his writing as gripping to readers living in inner-city America as to those living in small town USA. The context of Rodriguez's poetry may be urban, but his subject matter is as much about what's on the inside as what's on the outside.

As various characters—street people, Zapoteca Indians, gang members, bikers, suicidal young women, drunks, and police—pass through the poems of Trochemoche, Rodriguez offers and receives confessions, gives spiritual direction to those who have lost their way, and provides testimony for the dead. In this way, the poet steps into a priestly role that artists often fulfill within their communities, expressing the inexpressible for those who dearly need to let the world know what is in their hearts. In "The Rabbi and the Cholo," one of the most moving poems in the collection, Rodriguez writes of his spiritual encounter with a Jewish holy man: "The Rabbi's words broke through/hatred's mask, peeling into/something calm, soft./He spoke for the centuries:/Of nomadic sons, Hebrew invocations,/desert songs and tattooed numbers./The Rabbi carried everything for everybody./He said he feared me, that he had to know me./His fear and my hate somehow/found fugue and notation,/music and reverberation."

Like the rabbi in this poem, Rodriguez has also "carried everything for everybody." Rodriguez's proven commitment to healing and justice for his community gives his writing authenticity, and thus authority. His theme is consistent, whether he is proclaiming the power of the written word to inner-city youth burdened with the "gang" stigma, to battered women in homeless shelters, or to students of the most exclusive schools in America. He argues that all people have the right to live in a compassionate society, where the gifts of their cultures and their individualities are recognized and valued.

I hope Trochemoche won't suffer the same misled fear and banned-book status as Rodriguez's well-known autobiographical work, Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Life in LA. Because it tells the truth, though, it is just as "dangerous." Perhaps the hidden language of poetry, in its seeming detachment, will provide shelter for this piece of heart.

Aaron McCarroll Gallegos was a Sojourners contributing editor living in Toronto when this article appeared.

Trochemoche. Luis J. Rodriguez. Curbstone Press, 1998.

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