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Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Elegies in Blue: Poems, Cinco Puntos Press (701 Texas Ave., El Paso, TX 79901), ISBN 0-938317-64-4, $13.95 trade paper.

Reviewed by William J. Higginson

Those who know Bobby and Lee Byrd’s Cinco Puntos Press know that their books often dance atop the twitchy wall between art and politics, and usually bring light to both sides. Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s Elegies in Blue contains, as its subtitle says, “Poems”—and a good deal more. The titles of the book’s four sections give a foretaste: “Learning To Do Philosophy”, “Now, No One Knows Why You Fought”, “Elegies in Blue”, and “Notes from the City in Which I Live: Poetry and the Political Imagination”. The last section is an essay, and an important part of the book, which I’ll take up below. The three sections of poems well illustrate the variety of modes and moods their titles suggest.

The opening poem, “Oración: A Man at Prayer”, is addressed to “amor”, love, and quickly moves to a richly human understanding:

Amor, I am no longer a child. I have learned how
To speak in the hard language of the world—I want
My words soft as a new and tender leaf. I want to say
This: love makes nothing easy.
The slightly formal appearance of the poem, with initial capitals at the beginnings of lines that look about equal in length, and gently flowing phrases in no fixed meter give the poem a meditative tone, like that of Conrad Aiken’s “Preludes for Memnon”, but the anguish of living and dying is no less present for this poem’s subdued tone or brief two pages.

Perhaps my favorite poem in the first section is “The Rags of Time on Río Vista Farm”, opening with a series of brief reflections on the past inhabitants of a piece of drought-stricken land and its rotting buildings: orphans, Japanese internees, braceros. From these musings the poet turns to clothes, first in general, then in a man’s closet, and finally to a pile of cast-off clothes in the corner of a room where people once lived. One of the high points of the piece is the catalogue Sáenz builds from the labels of the shirts in that closet, notes on the globalization of the garment industry:

                    . . . made in
Tunisia 100% cotton care on reverse 100% rayon
hand wash cold made in U.S.A.
Avoiding angry rhetoric, he cites the chain of human work that produces these shirts, then lets the industry speak for itself: “Summer sale! 50% off entire stock of men’s shirts.” It reminds me of pieces at the core of Pound’s Cantos.

The poems of the next two sections, “Now, No One Knows Why You Fought” and “Elegies in Blue”, take the theme of loss and death—or death and loss—further. Sáenz’s critique of our society becomes a critique of human weakness, not of the giants who fight and die, but of those of us left wondering what it was all about. “What Was It All For, Anyway, César, César Chávez”ends:

I have a picture
Of you. The man who took it, more famous than you.
You don’t look like a saint or a prophet. You
Look like an ordinary mestizo who is fashionably
Unfashionable. A star, César. Now, no one
knows why you fought.
More intimately, personally, the elegies take us into our humanity, as in these lines from “The Blue I Loved”, toward the end of a lullaby that a woman sings from her grave:
I loved [my husband’s]
hand upon my back. The roughness made me tremble.
Forty years that man could make me tremble. He’s buried next to me. In death I swear he snores.
The final section, the prose essay on “Poetry and the Political Imagination”, is at once a report on his fumbling way toward becoming a poet and a personal manifesto and challenge to that which rises toward action in any and all of us. The penultimate paragraph is worth quoting entire:
In the end, I am the luckiest of men: I have fallen in love with my struggle to wed my politics to my art and to remind myself that neither my politics nor my art can be separated from the community to which I am bound. There is yet another irony in my life: I started my journey toward becoming a poet with the idea of the beautiful. I understand, now, what the beautiful is. The beautiful is to be engaged in a struggle that matters. The beautiful is to be grateful for the ground that was given me.
There is much more I would like to say about this book. Benjamin Alire Sáenz lives in El Paso, “The Border”. The border is not just a line on a map, or a place where two languages intermingle (as they do occasionally in these poems), or where people encounter the stranger on every corner. The border is where we all live, the place where no despair or joy of the moment or the history that brought us to it is unworthy of our notice, for it is only in them that we can finally recognize ourselves. His book brings us to that border, if we have eyes to read, ears to hear, and heart to see.
This review first appeared, untitled, in Southwest BookViews, Summer 2002.

This page first posted 13 May 2006 and last updated 13 May 2006. Copyright © 2002, 2006 by William J. Higginson. All rights reserved. No material from this web site may be copied on other web sites, produced in printed copies, or otherwise reproduced except by permission of the authors in writing. Please do not e-mail copies of this web page; rather, send the URL: http://wjhigginson.home.att.net/Saenz.html.
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