Review of Immigrant Dreams & Alien Nightmares by
by José Torres Tama, Lavender Ink, 2014.
José Torres Tama’s recent collection of poetry, Immigrant Dreams & Alien Nightmares, is a retrospective collection of work from 1989, when he was cultivating a dynamic performance voice and finding his poetic themes. It traces his early spoken word experiences that were nurtured at the Nuyorican Poet’s Café; his move to New Orleans; Katrina; the rebuilding of New Orleans by Latino workers; and his research into the Creoles of New Orleans. The book represents twenty-five years of cultural and political interrogations and interventions that wish to speak to the pain of the dispossessed, the shallow nature of contemporary capitalist culture, and the connections between and among indigenous peoples as they move and are moved around the world.
The introduction by Torres Tama is an unusual one for a collection of poetry. It reads like a teacher’s manual that is geared to help an instructor teach the material to students. This isn’t a bad thing. One virtue of Torres Tama’s poetry is its accessibility; even if the poems aren’t textbook examples of sophisticated meter or prosody, they offer visceral, rhythmic, and intense language that connects human emotion and visions to the harsh geopolitical forces within which we move. The introduction foregrounds this accessibility with a discussion of his influences and an outline of his life. His discussion of these influences describes his creative conversation with writers such as Gloria Anzaldúa and Pablo Neruda and provides the reader with guides who travel a similar road in the Latin American tradition of poetry that speaks truth to power. It provides enough biographical material to understand that his poems parallel the geography of his life and some of the major events of the last twenty-five years. The introduction gives us a slice of the poet’s intention so we can go with him instead of behind him. And he really seems to want us with him. In the collection, we often read the refrain, “Can I get a witness?” Torres Tama speaks directly to his readers and asks us to read more than the words. We are asked to participate in the analysis and respond to it.
The first section, “Immigrant Dreams on Fire,” is a powerful incantation of an urban, immigrant, experience of race and class. The rhythm hits hard and direct with a dystopic reality that doesn’t come from a wild imagination as much as the realities of people’s lives. These poems, more so than the others, speak themselves off the page, animated by anger and sorrow. For example, in “Symbolic Opponent Syndrome - SOS (Save Our Sons)”, we read
I am... I am... I am...
I am the contact zone where copper fear
transforms duty into hate.
You only know me through your Ray Bans,
and I become darker by the minute
because moonlight makes me shine from
One of the strongest pieces in this section is an extended meditation on urban decay, racist gentrification, and the people who must survive it. It contains typical spoken word conventions such as terms that gesture ironically to consumer capitalism as a shorthand for the shallow and superficial representatives of the ideological bonds that holds buyers and sellers in thrall (“M-I-C-K-E-Y ... Why?”) But this poem moves deeper and melds Spanish and English in the story of a woman whose apartment building goes up in flames, very possibly to force renters out and bring luxury condos in, and whose three daughters die in the fire.
Nelly had a plan as the
fires grew around
her and her three daughters.
¡Tenemos que brincar mi’hitas!
¡Tenemos que brincar!
Es la única manera de escapar el fuego.
. . .
The shell of a building remained, unharmed, and was rebuilt for
condos with a view of the Manhattan skyline. After three
months in the hospital, Nelly walked away with a cane in hand
and a plane ticket back to Ecuador. Half her body was burned
and her whole heart was pulverized.
I can’t even scream the outrage
porque el sueño sabe más que tú.
Like the building, Nelly is an empty shell and there is no expression of outrage sufficient to her loss. The human cost of a ruthless profit-driven world is laid bare in the drama of one women’s dream turned nightmare and three lost lives. The poem circles around this drama with lyrics from West Side Story and “early childhood memories… of big torrential rains, / giant pyramids of mangos at the market, and petite / Indian Mestiza women selling ripe halves of avocados at traffic / lights” that function to complicate the tragedy with memories of natural beauty, huge geo-political forces that move people out into new futures, and those forces sacrificial victims.
The second section of the book, “Between the Pen and the Sword” contains ten sections that could be understood as Tarot or Lotería cards that describe as they predict a path out of the dilemmas of being brown and poor and with a voice that demands expression. Section three follows 2001-2004, and we can see the poet maturing. The violence of young men begins to reluctantly fade as the poet observes,
I rather be home in a hot candlelight bath,
or in loins of another muse,
than traffic prison in a sports utility vehicle
listening to a Starbucks version of fabled
renamed rebel tune Born to be Mild.
The poet’s rejection of conventional life speaks to the aging process and the need to contend with decisions and choices of a life that didn’t end in the bloodshed that ended many young black and brown men’s lives.
Sex and New Orleans are major players in this section, which continues to evidence the shorthand of references to popular culture as a stand in for a deeper expression or analysis of contemporary culture. Gestures to Burger King, the King of Beers, the Hard Rock Café or Catherine Zeta-Jones are playful and occasionally poignant or precise. But there are too many of them. They become white noise in the poems and obfuscates rather than enlightens. They shut down the mind. Torres Tama is a better poet than what these superficial gestures indicate. Perhaps the all-too conventional inebriation that is de rigueur in much poetry about New Orleans seduced Torres Tama, too, and resulted in hangover-produced lines such as, “gladly surrendered a legion of brain cells / in wanton frolic, having reached oblivion with Margaritas, / Rum and Cokes, and Black Russians, with Mardi / Gras friends…” The reader wonders if these experiences blurred the ability to come to terms with just what is meant by the lists of pop culture icons and commodities that overpopulate the poems throughout the entire text.
The fourth section focuses on Katrina and the aftermath, emphasizing the divisions and realities of race that the storm made apparent. The section begins with a shamanic tirade and admission that “I am a shaman, therefore I am a showman and a shyster too.” The opening invocation, “Se Habla Spanglish Here,” is an indictment of American racism and stupidity, but it seems out of step with the rest of the section. The ego-driven voice of this poem jars against the beautiful, if painful intimacy of the subsequent poems that attain their power in their reach for fullness in the detail, as opposed to brashness in the narrative voice. The pathos of “The Black Angel,” the “property Piranahas” and the “national eviction” represent layers of experience that are a part of the yet-incomplete tapestry of Katrina. “Meditations on Evictions in Katrina’s Wake” is an excellent example of Torres Tama’s potential as a poet. The three parts increase conceptually outward in circles that force a necessary reckoning of the greedy landlord’s relation to the national theater of greed. The narratives are compelling and the language is tight:
Walking drawings on my back
from one century to another,
feet burn with unforgiving blisters that recalls Habla
risk of renting illusions for mortal baggage
that grows with daily habit of living.
We are forced to remain alongside the poet, carrying those drawings because we, too, have that “daily habit of living.” But we aren’t allowed to rest in the intimacy of the personal because the poet keeps us going, forcing us to acknowledge that each forced move is a little death:
I offer this requiem
because evictions resemble scorpion nightmares,
sudden venomous sting of homelessness,
and what is home when you rent temporary dreams,
when the gentry want your neighborhood’s lifeblood
because Katrina allowed plantation power to take root
and forced-fed a shock doctrine
of disaster capitalism as recovery medicine.
This book of poems tends to stay at the level of the large, the general, and the mythic. When it does descend to the earthly and the humble, its quiet power can be formidable, as it is in the story of “The Black Angel” an elderly African American man who arrived at the poet’s house a few days after the storm, confused:
We watched his fragile figure,
one foot and the other,
a black angel make the slow trek,
and never saw him again.
Don’t know if he ever…
the black angel escaped,
or walked into anger of more people abandoned,
whether we should have walked with him
along the river to some unknown safety.
It haunts me… remembering the black angel.
Mr. Melvin’s fragile figure fading along Decatur
because I don’t know…
This admission of uncertainty reaches beyond the justified anger at disaster capitalism and embraces the difficulty of human relationships in a devastating and politically-made crisis. This embrace is tightened when we read the next line, “Nos convertimos en un tribu.” We became a tribe, but one that was unable to fully take care of our own members. Some, like Mr. Melvin, were left on their own. Whether the poet intended this abrupt irony or not, it conveys the absolute desperation of the contradictions and that shape crises and deepens our responses to them.
While all the sections in this book have a narrative quality to them, the last section, “Alien Nightmares: For My Brown Paper Bag People / Los Valientes” brings a narrative to life that is not sufficiently well known outside New Orleans. The trauma of the storm continued as Latino workers (the brave / los valientes) came
Resembling a migratory locust of reconstruction angels,
they descended upon the fragile pueblo in thousands,
miles y miles, by foot, by car, by trains
The Latino workers “reignited engines of the tourist industry” but found themselves trapped in the motor.
Promised twelve hundred dollars per week,
promised and promised to be paid
on the final Friday of the third week,
but on Thursday night before the much-awaited pay day,
New Orleans Police raided their encampment,
an abandoned factory building with three hundred cots.
All of them ran, fled, the sound of sirens,
the chaos, the fright, la migra,
la policía, auxilio, socorro.
How convenient for the contractors, don’t you think?
The stories in this section move from Latinos rebuilding New Orleans, sometimes at the cost of their lives, to Torres Tama’s history of immigration as a child. As he points out, New Orleans was Spanish before and for much longer than it was French. The poet’s history, the Latino workers, and the Spanish legacy are all important characters in this section that indicts ICE, NOPD, racism, poverty, and the carelessness of brutality. The last poem of the book, “Metafiction 2014: Between Barack and the GOP Hard Place on Immigration Reform” concludes the text with intelligence, wit, and bite. The poem traces many of our hopes and disappointments that encircle Barack Obama’s presidency. On the one hand, “Our eyes seduced by movie handsome / dark knight from Harvard Law.” But later,
“Broken, I called friends across the country,
could not believe Yes, We Can! man
a rerun of other Presidents for the killing fields,
when you argued more freedom bombs in Afghanistan
. . . .
Well, we gave you votes you turned to daggers
because our relatives are bleeding on buses going back,
and sons and daughters left behind
are traumatized homeless on our streets.
Obama, channel the courage to be a son of light,
of America El Norte in transition,
have the nerve to be your father’s dream—
not another nightmare for mothers and fathers
who are forced to migrate because
the empire strikes back by decimating
economies below the border.
The section’s narratives of disappointed expectations, worker exploitation and political outrage, do not end with hopelessness, however. In a brilliant conclusion of humor and optimism, we read,
Because there is
NO GUACAMOLE for immigrant haters,
and, Obama, I can’t even let you go near the chips!
The conclusion confers power where it belongs: in the hands of Latin Americans, citizens or not. Here, the poet reminds us of the centrality of Latin American culture—central not just for capitalism’s insatiable demand for marketable “ethnic” food, but central because of the labor power of workers, the creativity of artists, and the daring of families who insist on surviving. They all have been and will continue to be an integral and necessary element of la vida en los Estados Unidos.
Immigrant Dreams and Alien Nightmares should be read and passed around. It should be read out loud, but it should also be reread quietly and carefully. Torres Tama should keep writing. If I were able to give him advice, I would nudge him to de-center the ego that is too prominent in too many places. The shamanic voice needs to listen more closely to the voices of the people in the narratives. To the reader, I would say that these poems call us to glare harshly and in bright light at the dark corners of the American Dream. This scrutiny, guided by these poems, has never been more necessary.
Reviewed by JoAnn Pavletich
JoAnn Pavletich is Associate Professor and Assistant Chair of the English Department at the University of Houston-Downtown. As a VISTA volunteer in New Orleans in the late 1970s, she worked at the Lafitte Housing Project in Treme and was often a participant in and user of St. Mark’s community-based efforts to make New Orleans a more equitable and just city.