Francisco Aragón shares poems alive with the vibrancy of a particular voice addressed to a particular audience. He introduces Francisco X. Alarcón’s bittersweet homage to a poetic ancestor (“Hernando Ruiz de Alarcón”), Thom Gunn’s farewell address to a beloved fellow writer (“To Isherwood Dying”), and Denise Levertov’s mythic, ecstatic monologue on transformation (“A Tree Telling of Orpheus”). Aragón concludes the episode with a direct address of his own that challenges Arizona’s SB 1070 (“Poem with a Phrase of Isherwood”).
[00:00:00.00] [MUSIC PLAYING]
Julie Swarstad Johnson:
[00:00:02.67] You're listening to Poetry Centered, the podcast that features recorded poetry readings from 1963 to today, curated and introduced by contemporary poets. These recordings come to you from Voca, the audiovisual archive of the University of Arizona Poetry Center.
[00:00:20.43] I'm Julie Swarstad Johnson, and I'm here to welcome you to the third season of our show.
[00:00:26.58] Today, we're in the good hands of Francisco Aragón, a poet, translator and literary curator. He edited the anthology The Wind Shifts-- New Latino Poetry. And he's the author of three full-length collections, including his most recent, After Rubén, published in spring 2020.
[00:00:45.99] Francisco is the founder and director of the Letras Latinas Initiative at the University of Notre Dame.
[00:00:51.87] In this episode, he introduces poems that each embody a speaking voice, including direct addresses by Francisco X. Alarcón and Thom Gunn, as well as a mythic monologue by Denise Levertov. Francisco closes the episode with a poetic address of his own.
[00:01:09.27] Francisco, thank you so much for being our host today.
[00:01:14.46] Greetings. Saludos. My name is Francisco Aragón, and today, I am speaking to you from Arlington, Virginia.
[00:01:28.83] Hernando Ruiz de Alarcón was a Mexican priest who, in the 17th century, documented Indigenous practices of everyday life. He gathered these in a work he wrote in 1629, titled Treatise on the Heathen Superstitions, that today live among the Indians native to this New Spain.
[00:01:59.99] The work was meant as a handbook for local priests, so they could familiarize themselves with the customs they sought to suppress. The irony is that, thanks to Ruiz de Alarcón's efforts, detailed knowledge of Indigenous culture survives to this day.
[00:02:26.05] The poem you are about to hear is by the late Chicano poet Francisco X. Alarcón. It was recorded on February 8, 2008. It is from, arguably, his most well-known book-- Snake Poems: an Aztec Invocation, published in 1992.
[00:02:51.22] The English version of the poem begins, "It was you you were looking for, Hernando." In other words, Alarcón is directly addressing his namesake.
[00:03:08.93] Francisco, my tocayo, as we say of someone who shares our first name, was a dear friend and mentor of many years. And I remember that he showed me Snake Poems in manuscript in a San Francisco cafe in the late 1980s.
[00:03:31.40] He had spent time in Mexico on a Fulbright and taught himself Nahuatl so that he could translate a selection of the chants and spells that make up most of Snake Poems. Think of this piece as a kind of bittersweet homage to someone he considers a poetic ancestor.
[00:03:54.35] Francisco X. Alarcón titles his poem, "Hernando Ruiz de Alarcón (1587-1646)." You'll hear it in Spanish, and then in English. Dear listener, fasten your seatbelts.
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Francisco X. Alarcón:
[00:04:19.71] Hernando Ruiz de Alarcón, 1587, 1646. Eras tú al que buscabas, Hernando, hurgando en los rincones de las casas semillas empolvadas de ololiuhqui. Eras tú al que engañabas y aprehendías. Eras tú el que preguntaba y respondía dondequiera mirabas moros con trinchete y ante tanto dolor tanta muerte un conquistador conquistado fuiste. Sacerdote soñador cruz parlante condenando tu salvaste al transcriber, acaso sin saber el cielo. Soy yo el de tu cepa el de tu sueño este cenzontle de monte: tu mañana, tu mañana, tu mañana.
[00:05:15.95] Hernando Ruiz de Alarcón, 1587, 1646. It was you you were looking for, Hernando. Searching every house corner for some dusty seeds of ololiuhqui. It was you who you tricked and apprehended. It was you who both questioned and responded. Everywhere, you saw Moors with long knives. And in front of so much sorrow, so much death, you became a conquered conqueror. Priest, dreamer, and speaking cross.
[00:05:53.42] Condemning-- you save yourself by transcribing, maybe without even knowing the heavens. I am from your tree, from your dream. This, since October in the wilderness-- your tomorrow, your tomorrow, your tomorrow. And we are the tomorrow of our ancestors in many ways. And so, I must empower myself to travel and to see this tradition."
[00:06:25.37] The first time I encountered this poem was at a reading in a small independent bookstore, footsteps away from the 24th and Mission Bart station in San Francisco. It was also the first time I saw its author read poetry.
[00:06:46.47] I was a college sophomore at the time and knew that he taught on my campus, but I didn't yet know what he looked like. A trim man with close-cropped silver hair wearing tight leather pants strode to the podium. So this is Thom Gunn, I remember thinking.
[00:07:13.82] Among the pieces he read that night was "To Isherwood Dying," which would go on to be included in The Man with Night Sweats, published in 1992.
[00:07:30.53] Christopher Isherwood, like Thom Gunn, was another British-born writer I discovered in college. And, like Gunn, Isherwood made his home later in life in my native California.
[00:07:50.49] The poem begins-- "It could be, Christopher, from your leafed-in house in Santa Monica where you lie and wait. You hear, outside, the sound resume-- fitful, anonymous, of Berlin 50 years ago, as autumn days got late."
[00:08:14.27] Like many of the elegiac poems that populate The Man with Night Sweats, this one deploys-- as you'll hear more abundantly-- elegant, subtle, and intricately delayed end rhymes.
[00:08:31.43] And-- like the first piece I introduced-- in this one, the poet is also addressing his subject in the second person. The difference is that Gunn knew Isherwood. And you'll get to hear-- in his opening remarks-- how well he knew him, as well as an endearing observation about him.
[00:08:57.49] This recording of Thom Gunn reading “To Isherwood Dying,” is from September 10, 1986. Here we go.
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[00:09:13.66] At the end of last year-- the end of Christmas week, in fact-- I heard that Christopher Isherwood was dying in his 70s. I'd known him fairly well, in a way that a great many people knew him fairly well.
[00:09:33.18] He was very kind to me as a young man, when I was about 25. And I thought, Oh boy, I must be one of his best friends. And then I noticed that many other people regarded him in just the same way. He had a very wonderful way of seeming-- of being all attentive to what you are saying.
[00:09:49.08] Once-- I noticed this when I was in a restaurant with him. And there was a group of us speaking to him. And I noticed that-- well, normally when we're speaking to another person, our eyes stray around a little. We look at the person's mouth, we look over their shoulder. We're listening, but we don't give all our attention to that person.
[00:10:12.94] But Isherwood, when he was speaking to you, devoted himself to you, whoever you were. That was why we all thought we were his best friends.
[00:10:25.63] I was very sad to hear that he was dying. And usually, I don't write a poem on an occasion like this as I did. I wrote this very soon.
[00:10:39.31] And I recalled-- I'm making reference in this poem to the famous first page of his most famous book, The Berlin Stories, where he in 1933 or something like that. No, 1930, earlier than that. He's living in a rented room in Berlin.
[00:11:02.25] To Isherwood, dying-- it could be, Christopher, from your leafed-in house in Santa Monica where you lie in wait. You hear, outside, a sound resume-- fitful, anonymous, of Berlin 50 years ago as autumn days got late.
[00:11:25.54] The whistling to their girls from young men, who stood in the deep, dim street below dingy facades which crumbled like a cliff. Behind which, in a rented room, you listened. Wondering if, by chance, one might be whistling up for you. Adding unsentimentally, it could not possibly be.
[00:11:48.95] Now, it's a stricter vigil that you hold. And from the canyon's palms and crumbled gold, it could be, possibly-- you hear a single whistle call, come out. Come out into the cold. Courting, insistent, and impersonal.
[00:12:13.51] [MUSIC PLAYING]
[00:12:19.64] Being based in the San Francisco Bay Area, Berkeley, in particular, in the latter half of the 1980s, offered me a rich range of aesthetics to learn from. For example, it was Thom Gunn who introduced me to the work of Robert Duncan.
[00:12:42.16] And it was through delving into Duncan that I became aware of Denise Levertov. In fact, this duo of Duncan and Levertov embodied, in those years, at least for me, this notion of the musical possibilities of language-- including their non-traditional use of rhyme.
[00:13:09.55] One of my favorite poems in the English language is the one you'll be hearing next, which was recorded on October 9, 1973. In it, a tree takes on human-like agency and delivers an extended and, at times, ecstatic monologue, in what I can only describe as a myth-inspired tour de force.
[00:13:43.97] The speaker-- that is, the tree-- tells the story of how it became love-drunk on the sounds of Orpheus's voice. At one point, the tree sings. It was a wave that bathed me as if rain rose from below and around me, instead of falling.
[00:14:10.76] And later, fire, he sang, that trees fear, and I, a tree, rejoiced in its flames. So, gentle listener, settle in and make yourself comfortable as you hear Denise Levertov sing her song-- "A Tree Telling of Orpheus."
[00:14:39.89] [MUSIC PLAYING]
[00:14:43.96] Thank you. You're a magnificently large audience. Thank you all for coming. I'm going to begin with a poem called, "A Tree Telling of Orpheus."
[00:15:01.05] White dawn. Stillness. When the rippling began, I took it for sea-wind, coming to our valley with rumors of salt, of tree-less horizons.
[00:15:18.32] But the white fog didn't stir. The leaves of my brothers remained outstretched, unmoving. Yet the rippling drew nearer. And then, my own outermost branches began to tingle, almost as if fire had been lit below them, too close, and their twig tips were drying and curling.
[00:15:47.76] Yet I was not afraid, only deeply alert. I was the first to see him, for I grew out on the pasture slope, beyond the forest. He was a man, it seemed.
[00:16:05.39] The two moving stems, the short trunk, the two arm branches flexible, each with five leafless twigs at their end. And the head that's crowned by brown or gold grass, baring a face not like the beaked face of a bird. More like a flower's.
[00:16:29.86] He carried a burden made of some cut branch bent while it was green, strands of a vine tight-stretched across it. From this, when he touched it, and from his voice, which-- unlike the wind's voice-- had no need of our leaves and branches to complete its sound, came the ripple.
[00:16:55.79] But it was, now, no longer a ripple. He had come near and stopped in my first shadow. It was a wave that bathed me as if rain rose from below and around me instead of falling.
[00:17:12.44] And what I felt was no longer a dry tingling. I seemed to be singing as he sang. I seemed to know what the lark knows. All my sap was mounting towards the sun that, by now, had risen. The mist was rising. The grass was drying. Yet my roots felt music moisten them deep under earth.
[00:17:37.52] He came still closer, leaned on my trunk. The bark thrilled, like a leaf still folded. Music. There was no twig of me not trembling with joy and fear.
[00:17:55.77] Then, as he sang, it was no longer sound only that made the music. He spoke-- and as no tree listens, I listened.
[00:18:07.32] And language came into my roots. Out of the earth, into my bark. Out of the air, into the pores of my greenest shoots, gently as dew. And there was no word he sang, but I knew its meaning.
[00:18:27.58] He told of journeys of where sun and moon go while we stand in dark, of an earth journey he dreamed he would take someday, deeper than roots. He told of the dreams of men-- war, passions, griefs.
[00:18:46.62] And I, a tree, understood words. It seemed my thick bark would split like a sapling's that grew too fast in the spring when a late frost wounds it. Fire, he sang, that trees fear, and I, a tree, rejoiced in its flames.
[00:19:10.37] New buds broke forth from me though it was full summer. As though his lyre-- now, I knew its name-- were both frost and fire, its chords flamed up to the crown of me.
[00:19:28.16] I was seed again. I was fern in the swamp. I was coal.
[00:19:36.63] And at the heart of my wood-- so close I was to becoming man or God-- there was a kind of silence, a kind of sickness. Something akin to what men call boredom, something-- the poem descended a scale, a stream over stones-- that gives to a candle a coldness in the midst of its burning, he said.
[00:20:06.70] It was then-- when, in the blaze of his power that reached me and changed me, I thought I should fall my length-- that the singer began to leave me. Slowly moved from my noon shadow to open light, words leaping and dancing over his shoulders back to me, rivery sweep of lyre tone becoming slowly again ripple.
[00:20:35.52] And I, in terror, but not in doubt, of what I must do, in anguish, in haste, wrenched from the earth root after root-- the soil heaving and cracking, the moss tearing asunder. And behind me, the others-- my brothers-- forgotten since dawn in the forest. They, too, had heard and were pulling their roots in pain out of a thousand years' layers of dead leaves, rolling the rocks away, breaking themselves out of their depths.
[00:21:17.70] You would have thought we would lose the sound of the lyre, of the singing, so dreadful the storm sounds were-- where there was no storm, no wind, but the rush of our branches moving, our trunks breasting the air.
[00:21:34.02] But the music-- the music reached us. Clumsily, stumbling over our own roots, rustling our leaves in answer-- we moved. We followed. All day, we followed-- up hill and down.
[00:21:55.00] We learned to dance, for he would stop where the ground was flat. And words he said taught us to leap and to wind in and out around one another, in figures the lyre's measure designed. The singer laughed till he wept to see us. He was so glad.
[00:22:19.70] At sunset, we came to this place I stand in, this knoll with its ancient grove that was bare grass, then. In the last light of that day, his song became farewell. He stilled our longing.
[00:22:38.60] He sang our sun-dried roots back into earth, watered them-- all-night rain of music so quiet we could almost not hear it in the moon-less dark. By dawn, he was gone.
[00:23:00.53] We have stood here since, in our new life. We have waited. He does not return. It is said he made his earth journey and lost what he sought. It is said they felled him and cut up his limbs for firewood. And it is said his head still sang and was swept out to sea singing.
[00:23:30.74] Perhaps, he will not return. But what we have lived comes back to us. We see more. We feel, as our rings increase, something that lifts our branches, that stretches our furthest leaf tips further.
[00:23:52.71] The wind, the birds, do not sound poorer but clearer, recalling our agony and the way we danced. The music.
[00:24:10.29] [MUSIC PLAYING]
[00:24:17.21] I had the privilege and pleasure of taking a poetry workshop with Thom Gunn when I was a student at UC Berkeley. In one of our office hour visits, I learned that, like me, his favorite Christopher Isherwood novel was A Single Man.
[00:24:40.02] The last time I re-read it, I encountered and plucked a fragment of language that I told myself I'd use in a poem, one day. That day arrived in 2010 and resulted in a poem with a phrase of Isherwood, which I'd now like to read for you.
[00:25:06.98] Like two of the poems we've heard, mine also employs the second person to address someone-- specifically, a former governor of Arizona. It's a political poem in that it critiques Jan Brewer's anti-immigrant, anti-Latinx legislation known as the "Show Me Your Papers" law.
[00:25:35.35] Around the time the poem was written, Francisco X. Alarcón, author of the first poem you heard, created the Facebook page, "Poets Responding to SB 1070." My piece first appeared there before Alarcón accepted it for an anthology he co-edited, which was published in 2016, the year Francisco passed away.
[00:26:08.17] And so, Christopher Isherwood's phrase functions as a refrain as I address Jan Brewer. Here we go.
[00:26:22.84] "Poem with a Phrase of Isherwood," 2010 Arizona.
[00:26:33.52] Cruelty is sensual and stirs you, Governor-- your name echoing the sludge beneath your cities' streets. It spurs the pleasure you take whenever your mouth nears a mic defending your law, your wall.
[00:27:00.16] Cruelty is sensual and stirs you, Governor-- we've noticed your face, its contortions and delicate sneer, times you're asked to cut certain ribbons, visit a dusty place you'd rather avoid, out of the heat.
[00:27:27.11] Cruelty is sensual and stirs you, Governor-- the vision of your state, something you treasure in secret, though we've caught a glimpse in the jowls of your sheriff-- bulldog who doubles as your heart."
[00:27:58.85] The sheriff in question is the infamous Joe Arpaio. You can find this poem in my book, After Rubén, published in 2020 by Red Hen Press.
[00:28:14.02] And that concludes our time together. Once again, this is Francisco Aragón. Thank you for listening.
[00:28:23.51] [MUSIC PLAYING]
Julie Swarstad Johnson:
[00:28:29.01] Thank you so much, Francisco, for hosting us today and for sharing poems and poets that have meant so much to you. Listeners, thank you as always for being here.
[00:28:39.02] You have new episodes to look forward to coming up, including one in two weeks, March 24th, hosted by Allison Adelle Hedge Coke. We hope you'll join us then. Thanks again for being with us.
[00:28:51.35] Poetry Centered is a project of the University of Arizona Poetry Center, home to a world-class library collection of more than 80,000 items related to contemporary poetry in English and English translation. Located on the campus of the University of Arizona in Tucson, the Poetry Center library and buildings are housed on the Indigenous homelands of the Tohono O'odham people.
[00:29:15.50] Poetry Centered is supported by the work of
Diana Marie Delgado:
Diana Marie Delgado
Julie Swarstad Johnson:
And I'm your producer, Julie Swarstad Johnson. Explore Voca, the Poetry Center's audio visual archive online at voca.arizona.edu.