Every Day We Get More Illegal by Juan Felipe Herrera
With his latest collection, the former U.S. poet laureate offers a kind of spiritual style guide for our time
Reviewed by Roberto Ontiveros, Fri., Sept. 25, 2020
Juan Felipe Herrera, the first Latino ever to serve as U.S. poet laureate, wasted no time using his 2015-17 platform to address societal evils that recognized no borders.
The lyrical lamentations in his previous collection Notes on the Assemblage linked the martyr-making police violence that solidified into the Black Lives Matter movement with the 2014 disappearance of 43 students from a teaching college in Mexico, effectively illustrating that state-sponsored murder is a plague that needs no passport.
With his latest collection, Every Day We Get More Illegal, Herrera offers a kind of spiritual style guide for a time when solidarity itself is stymied by social distancing.
In "Listen to Elias Canetti," Herrera takes his cues from the classic meditation on mass manipulation Crowds and Power, rhetorically interrogating his audience into considering the very nature of their teeming in a manner that recalls Charlie Chaplin's speech at the end of The Great Dictator:
"Are you a crowd – are you a hunting pack – are you a domestication plasma, half machine-half skin production, are you a punishment-love hypnosis, are you a Segmenter without eyes or heart or blood, are you the remoteness that is all we know now, are you the barcode of humans at so many gates, checking-in, interrogated, zapped by desolation at every turn, are you the Symbol-maker of detachment," the poet asks, with decades of activism fueling his authorial concern.
In "i am not a paid protestor," Herrera delivers deadpan Beckett-like instruction on how to deal with conspiracy-minded, Soros-obsessed detractors out to disrupt otherwise peaceful protests:
we know you
The poem, which commences with curt denials of Deep State nonsense, funnels fast into a dadaesque offering of candy and amphibious tools for meditation.
Cutting across class and ethnic lines that would pigeonhole his poetry, Herrera proclaims that "this is not a poor-boy story/this is a pioneer story/this is your story," and recognizes that he used to think he was "not American enuf/now it is the other way around."
Every Day We Get More Illegal brackets its inspiration from figures of tenacious heroism such as Anne Frank and Nelson Mandela, lining their legacies with the blunt observation that: "art is not enough/performance is not enough/something is missing don't push it to fill the vacuum."
For Herrera, who quotes the Dalai Lama's instruction that "We must develop a sense of oneness of 7 billion human beings," the vacuum will instead be filled with unity, which he describes as an "indescribable thing" that can take the form of the exiled expressionism found in Max Beckmann's art or exist as "just a breath of a song."
Every Day We Get More Illegalby Juan Felipe Herrera
City Lights, 96 pp., $14.95