The first time you pick up Chopper! Chopper! Poetry from Bordered Lives, the temptation to dig through your old college textbooks for your Spanish/English dictionary might be hard to resist. Verónica Reyes charges her lines—nearly every single one—with the sharp electricity of her East L.A. tongue. It’s this dance, this lingual limbo, that transports you straight into the streets of her city. Not tethering herself to English alone allows her to draw beauty from both languages, to choose her words twice as thoughtfully.
With this collection, published in 2013, Reyes offers the reader detailed tableaus, representations not only of the everyday comings and goings in a specific neighborhood, but also of the larger struggles and triumphs of the Chicano community. Poems like “El Bus” are raw and relatable, and lead you straight into the heart of the city. The poem adopts a conversational tone from the beginning, with “Hey, you know, I speak in bus routes / I can tell you any pinche bus number / you need to know to get you around.” Tough but friendly, the narrator continues in this way, as the kind of stranger who feels like a friend.
You got it, esa or ese, I know the system
It’s in my blood to travel the calles via el bus
I know its ins and outs like my own brown mano
who hands over the last of my little cambio
I even know the fregado drivers a.k.a. los operators
who’d run you over just for fun
In addition to her intimate expression of the Mexican-American experience, Reyes explores her Mexican heritage as it ripples through her life and the lives of others. In “Las Montañas de Juárez,” for example, she gently refers to El Paso and Juárez as “two mirror parts” of a whole. The final stanza of that poem reads like dedication, a loving, reverential look at a Mexican landscape: “Las montañas de Juárez rest among the nopales, / ocotillo, chaparral, and fat boulders sleeping / in a fit of dreams like the scattered casas.”
Similarly passionate is Reyes’ epilogue, appropriately called “East L.A. Poet.” In the first paragraph of this powerful final statement, she uses lyrical repetition to define her origins for us:
This is my childhood home where I grew up hearing my mama sing “Paloma Blanca”
This is my childhood home where I grew up listening to my papa playing el violín
This is my childhood home: beneath two jails, below the loma, by the freeway
The personal, sangre-sweat-tears nature of these words, and their biographical significance, make this more manifesto than epilogue. If I may be so bold, I recommend treating this as a prologue instead. Read this first. Poets often use their first poems as a sort of handshake, their sentiment the same as an unlocked front door. “East L.A. Poet” does this, too, but Reyes never lets go, and she locks the door behind you.
So leave that Spanish/English dictionary in the box for now, at least for the first read-through. Let Reyes sting you and soothe you with her words, allow these poems to cool you off and then heat you right back up.
Ride the bus around the borderRequest Chopper Chopper
Tess Wilson works in Shelving & Stacks at CLP – Main, and occasionally assists Teen Mentors during programming at the Labs. She is a collector of anything from big dictionaries to small rocks, and her latest acquisition was an MFA in Creative Writing of Poetry from Chatham University.