If one were to offer a criticism of academic poetry—poetry written by poetry professors in universities and colleges—it would have to be this: they're usually exquisitely crafted poems about nothing. And the academic poets like it that way. Take UC Irvine, please: despite a sterling fiction-writing program that has produced such literary notables as Michael Chabon and Greg Bills, UCI is singularly mediocre when it comes to poetry. The university's MFA in poetry program has turned out a few fine poets (Eve Wood, Carrie Etter and Allyson Shaw come to mind), but it remains isolated from the world beyond Campus Drive. Rather than taking a leadership role in Orange County's poetry community, for example, Irvine academicians have typically dismissed locals. At an independent coffeehouse reading a few years back, I overheard one UCI instructor say, "I don't usually come to places like this. I find readings like these very immature." And—I swear on my mother's womb—the guy was wearing a beret.
Sometime later, at one of the UCI program's few "public" readings—this one at the now-defunct Upchurch-Brown Booksellers—a UCI poetry grad student read a piece about a sign outside UCI; its allusions were as claustrophobic as the inside of a rock, but his colleagues in attendance winked at his joke and cooed as if it were "The Wasteland." More recently, in an interview with Next magazine, UCI poetry professor Jim McMichaels was asked if he could see any trends in contemporary poetry. He replied quite plainly that he couldn't. "I don't see where it would go," he said, "and I don't see any difference where it would. That has nothing to do with poetry."
Engagement ought to have everything to do with poetry. Sadly, today's "best" poets—those with respectable credentials, time, and access to university presses and journals—lack conviction. They are at the dead end of a 20-year decline—from a time when poetry embraced radical politics in the 1950s, '60s and '70s to the '80s and '90s, when poetry became a literary parlor trick. More concerned with pleasing other poets, the parlor tricksters deny those who most desperately need their words and then hold up the public's indifference to poetry as evidence of some great flaw in the American people.
Andres Montoya was different. Montoya wrote well-crafted poems about something, poems that continue to speak not to an artificial, self-proclaimed elite, but rather to the poor and struggling most in need of healing. Ironically, it was UCI that awarded Montoya the prestigious Chicano/Latino Literary Prize in 1997 for poems that would be included in his collection the iceworker sings and other poems, recently published by Bilingual Press. Iceworker is an impressive journal of the writer's youth in Fresno and the violence and desperation that walk hand in hand with poverty. Moreover, the book chronicles Montoya's search for redemption: first through religion, later through love. His quest ends when he realizes that the two are one and the same: "i am not unusual, you see. i am in love, in love/with a girl from the sea who sleeps with her head/in the valley. i cry and laugh and live in the dust of the earth./i am born, bought with blood into the spirit, but/still the flesh is of clay, of dust, of death."
This is marvelous work, one with a central, universal thread that any but the most pampered can relate to: work. It begins with a series of poems detailing Montoya's life as an iceworker. "He liked this job because they let him alone./here, everyone wore earplugs/and he was left in a room/by himself to stack blocks/of ice into rows of crystal perfection." As the poem "the iceworker sings" progresses, it becomes evident that the icehouse is an ideal place to seek shelter from "the Hell of Fresno in Summer"; as more poems unfold, one sees he is seeking asylum from more than the heat. He is hiding from his own adultery ("i can hear/the brown and black/whores/calling my name,/knowing that the state/paid me today/and my wife is in/Bakersfield") and the constant stream of violent deaths around him ("were you ready for the boys/who beat your brother dead?/Ö you went inside/and watched tv alone,/as if nothing was happening,/as if all of this was natural").
Montoya's world is bereft of heroes and saviors, although he seeks them in the worthy likes of Che Guevara and Jesus. Eventually, he finds he had better begin by saving his own soul rather than hoping for rescue from outside. In "the ice worker considers mercy and grace," the reader sees Montoya's epiphany—that he is no different from anyone around him: "this is the naked truth:/Christ came walking up blackstone avenue/and i dragged him into an alley/and spit on his face. he didn't say anything/and it pissed me off./i shoved a beanie of thorns onto the thin skin/of his head and laughed. he began to bleed/but he said nothing, so i spit again./my friends, the preachers and cops/said, 'nail him! nail him!'/so we yanked off his beard."
Montoya—who passed away in May—had an instinctive grasp of who needed to hear poetry and what a poem should do when it got to them. These are not the words of a self-satisfied, snobbish elite that's more concerned with grant money than speaking the truth about the world. These are poems that are not afraid to get their hands dirty. Who are these poems for? Montoya himself tells us: "when i go to city hall/and read the poetry of their lies/they say, 'this is not the place for poems.'/so i find myself singing to alleys and trash cans,/to ants and the crushed peach of their affection./all i have is the park and the trees and the swings/to sing about the imminent return of justice." These are poems for the rest of us.
The iceworker sings and other poems by Andres Montoya; Bilingual Press. 86 pages. $9 softcover.