Oh I just wanna go to work —
And get back home, and be something
I just wanna fall and lie —
And do my time, and be something
Well I just wanna prove my worth —
On the planet Earth, and be, something
I just wanna fall in love
Not fuck it up, and feel something
Well lately, don’t understand what I am
Treated as a fool
Not quite a woman or a man
Well I don’t know
I guess I don’t understand the plan
Colonized, and hypnotized, be something
Sterilized, dehumanized, be something
Well take your pay
And stay out the way, be something
Ah do your best
But fuck the rest, be something
Well lately, it’s been mighty hard to see
Just searching for my lost humanity
I look for you, my friend
But do you look for me?
Lately I’m not too afraid, to die
I wanna leave it all behind
I think about it sometimes
Lately all my time’s been movin slow
I don’t know where I’m gonna go
Just give me time, I’ll know
Oh, any day now
"All died dreaming hating and waiting
Dead Puerto Ricans
Who never knew they were Puerto Ricans
Who never took a coffee break
from the tenth commandment
to KILL KILL KILL
the landlords of their cracked skulls
and communicate with their latin souls
From the nervous breakdown streets
where the mice live like millionaires
And the people do not live at all"
From el barrio to Arecibo, ¡Pa’lante!
From Marble Hill to the ghost of Emmett Till, ¡Pa’lante!
To Juan, Miguel, Milagros, Manuel, ¡Pa’lante!
To all who came before, we say, ¡Pa’lante!
To my mother and my father, I say, ¡Pa’lante!
To Julia, and Sylvia, ¡Pa’lante!
To all who had to hide, I say, ¡Pa’lante!
To all who lost their pride, I say, ¡Pa’lante!
To all who had to survive, I say, ¡Pa’lante!
To my brothers, and my sisters, I say, ¡Pa’lante!
To all came before, we say, ¡Pa’lante!
Hurray for the Riff Raff, “Pa’lante”, The Navigator, ATO Records. 2017.
I like this poem because its quality does not rely on the obvious things one might say about it. Now and then, good poetry is described as being honest, as an illustration of its author’s essence, which is why the more one gets to know the author through the poem, the better the poem’s quality is (or so it goes). Also now and then, but not necessarily concurrently, good poetry is described as unavoidably political: the more it says about the society in which it is created the better it is (or so it goes). This poem seemingly combines both aspects: a high degree of individualism and the necessary political innuendos.
The Navigator (2017), Hurray for the Riff Raff’s sixth album, is special because it breaks with the path Alynda Segarra, the singer and author, had been pursuing in previous albums: that of perfecting American folk’s structures. Here, contrariwise, the Latino sounds are blatant. In this poem particularly, the title immediately hints at Segarra’s Latin-American origins: “Pa’lante” is the contraction of “para adelante” (“forward”), a common expression in the Puerto Rican community. The Latino influences also come through the voice of poet Petro Pietri, who recites part of his most famous poem, “Puerto Rican Obituary,” in the song (the poem we hear is slightly different from the published version). As a bonus, the connection to the Latin-American roots is therefore guaranteed in the most dignified way: through poetry.
To start with, the Latino influences are thematic; but they are also aesthetical when they acknowledge the “broken english” of Segarra’s bilingual upbringing, an expression taken from Peitri’s poem. The explanation is given by Pietri’s poem: “They are dead / and will not return from the dead / until they stop neglecting / the art of their dialogue— / for broken english lessons / to impress the mister goldsteins— / who keep them employed.” Challenging what we usually assume about poetry and stylistic refinement, what is stated here is that any English linguistic refinement is not only politically demeaning, but also a way of compliance, as both Pietri and Segarra’s poems make use of Latin-American expressions as part of the speech. From a certain point of view, Segarra’s poem is nothing more than an inventory of commonplaces: the author’s plea to just be someone, the idea that death might be something good, Pietri’s poem as a connection to the Puerto Rican background, or the idea that without our cultural heritage we will never amount to anything. It only stops being a cliché when Segarra says “el barrio” and “Arecibo” and then accomplishes the internal rhyme in perfect English: “Marble Hill” and “Emmet Till”; when she pronounces the names “Julia” and “Sylvia.” Retrospectively, from that moment on, all that was said must be reappraised.
For this poem to be good it is necessary, on the one hand, to hear it in Segarra’s voice (just as Pietri’s poem requires the author’s voice); on the other hand, it is crucial to understand that the best poems might feature inaccuracies (in this case, because it struggles with bilingualism). The quality of this poem is latent not in the meaning, which seems obvious, but in the vocal nuances. Of all the things said about this album, my favorite continues to be Segarra’s claim that in order to make it she had to remember who she was as a teenager: a Puerto Rican girl and a punk growing in New York. Those who disregard this poem as a fusion of those two features clearly do not know much about either poetry or punk.