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Pa’lante

New poems

Pa’lante

Maria S. Mendes

 

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

 

Juan

Miguel

Milagros

Olga

Manuel

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!

¡Pa’lante!

¡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.

Telmo Rodrigues


Telmo Rodrigues completed his PhD in Literary Theory at Faculty of Letters, University of Lisbon, with a thesis entitled For a Lark: The Poetry of Songs. In his thesis he explores relations between popular music and poetry. Currently he is the director of the magazine Forma de Vida