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Poetry by Juan Felipe Herrera

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By Juan Felipe Herrera

HarperCollins; hardcover

Remaining relevant has always been a particularly tricky onus for poetry. In his new book SkateFate, Juan Felipe Herrera struggles to do just that by adopting the narrative of Lucky Z—a high school adrenaline junkie who turns to poetry after a car accident leaves him in a wheelchair. However, you never really have to get further than the book’s cheap title to know what you’re getting into.

The collection feels very California. The titles of poems are written in graffiti-like splotches that sometimes sprawl across two pages, and the lingo often dips into Spanglish or dudespeak. Herrera, chair of the University of California, Riverside creative writing department, uses Lucky Z’s voice to harness an angst-ridden life lived on a skateboard, which likely resonates with many teens of the area. Herrera isn’t that tactful in disguising this intention though. Published through Rayo, an imprint of Harper Collins that focuses on the Latino community, the book screams of fraud. Herrera, 62, balances iPod and Lady Gaga references with allusions to Whitman and van Gogh that make the poems feel inauthentic. At points SkateFate reads like a text message from your grandpa telling you about the new Sufjan Stevens album. Sure, he means well, but something about it feels wrong.

The poetry is ephemeral, quick, and truly uninspired. What Herrera strives to mimic by observing poetry in everyday items such as eggplants, cell phones, and backpacks is the brevity of poets like e.e. cummings, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and even Jack Kerouac, but his imitation falls short. It is evident in passages like “scan my loose snarl jacket zipper/ but you don’t see my gone mother angel warrior/ memory picture,” where Herrera flirts with meaning but never fully comes around to a fully formed meditation. The poem’s overextended titles often say more than the body of the work—a flimsy cop-out for any poet.

Herrera imitates cummings in form as well, scattering his words across pages and undermining traditional capitalization and punctuation rules—in SkateFate’s context, though, there seems to be no meaningful purpose. It’s cliché adolescent rebellion for the sake of rebellion. Herrera writes, “rise for us/newborn harmonies/ shimmerings/ glimmerings/lingering/ boy of spiked/ strands & girl of/ roaring tides/ wild fruits &/ dark-petaled eyes/ i bow to you,” and while the lines stand well enough on their own, the enjambments and spacing detract from the poem’s ultimate meaning and come off as arbitrary. This artifice is the collection’s tragedy: At times, Herrera’s poetry is truly transcending and powerful; at others, it simply needs Ritalin.

The writing, in general, shows a lack of maturity. If it was Herrera’s goal to make Lucky Z’s poetry feel as nuance-free as the words of a typical angsty teen, then he succeeds with aplomb, but it seems counter-intuitive to applaud a poet for deliberately dumbing down. Lines like “jot_1 haunting love rhyme i can hang on a drifting cloud” sound poetic but have nothing more than a flowery blush to offer. The most vivid and enduring image that SkateFate conjures is that of an indignant but encouraging Morpheus from the movie The Matrix: “Come on, stop trying to hit me and HIT ME!”

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