A Luis Omar Salinas New Selected Poems & Reader

Reviewed by Reyes Ramirez

Luis Omar Salinas

Luis Omar Salinas

THERE ARE IDENTITY politics at play with writers of color. If you’re Latino, let’s say, and write about nature, then you have to somehow “spice” it up; if you’re Latina and write about the Latina experience, then you write about race/gender and nothing deeper. There are limits we impose on writers, when writers ought to choose their limits. Ideally, writers should be able to write however and whatever they want, giving readers a new experience by expanding on traditions that came before them; artists choose their own emotional and intellectual heroes. As writers and readers of color, we can try to point to works and say, “this is who I connect with and will set as the limit from which I work.” Luis Omar Salinas’s anthology, Messenger to the Stars: A Luis Omar Salinas New Selected Poems & Reader, represents an essential and graceful limit for Latino writers and readers of seminal American works.

Let me put it this way: if Alurista, for example, is the uber-experimental, inter-language maverick of Nahuatl, Spanish, English, and Spanglish, and the militant Marxist of Chican@* poetry, Salinas is the formal, surreal minimalist, at the subtle and apolitical end of the spectrum; everything else, for this reader, falls in between (Alurista and Salinas are contemporaries, mind you, and both identified with the Chican@ poetry movement). This is not a knock against Salinas. Rather, this reveals how important his work is, because he shows that Latin@/Chican@ poets can be in conversation with European traditions (and the world, for that matter) and still maintain ties with their identity. In the young and developing art of Chican@ literature, the oncoming generations of writers need such markers to reflect upon; Chican@ literature is not a single, stagnant voice, but is as diverse and individual as its community members.

One of Salinas’s most notable qualities is his embracing of the surreal and playful Spanish and Latin American masters of poetry that came before him. His work includes numerous homages to Federico Garcia Lorca, Cesar Vallejo, Miguel Hernandez, and Pablo Neruda. In the first collection in this anthology, Crazy Gypsy, Salinas seems to employ Lorcan images, Vallejo’s and Hernandez’s beats, and Neruda’s unblinking sincerity. Salinas adds a tone of vulnerability as his speakers tell the truth in a way that feels explanatory and quiet. In poems we would call dark, sadness leads to a place of calm. The poet’s reflections on sorrowful images are not the musings of a resigned human being, but a way to find beauty in unlikely places (from “Crazy Gypsy,” the eponymous poem):


I am Omar
the Mexican gypsy

I speak of Love
as something
whimsical and aloof
as something
naked and cruel

I speak of death
as something inhabiting
the sea
awkward and removed

I speak of hate
as something
nibbling my ear….

It’s an uneasy landscape, one where love can be cruel and death waits beneath the waves. This world is not unfamiliar, though, because it makes too much sense. After all, isn’t the love we want the kind that can be cruel and aloof? That isn’t beholden to anyone outright? So while death waits in the distance and hate welcomes anyone into its arms, catching love requires time and effort, failures and disappointments. Salinas reinterprets this “darkness” into a wholly American experience that simply couldn’t have happened anywhere else (from “Burial” in Crazy Gypsy):

…I carry my soul
to my America
as blood from a cloud
as blood from the earth
runs through my veins

As Salinas’s career progresses, his images become more entrenched in the American dream, but he also explores the dark recesses that our nation often refuses to acknowledge (from “I am America” in Walking Behind the Spanish):

I’m a dream in the land
like the Black, Mexican, Indian,
Anglo and Oriental** faces
with their pictures of justice.
I go gaudy into movie houses,
flamboyant spectator
of horse races.
I am not unloved, or unwanted
but I have seen the faces
of the rebel, the outcast,
I am a friend to all,
For I have touched everything,
even the empty plates of the poor.

As idealistic as Americans are, Salinas reminds the reader that behind glitz, there is degradation, and for every loved person, there is a hungry one.

By the end of his career, Salinas’s poetry curls inward toward the personal and melancholic, like a dying rose:

When I’m a little drunk
With desire, my brown eyes
Are aggressive as the blue
Jays on the grass.
I think of your lovely ears,
The crush of the sea sound
Where I smell the sweet
Air, and this elegy
Almost brightens me.

This collection showcases the career of a poet who continuously treads the line between victory and defeat, recognizing that there is a dark beauty in what ails us—always a dark core underneath the crumbly façade of peace. The book also offers a plethora of interviews, reviews, and other extras (including a rare copy of a Philip Levine poem dedicated to Salinas) that sweeten the pot, all of which help place Salinas in the canon of American poetry.

So when Latin@ artists search for a grounding, a model to perceive Latinidad in a more traditional light, look no further. Salinas is our homegrown Lorca, perhaps the Chicano Roethke you didn’t know you needed. Luis Omar Salinas is a poet who takes everything that has happened before him and makes it new. This collection is a must-read for serious readers of American literature.

Edited by Christopher Buckley and Jon Veinberg, Messenger to the Stars: A Luis Omar Salinas New Selected Poems & Reader, Publisher: Tebot Bach, 2014, 215 pages, paperback, $20

*For the uninitiated, Chican@ is a shortening of Chicano/Chicana: @ = a/o.

**Outdated terms? Totalmente. The poem makes a statement on Eurocentric interpretations of racial identity, which lead to the creation of terms such as Latino, Chicano, Native American, Asian American, etc.