The Better Angels of His Nature

In Every Day We Get More Illegal, Juan Felipe Herrera doubles down on hope.

every day we get more illegal, juan felipe herrera
Carlos Puma

“[T]hese are notes for your nourishment,” Juan Felipe Herrera declares early in his new collection of poetry, Every Day We Get More Illegal, “—hold them / as bowls of kindness / from journeys of bravery / the will to seek & find the sudden turning rivers & the dawn-eyed // freedom.” It’s a vivid statement of purpose, describing not only the book itself—the author’s 30th—but also the situation in which we find ourselves. I read these poems, after all, against the backdrop of the election, as votes were counted and breath was held. On the one hand, we faced the possibility of continued chaos; on the other, the opportunity of hope restored.

The poems in Every Day We Get More Illegal occupy a similarly liminal territory, growing as they do from Herrera’s travels during the two years, from 2015 to 2017, that he spent as United States poet laureate. This period spanned the end of one era in this nation and the beginning of another, and Herrera writes out of the tumult of that shift. “[U]sed to think I was not American enuf / now it is the other way around,” he concludes a poem called, simply, “Enuf.” The implication is that the country has deserted him—and by extension, all of us—by turning its back on the better angels of its nature, to borrow a phrase from Lincoln’s first inaugural address.

Herrera is writing, in his own way, in the tradition of the Great Emancipator, refusing to give up on optimism and idealism, even in the face of desolation and despair. Throughout Every Day We Get More Illegal, Herrera works those disparities, settling always on the side of what remains. He opens the title poem: “Yet the peach tree / still rises / & falls with fruit & without / birds eat it the sparrows fight / our desert.” At the same time, he never backs away from the act of witness, which is the poet’s most essential job. We see this as the lines continue:

juan felipe herrera
Juan Felipe Herrera

The situation is familiar, tracing the narrowing of possibilities, but Herrera’s writing offers a pushback all its own. “[W]alking working / under the silver darkness / walking working // our mind / our life,” he finishes the poem: an affirmation of our shared persistence, that regardless of the circumstances, we go on.

This sense of unity—or more accurately, perhaps, of empathy—is an essential aspect of Every Day We Get More Illegal, as it has been of Herrera’s work all along. Born in 1948, the son of farmworkers, he spent his childhood in the San Joaquin Valley and published his first book at 25. In 2012, he was named poet laureate of California, a position in which he developed outreach programs at the community level, in addition to teaching creative writing at UC Riverside.

Herrera’s aesthetic is conversational and jazzy, incorporating the voices of migrants and Indigenous peoples, blurring the boundary between the spoken and the written word. As an example, I think of “You Just Don’t Talk About It,” a stream-of-consciousness piece that works through a litany of wrongs. “[Y]ou just don’t care,” he writes, “about the pushed out the stopped out the forced out the starved out the fenced out the shot down the cut back the asphalted out on the other side of the track the suicided the hanged w/ a bedsheet of nothing in the cell of nothing with no one at the gate the segregated tier the jailed forever the imprisoned forever the denied.” The lack of punctuation, the cascade of words and images—all of it serves to highlight the poet’s passion, his furious urgency. The title of the poem becomes, in this context, a clear-eyed condemnation of everyone who looks the other way.

What I’m describing is a moral sensibility, which sits at the center of Herrera’s work. His is a poetry of protest—in regard to issues, without question (take a look at the hilarious “i am not a paid protestor,” with its insistent echo, “i am / protesting / out / of / my / own / free / will”), but even more, I think, against inhumanity. For Herrera, we are all here together, and nothing is more necessary than recognizing that reality. It’s a point he makes explicit in “come with me,” the long poem that closes the collection, where in both English and Spanish he conjures the connective power of language: “we will greet each other once again / I will write in rhythms as the words come to me / you will walk in—this is my hope.”

It’s telling that the poem should end there, on the word hope—so sparse, but also necessary, in the America that Herrera’s book evokes. Without hope, he is asking, who are we? How do we go on? “[T]his is not a poor-boy story,” he tells us, “this is a pioneer story / this is your story / America are you listening.” Even now, that remains an open question, which makes its resolution all the more necessary and profound.

City Lights Books

Every Day We Get More Illegal By Juan Felipe Herrera

City Lights Publishers
David L. Ulin is the author or editor of ten books, including Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles, shortlisted for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay, and the Library of America’s Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology, which won a California Book Award.
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