Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Possibilities of Mud: The Poetry of Joe Jiménez

Olga García Echeverría

The first time I remember reading poetry was in the 7th grade. "The Raven," "Stopping By Woods," and "The Road Not Taken." I cannot say that I completely understood these poems or that thematically I connected with them very much, but I felt something lurking beneath the words. What was that evocative algo that intrigued and tugged? Emoción? Energía? A duende? Or perhaps it was the magic of word play--how words can come together to paint pictures that linger in the imagination long after the poem has been read. It's been 30 years since I read those first poems in junior high and yet, when I think of them, I still see a raven tapping at a door, a horse in the snow, a man at a crossroads.

Joe Jiménez' latest collection of poems, The Possibilities of Mud (Kórima Press, 2014), full of word play and lingering images, took me back to that memory in junior high. On the surface, the Gulf Coast of South Texas is the landscape of these poems.  Jiménez writes: words in my own hidden pouch, dancing
                            among the mudflats, the sea flies, the ghost crab...

And his words do dance among all of these things. There are gulls, deer, coyote, pelicans, redfish, shrimp boats, fire and plenty of mud in these poems. Yet beyond the landscape, there are strong emotional undercurrents that run through the marshlands of Jiménez' collection: Loss, healing, love.

The Gulf is a wildness
I want to know.
And isn't this my fall?
Peligro: que me guarda
The heart as red as a moan...

Having lived, loved men, and survived violence, Jiménez opens himself wide in the Gulf. He reflects, he questions, he reveals:

                             Is it only me? Or ever do you tire

of having to be good? And isn't it sacred?
              How each of us walks the world
                           holding parts of other men

like diamonds we've swallowed, or balloons,
               or bitterness...

I've been carrying around The Possibilities of Mud for about three weeks now, and much like when I read Adonis or Hafiz, I have gone back repeatedly to ponder lines, meaning, images. "Coyote Stretched Over the Fence Post" comes to mind. On the surface, the poem is about the author coming across a dead coyote. But on a deeper level, it is about how the sight of this creature's tortured death, "...stretched/ like a kill/ over the red-brown/ barbs..." forces the poet to pause his car, silence his dogs, momentarily go to that vulnerable place where he sheds "the shell [he] wears/ like a coat in the cruelest/ sweltering days of summer." In just a few stanzas, this murdered coyote becomes a mirror of the world we live in and it questions all of our humanity.  Jiménez writes:

I won't say I saw myself
in the body of this animal.
I won't say I saw
in his hide the lives
of men I've loved.

But there is some terror
in the humanity
that says I don't want you
here or there.
I don't want you alive.

Yes, it was a coyote.
Yes, this is Texas.
Yes, these things happen
to humans. All over the world,
it happens. Every hour
of every year of every day.

I could go on about  Jiménez' poetry. About how many of his images linger, glimmer like redfish, long after they've been read. Like the picture in my mind that I am still holding of his abuela taking chicken bones and tying them to long tails of yarn and then throwing them out into the water to catch crabs. How beautiful. Check it out for yourself:

For more information on the poet visit

To purchase The Possibilities of Mud or learn more about Kórima Press:
Pero no se vayan just yet. We are honored to have Joe Jiménez with us at La Bloga today. This past week, I asked him a few questions and here are his responses.

Do you remember writing your first poem?
I don’t remember ever writing a first poem. I do remember writing the first poem that really mattered to me, “El Abuelo,” a poem about learning to iron by watching other men do it—my grandfather, an old lover. It was the first time I can say I felt it, the subconscious beat that told me from some other place what should make this poem, the images and sounds and rhythms.
Can you share how The Possibilities of Mud took form? Did you set out to write about one region in particular or were the poems born more organically?
The poems in The Possibilities of Mud were born on the Gulf Coast of South Texas. A few of them, really, at first, before I thought this could become a collection, just scraps of information written on papelitos as I walked the beaches near my mother’s house. Sometimes, after running, I would sit at the shore and just watch. I learned by watching the birds, learning their names and witnessing some of their behaviors. One bird, in particular, caught my eye: the little blue heron, how patient he was, how he was designed to sit and wait and know, somewhere in his bones, that the sun would rise, the waters would recede, a fish would come. This was important to me at this time in life, because I had recently lost so much. I was living with my mother after having left San Antonio after my former lover tried to kill me. He held a knife to my throat, strangled one of my dogs, and said if I didn’t leave, he couldn’t promise me I would be alive the next day. I left. I already had essentials and a small bag of clothes stashed in my trunk, as I had been advised to do by a counselor at the National Domestic Violence Hotline, so at that moment, I decided I would not die, and I took my two small dogs, and I left. Later, I discovered that this guy had forged my name on a document to take over my house, and a court actually believed this forgery, along with the testimony of his daughter and best friend, that I’d given him this house. Consequently, I was an angry man, and I needed to find peace, so I spent time at the Gulf and wrote these poems. I survived because I found my place in the great order of things—Nature, history—I wasn’t the first Chicano to have land stolen from him based on false witness and fraud and intimidation. But like others who survived injustice, I, too, came out of it.
How do you know when a poem is finished?

Keats once described the sound as a “clicking,” like the lid on a box fitting just right. I think a poem I have made is ready when I hear it do that, click. For me, there is usually an image or a couple of images that center the poem, and then, an observation or a question, a comment, about living, and for me, that is the soul of a poem, what it says about humanness. And that humanness can take so many marvelous forms, what the poem tells us or stirs us to wonder about masculinity, about motherhood, about struggle, about Love, about loss, about hunger, injustice, lust, joy, youth, betrayal. Many forms!
Is there a poem in the collection that came out effortlessly? You know, those rare magical pieces that birth themselves?

When I wrote “A Full and Tiny Fire,” I had just read Robert Bly’s A Little Book of the Human Shadow. I was engaged in my last semester of grad school, and a mentor, Jenny Factor, had guided me to recognize the subconscious power of poems, how the images that come out of us are not random, not accidental. I wanted to write a poem, then, about how some images or sound sequences are born—full of desire and fear and hunger, a hankering rife with want and darkness and musicalities that may or may not make sense. As I wrote this poem, I remember thinking of Lorca’s speech on El Duende, and I made myself barefoot, then, accordingly, to walk along the Gulf’s shore and to hear my own want in the hot salt.
In contrast, is there a poem that you couldn't stop editing?

The triptych “Light.” I couldn’t stop editing that one. In its original forms, before it came together, it stood as separate pedacitos, and so, for some time, I thought, Perhaps this is going to be a collage poem. But I couldn’t stitch the pieces together well enough, not like I wanted, not like I felt the sigh of my gut say that they needed to. The pieces weren’t saying anything, really, not as a collage, and a poem that doesn’t say what it needs to say isn’t ready, in my eyes. So, I went back to the revising techniques I learned in school—reordering the pieces, drawing from old notes I’d taken on what to do when poems aren’t working, from reforming the shapes of the lines, the breaks and the beats, to cutting the poem in half and omitting unnecessary images and words. I discovered I liked the sound and feel of the triptych. 
Okay, I have to ask--did you ever eat mud as a child?

I never ate mud. I do recall that while doing yard work, a task I greatly enjoy, I’ve taken mud in the mouth more than a few times. I’ve worked as a landscaper previously, and from tilling soil to digging, soil has made itself into me. Is this the same as eating? Perhaps not. But perhaps. 
Another muddy question: If you could make a mud sculpture of anybody in the literary world (vivo o muerto), who would it be and why?

In terms of a mud sculpture, I’d manifest the Skin Horse from Margery Williams’s "The Velveteen Rabbit." It was a story that made me cry both as a boy and as a man. As a boy, I cried because it was sad. As a man, I cried because it was true. The Skin Horse tells the Rabbit, “Real isn’t how you are made. It’s a thing that happens to you…Sometimes, when you are real you don’t mind being hurt…It doesn’t happen all at once. You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.” Yes, I would sculpt that, or at least become myself while trying to make him.
In The Possibilities of Mud, place functions as Muse. Where are you now and what is currently fueling your poetic fire?

I’ve just reached a point with my second collection, entitled The Goat-Eaters and Other Poems, where I’m comfortable with sending it out. In this new collection, I played with sound and form, especially enjoying the double-headed spondee as a device for making poems cut and jump and halt and jar. There are poems about Chipita Rodriguez, the first woman sentenced to death in Texas, and poems about falling in love with a Chupacabra. There are also poems about deep South Texas, hog-hunting and cabrito and what it means to be a boy in a world where killing things and inflicting harm is encouraged in you. Finally, I’ve polished up a Chicano crown about La Llorona, which I started to believe in again, after hearing another Chicana crown, a great one entitled “A Crown for Gumecindo” by Laurie Ann Guerrero. While I agree with Audre Lorde’s wisdom that “The master’s tools will not dismantle the master’s house,” I do believe we can redesign some of those tools, take them and repurpose them and make statements about humanity and community, Love and cultura with them.

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