NPM Curated Poem 11: Juan Felipe Herrera’s “Enter the Void””

Hi!  I’m back!  I’ve been sick.  I apologize for my absence!
I was happy to read last week that Juan Felipe Herrera will have a second term as U.S. Poet Laureate.  He’s a great poet, and I read his selected poems last summer–here’s one of my faves (from


Enter the Void


I enter the void,
it has the shape of a viola:


Israel, Jenin, West Bank, Nablus—a rubble boy
shifts his scapula as if it was his continent, underground
Gazaground, I want to say—his only bone,


the rubble boy is a girl, I think,
her hair tossed, knotted and torn under
the green shank of fibers, tubes and shells.


She digs for her rubble father, I say rubble
because it is indistinguishable from ice, fire, dust,
clay, flesh, tears, concrete, bread, lungs, pubis, god,
say rubble, say water—


the rubble girl digs for her rubble mother,
occupation—disinheritance—once again,
I had written this somewhere, in a workshop, I think,
yes, it was an afternoon of dark poets with leaves, coffee
and music in the liquor light room.


A rock, perhaps it’s a rock, juts out, two rocks
embrace each other, the shapes come to me easily,
an old poetic reflex—memoria, a nation underground,
that is it, the nation under-ground,
that is why the rocks cover it.


I forget to mention the blasts, so many things flying,
light, existence, the house in tins, a mother in rags.


It is too cold to expose her tiny legs,
the fish-shaped back—you must take these notes for me.


Before you go. See this
the pools of blood.


I ride the night, past the Yukon, past
South Laredo, past Odessa, past the Ukraine,
old Jaffa, Haifa and Istanbul, across clouds,
hesitant and porous, listen—


they are porous so we can glide
into them, this underbelly, this underground:
wound-mothers and sobbing fathers, they


leave, in their ribboned flesh, shores lisp
against nothingness, open—toward you,
they dissolve again into my shoes—


Hear the dust gong:
gendarme passports,


cloned maize men in C-130’s, with tears
bubbling on their hands, pebbles
en route—we are all en route
to the rubblelands.


I want to chant a bliss mantra—
can you hear me?


I want to call for the dragon-slayer omchild.
I am on my knees again.


On the West Bank count
the waves of skull debris—a Hebrew letter
for “love” refuses me,
an Arabic letter for “boundary”
acknowledges me.


Sit on an embankment,
a dust fleece, there is a tidal wave ahead of me.


It will never reach me. I live underground, under the Dead Sea,
under the benevolent rocks and forearms and
mortar shells and slender naked red green
torsos, black,
so much black.
En route:


this could be a train, listen:
it derails into a cloud.


I love the political consciousness of this poem, and how it refuses to not be lyrical even as its politics are completely unapologetic.  I have less and less patience for people who say that poems can’t be political and still be beautiful, because I have less and less patience for people saying that poetry can’t be X, whatever X is.  Poetry can be everything.  That’s why we love it, isn’t it?


And that’s one reason I love that Herrera takes up poetry writing as an explicit trope in this poem.  He grapples with the poetry of witness and how it skirts “expos[ure],” how it seeks “love” but is “acknowledg[ed]” by “boundar[ies].”  The poet admits that the “tidal wave…//…will never reach” him.  Whatever “this” is–the poem, the situation, the Israeli/Palestinian conflict–it “could be a train.”  There’s danger–it “derails”–but it does so in a location of imagination and safety:  “a cloud.”


YOUR ASSIGNMENT:  Write about a political conflict that’s troubling you.  Acknowledge, honestly and explicitly, your own subject position in relation to that conflict.  What are you able to say from that position, and how are you able to say it?  Write about it directly.  Try to maintain some of the prosodic elements of Herrera’s poem–the assonance of “tossed, knotted,” for example, or the alliteration of “liquor light.”  I love that line, “liquor light.”  It’s so perfect for a drowsy late afternoon of poetry, that may of may not contain literal liquor….

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