After 15 years teaching English, it is a rare thing to walk into class feeling confounded by the text I am teaching. On a whim I had selected to include Victor Hernandez Cruz’s Lunequisticos in my short literary unit on Latin American identity and diaspora; without reading too closely, it clearly deals with the dissonance of bilingual and bi-cultural identity. It wasn’t until the days leading up to the lesson when I began prepping that I realized what I had gotten myself into:
–A poem filled with intentional incoherence in both English and Spanish.
–My eighth grade students who – on some days – view poetry as a confounding literary torture device thrust upon them against their will for the sole purpose of reminding them how much school sucks. It is worth pointing out that a significant number of my students are English language learners, some of whom have only been speaking English for two years, so English class can feel – understandably – overwhelming.
–My own unfamiliar anxiety as I rehearsed my lesson opening: “I’m not really sure what this poem is about.” In experiencing this sensation I concluded that at least some part of my success as a teacher must come from my otherwise well-practiced ability to say something interesting about texts and thereby sound competent enough to ask my students to listen to me.
But there it was on page 15 of the text packet I had assembled for them: the poem that was sure to cause my destruction as an English teacher.
In what language do you jump off one boat
to get to another one to buy something cold
to drink while at the same time you contemplate
The shapes and curves of the eyes the various
family trees have produced in all the people
present buying something cold to drink
The shades of minds each beaming glaze of their
spirit all being here for a second of my questions
I am in the young woman’s tenor her lips drum
pictures of thin Spanish fans waving
Ships sailing in pictures hanging on living
room walls Chaotic room of thirsty tongues
Moving my whistle sounds to investigate
Each glassy eyes my windows
Their fires in the cold drinks
So if you ask my creature friends in what language
do I ask the question to come in: Do I take my
ves/sepuso/la/cosa/de bullets/peor que/one guerra
and/altitude/altiduego of voces/in/gas/communications/gets
Or do I spray it around in straight talk
Filtar: Presuming you tailored the rough edges of your
tenor dress it up with my wave of syllables say to me
What is your idea what flavor did you ask for
In what tense does it remain the same color when it
laughs in your cup.
Pure orange juice.
Pure ginger root-boiled.
Pure grapefruit – the ones with freckles.
Pure Spanish/Pure English
Pure tunes tos tono tos tones
When is exactly Saturday and Sabado two different nights
Do you say in one aspect of the night your deep feelings
to whoever might be involved in a need to hear them from
you or do you avoid what’s really going on and talk other
heavens go over to the jukebox before ordering a cold
drink put on Tito Rodriguez’s “Double Talk” put the boat
In reverse and relax you have just given birth to twins
The tongue figures out how not to jump from one boat to
another and takes a dash out onto the street where the
wrong speed can brake anybody’s record.
My frantic online searches for scholarly analysis about this poem yielded little: a one-line note on one site about the intersection of power and language. The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature, where I originally found the poem, points out “…the sounds and structures of Spanish and English collide to produce a downpour of rhythmic code switching, chaotically defying the notion of linguistic purity.” Helpful, but, I still could not figure out the meaning of the title (moon? lunatic? linguistics?), let alone interpret the bilingual jumble (or as one of my students ended up calling it, the “word bank”) in the middle of the poem. I asked friends and colleagues who are native Spanish speakers to help me make sense of the poem. We all agreed that it was intentionally meant to confound, but struggled to find a cohesive story to tell about the poem that would make sense to 14-year-olds.
So I swallowed my pride, walked into class, and said, “Today we are going to read a poem that is probably going to make your brain melt a little. It certainly made mine melt. But let’s ask lots of questions of each other and the text and see where it takes us.” If anything, this reminder that curiosity is really the best approach to literature – especially rigorous texts – was my most significant realization from this lesson. Wondering is a better starting point than knowing and for all our talk of proficiency and testing, this alone was a useful moment for me.
I started by reading the poem aloud to students. And there was brain melting. A lot of it. But then, something pretty awesome happened as we re-read, wrote, discussed. This poem got inside everyone in the room. They could not stop thinking about it, talking about it, re-reading it. They translated pieces of it into English and then into Spanish and back into English. I had intentionally given them a chance to opt out of this poem by giving them a homework assignment that allowed them to choose this or another, more accessible poem we had just read to analyze; the vast majority of students chose Lunequisticos. One student reported that he had sat down with his Spanish-speaking mother and made her read it with the hope that she would find something we missed in class. After class I caught them examining the poem during their free time. And I don’t just mean the students who will always go above and beyond; everyone from the kid who too frequently zones out in class to the one who claims, “It’s not personal but I’m just bored in your class, Mister.” They were hooked.
A few observations were especially interesting to me.
One of most interesting moments of the lesson came when one of my more fluent, bilingual readers volunteered to read the poem. When he came to the second line in the “word bank” he read, “ves/sepuso/la/cosa/de bullets/peor que/una guerra… wait… una… una guerra/en/the/escuela…” Instead of reading “one guerra,” as the author wrote it, he instinctively translated it into the Spanish, caught himself making the mistake, and then “corrected” himself without actually reading the line correctly. It happened in a second, but seemed to shine a brilliant light on Hernandez Cruz’s design of the poem and his point about the power and dissonance inherent in language, translation, and bilingualism.
Another of my ELL students, relatively newer to English than others in my class pointed out that, just like in the poem, Spanish and English are frequently battling to make meaning in his head: “This is what it feels like in my brain all the time, Mister.”
What I learned to love about the poem over the course of this lesson was that there is so much to unpack that – rather than be totally inaccessible to middle schoolers in general – it gave everyone, despite their range of reading levels from third through twelfth grade, something to notice. Some students were fascinated by the ways in which Hernandez Cruz uses both Spanish and English. Others quickly caught the metaphor of jumping from one boat to another and the symbolism of the drink. Still others focused on repeated words in the text: tenor, pure, eyes, tongue. Or the (intentionally?) misspelled words or awkward constructions: uno/una/ves/sepuso, siquere, brake.
Many students immediately saw connections to other texts we had read in class that I, in my panic to understand the poem, had initially missed. In Lunequisticos, they saw echoes of Julia Alvarez who describes the in-between-ness of learning English, in Entre Lucas y Juan Mejía, as “frightening” when she realized, “I began losing my Spanish before getting a foothold in English. I was without a language.” They compared the confusion and dissonance in Lunequisticos to the “…slow scream across a yellow bridge,” and the idea of being “cast out from the new paradise” in Juan Felipe Herrera’s Exiles. And they pointed out the parallel idea of language and place as a proxy for a sense of belonging when they compared “jump[ing] off one boat to get to another one” and, “No nací in Puerto Rico/Puerto Rico nacío en mi,” from María Teresa Fernández’s Ode to the Diasporican.
Lunequisticos got under our skin in the way good writing should. It left us with more questions than answers. It spoke to the complexity of my students’ experiences as Latin@, as Spanish-speakers, as English-speakers, as bi-cultural. And, at least on some level, I’m sure that some of my students connected with this poem as teenagers out of a desire to understand its complexity as all teens want their own complexity to be seen, honored, and understood.
We still haven’t figured out what the title means.