Kevin McKelvey reviews Natural Takeover of Small Things, poems by Tim Z. Hernandez
The University of Arizona Press | 2013 | ISBN: 978-0816530120 | 80 pages
The space between the stanzas, words, and letters of Tim Z. Hernandez’s second book of poetry, Natural Takeover of Small Things, is packed with the dust blowing from the fallow fields in California’s San Joaquin Valley. The water crisis in California made news in 2015, but as we see in Hernandez’s poems, this crisis has been building for decades. The politicians, policy makers, farmers, and environmentalists would do well to read this book for directives when the rain and snow returns or for what to do when it does not.
Hernandez foretells the crisis by focusing on the people—some legal, most illegal—who pick the food we thoughtlessly pull from grocery store shelves, the people who wash insecticides and herbicides and all the other -cides from their bodies daily though often not soon enough to prevent absorption. We come to understand their daily lives, their work, their emotions and interior lives through visceral poems that hold nothing back.
In the opening section, Hernandez establishes the boundaries of his world, a place of transient and low-paying jobs, drugs and beer and addiction, poverty and the middle class. In “Hispanic Upward Mobility,” the poem’s main character trades work in the fields for an indoor middle management job in which “he fucked the first white secretary / within reach, and then called a mandatory staff meeting / to discuss the ins and outs of fiscal responsibility.” Throughout this first section, Hernandez juxtaposes class and race, addiction and murder, work indoors and out, work illegal and legal. He ends this section with “My Name is Hernandez,” a wide-ranging poem about his surname, his parents, the explorer Hernan Cortez, the places and jobs that influenced him, of his life with a common surname. The poem ends: “Millions of Hernandez’s. / Each one / expecting some kind of deal.”
“San Joaquin Sutra” is a sectioned long poem with line lengths and line breaks that ripple like slow-moving water in irrigation canals and, more importantly, meander through the many approaches to life, work, death, time, and belief. If we understand a sutra to be spiritual rules or precepts, he juxtaposes ideas of church and the saints with field work and farms, roadside alters and killing frosts, internment camps and strip malls, death any number of ways. He’s exploring what humans believe in the San Joaquin Valley, what they create and build and grow, which in turns contains and limits them in some way. The last section begins:
San Joaquin Valley, why are your back roads stricken with altars,
and your plastic carnations entombed among deflated balloons?
What keeps the tattered photographs from disintegrating with the dew?
Who dies in the back of a narrow van,
limbs splayed to the heavens?
Who arrives first?
Who will harvest the bodies?
Who will recall them in a dream?
The poem ends:
What irrigation of blood?
Does a fig weep in the open air?
Does water discriminate?
What of sirens?
How do we count the invisible?
Can angels scale border walls?
Who will open the gates for them?
Who denies them?
What manner of love is this?
These questions that end the poem and the book’s central section are the questions that underlie every poem in the collection, from the wide-ranging voices of Hernandez’s speakers to the more personal poems about Hernandez’s own family and life.
Hernandez also works as a performance poet, and the repetition, humor, characters, and inflection found in performance poetry here lives on the page. Vivid details help portray the numerous characters that propel Hernandez’s poems. The repetition, the circular and referential structure, and the humor work to create Hernandez’s own geography, from East Los Angeles to the many cities throughout the San Joaquin Valley to outposts in New Mexico or Colorado. He draws a border around the world of his poems, effectively forming a country made up of migrant labor, irrigation canals, and factory farming, a region whose economic output is greater than scores of countries. But we don’t see any wealth from this, just the low-paid and dangerous business of migrating from ripening field to ripening field—if the water holds out.
“Natural Takeover of Small Things,” the title poem and the opening of the third section, further explores this geography and the lifetimes of its people. The poem takes a fatalistic yet joyful view of the bend of human life toward death. He revels in its wonder and surprise:
How can I tell you that when I first bit into a Fuyu
persimmon, dusk tasted this way, the afternoon
my grandfather died—a thick wedge of air, sweetened
by an emptiness?
The more I tell you I am not, the more I am convinced
that the eyespot of a peacock’s plume stares, knowing
it will later in the right hands become the object
of some misspent lust, or a tassel on the rearview mirror
of an abandoned Chevy pickup on the outskirts,
surrendering its wheels to sediment, bequeathing its engine
to the natural takeover of small things.
The book focuses on the small things in the industrial, exploitive morass that has become today’s agriculture—and the Americans made small by it in the San Joaquin Valley—all so other Americans can pull over-sprayed, standard cultivars in standardized ounces and pounds and packaging from the same spots on the same shelves in the same grocery stores across the United States. The dust of the San Joaquin Valley may shake loose from this book’s spine, giving you a place to plant your own seeds as the message sinks in.
Header image of bird on a wire courtesy Shutterstock.