des_________: papeles, palabras, & poems from the desert by Oscar Mancinas
$20 | Tolsun Books | December 2022 |
114 Pages | ISBN: 978-1-948800-55-6
For his first full-length collection of poetry, Rarámuri-Chicanx writer Oscar Mancinas has assembled a multilingual, polyvocal compendium defined by its use of endnotes, redactions, erasures, and rearrangements. Composed in English, Spanish, Spanglish, and Rarámuri ra'ícha (the indigenous language of the Rarámuri people), Mancinas draws primarily from three genres of source material to assemble the titular papeles, palabras, and poems: academic texts, state documents, and local reporting. Original lyrics composed by Mancinas tie the collection together. The resulting collage bends and folds phraseologies and registers like linguistic origami, shaping new objects from an archive of frequently painful reminders that history, like an ouroboros, often cannot help but return to itself.
Excerpts and citations of academic texts dominate the book’s bibliographic notes and references. Mancinas manages to extract passages that are as predictably devastating as they are unexpectedly poetic, such as a depiction of Francisco Vázquez de Coronado and his conquistadores marching northward from Mexico, “planting Spanish / wherever they went.” These texts also evidence the bald-faced disdain Spanish settlers had for native peoples. An excerpt from a letter written in 1744 by a Jesuit priest, Juan Ysidro Fernández de Abee, describes the Rarámuri as prone to “simplicity, barbarity, laziness / and sloth.” By resurrecting these descriptors from the annals of scholarship, Mancinas centers the legitimizing function of the priest’s words and underscores the complicity of the Catholic Church in the exterminations, forced integrations, and relocations of indigenous peoples over subsequent centuries. In doing so, the poet also extends the lineage of the language, reclaiming the wording and re-framing it, perhaps for future generations of poet-scholars to (re)interpret.
In other poems, Mancinas deploys the bureaucratized vernacular of the state by pillaging legal frameworks and documentation. “Pedagogy of the Oppressor” upends Paolo Freire’s foundational text with lines from the white supremacist Arizona House Bill 2281, which banned ethnic studies in public schools and prohibited curricula that are “designed / primarily / for / pupils of / a particular / group.” These lines echo the brutality of Indian Boarding Schools while anticipating similarly restrictive laws passed recently in states like Texas and Florida. In another poem, Mancinas co-opts lines from the Arizona State Constitution to highlight the dehumanizing cruelty of a government that absolves itself of any duty to protect some of its most vulnerable residents: “an alien / shall not / be // awarded // punitive / damages // in any action / in any court // in this / state.” This use of state language—which is composed by committee but authored by no one, and binds anyone who steps within the borders of Arizona—places Mancinas among the likes of Jan-Henry Gray, Paul Hlava Ceballos, Layli Long Soldier, and other documentary poets who interrogate the relentlessly oppressive paperwork of administrative states.
Elsewhere, Mancinas incorporates the ostensibly anodyne language of mainstream journalism, with an especial emphasis on local reporting. In several instances, Mancinas plays with headlines from the East Valley Tribune, such as “History All That Remains of Tempe’s Lost San Pablo Neighborhood”:
Arizona State College
(now Arizona State University)
expanded its campus
The end was
a traumatic experience
for some displaced
by eminent domain.
Injecting white space into the text cleverly, tragically drives home the point that academic institutions, too, are guilty of traumatizing relocations and dispossessing residents. In “Mesa’s Abandoned Escobedo Area On Brink of Being Razed, Rebuilt,” Mancinas strips away words and phrases to generate new meaning:
Mesa’s Abandoned Escobedo on Brink Being Razed, Rebuilt
Mesa’s Abandoned Escobedo Area Being Razed,
Mesa’s Escobedo on Brink
Abandoned Area Being Rebuilt
By dissolving the headline text, Mancinas mimics the process by which a community watches itself disappear, and in doing so, loses a complicated history of “legalized hate, Jim Crow, and isolation [...] of resilience, solidarity, and pain.” The lingering rebuild may in fact refer to actual edifices, but the scope of the book’s project offers another way: transform the past into the future without sacrificing memory.
Beyond the impressive architecture of the book’s interlocking derivations, Mancinas channels a poetic voice that exhibits multilingual dexterity, insightful sensitivity, and an attentive sensuality. Emblematic examples are the 33 single-stanza poems bundled together in “Siyóname: Cousins Without Borders.” Siyóname refers to the Rarámuri concept of color along the blue-green spectrum, which the speaker seeks to differentiate by invoking the names of fruits and shades and vegetation. A tidy quatrain comprises each poem, with lines alternating between English and Spanish, creating a dynamic fluidity and palpable texture to each:
Lime / Lima
verano para los sentidos
hue, aroma, savor
all from your smile, scowl
& de tu piel hecha de luz
Royal / Red
ni tu espiritu ni tu capacidad
could ever be weighed down,
by this or any crown
These evocative moments are reminiscent of Jorge Carrera Andrade’s micrograms, and the miniature landscapes mirror and sing the collection’s prominent themes of ancestry, memory,
and continuity, so central to the speaker’s sense of place:
Moss / Musgo
sin ruido ni atención
wrap yourself around elders
& también sobre los jóvenes,
show us our way home
Taken together, Mancinas’s textual inventions, appropriations, re-deployments, and manipulations function like double-edged swords or mirrored glass, turning the languages of state and culture back on themselves and, ultimately, ourselves.
Diego Báez is a writer, educator, and abolitionist. He is the author of Yaguareté White (UAPress, 2024). Poems and book reviews have appeared online and in print, most recently at Freeman's, The Georgia Review, and Booklist. He lives in Chicago and teaches at the City Colleges.