The Craft of John Murillo

I had the pleasure of meeting John Murillo at the Frost Place two summers ago — and of hearing him read his poems and give a class on duende. So, in preparing my notes for our Book Club for Poets discussion of his Up Jump the Boogie, I was happy to find some of his comments on duende, in a review of John Crowe Ransom that Murillo wrote for the National Book Foundation in March 2011. Murillo, who finds duende in Ransom’s work, discusses a common misconception:

I can hear the criticism already: Duende is not a matter of craft, but quite the opposite. It’s that bright black heat boiling up from the ground, through the gut, and out the mouth or hands or whatever the artist is using to fashion his art. But I’d argue that this is an incomplete view, that Lorca himself was a craftsman of the highest order. (He once wrote — tired, I believe, of critics treating him as if his work were all viscera and no brain — that if he is a poet by virtue of the duende, he is also a poet by virtue of knowing exactly what a poem is and how it works.) Although he argued for art that started from and ended in soulcry, he also knew that the means of achieving this — the wrestling with the duende that he spoke of — is by way of craft. (Consider Valery’s proposition that the poet’s duty is not to experience what he called the “poetic state,” but to evoke that state in others by using whatever technique he has at his disposal.) Duende, then, is both source of inspiration as well as a quality of art.

A bit later in the same review, Murillo also notes, “Lorca tells us that in Spanish and Mexican culture — where he considers duende most apparent — one of the defining qualities of duende is the way in which it engages death, embracing it as a necessary condition of this world.”

Murillo himself, in his own remarkable first collection of poems, exhibits both soulcry and craft, often “embracing death . . . as a necessary condition of this world.” Those who were murdered or died are remembered; and violence, with its potential for death, is explored in these poems.

The craft is evident in the music and rhythms of his language and in the many poetic forms he uses and makes his own in the book. In section V of “Renegades of Funk,” the narrator says about himself and his friends at age twelve: “few / There were among us couldn’t ride a beat / In strict tetrameter.” And there are indeed poems based on rap rhythms — as well as poems influenced by the repetition and variation of blues song, and sonnets and sestinas and poems written in couplets and other stanzas and in free verse. Listen to the music of the opening poem, “Ode to the Crossfader”:

Got this mixboard itch

this bassline lifted

from my father’s dusty

wax   Forty crates stacked

in the back of the attic

This static in the head —

phones   Hum in the blood.

One of my favorite poems in the book is “Renegades of Funk,” a sonnet sequence. Murillo plays with the form from sonnet to sonnet, though all end in a rhyming couplet, sometimes with a slant rhyme, sometimes with exact. The sixth sonnet, which traces African American song back to the time of slavery, is built not of quatrains or the octave-sestet pattern of traditional sonnets but of four rhyming tercets before a concluding couplet. The sequence as a whole marries passion and craft, including also flashes of humor often found in Murillo’s work, humor than can rapidly shift into more serious emotions. At the opening of “Renegades of Funk,” the narrator describes his twelve-year-old battle against oppression:

. . . So when Miss Jefferson —

Her eyebrows shaved then painted black, the spot

Of lipstick on her one good tooth — would praise

the genius Newton, I knew then to keep

Her close, to trust her like a chicken hawk

At Colonel Sanders’. I refute your laws,

Oppressor! I’m the truth you cannot stop!

 Notice the rhythms of the language, and the echoes of sound: spot, hawk, laws, stop. It’s funny to think of even trying to defy gravity, but of course break-dancers do attempt just that: “we taught ourselves to fly, / To tuck the sky beneath our feet, to spin / The world on fingertips.” Oppression quickly becomes more grim as the poems go on, as in the second sonnet:

. . . Ghosts come late

To find the crossroads cluttered, strip malls now

Where haints once hung. The young, it seems, forget

The drum and how it bled, the dream and how

It fed the mothers on the auction block.

This passage is rich in internal rhymes and echoes, like the short u sound of cluttered, hung, young and the short e sounds of forget, bled, fed — and the repeating consonants in crossroads/cluttered, haints/hung, drum/dream. The sequence as a whole celebrates the singers — of blues, of spirituals, of rap. The final poem in the sequence, I think, is especially moving, as it celebrates that impulse to sing as a way to renegade, whether or not the individual singers are remembered:

The walls are sprayed in gospel: This is for

The ones who never made the magazines.

Between breakbeats and bad breaks, broken homes

And flat broke, caught but never crushed. The stars

We knew we were, who recognized the shine

Despite the shade. We  renegade in rhyme,

In dance, on trains and walls. We renegade

In lecture halls, the yes, yes y’all’s in suits,

Construction boots and aprons.

We see consonance, assonance, and wordplay mastered here: “Between breakbeats and bad breaks, broken homes / And flat broke.” This sonnet as a whole is a song of praise, and I don’t want to spoil its impact for readers by quoting too much of it, piecemeal, here. It’s best read in its entirety, especially as part of the whole sequence.

The craft of Up Jump the Boogie is fueled, lit, by a need to connect to community — to the father and literary fathers of the narrator, to the Mexican side of his family, to poets and singers of many stripes. Read “Flowers for Etheridge,” which — in a passage I especially admire — imagines the narrator’s father, a Vietnam vet, talking with Etheridge Knight. Read “How to Split a Cold One,” in which the narrator faces questions of identity and how we express that identity: “Words / Like Corona and Cultura / Simmering in closed mouths.” Read “Sherman Ave. Love Song” for a remarkable, extended image of a shadow encapsulating first a specific narrative, then a whole history. Read “Variation on a Theme by Eazy Z” to explore how the narrator felt about participating in violence; then read the following poem, “November 26, 1980,” to see him witness the consequences of violence for the victim. Read the whole book.

John Murillo is clearly a poet committed to duende. He knows that “song” is a matter of balancing when to control the language and when to ride its sounds and rhythms, to let it sing.

© 2011 Martha Carlson-Bradley

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