A Triumphant Poetry Collection that Reads Like a Hero’s Journey
A hint of the prevailing themes explored in Gustavo Hernandez’ poetry may be taken from the epigraph of his remarkable debut collection Flower Grand First. The quote comes from Agustín Yáñez’s prodigal novel Las Tierras Flacas (1962; The Lean Lands), in which a wise elder from a small peasant community prophesizes: “We’ll never find what we’re looking for in distant places.”
In other words, casting aside the old ways in search of new adventure instructs the uninitiated in “the business of the machine,” which leads to spiritual ruin. This is a romantic underpinning for a collection that concerns itself with the complexities of migration and identity—cultural, national, sexual—and likewise holds many similarities to Joseph Campbell’s classic monomyth. Here are the rites of passage and grace-yielding sacraments of the heroic narrative, stretched gloriously across man-made boundaries, connecting Mexico’s indigenous past with the new “fateful region of both treasure and danger.”
Hernandez’ hero’s journey is as introspective as it is swashbuckling, as intensely embodied as it is spiritually seeking. In his opening poem, “California,” he ruminates on the experience of white assimilation and the artificiality of American prosperity:
What else could anyone make
of your new constellation: white
rubber soles burning with a tight white
beneath the void-void black
of some new Nikes.
Even on the threshold of the speaker’s bold conversion, however, there is an ancestral correction: “Moon horns / open to the south” and then the recognition of Otherness: “To someone like me, even the coast should be foreign.”
How appropriate that Hernandez — who immigrated with his family from Jalisco, Mexico, to Southern California in the 1980s — should infuse his immigrant figures with an inherited presence that reverberates across generations, for Hernandez is fixated not so much on one story of arrival as he is on the whole trajectory of a family and a people.
Reading Flower Grand First, a sense of nostalgia and tenderness can be felt in Hernandez’ reflections on family, separation, and longing. Many of the poems in the first and last sections of the book address, or are addressed to, specific family members who have suffered. “Baudelia,” an ode to a sick aunt, demonstrates the depth of empathy that can be found in this author’s writing:
My mother says when I was born she asked
to hold me. That I felt her arms outstretching.
Her breath expanding.
Give him to me, Lupe.
I can hold him. I won’t drop him. I won’t get sick.
He remembers Baudelia as a saintly figure, one “who lived clutching her mother’s rebozo”; a martyr of Jalisco. In “Carmen,” the poem that lends itself to the title of the collection, a sister toils in a plastics factory, shading toward exhaustion, her slow erasure scribed in elegiac detail:
The four walls of the Setco Plastics Factory
were built around my sister’s name—its red
lip, its pride, its dark hair pulled up to where
she couldn’t see it. Her words were sifted
through a wall of exhaust fans, lost
as the second shift pushed the city
to the edges of a new cycle. The light again
drained from Flower, from Grand, from First.
Consider the image of light draining from the three main thoroughfares of a working-class enclave in Santa Ana. It recalls a local myth that suggests the streets were originally named for the Christian trinity of virtues — faith, hope, and charity. However, it also points back to the trial-laden path of the monomyth and the false promise of the so-called American Dream.
Hernandez’ poems frequently inhabit literal edges of things—border crossings and shorelines, canyons and stucco balconies—or the figurative boundaries of binary opposites: masculine-feminine, old-new, indigenous-alien.
Strung throughout are three gorgeous, converging poetic sequences representing a blessed communion between inherited and modern guides. In the first poem, “Formas Sagradas,” god-like wind turbines bestow life-sustaining electricity on an impoverished rancho, lighting the way home for prodigal wanderers:
How these whirring monoliths
return us to the old way—synthesized blessings
over the hands of old men offering papayas
and mangos de los de antes.
In “Formas Modernas,” a mother’s lament cuts “modern like a photon ray” through
the noise and kink of an L.A. leather bar:
All your friends in L.A. don’t love you like I love you.
In “Formas Finales,” “circuits of moonlight” dance around “mothers’ gold-embroidered hemlines” and hover protectively. In Jalisco, “electricity was holy,” writes Hernandez, and in his skilled hands the rift between tradition and progress is reconciled.
Hernandez’ power as a memoirist is considerable. The speaker in Flower Grand First roams a terrain of personal challenges, from learning the new “rules of the road” in a country rife with immigrant bias to grieving the death of his father, from wondering about the paralyzing mixture of weakness and strength of the family members around him to confronting his half-understood sexual yearnings.
At times, Hernandez bears the cross of his own vergüenza: the social construct that serves primarily to constrict Latinx lives into more traditional gender roles, reinforcing familial expectations. In “Punto de Cruz,” a sense of guilt underscores a disagreement between a mother and her son:
When you left, on the evening she met you
and cried, I asked her if those were the only
two ways she saw me in love—birthright
or bartering—and the direction that she’d
pushed me in not teaching me to cross-stitch.
In Hernandez’ work, vergüenza is like the smog over Santa Ana; it insinuates its way into everything, incriminates everyone.
Still, our hero persists.
In the book’s middle section (Grand), the speaker’s sexuality and gender are depicted as a tournament field as much as scenes from an adult-film. In “How to Be a Heartbreaker,” he writes:
Picture them evenly matched, evenly
Imagine them always knowing where
the hot blast will hit before the sword
is even drawn—a God’s aim across
As screenwriter Christopher Vogler writes: “This is the moment [in the heroic narrative] that the balloon goes up, the ship sails, the romance begins…” From this section on, there’s no turning back. These poems strut, sweat, break the skin, and batter the heart, offering us an auteur’s-eye view of the hero’s transformation, from “a slow, slow boy measuring only the belt and the muscle…” to a self-possessed adolescent, his “chest, another dark field flowering, another sturdy mesa rising.” And ultimately, to a mature, fully realized champion, with this poem dedicated to Rudy:
Let’s call each other grown among
bodies that say nothing else. Muscle
mature, bristling curved, capable
capable. Let’s call each other grown
For all the internal erotic and emotional terrain Hernandez’ writing covers, the poet consistently keeps one eye trained on the road home. In “Hereafter,” his achingly beautiful hymn to his origin home, the poet transcends the imposed hyphenates of his Indigenous Mexican-American-Queer navigation to sum up how light and love insist and persist their way through everything:
there are bean sprouts growing
below the corn stalks, fields
of wild tuberose and the boulder ledges
of our river. The night filled
with oil lamp bright, noon songs
incomplete without some light
radio static. It will always be Jalisco.
I will just go out and say it. Say
that the eyes of those who are mine
adjust not to an ascent
as much as a return. After all
of our years, we finally set out
toward the right horizon.
Michele Karas is a New York-based poet and writer with roots in Southern California. Her poems have appeared in Mid-American Review, Northern Virginia Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Thrush, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, and elsewhere. Karas holds an MFA from CUNY – The City College of New York and currently works as a messaging strategist for a global television network. She is a poetry editor with The Night Heron Barks.
Gustavo Hernandez is the author of Flower Grand First (Moon Tide Press) and the micro-chapbook Form His Arms (Ghost City Press). Gustavo’s poems have previously been published in Reed, Acentos Review, Sonora Review, and other publications. He was born in Jalisco, Mexico and lives in Southern California. hernandezpoetry.com