The Identity of “Ahora”: Hi-Density Politics by Urayoán Noel

Hi-Density Politics

Hi-Density Politics
BY Urayoán Noel
(BlazeVOX, 2010)

Urayoán Noel is part high-octane performance poet and part formalist. Here’s a sample of a rant squeezed into the terza rima that opens his new collection, Hi-Density Politics:

Zapping off the statesman — Statements snowball —
Spurred by lo que nunca se traduce
Take note: this revolution’s temporal-lobal —

I traffic tics then trade up for a loosy —
Altering the chemistry —(no brainer!)
Seizuring the state —“O, say, can juicy?”

— p. 15

Threaded through this barrage of bilingual fragments and clipped phrases is a skilled use of sonic elements that include consonance, rhyme, and even meter (in the trochaic line endings: “se traduce,” “for a loosy”, and “say can juicy”).

But what stands out most, and is one of the major sources of delight in Noel’s work, is his playfulness. There is a sense that he will draw upon and combine any resource available to create a dizzying array of puns and wordplay. Here he pairs the colloquial “no brainer” with an anatomical term of the brain, “temporal-lobal,”; inserts the Spanish phrase “lo que nunca se traduce” (“what is never translated”); and creates the wonderful rhyme-pun of “loosy” and “O, say can juicy” which mimics the sound of someone with a Spanglish accent saying the first line of the U.S. national anthem.

Originally from Puerto Rico, Noel divides his time between upstate New York (where he teaches at the University at Albany, SUNY) and the South Bronx. He has strong ties to the Nuyorican spoken word scene. Those ties are evidenced in the intricate rhyme, wordplay and cadence that typify much of spoken word poetry.

Noel also has a very strong modernist aesthetic that pushes him to levels of experimentation far beyond what is found on the typical performance poetry stage. His energetic commitment to the new and disruptive is what makes this work so interesting.

In the bilingual poem “sitibodis” Noel uses the familiar format of showing the English poem with its Spanish equivalent next to it. He uses that format as a launching pad to violate expectations. Here is a selection:

ten cuidado, sitanido be careful, siti dweller
estate quieto be still and chill
no digas nada y dilo bien say nothing and say it well
no shoutouts for the wall st. crew tírale al corillo milla de oro
no bailouts no more me late que no hay rescate ya
la siti owns those bancos these benches are siti-owned
(sin “©”, tu sabes) (no “©,” you know)
siéntate en ellos sit down on them
son tuyos they’re yours

— p. 54

The translation from Spanish to English in the first three lines is colloquial but accurate. Interestingly, Noel has injected sonic elements into both the English (assonance and consonance in siti, it, chill, still, well) and the Spanish (assonance in cuidado, situando, quieto and dilo).

In the fourth and fifth lines, the poem becomes more strident and begins to rail against the government bailout of large financial institutions. As if to underscore the shift in tone, the columns switch: the English column gives the Spanish version and the Spanish column shows a rough English translation.

While the languages then return to their appropriate columns in the lines that follow, the blurring of languages continues. In the next lines Noel pulls off a very clever word play using the Spanish word “bancos.” The word translates in English to either benches or banks. In the English column Noel translates it as benches: “these benches are siti-owned.” However, following his complaint about financial bailouts, he is really talking about banks. Embedded in the line is a clear reference to one of the major bailout recipients, Citibank. Without saying it, the line surreptitiously and very cleverly communicates that “these benches are Citibank owned.”

Earlier I called him a formalist. One of the techniques he uses to hold together his wild associations is form. With the exception of the book’s first poem, he uses nontraditional, invented forms. A quick flip through the book reveals a high level of visual experimentation. Almost every poem creates a distinct visual impression. His forms include narrow, center aligned poems; a solid block of completely capitalized text; two-column poems designed for alternating voices; a poem set as a play script; and a poem in which empty brackets separate the phrases.

A notable one is “try city®,” a prose poem of 333 numbered sections with most sections containing only three words. Here is the ending:

319. skylines tend to 320. blend distend into 321. each other’s shudder 322. in time to catch 323. this simple ring: 324. taste the tone! 325. stone the state! 326. state our truth: 327. we’re factoid fictions 328. making meaning in 329. cities enclaves bodies 330. pawing slacks mechanically) 331. our birthright? flux 332. we’re waiting for 333. another hard-won breath

— pp. 23-24

As with “sitibodis,” he uses the form’s frame to both reinforce meaning and work against it. Sometimes a single thought is contained within an individual numbered unit; sometimes an idea runs across multiple units. However, the numbered sections and the wall-to-wall margins create the impression of an ordered, tightly controlled expression. It reminds me of looking at the outside of a city apartment building and getting an impression of order and balance, while a closer look at those who populate the building reveals wildly clashing values, attitudes and habits. The tension in Noel’s poems between form and content enacts the pressurized, overwhelming experience of the city.

Not all of Noel’s experimentation works. “trill set” is a thirteen-page poem created by reciting poems in Spanish from César Vallejo’s book Trilce into an English-language voice-recognition program. The program attempted to create English words from what was read into it. Noel took what came out and shaped it into poems. One might admire Noel’s drive for the new and different but the result offers little that is artistically very interesting.

“trill set” aside, Noel is interested in much more than experimentation’s wild ride. His key interest is identity — not a traditional identity such as being Puerto Rican, a New Yorker, or Nuyorican, but one that encompasses the barrage of experiences, influences, humiliations and joys that make up the urban experience, an identity of the moment.

it’s not a PR or NY thing
or a dark horse trojan flogged on blogs
because we’re all people of empires expired
we dance around their pyres
por ahora
because it’s the now that matters

(hi-din sites)

— p. 62

Throughout this impressive collection, Urayoán Noel overwhelms us with quickly shifting details and observations that enact life in the city. His goal is not to merely describe this world but to challenge how we perceive it and perceive ourselves in it. He wants, as he says in “babel o city (el gran concourse)” is to “unsettle belonging” (p. 29).

Hi-Density Politics is an energetic array of dislocating experiments and expressions wrapped in non-stop verbal gymnastics and playfulness. It is a collection that urges us not to deny the dislocation but to embrace it and use it as a way in which we identify ourselves.

this rupture is our one way out…

the many ways that we began
to make this music
this mawkish morning
when the storefronts should be closed
and the wounds should start to heal
today at last we are revealed
the shuffle of the city
finally becomes us
(hi-din sites)

— p. 66

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