It was both ironic and revealing to be reading this book while my TV screen was filled pro-immigrant demonstrations. Riley writes about the lives those immigrants actually lead, the streets and challenges they negotiate every day.
Riley puts us right down on those streets. This is visceral poetry, full of the sights and sounds of the barrio. Riley is especially tuned to the sounds of the street , sirens and helicopters, shouts and cries in multiple languages, and, most of all, the music, always drifting in from somewhere, or multiple somewheres: “Sirens and saxophones/singing/into guarded east side nights” (“The Low End”). “Mariachi muse (sic) riffs/ against the twilight/of an Olmec head nod” (“The Movement”).
But Riley’s ear extends to far more than street noise. A bilingual poet, he is especially attuned to the sounds of his poetry. Though written primarily in English, Riley freely uses Spanish when appropriate. One of his criteria is the sound of the words: “sonrisas,” “the en masse/gente de mase” (that’s really trilingual). And some Spanish words have not direct equivalent in English: “m’ijito,” “corridos.”
But mostly, Riley’s use of Spanish adds to the flavor and context of these poems. They are, after all, about a bilingual world.
The centerpiece of this book is the title poem, “Mahcic”, subtitled “A Mexipino Genealogy”, which traces his family from immigrant grandparents to his newly born son, named Mahcic. “Mahcic”, we are told in the beginning of the book, is Nahuatl for “something whole or complete” (which brings in yet another language and another word without equivalent in English). Implying, I guess, that Riley finds some sense of completion of his heritage in his son, and in this book.
But just as important to Riley’s themes is “Cuando Gananmos” (“When We Win”), which uses the lottery to describe the immigrant experience:
they’ll take their crumpled tickets home tonight
the numbers plucked
from memories and shame
someone behind a tv tray
within a damp apartment
will tune in to anticipate
the call of
days since their arrival
fake social security numbers
years when they were happy
Of course, the larger point is that immigration itself is like the lottery, hoping for the score that will change one’s life, make it a dream.