In celebration of LSUP’s 80th anniversary the staff selected 80 of our most memorable titles. Adding to our “Around the Press in 80 Books” blog series, Editor Neal Novak writes about Heredities.
Sometimes a poetry collection can evoke a general mood, feeling, or thought. For me, J. Michael Martinez’s Heredities, the winner of the 2009 Walt Whitman Award, brought to mind a single word: excavation. Martinez, I recognized after reading just a few poems, was laboring to unearth his Latino roots by digging deep into a past obscured by historical narratives, cultural myths, and ancient languages. I could almost feel the dry desert dirt in my eyes and the grit in my teeth.
The beautifully crafted lines found in this collection shimmer and sparkle, making the reader almost overlook the fact much of it grapples with dark subjects. Disease decimates human bodies, individuals’ religiosity is bent and then broken, and conquistadores foolishly attempt to “civilize” an already civilized world. All the while, Martinez flings around stanzas, lines, and words—some land at the edge of a page, others underneath a cryptic Arabic number. Vertical bars act as spades that plunge deep through the middle of poems. Heredities even features illustrations of various human bone structures, which the author describes as “Ligaments Connecting the God’s Spine to Creation.”
Some poets might employ such devices to surprise readers and evoke a particular sensation—an approach that surely possesses its own merits. But this isn’t Martinez’s aim. The odd spacing, unusual elements, and inventive layout are, it seems, the author’s way of indicating to readers a great deal of effort must be exerted to get to the bottom of these poems. “Want a shovel?” Martinez seems to be asking. Take my advice: say yes, roll up your sleeves, and keep your eyes on the ground. You never know what you’ll find.
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