Then, Now, 1980s, Contemporary Hunger

 

 

The Wind Shifts is a collection of contemporary Latino poetry. Each poet presents a variety of poetic forms depicting a wide range of environments and lives. The poets included in The Wind Shifts use avante guard free verse to describe scenes of suburban and city life as well as sonnets and sestinas to depict life on the border or supporting a family on well fare. Any claim of consistency between the authors seems relate back to a portrayal of their “latinidad”. However, this generic umbrella over all the pieces can sometimes forces certain themes, such as the loss of body or forced cultural mobilization, erasing the speaker’s subjective presence in the poem.

 

John Olivares Espinoza’s poem “Contemporary American Hunger” is a good example of contemporary latina/o poetry: it makes use of the subjective experience (the splitting of the burgers between the speaker and his brother) as well as the shared “American” experience (eating McDonald’s food and playing in ball pits). In the first line Espinoza recognizes the commonplaceness of his situation, labeling his family as, “…the newest broke Mexicans to settle in Indio”. The remainder of the first stanza details speaker’s childlike perceptive as being, “unaware of our budget” but nevertheless, still drawn to the fast food, “For what our TV eyes believed to be the best lunch in town”. I wonder how Espinoza imagines children. The characters in “Contemprorary American Hunger” seem to be passive and uncritical: not that kids have much inclination to act as such, but it is told from the child’s point of view. The ignorance if the situation is very childish but the speaker seems to be responding to the event much later in life. Although “Contemporary American Hunger” takes place in the past (evident by the price of the burgers) the speaker’s want for McD’s is one established by the same commercialism still used today. As a “hip-high” child, the speaker cannot see the conditions making his wishes so difficult to achieve. The speaker and his brother’s desire for McDonald’s is placed in their imagination by the television ads that cause a Pavlov’s dog reaction of “salivating as we thought of the Argentine beef”. The burgers act as“American” supplements for “potato tacos” the speaker’s family usually has on Saturday night. The McD burgers fall short of nutrition but exceed the family’s financial means. The speaker claims satisfaction in the final stanza: “Satisfied, we ventured through a rainbow/ of tubes and balls with other kids,/ Their stomaches full of BigMacs or Happy Meals./ But we we’re happy too” (26-9). By eating at McDonald’s the speaker is allowed access to a certain American content normally unavailable to him through his common Saturday meal of potato tacos. The poem points the reader’s attention towards the aspect emotional satisfaction by questioning it from the point of view the person paying for the speaker’s joy: his mother. The speaker states, “Did Mom sit there and watch us play?” to ask the reader about the cost of the simple pleasure of a cheeseburger. The final observation reveals the retrospective opinion of the speaker, “I only remember her fingers neatly wrapping/The remaining half in the greasy red and yellow paper,/ Then tucking the lump away in her purse, sustenance for later.” The final description of the mother saving the two burger halves changes the reader’s perception from that of the speaker to his mother; while he and his brother imagine MacDonald’s as a welcomed luxury serving the purpose of satisfying their hunger, the mother tucks the lump into her purse as sustenance. The speaker’s childhood delight in the burgers in the last stanza is seen in contrast to the mother’s recognition of the burgers as more than an indulgence, but a much needed food resource needed to sustain her boys later. The hunger in the poem is contemporary because the satisfaction the speaker seeks is immediate while the mother’s preservation of the burgers as “sustenance for later” makes the American luxury necessary for survival.

The ending to this poem I find very interesting. “Contemporary American Hunger” makes great use of the child speaker as well as the speaker’s sardonic jokes that are reflective on his childhood. The undefined age of the speaker frees the poem from time, allowing it to focus on ideology instead of structure. However, the last line is an observation, not an call to arms, or anything that would force people to take notice (unless you already noticed). What does presenting an observation at the end of a highly politicized poem mean for all the content that precedes it? How does this leave the poem open? How does it close off the poem from the reader? I believe Espinoza’s poem “Contemporary American Hunger” asks many questions, one of the most important is about visibility. The final scene of “Contemporary American Hunger” is in someways a very intimate one between the speaker and his mother. There is no mentioning of other witnesses to the speaker’s mother’s actions. Because of her sons’ desire for immediate satisfaction (the expensive burgers) the mother of the speaker takes them to McDonald’s to fulfill their dreams and stomachs. However she knew that her sons would be hungry later and need food. Just like in America the luxury has become the standard. I feel like the poem also questions the idea of “contemporary” by using it in the title of a poem about a past event. The distortion of time in “Contemporary American Hunger” gives it temporal ambiguity but the poem is also dated by the price of the burgers. The co-existence of these two elements in the same poem is what makes it my favorite example of contemporary Latino/a poetry.

 

 

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