New American Poets

New American Poets: Tim Z. Hernandez

Mama's Boy

They say I'm a mama's boy
          like it's a bad thing, when all along
                  I thought that's what a man was.
They say my skin was made from goat's milk
                  & dandelions
                  and that my eyes were plucked
                  from cherry blossoms in the month of February.

A mama's boy they say,
  with hands too soft for picking
    legs thin as sprigs of mesquite.
      They say my voice lacks
    the asphalt grit of courage, that I
      should work on it
        and that my name is too short
          to call me by name,
                                and they're right—

When they say
          I was born with a hole in my heart
        the size of a tiny fish eye.
          They're right when they shout, Mama's boy
    and poke at the tenderness that is my back
          claiming that my hair was quilted from a beggar's scarf
          and that my smile was strewn
                      from tender husks of sugar cane
                                     it's true—

Since I've fondled and groped at the inside
    of my mama's womb,
    just a squirming confirmation of father's lust,
  I've scheming ways to retreat
         to that warm familiar sack of membrane
                      and love manifold.

This is why
  I lead with the docile nose of a house cat,
 speak my intentions
         in raw doggerel utterances
      from the stiff
                      core of a loose
                                 taciturn tongue—
  Why I tweeze the nose hair clean
    behind locked doors,
      using the reflection off surgical steel
                                                  & limp
                                            toilet handles,
      lather my jaw with baking powder and lava rock,
              skin tax
                         for the morning peel
                    because I am soft
                                            —zephyr soft
                                and teeming with secrets.

I am the watermark of houses submerged,
    my whimpering howl a rivulet of what remains
      from the hidden
  tidal tears of men,
    which is why they do not lie when they say
    my feeble knees are the silken steel
    edges of grandfather's worn plow discs
      tease that my stomach is a sofa cushion
            stuffed with the down of a thousand geese
     and that my nipples
        are the fragile embroidery
                                of Victorian gowns.

My words, they say, these boyish longings
      do not pounce from the gut like

            alloy      drum      fire
                  candy      wine     lingo

do not come on like

            razor      neck      nicks
              splashed    in allspice   fire

will not crowbar the ribcage
           or shoehorn the chunk boot
                         or adorn the rearview in
           deer      hoof      rabbit
              knuckle     luck     charms

Instead, they are made
      from sugar water & pomegranate
      lust, jelly for the dawn song
      warm rhythms
      for the doubtful eye
                & the accusing heart—

And because of this
                they jab their crooked fingers in my face
                    and shout, Mama's boy!
                like it's a bad thing
                         when all along, you see,
                                    I thought that's what a man was.

Reprinted with the permission of the author. All rights reserved.

Introduction to the work of Tim Z. Hernandez
Major Jackson

What is most prominent in Tim Hernandez's poetry is how he gorgeously underscores the entwined relationship between the journeys of everyday people, especially the farmworker communities of the San Joaquin Valley, and the land in which they live, love, die, and breathe. His poetry does more than dignify lives; it elevates their joys and sufferings to the artful realm of enchantment, and yet, there is nothing pretentious or hollow about his poems. With an intimate appetite for the fantastical, his tone switches between the reverent and awe-inspired to the comedic and whimsical. I count him as one of the best emergent poets writing today.

Tim Z. Hernandez

Growing up I wasn't one of those well-read literary types, not in high school, and not in those liminal years after, when I found myself in a void, a space of total possibility. I was not well read at all, but well read-to. My first encounters with literature were through voice, expression, and embodiment. It was my mother, Lydia Hernandez, a self-made woman and product of the harsh New Mexico landscapes, who believed in the transformative magic of language and narrative. And she would read to me during those long migrant road trips, field to field, across state lines and shifting landscapes. The whole way my father, Felix Hernandez, a sarcastic Tejano, spun these tales, these written words, off in new and strange directions. He was a consummate jokester, a stand-up comedian of the fields, and of family barbecues. But always, stories were at the heart of our family. This was my beginning.

Though I am a poet now, I did not/ do not think of writing in those terms. I only tinkered with poetry because it was the most accessible to me. It was immediate. A pencil. Paper. A few words. And I had something. And then one day, very early on, someone pointed at me and called me a poet. And I stood a little straighter because of it. My ears perked up because of it. My eyes widened to the experiences before me. That person was the poet, Juan Felipe Herrera. I camped out on his front door in Fresno. His wife, the Zen performance artist and poet, Margarita Luna Robles, invited me in and cooked me a breakfast of eggs with a fresh salsa. I never left. I slept on the couch with Rocko, the family dog, who would wake me each morning by licking my face clean of sleep. I had never seen so many books in one house before. I pocketed them, stuffed them in my socks, and still checked others out that I'd never return. They were well aware of my tranzas—my poetic swindling. They called it hunger. Accessibility. This word is key for me.

Later I studied poetry, then fiction and theater. I also pursued my visual arts tendencies and apprenticed with Bay Area master muralist Juana Alicia. In the end, the objective is not poetry for me, but connection, plain and simple. A word, an image, music, shadows, detritus—all of this is game. This is how my collection of poems, Skin Tax, was conceived. Words that sprang from bonfire conversations, anecdotes of intimacy, raw speak, macho ballads, ball games, scars, urgency.

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