HUSTLE: Poems by David Tomas Martinez
Sarabande Books, Inc., 2014; 95 pp
Reviewed by Wesley Rothman
At nine, I had no language for lonely,
but could watch cars swim laps forever.
David Tomas Martinez’s HUSTLE is a language for lonely and a lonely language among poetry’s canon and contemporary din. Martinez folds a young lexicon, an underknown or ignored lingo into the mix of poetry—and it is needed. These poems are x-rays and archives, chronicling and holding up to the sun a life of discovering manhood—from SoCal Chicano identity, to gang-life, to father pains and fatherhood, to work in a shipyard. The speaker of these poems is unflinchingly intimate with violence, with the pulse of freeways, with machismo and memory. Martinez elegizes his earlier selves, mourning the lessons and brotherhood; scrutinizing society’s motto: “Everything in its box and everything in its proper time;” grinning for past, simple pleasures and their profound, if haunting, aftermaths; following a language-head as he finds his way to manhood.
Early on, HUSTLE hustles out a sequence of “CALAVERAS,” meaning skulls, often referring to the sugar or clay mementos made to celebrate the dead, but also a literary form, accessible and mischievous, recalling the dead and poking fun at the living:
A car wants to be stolen.
Where is the window to break
in your life?
Memory is a fist to the eye.
His sharpest tool was tomorrow.
Memories are sharp, just as Martinez’s storytelling, his images and metaphor, bring us sharply into the parks, freeways, and yards of Southeast San Diego, onto the lanes of Houston, into dry docks and Navy berths. Loneliness has birthed a language in HUSTLE, and that language’s cadences, inflections, idioms, and philosophy pulse through this collection, perhaps most poundingly in “MOTION AND REST,”
“Fresh gestures” and hard poses appear on every page, but not simply for intimidation or style—though those can be revealing and beautiful—rather, to show that the mind and heart are muscles lifting weights and bulking up toward freedom, a true freedom beyond penal codes and court houses. When the lonely mind and heart find language—as they do throughout HUSTLE—singing becomes an option, a body can share its hard and hard-won wisdom:
Some say it is better
to be carried by six
than judged by twelve.
“FORGETTING WILLIE JAMES JONES”