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Displacement Is Part of the Experience

an open book lies flat on a table
Photo credit: Daniel Wehner. Shared under a Creative Commons license.

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Eduardo Corral, a poet and assistant professor of English at NC State. We are sharing Corral’s essay and poem here to help us celebrate poetry on World Poetry Day. You can find two other posts related to NC State and World Poetry Day here.

Slow Lightning, my first book, came out in 2012. Over the past seven years, I’ve been lucky enough to give readings at universities, cultural centers, neon-loud bars, gardens, community colleges and public squares. I’ve read to undergraduate students, the soused, the general public, high school students, the sober, the willing, the not-so-willing and graduate students.

No matter the venue, no matter the audience, there’s one question I always get asked: “I don’t read Spanish, so how am I supposed to read your code-switching poems?” I understand how some monolingual readers might feel dislocated when they encounter the Spanish in my poems. The Spanish becomes an obstacle; it derails the reading experience, it breaks the illusion of losing oneself in a book.

Displacement is part of the reading experience. It happens every time we stumble upon an allusion or reference outside our body of knowledge. It happens when we encounter foreign-to-us words or phrases. It happens when a writer upends our expectations for a certain genre or a literary tradition or a recognizable aesthetic approach. Displacement does uproot us – it derails the reading experience. And for some readers, it can be frustrating to be pushed out of a book; contact with the unknown produces anxiety.

Displacement, for me, is a site of pleasure. As a reader, I enjoy working my way back into the book – I love searching for the meaning of an unknown word or allusion. I reread the page in search of hidden clues and hints. Displacement leads, at first, to bewilderment. But by engaging deeply with the book, I acquire new insight into the book and enlarge what I know about language and the world. Displacement sharpens the mind and refreshes our sense of wonder.

In Colorado My Father Scoured and Stacked Dishes

in a Tex-Mex restaurant. His co-workers,
unable to utter his name, renamed him Jalapeño.

If I ask for a goldfish, he spits a glob of phlegm
into a jar of water. The silver letters

on his black belt spell Sangrón. Once, borracho,
at dinner, he said: Jesus wasn’t a snowman.

Arriba Durango. Arriba Orizaba. Packed
into a car trunk, he was smuggled into the States.

Frijolero. Greaser. In Tucson he branded
cattle. He slept in a stable. The horse blankets

oddly fragrant: wood smoke, lilac. He’s an illegal.
I’m an Illegal-American. Once, in a grove

of saguaro, at dusk, I slept next to him. I woke
with his thumb in my mouth. ¿No qué no

tronabas, pistolita? He learned English
by listening to the radio. The first four words

he memorized: In God We Trust. The fifth:
Percolate. Again and again I borrow his clothes.

He calls me Scarecrow. In Oregon he picked apples.
Braeburn. Jonagold. Cameo. Nightly,

to entertain his cuates, around a campfire,
he strummed a guitarra, sang corridos. Arriba

Durango. Arriba Orizaba. Packed into
a car trunk, he was smuggled into the States.

Greaser. Beaner. Once, borracho, at breakfast,
he said: The heart can only be broken

once, like a window. ¡No mames! His favorite
belt buckle: an águila perched on a nopal.

If he laughs out loud, his hands tremble.
Bugs Bunny wants to deport him. César Chávez

wants to deport him. When I walk through
the desert, I wear his shirt. The gaze of the moon

stitches the buttons of his shirt to my skin.
The snake hisses. The snake is torn.