The Philosopher and The Poet: Junot Díaz’s This Is How You Lose Her

I used to divide my personality into two extremes: the philosopher and the poet. It was how I would defend myself when I did something to hurt someone. I argued that the hurt person had been wooed by my poet-self and hadn’t realized how frustratingly rational my philosopher-self could be.

Over time, I realized this distinction wasn’t satisfactory, and gradually began to consolidate the two selves. I think this consolidation was what drew me to hip-hop; if done right, the beauty of the lyricism and the story-telling (poetic) reveal some rational truth or argument about the world (philosophical).

It is this hip-hop aesthetic that draws me to Junot Díaz. Díaz’s most recent collection of short stories, This Is How You Lose Her does not shirk from this aesthetic. The collection focuses mostly on Yunior, Díaz’s narrator that he developed in both Drown and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. This collection, like Drown, has Yunior as the main character of most of the stories, but unlike Drown, many of the stories focus on Yunior’s early adult years.

Díaz’s prose is beautiful. Laden with slang, the pages have a beat to them. From the first paragraph, Díaz establishes himself as a language musician, effortlessly painting pictures with his rhythmic writing:

I’m not a bad guy. I now that sounds–defensive, unscrupulous–but it’s true. I’m like everybody else: weak, full of mistakes, but basically good. Magdalena disagrees though. She considers me a typical Dominican man: a sucio, an asshole. See, many months ago, when Magda was still my girl, when I didn’t have to be careful about almost anything, I cheated on her with this chick who had tons of eighties free-style hair. Didn’t tell Magda about it, either. You know how it is. A smelly bone like that, better off buried in the backyard of your life. Magda only found out because homegirl wrote her a fucking letter. And the letter had details. Shit you wouldn’t even tell your boys drunk.

I’m a sucker for this sort of thing.

Díaz’s language sets up one of many dichotomies that exists within his writing. Of course, Díaz’s entire task is to wreck these dichotomies. In this way the slang versus beauty distinction collapses into a truth in which his writing is beautiful because of his use of slang.

Similarly, Yunior waffles between stories of his youth in which racism manifests itself in terms of poverty and stories of his adulthood in which racism manifests itself in bigoted remarks from white people. This, too, is a false distinction. Both types of racism are undercurrents in all of the stories. The first type explains why he feels so alone in his adulthood and the second explains why he feels like such an outsider in his childhood.

Or there is the dichotomy that exists between Yunior and his older brother Rafa. When Rafa appears in the story, he foils Yunior in such a way that Yunior appears effeminate and bookish. Rafa is the model of manliness and is frequently characterized as a womanizer. But in the stories without Rafa, Yunior himself is a womanizer. A formula quickly appears: Yunior + Rafa = bookish Yunior, Yunior – Rafa = womanizing Yunior. But in the last story in the collection, Díaz obliterates this dichotomy as well. Yunior is a professor at Harvard by this time, but in the very beginning of “The Cheater’s Guide to Love,” Yunior admits to sleeping with fifty women while dating his fiancee. In this story, Yunior is both bookish and womanizing.

Díaz also narrates two of the stories–“Alma” and “The Cheater’s Guide to Love”–in the second person. This option fits his simplistic style really well. And it complements Yunior’s self-deprecation.

The magic in Díaz is that somewhere in the stories about women and ex-girlfriends riddled with slang, we get truth–the sorrow and confusion in a brother’s death, the difficulties and triumphs of immigrants from the Dominican Republic, and, of course, lost love.

Reflections, or, He Shoots Lightning From His Feet

I want to pack up every thought I’ve had in a box and place it in a corner where I will one day forget about it and when I finally rediscover it I will assume it’s a box of old basketball trophies (the kind you get for participating) and because you can’t do anything with old basketball trophies I will put it out with the trash and never have to think about it again.

I want to pull back all the words I’ve ever spoken as if they existed on measuring tape and I could push a little button on the side of my head and they would all come back to me and even if the shock of all of those words hurt me a little and made me feel a little dizzy at least they would stop hurting anyone they have stung.

I want to walk backwards through life and watch as everything I’ve ever done unravels and I want to know how it feels for the pressure to decrease steadily steadily steadily steadily.

I want to line up every person I’ve ever known and I want to stand on trial before them so they can judge whether I have helped or hurt them not because I want to know if I am a good person or a bad one but because I want to know how to maximize the helping and minimize the hurting.

I want to write down everything and everyone I have ever loved so that I can chart it [love] and diagram it [love] and dissect it [love] and maybe figure out what it [love] means.

I want to curl up into God like He is a king-sized bed and I am a three-year-old child and I want to feel all of my secrets wash away under me deep under the covers into long-forgotten and never-traveled bed-spaces.

I want to gather all the people I have seen but whose names I do not know and feed them cake and throw a party with small talk and then later big talk and then much later tears and when I leave I will know many new names and I will have made many new friends and fallen in love perhaps twice or more.

And I want to dance so hard that I create a storm and no one will be able to get near me and they will look at me and they will say that storm used to be a boy but then he danced and now he shoots lightning from his feet.

So Eden Sank To Grief

I have an odd fascination with things like sand castles and ice sculptures
I assume it’s because I usually find myself dedicating time to things that will only last a few moments
I guess that’s why I fall in love with things that will never love me back

-Ruby Francisco, My Honest Poem

I want to write about religion, but I’m not very good at that so I’m going to write about poetry instead.

I like poetry. Some of you invariably do, too. I used to write a blog of poetry. It existed here. Then I got rid of all the poetry and started this blog. People liked the poetry, but it was nowhere near as popular as this. People would tell me my writing was beautiful or that they respected my words. No one was ever inspired.

I think most people, if forced to choose between Fifty Shades of Grey, The Hunger Games, and The Collected Works of John Donne would pick the first two every time (I might, too!). Unlike some, I don’t think this reflects a spiritual decline in society. I think poetry must answer for this lack of interest.

First, there is a growing amount of bad poetry. Back in John Donne’s day, it was difficult to publish poetry. There weren’t a lot of presses, and even if you were a great writer, you probably spent a couple of years just circulating your stuff around family and friends. And if you were a woman like Mary Wroth (I call her the 17th century Nicki Minaj), you spent many years circulating your stuff. Then, maybe, after you died, someone would get it in his head (usually this was a male thing) to publish your work in a folio together. Obviously, you wouldn’t start this long arduous process if you hadn’t practiced and studied your craft and knew what you were doing.

That’s not how it works today. Today, anyone can start a blog. Bad poetry gets published all the time. If you want a physical book, you can self-publish. It costs nothing to publish an e-book. Bad poetry is everywhere. The noise is loud. We turn to novels and movies and television shows because even if they are poorly written, at least they have a driving plot. Poetry usually doesn’t. It depends on its words.

Second, poetry is meant to be acutely relevant. Sure, the poets of olde wrote lofty poems inspired by women or intense epics meant to excite (although, I would argue that epics are still alive and well in the form of novels and movies). But, many of the poems from long ago that we still study today were written in response to a current event, a friend’s death, a wife’s passing or leaving.

I don’t think we know how to write relevant poetry anymore. The 24-hour news cycle is partly to blame here (although, what can’t we blame on the 24-hour news cycle). It’s difficult to take the necessary amount of time writing about an event when it’s just going to be dusted away in a couple of days anyway. Also, I think it’s difficult to write about experiences while incorporating everything that constitutes modern living. If I write a poem that simply mentions iPhones, it will either be taken as a condemnation or a celebration of them. Unfortunately, poetry desperately needs to mention iPhones to stay current. We shouldn’t start writing about iPhones. We should write about the things we’ve always written about – nature v. man, death, life, love, heartache, loneliness, war, anguish – in short, human emotion. But human emotion is greatly wrapped up in technology now and our poetry should reflect that.

Third, we don’t have time for reflection. Poetry requires space. Lots and lots of space. Poetry is not easy. It’s not something you can understand just after one reading. And I think many of us don’t understand why we should put in the time when we can read things that we can understand immediately. The truth is we don’t know how to discern. If we knew what was bad poetry and what was good poetry, if we knew that when we put the time into a poem, we would get a higher truth, I think we would be more likely to reflect. But we don’t know. So it’s our fault and poetry’s fault. We should create space for it, and poetry should honor that space.

Poetry is meant to inspire. It’s meant to illuminate something bigger and better than ourselves. That’s why we can’t lose it. Poetry is life. That’s what it means when we say a sunset is “poetic.” It means that the beauty inspires us. We can’t lose the language to say that.

I think religion is a lot like poetry.