Northern New Mexico’s a bastard of a place, but only recently has its literature begun to reflect its polyglot origins. The fact that the region’s bellwether remains The Milagro Beanfield War, written by an Anglo more than 25 years ago, suggests a field over-ripe for harvest.
Enter Levi Romero, in a cherry ’56 lowrider Chevy. Romero’s A Poetry of Remembrance, just out from UNM Press, is but the first offering in what (if UNMP’s spring catalog is an indication) promises to be a watershed year for the many faces—and voices—of northern New Mexico.
Romero acts as an observant and wry narrator, but mostly steps back and lets others speak for themselves. Each of the book’s five sections offers a different perspective: the first exploring lives altered by time, illness and, inevitably, death; a second from the perspectives of students and teachers; the third (and strongest) an extended riff on lowriders—both the cars and their owners—from a unique insider point of view; the fourth a series of found poems; and a final section, as its name implies, a poetry of remembrance.
Using the hybrid New Mexico Spanish/English unique to the region, Romero has created a work that’s as much oral history as it is poetry collection. He says his “literary senses (are) startled awake via !a la maquina, a la regarda, a la mustard!” A rusted 1949 Chevy Fleetline, rusting in an arroyo, is rendered holy when Romero’s grandmother tells him, “Este era el carro del Levi.”
Romero says his poems come from “always trying to listen, always trying to be in tune.” Not one to “take anything for granted,” Romero believes that “poetry exists in the darkest of places.” As someone who “loves to hear people talking,” though, he also recognizes that being in the moment allows him to sometimes capture their essence on the page.
Romero notes that his architectural training (he teaches architecture at UNM) complements his writing: “Architecture makes me more aware of the relationship between nature and the man-built environment, whether it’s moving from the abstract to the concrete, from the real to surreal, or how people and social conditions respond to the built environment.”
Romero is delighted his current research in cultural landscapes at UNM has in effect taken him home again, this time to study old maps and surveys from Embudo and Dixon. Every place name connects with stories Romero heard from his own family growing up. “I recognize the names, even though they’ve been dead for more than a hundred years; I recognize the stories even though the people are gone.” Romero’s “poetry of remembrance” means that “those people continue to live ... continue to live on as distinct people” because he’s now recorded the stories he’s heard.
Levi Romero will read from and sign A Poetry of Remembrance at Bookworks (4022 Rio Grande NW) on Thursday, Jan. 15, at 7 p.m.