Benjamin Saenz writes, "In the desert, we live in a desert of translation." That is exactly what he sets out to do, in this, his third book of poems—translate experience into words. He writes of history and learning and death. He writes of loss and knowledge and the difficulties of coming to terms with the harsh and untamable landscape of the border. Ultimately, his elegies are "stones that praise the lives" of those who have given him words.
In the tradition of Latin American literature, Saenz believes that poetry should be part of the public discourse and not shunted aside as irrelevant to our country's larger issues. Here he maps out personal, political and spiritual histories. He speaks about political and literary heroes, anti-heroes and everyday people, and he remembers his growing up Chicano in the Catholic world of the U.S./Mexico Border. From these elements, he creates a philosophy of speaking publicly as poet.
To write well about your life, you need to have a life worth writing about. On that score, Saenz, a son of the Rio Grande border, hits pay dirt. At that border, poverty meets wealth more starkly than anywhere else except, perhaps, at Israel’s fences between Jews and Palestinians. When a writer there speaks of himself, he can speak of his people and how the border defines them. That Saenz does in verse and prose poems distinguished by simple mellifluousness, clear imagery, and effortless balancing of the oracular and the personal voices.
He writes of a boy asking important questions, loving the names in books, and figuring out why his father quit drinking (for love, though love makes nothing easy), and that boy is more imaginably him than the first-person speaker in other poems, an “I” that includes every border native who knows why the subjects of the book’s many elegies—figures ranging from Denise Levertov to Cesar Chavez to Maria de Guadalupe Cenizeros, “citizen of Smeltertown”—are important to their identity.
Luis J. Rodriguez, author of Always Running, La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A.
“Elegies in Blue” again establishes Benjamin Saenz as the “must-read” poet of our times: a man who sings truths, often clothed in discomfort, but nonetheless what we need to save us. Large and full, these poems arrest our hearts and rouse us to act. Poems that can do that belong among the best.
These poems, bold and brave, are full of crisp and clean words. Mestizo words. They vibrate with the language of the border, that code-switching linguistic juggling that we who speak that language engage in unconsciously and without excuse.
The Midwest Book Review
ELEGIES IN BLUE is a remarkable selection of free-verse poetry that transcribes the author's life experience of learning, absorbing history, growing, experiencing joy, and suffering terrible loss. Creating poetry akin to elegies in that it praises the lives of those who helped the author find the right words, ELEGIES IN BLUE is a book of memorable, dynamic verse.
To date, Sáenz has split his literary career almost in half between prose and poetry. The latest addition to his corpus melds the two genres into two dozen poems largely composed in prose. Liberally expanding the application of the term elegy, Sáenz casts a tone of lament, sometimes subtly and sometimes overtly, over most of the subject matter—childhood, innocence, family, life, death. This mood culminates in the ubi sunt (“where are”) motif in the poem “At the Grave of the Twentieth Century,” which pays homage at the graves of the likes of Karl Marx, JFK, the poet’s father-in-law, and his grandfather.
Thematically perpetuating his preoccupation with politics and ardently defending the Mexican American border community of which he is an integral part, these poems are drenched in much firmer reality and overlaid with more indignation than his recent novel Carry Me Like Water. Recommended especially for public libraries serving Mexican American populations, who will relate to the themes of restlessness and alienation.