The Tijuana Book of the Dead

tijuana-book-of-the-deadMy sister gave me this book. “I don’t read a lot of poetry,” she said. “I guess it doesn’t say much to me. But this poetry — this is my language.”

Luis Alberto Urrea writes novels, poems, and short stories. The Tijuana Book of the Dead is poetry, but it has a narrative flow to it. This is border poetry, though it’s interested in bridges as well as borders, and it takes us on a sort of tour of Tijuana: back alleys, canyons, the lawns and suburbs of Los Angeles, deserts, people commuting on the bus to work, people just out of prison, people waiting for miracles or jobs or taxis, people eating chili or green salsa or tomatoes or melted cheese on Wonder bread. We hear the language telling us the stories of these people and these places. Most of the poems in this collection are in English, but a few are in Spanish — I had a friend translate a couple for me, and they’re exceptionally lovely, nodding to Cuban poetry. Some are a fabulous, relaxed mixture:

Y los muchachos cling

To the cantina’s jukebox heart, sing:

We never go nowhere we never see nothing

But work: these fingers bleed every daylong day,

Aching from la joda of the harvest –


Y la muerte, esa puta que nos chifla

From the bus station balcony, from I-10,

From Imperial Ave. truck lot behind the power station,

From waterbreak delirium, from short-hoe

Genuflections down pistolbarrel fields –

Imperial Ave. truck lot behind the power station. Nice.

The imagery is sometimes lyrical, sometimes mystical, sometimes straight from the daily grind, occasionally grotesque. The voices are those of everyday people, usually of the author himself and the people around him: the vatos, as he says, the people who never thought they’d find themselves in a poem. He likes haiku, like these about Chicago:

Jackson & Harlem

I will fuck you up

Come back here motherfucker

You bout to get served

Ogden & Western

Oil change and filter —

$39 special!

Coffee and donuts

Chicago Sun-times

Killed wife, girl, in-laws —

Several hard hammer-blows —

Insulted manhood

There’s humor and tenderness in these poems, but there’s anger, too. “Definition” tells us that “Illegal Alien, adj./n.” is “A term by which/ An invading colonial force/ Vilifies/ Indigenous cultures/ By identifying them as/ An invading colonial force.” The repetition and the line breaks make the poem snarl.

I’ll close with my favorite poem. I loved this for all kinds of reasons, but two stand out: one is the idea of naming the nameless, and the other is the idea that the afterlife is a town in Mexico where the poet’s grandfather is in charge. See if you can find this book, and see what you think about it.

There is a town in Mexico

where no one ever dies, and those who have

passed on pass back through

the cottonwood square where alamos trees

are whitewashed halfway up

their trunks, and those few awkward dead

the world coughs up stop

by a bench where my grandfather sits

at a black typewriter and a stack

of oystershell colored sheets. “Name,”

he says as he rolls the page

with that ancient sound, that machine

of poetry and dreams taking its morning taste

of forever. And those inarticulate dead

who made it through mango trees, agaves spiked

a dusty jade, past snapping turtles

in the huerta’s bog, scratch their heads,

try to remember their names. Any name

will do. My grandfather, for example,

calls John the Baptist “Juanito.” Zapata

never comes to town, or he’d get a name as well.

The dead call themselves their own true names:

Honeysuckle, Hummingbird, Wind,

Coyote, Blue Deer. My grandfather types.

Once they sign the page, these few

scoop a drink from the cool stone

fountain, shade their eyes, and stare

at all those shiny

forgotten coins.



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6 Responses to The Tijuana Book of the Dead

  1. Jeanne says:

    I like the mixture of Spanish and English in the part you quote. The volume sounds interesting.

    • Jenny says:

      I don’t read remotely as much poetry as you do, so I thought of you when I read it. You might try it — I’d be interested in what you thought.

  2. Christy says:

    I like the haikus and the combination of Spanish and English in the excerpt you chose. I had Urrea’s Into the Beautiful North checked out from the library last year but never got around to it. He was at the National Book Festival in D.C. and a friend saw him there and loved his talk. I’ve heard more and more good things about his writing since then.

  3. Aw, this makes me happy. I read his book Into the Beautiful North in 2015 and thought it was just terrific — I’d expected it to be really heartbreaking, and overall it was hopeful and cheerful and all good things. These excerpts are beautiful too. What an awesome, well-rounded writer he is.

    • Jenny says:

      You’re really convincing me to try Into the Beautiful North next. I hadn’t heard of it before now and it sounds great!

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