A poem that moves between languages has a special mystery. As a Mexican American writer, the Spanish/English code-switch speaks to me in a personal, almost mystical way. Through its agility, I feel the fluidity and tension of dual language, culture, myth, and perception. I sense the poem’s exploration of “otherness,” but also its “both-ness,” which especially fascinates me. What type of experience would compel a writer to enmesh two languages to communicate meaning? What is gained through the mergence, or the mezcla (mix), and the semi-obscurity of blending languages? I think that through code-switching, the poet inhabits dual identities simultaneously and “appears” to readers as constantly transfigured. This means that a code-switching poem is a shapeshifting poem, and in that sense, poetry is made metaphysical. 

Code-switching, or moving between more than one language in a poem, is an inherently daring move. The writer risks losing or alienating readers, obscuring the poem’s message, or skewing its ultimate landing and interpretation. Yet, poets who achieve this shapeshift imbue their poems with multi-textural meaning and voice that extends beyond literal translation. This act of linguistic agility often defies and invites multiple interpretations. It creates separation, mystery, and play. It imbues the poem with cultural nuance, regional parlance, idiosyncrasy, phrasing, music, humor, and voice. Poets who code-switch fearlessly and are masters of this linguistic fluidity include Eduardo C. Corral, Natalie Diaz, Iliana Rocha, and Natalie Scenters-Zapico. Eduardo C. Corral’s stunning “Testaments Scratched into a Water Station Barrel,” from his book Guillotine, is one example of an arresting English to Spanish code-switching poem.

In “Testaments,” Corral explores the stories of people displaced from Mexico along the borderlands of the United States. The “testaments” described in the poems revolve around graffiti and random messages scrawled onto water stations scattered throughout the desert. In this twenty-five-page poem, there is an arresting sense of loneliness and anonymous yet personal anguish. We share the visions of a speaker who is lost, ill, exiled, thirsty, hungry, afraid, wandering, and desperately lonely as he staggers between borders and cultures. The language mesh that happens in “Testaments” is deeply poignant. Diane Suess calls this an “erotics of loneliness” and says of the poem’s striking calligrams that blur walls of words in both English and Spanish, “it’s as if I’m reading through smoke, through tears” (Corral, back cover).

One of these calligrams creates a blurred cross shape using the word “clavo,” or nail. Running through the center of the cross is the phrase “Me falta un clavo para mi cruz,” or “I’m missing a nail for my cross.” Another juxtaposes random graffiti from the borderlands like “BUILD THE WALL STOP DRUGS” above “chinga tu madre gringo ™” (Corral 15). Another calligram in the poem, composed of the speaker’s haunted thoughts and prayers, says “Déjame viver, Señora de Las Sombras,” or “Let me live, Lady of Shadows” (Corral 23). The speaker tells The Lady of the Shadows (which we can interpret as death) “no hay dinero / ni trabajo” followed by “the dead gather.” This heartache and anguish are raw, and straddle both worlds. In “Testaments,” the speaker observes “God is circling like a vulture / gracias nada mas / corazón de oro / a quién vas engañar” (Corral 35). This is language that clearly expresses dread and struggle—even if the literal meaning of each word isn’t precisely grasped.

I think that intuiting the meaning of unfamiliar words creates its own engagement and mystery that deepens the experience of a poem. For the average reader whose primary language is English, words like diablo, río, corazón, for example, likely exist at some level of fundamental comprehension. Yet, even less commonplace words like molcajete, calavera, and charro, when taken in the context of an engaging poem, are thrilling linguistic gestures that invite further immersion and investigation. I find the musicality, delicacy, and bravado of Spanglish and its particular code-switch especially intriguing because the languages push in a “prickly” way against each other. When a phrase in Spanish is inserted into a stanza in English, a thrust and swagger happen that is part of the music, part of the shapeshifting. This happens when the speaker in “Testaments” observes “Blood soaks my sneakers. The handkerchief / around my head / reeks like sobacos” and “A severed hand / black yarn around / the thumb. Welcome / to the cagada” (Corral 21). Here, “sobacos” are “armpits” and “the cagada” is “the shit.” But doesn’t that swagger and music lead you to a strange sense of intuited understanding through context?

Even if the words in the poem are of a specific dialect not immediately understood, the reader can still sense an authentic utterance—and that these particular words have simply been chosen because this is how the poet experienced the poem. The speaker in “Testaments” says “I try to recall the taste of Pablo’s sweat. / Whiskey, no. / Wet dirt, si. / I stuff English / into my mouth / spit out chingaderas” (Corral 11). Regional aphorisms and untranslatable figures of speech create an innate sense of withholding, or inability for certain expressions to exist beyond linguistic boundaries in a single form. So, the poet must keep both language and meaning fluid and flexible, as in the lines “Cada noche / I sleep / with dead men. / The coyote was the third to die.” The stitching of languages is innate and hypnotic, as in “there’s a foto / in my bolsillo / of a skeleton / shrouded / in black flames: / Nuestra Señora de la Santa Muerte” (Corral 11). It’s a dynamic gesture and a dazzling process to feel happening in a poem.

The Spanish/English code-switch has a special significance for me as a reader, but it has also changed my linguistic parameters so that I’m drawn to poetry with unfamiliar terrains. This makes the experience of turning to poems an act of seeking the shapeshift; that is, I turn to poetry not only to be immersed in a story, and a psyche, but also another psychic reality with its own elemental textures of language, phrasing, music, and thought. Immersing ourselves in the poetics of multiple languages is vital for growing in perception, awareness, and empathy—and code-switching is the mystical crossing that allows it to happen. As Eduardo C. Corral writes in “Testaments Scratched into a Water Station Barrel,” “a proverb: beauty / can’t be talked into speech. The sky isn’t blue. / It’s azul.” and “Saguaros / are triste, not curious.” Perhaps beauty cannot be conjured by speech, but it can be built and transfigured within these careful layers.

––Mary Robles, Mid-American Review

Note from the editors: The works in this craft essay are cited from Guillotine by Eduardo C. Corral. Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press, 2020. 72 pages. $16.00, paper.