Ford Over, by John Pluecker
If you listen to media coverage, or the insensate fear-mongering demagogues that get the most media attention, immigration is described as, at best, something that requires ephemeral and nebulous “reform” and, at worst, an avenue through which murderers and rapists will gain access to your home. There is a distinct and intense distrust of the brown “Other”, originating in the “Other’s” brownness and rationalized with all manner of dehumanizing fictions. In the face of such ignorant and racist brutality, a work like John Pluecker’s Ford Over serves as a poignant, dynamic reminders of the fact that the only cure for such a disease is a dose of perspective.
Ford Over is a collection of hybrid poetry that immerses itself in the concepts and sensations that it explores. Every single poem has its own unique structure, ranging from simple stanzas to whole paragraph stanzas of prose poetry to cut out words laid out on maps. Some poems see their lines placed under rigid, uncompromising control, while others are delivered with whimsy worthy of a summer breeze. Ford Over is not a text seeking to convey a single perspective; rather it presents its material in a wealth of poetry’s beautiful and myriad options, never confining the reader but always asking the reader to consider the unexplored. The text cannot be reduced to a generic amalgamation of preconceived notions, nor can it be forced to fit those notions after the fact.
This careful and yet spontaneous application of varying structures reinforces two of the work’s main focuses: the natural world, and how we interact with it. To the first, Ford Over repeatedly returns to natural imagery, from “Clouds charge with beige and dark” in “Vista” to “plod plots of earth / into Serpentines” in “Strange,”. The poetry makes constant use of landscape, giving it life and resonance with the people crossing it, putting the very earth in motion as both motive force and character. In “Fording the Guadalupe”, the collective “we” fords rivers again and again, adding a certain Sisyphean quality to the effort that echoes the struggles of Mexican immigrants in their journeys. But there is progress in the poem, along with the suggestion of sacrifice, that leave open the possibility of success. The power of rivers to change the very land, to guide the presence and efforts of humans, is a textual emphasis very reminiscent of “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” in that, like Hughes’ famous poem, Ford Over utilizes the timeless, elemental power of water as witness and sibling to the enduring people being described.
But human interaction with this vivid natural world is given no less attention through the text. Ford Over is replete with maps and landscape art, most of which are labeled or even covered in text. These geographical representations cover from California to Texas and from San Fernando to San Luis, and they outline everything from parts of continents to rolling hillsides. Often times, such as in the case of “The Hunt” or “Ioyaiene”, these maps are the canvas on which the poetry is delivered, further rendering setting into character. The effects of this treatment are twofold. First, in order to explore the poetry, the reader is forced to read the land. The poetry is literally being shaped by the heart of the place from which it springs. Poetic structure becomes indistinguishable from borders that we have created and imbued with significance. Second, the whole arbitrary nature of geographical identification is brought into focus. To be clear, I use “arbitrary” without its modern negative connotation. The point is that the definitions and borders which we assign to places and peoples are human constructs, as much as our poetry is. The artificiality of these labels is only highlighted when the land, as an entity in near perpetual motion, shifts and redefines itself and continues well beyond the scope of our boundaries.
This shifting, tectonic immersion is sealed and assured by the brilliant use of language throughout Ford Over. In the past, when referring to the use of language, I was usually writing of authors using English to convey their text. Here, Pluecker transitions back and forth between English and expertly utilized Spanish, simultaneously highlighting cultural differences while slowly welding them together to create something else entirely. He utilizes “untranslation”, in which he begins translating from Spanish to English but soon abandons the effort, only to return again. Many works he does not translate at all, from English or from Spanish. On a personal note, I found this to be an exceptionally powerful tool, as I am half white and half Mexican and have felt the pull of both cultures acutely. The fluctuation in translation is not a thing of frustration – it serves the further break artificial boundaries and to remind the reader of the boundaries’ artificiality in the first place.
As with so many superb compilations of poetry, Ford Over lends itself to quick reading or to in-depth unpacking, as well as to as much rereading as the heart desires. It hardly ever speaks directly about the focus of its text, and is made all the better for it. It allows a reader who might otherwise be walled off by their own assumptions to experience something beyond borders.
Ford Over is available now through Noemi Press.