Juan Felipe Herrera, Senegal Taxi
University of Arizona Press, 2013
Herrera takes on Sudanese injustice in this latest collection of monologues, transcripts, and prose poems, telling the story of three children—two brothers and their sister—as they try to escape a village ravaged by Janjaweed paramilitary. Hiding out in a cave, the children begin to create "mud paintings," a form which Herrera absorbs into the language and brush strokes of his poems. "They whipped their horses down the mountain as if they had erupted from the heart of Africa," says Ibrahim, the eldest of the three children and the resounding voice of protest and atrocity in Senegal Taxi. In the forty cave-painting poems that are peppered throughout the book, Ibrahim gives voice to the village ant, a television knocked in the dirt, the Janjaweed ringleader, and even an AK-47. In this way Herrera, through the voice of a young boy, is able to inhabit, undermine, and ultimately strike back against the apathy that allows genocide to occur. "One of the Janjaweed he calls himself Mr. America," he writes. "He coughed on me. Stop! I am Mr. America! He was not Mr. America. He was Janjaweed. My father taught me." The creation of art—both mud paintings and poetry—likewise creates a lasting record of familial love and the struggle to survive, neither of which can be erased or displaced by the voice of the Kalashnikov AK-47, which ultimately breaks down and admits its shame and compassion: "I heard their whispers and furies I / Could not stop listening and peering into them / As my master slept."
This review was published in American Poet, Volume 44, Spring 2013.