Below listen to Carlos Cumpian read “When Jesus Walked,” one of two Cumpian poems I included in Smokestacks and Skyscrapers: An Anthology of Chicago Writing.
One of the country’s finest Hispanic-Latino-American poets (a designation clumsy but inaccurate and made up anyway), Cumpian (b. 1953) has published three books of poetry: Coyote Sun (1990), Latino Rainbow (1994, a children’s collection on U.S. Latino heroes), and Armadillo Charm (1996). He has also been represented in numerous journals and anthologies. An active promoter of poetry, he founded the La Palabra reading series at Radolph Street Gallery, serves as editor-in-chief of MARCH/Abrazo Press, and conducts poetry workshops with the Guild Complex. He teaches in Chicago public schools and at Columbia College and has been awarded Community Arts Assistance Grants from the City of Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs.
His poetry combines the lyricism of Latino-American culture with street toughness and a weirdly casual, yet near-apocalyptic vision concerning issues of humanity and justice. In “Soon It’s Robots,” another poem I included in Smokestacks and Skyscrapers, the “apocalypse” is fiscal: it’s being laid off, “hopes downsized, and for our loyalty shown/the bottom line, and soon it’s robots and our exit time,/to look for that phosphorus head of luminous/full-time commitment, amid crushed butts/and ashes at our feet.”
In “When Jesus Walked,” below, Cumpian substitutes “walked” in the familiar gospel phrase “When Jesus washed my sins away.” He’s also taking pains away, not sins. You could almost think it a mistake until you realize Cumpian’s meaning. It’s Jesus walking with us through the everyday apocalypses of “crushed butts/and ashes at our feet” that keeps us free. Otherwise…well, that’s the poem’s subject. Listen.