Devil’s Lake

Book Reviews

John Murillo: Up Jump the Boogie

Laced with the back-beat of hip hop, the sentimentalism of slam, and the structures of traditional formal verse, Murillo’s first book Up Jump the Boogie literally does just that: it jumps up and announces itself, it hits hard, it gets down and dirty, it dances. Through twenty-nine poems of various forms and styles, Murillo plays homage to his cultural past while honestly rendering his personal experiences, introducing the rumination of a sestina to the melancholy of the blues, the structure of a sonnet crown to the subject of growing up on break-beats and Tu-pac Shakur.

In a poem titled "The Corner," one of the many sestinas in the book, you can see this co-mingling of sources:

Hard rain and reggaeton score the night. On this block here,
At this hour, when even the alley cats know to keep in shadow, backs
To the wall and ears piqued, the few renegade rain-soaked heads
You come across are here on business. Transactions and sales,
Give and take in the marketplace of the moon. If you wait
Long enough, they say, you can hear the hellhounds’ bay.

Murillo’s eye is drawn to the dealers and prostitutes, the blacktop ballers and thug life aspirants (as he calls them in the notes section of the book). But he is not just interested in portraying hard lived lives for the sake of portraying them; he is also interested in the way his characters can be transformed and made beautiful by connecting their stories to a larger, more diffusive culture. In the closing lines of "Flowers for Etheridge," one of the longer poems in the collection about a pilgrimage to visit the grave of Etheridge Knight in Indiana, Murillo finds a way to connect the dead poet’s subjects to his own:

Stopped at a signal, a streetwalking woman
Starts to approach, then decides against it. Maybe
Something in my eyes turns her back. Maybe
My stare is approaching the thousandth yard.
She’s out early, I think, the sky still pink
In some places, the boulevard shade short
Of blood. Streetwalking woman, sister of my soul.
In the day’s last light, she is almost beautiful.

Although the face value of these poems seems to be their unwavering rhythms and co-mingling of wide-ranging references and influences (Levine, Komunyakaa, Levis, Espada, Knight), the music in these poems transforms them into something more profound. Murillo has a clean ear, and a heart that stays honestly committed to the subjects about which he writes. This, if nothing else, is what allows his poems their transcendence.

Forgetting, for a spell, the work of being men and women, letting rain
And music wash over them, sinew and soul. The second line
Stretched, now, for blocks, and the Bronx all trumpet and moan.

Through a cross-pollination of poetic influence and a strong investment in his own voice, Murillo is impressively able to weave multiple aspects of African American poetry and musical history together in a way that feels real and authentically his own. Buy this book if you know what’s good. It’s legit.

John Murillo
Up Jump the Boogie
Cypher Books, 2010