My America Isn’t On a Staid Map

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Rane Arroyo’s character shines through in the amazing White as Silver collection, and will be clarified continuously as his vast trove of unpublished work begins to come to light.

The practice of contemporary poetry is sometimes indistinguishable from performance art, with the writer attempting to choke down the sum total of his experiences and then frantically diagram them for the audience before passing out from the strain.

The concentrated “experience” of the artist is often expressed by his or her worldly origins. Jay Electronica and Lil Wayne shout out their hometown not just by name but by ward number and intersection, by sports team and housing project. Jay: “You either build or destroy. Where you come from? / The Magnolia Projects in the 3rd Ward / slum.” Wayne: “And I ride for / Hollygrove 1-7 Eagle Street / and I’m higher than an eagle’s feet / but I believe in me. / Apple is the cross street / I am just an offspring / born in the ghetto / that’s why I can’t let go,” and “If I had one guess / then I guess I’m just New Orleans.”

Other performances focus on the journey between origins and present day. A relationship, in James L. White: “It’s dark. / You exhale a fist of memory. / I love you like weathering wood / in a room of empty pianos.” A pressing decision, in Keetje Kuipers: “…And who’s to count / how many have gone under some dream’s stiff / wheel and turned the soil or taken root in / ruts carved there? We are, none of us, native / to the earth, not born in the dirt of her / cupped palm, though yes, we go back to it.” And lean years lived on the streets, in Jay Electronica: “ When I was sleeping on the train / sleeping on Meserole Ave. out in the rain / without even a single slice of pizza to my name; / too proud to beg for change / mastering the pain.”

Rane Arroyo is best known for his poetry, but his roots lie firmly in the performing arts. So while reading White as Silver, his excellent new poetry collection, I often found myself wondering: was this poem an “origin” poem, like Wayne’s paeans to New Orleans, or was it a “journey” piece, narrating some stop along Arroyo’s long trip from his Midwestern roots to his role as a nationally recognized poet and teacher?

If these pieces of writing are, in some sense, also pieces of Rane Arroyo… then who was Rane Arroyo? From “Love Songs & Chicago”:

We were drunk, riding the El,
when I started singing: Goodbye
Yellow Brick Road. I didn’t
want to become a brooding
poet. Strangers joined us,
and the conductor broke up
our harmonies. The train
raced towards certain darkness.

Rane Arroyo’s artistic career began in the underground art galleries and ephemeral performance spaces of 1980’s Chicago. He also wrote poetry, and as the 80’s burned into the 90’s he began to stack poetry publications, first in magazines and then as full collections. The pace of his artistic production continuously accelerated, and by 2010 Arroyo had published more than ten books of poetry, a large crop of plays and short stories, and had won dozens of national awards. He also found time to earn his Ph.D in English and Cultural Studies from the University of Pittsburgh, direct the creative writing program at the University of Toledo, chair conferences, perform public readings, and serve on the board of directors of the AWP.

By any measure, Arroyo was an extremely productive artist. The Books and Awards sections of his Wikipedia page dwarf the remainder of the entry, even though they only list samples of his work. The sheer number of words he published is staggering, and it was the first thing I noticed when I began researching him: to continually produce poetry at such a fast clip and high caliber is extremely difficult, and even more extremely rare.

And in 2010, Arroyo was still just getting started. According to his MySpace page, he was simultaneously working on a set of memoirs, a new book of poems, new plays and a novel, in addition to his teaching and administrative duties.

His last status update on MySpace is dated May 1, 2010. It reads: “Still heere–paying attention to site and redoing it now that summer starts for me. Tough year can lead to creativity. Rane” Six days later, Arroyo passed away in the early morning hours of a cerebral hemorrhage. He was only 55.

A call to pray for Aaron who
is brittle with his bitterness
after seeing his buddy turn
into a bursting chandelier in

a desert darker than thought.
Next– a friend who hides needles
in his eyeglass case. Why, it’s
emptiness, that old flood without

an ark to thumb down. Karma
isn’t a Christian bandage, Carlos.
Next, next and then the next call.
Each story is a run-on sentence.

When an artist dies before his time, the narrative of his future work must be extrapolated from his past. The reflection in his eyes in a cryptic Polaroid; a simulacral album recorded in the basement of a tiny art gallery; a slim volume of selected works, discovered on some shelf of a dusty “Poetry & Criticism” section. And sometimes not even anything as concrete as these things; so many artists of each generation are gone before any publications and before any accolades. Before their photo is snapped or portrait sketched.

Others pass away unexpectedly at a creative inflection point or zenith, leaving behind as many questions as cryptically radiant pages or groundbreaking shows. Robert Mapplethorpe, Alexander McQueen, Warhol, Basquiat, Keats, Hendrix, J. Dilla, James L. White.

Arroyo belongs firmly to this latter list, with the unbelievable amount of work he’d already produced at a young age making his death all the more tragic. A truly gifted and incredibly hardworking poet, it’s certain that he would have continued to create, and touch the lives of thousands more students and readers.

It’s supposed to get easier: post-
earthquake, the wrong messiah,
someone moving out who leaves
only shadows behind. Then why

am I crossing bridges at midnight
as if a twenty-year-old again who
wants to parachute off Miss Liberty?
My America isn’t on a staid map.

Once, politics fell off me when
my clothes did. There are more
empty diary pages than days that
will fill them with flotsam

So, who was Rane Arroyo?

As far as I can gather, he was a traveling son of Chicago’s hardscrabble arts tradition. He was openly and proudly gay, proudly Puerto Rican, and incredibly hardworking. He believed in teaching and exploring, and in consciously building the perilous and beautiful life experiences that he wrote about. His character shines through in the amazing White as Silver collection, and will be clarified continuously as his vast trove of unpublished work begins to come to light.

The last public reading Arroyo gave was on March 31 at SUNY Brockport, with the final moments captured on video here. He ends, appropriately, by dancing to a Lady Gaga song; because terror is important to his work, but joy is more important; because the hardness of life is outshined by the beauty he experienced and created.

Mid-dance, as the last gesture of his performance, he exclaims a few words to the audience: “Live! Then write.”

Song lyrics quoted from:
Jay Electronica – “Exhibit C”
Lil Wayne – “Love Me Or Hate Me”
Drake ft. Kanye West, Lil Wayne, Eminem – “Forever”
James L. White – “Lying in Sadness”
Keetje Kuipers- “After the Ruins of an Oregon Homestead”


Nate East writes poetry and fiction for Cowans Gap zine in San Francisco. His work has also appeared in The Rumpus, Monkeybicycle, SoandSo Magazine and elsewhere, and he can be found online at www.nateeast.com. More from this author →