“That there is a kind of joy in the begging // Itself, that all songs are love songs. Blues, / Especially. Praise the knowledge. Praise.” These lines from “Song,” the final poem of John Murillo’s debut collection Up Jump The Boogie (Cypher Books, 2010), illustrate the core themes of the collection. With the title of Up Jump The Boogie it would be right to assume that Murillo sets out to celebrate the energy of hip-hop and the neighborhoods that helped channel this energy into the world. Up Jump The Boogie can be categorized as a neighborhood love song; however, the book is more than that. The collection is not only concerned with the positive energy of Murillo’s world, the energy that empowers the title character of “Santayana, The Muralist” as he “Aerosols Aztlan across barrio brick for all the poor / To see: Aztec warriors, Mexican washwomen, dios del sol.” This is a creative energy, but the same energy responsible for creating the murals is capable of creating the scenes seen in another poem, the sestina “The Corner” (forms like sestinas and ghazals are prevalent in Up Jump the Boogie, but it is easy to miss Murillo’s formalism because of how naturally one poem flows into the next). Here, we see characters like Jojo and the dark places the same energy can lead:
Take this young boy, Jojo. Fresh out the joint, before he’d head
Anywhere near his mama’s house, he’d run straight here. Across
The street from the carryout and check cashing spot, he’ll peddle
His rocks to anybody who pushes past. Even little Ebony. Hear
She was almost prom queen, drove the young boys crazy back
In the days before Jojo got at hold of her. How the weight
Melts from face and neck. How skin cankers, and blood and sweat
Crust corners of lips licked only in wet dreams. How she gives head
Now by the dumpster behind the church, fucks, how fast five bucks
Find their way back to Jojo’s hands. And Jesus, on a stone cross,
Watches it all from on high. How it begins, ends, and begins again here,
On the corner. Tonight, rain clouds bruise the sky. Jojo sells.
In the universe Murillo creates, for every Santayana, there is an Ebony. Every scene of creation and hope is counterbalanced by a story of destruction and loss. No corner of his world is sacred because all corners of his world are sacred, and Murillo invites his readers to watch these sacred acts from his shoulders.
While the power of the collection does not wane, there are moments of levity as well. In poems like “Enter the Dragon,” readers get to see the narrator and his father celebrating martial artist and actor Jim as they trade “Salt & butter / High-fives” and “jab and clutch.” This moment of happiness ends when the two are pulled over by police officers. However, with poems like this and “Monster Boy,” where a young narrator and his friends wish for things like “a dick as long as a turkey leg” and “Psycho Michael Lopez out of the way” and these wishes find a way to become true, readers get a chance to see the normalness that can occur amongst the broken lives Murillo describes. In any world, children will still dream; boys will still pretend to know kung-fu after watching a Bruce Lee movie. On the surface, these moments could seem like filler or a tonal shift for the sake of a tonal shift. But on these moments of levity help to show how the human spirit and peek out from any situation and shine.
There are many clumsy and political arguments made about hip-hop being the spiritual successor of classical poetry or slave hymnals. Some of these arguments hope to diminish the culture at hand. Other arguments hope to chain the culture to a false tradition. Thankfully, Murillo manages to avoid those tropes while still echoing the original purpose of both the MC/DJ and the poet in society: to proclaim truths about their societies for all the world to hear and recognize.
Review by Jason McCall whose debut collection, Silver, is forthcoming from Main Street Rag. He is from the great state of Alabama, where he currently teaches English and Literature at the University of Alabama. He holds an MFA from the University of Miami, and his poetry has been or will be featured in Diverse Voices Quarterly, The Los Angeles Review, Cimarron Review, New Letters, Mythic Delirium, Fickle Muses, and other journals.