This Is Not a Frank Ocean Cover Album
by Alan Chazaro
Black Lawrence Press
Reviewed by Jose Hernandez Diaz
Alan Chazaro’s This Is Not A Frank Ocean Cover Album explores what it means to grow up as a Chicano/Latino young man in the Bay Area: backyard boxing, parties, veiled tenderness, hyphy, beat-boxing, freestyles, hoops, graffiti, skateboarding, and being lost yet found in brotherhood. With an intelligent musicality, Chazaro takes us back and forth over the Bay Bridge, into the diverse neighborhoods where he learned his language of poetry and art.
We can tell we are in the Bay Area from the jump: in “580 West,” Chazaro describes driving on the Bay Bridge, fog, hyphy, Lake Merritt, a Warrior’s jersey, freestyles. We also catch some of the Bay Area’s famous lingo in this poem and entire collection. Moreover, we are immediately taken into Chazaro’s hybrid world of bravado and feeling: “Briana says she wants to catch a vibe. Jerome/ says you can catch these hands. I float around the city while Odd// Future grooves into an empty background.” Fittingly, this group of young and hip passengers is listening to Odd Future, an avant-garde west coast rap group. We are taken to Chazaro’s world where poetry and hip hop are a part of daily life. At the end of the poem, Chazaro gets surreal with it, describing flowers on the side of the freeway, as he’s driving: “These flowers are too loud for me; I can hear them singing off-key with my window rolled all the way up.” Chazaro is struck by the brokenness of the flowers on the side of the freeway and the way they sing “off-key” in the void. The discarded flowers, not unlike Odd Future’s lyrics, or Chazaro’s poetry are beauty in the otherwise rough world.
Later, in “Some of Our Boyhoods,” Chazaro speaks of the influence of his older cousins, who serve as role models and are the source of “where we got our cool from.” Chazaro and his friends try to emulate said cousins, “pretending like we knew// what good smelled like, / how to slide a condom on.” In Chazaro’s gritty world, young men grow up fast and pretend to be seasoned vets, so that others might not laugh and call them “fa**,” as the teenage boys in this poem do to another boy who shows emotion when their hamster dies. In Chazaro’s Bay Area, even children are expected to show no emotion when they have to finish off a hamster with a giant rock.
In “Julio César Chávez vs Oscar De La Hoya, 1996,” Chazaro investigates how a fierce boxing match between two men can really stand for the differences in two approaches to Chicano identity: the “real” Mexican vs the sellout. In this poem, Chazaro’s dad and his dad’s friends all root for Julio César Chávez because he is seen as the true warrior and true Mexican for his bravery and machismo, while De La Hoya is thought of as a sellout or American puppet, presumably because he speaks English and has nice hair. When a young Chazaro sees De La Hoya entering the ring with “his mixed-up outfit, a combo/ of US and Mexican flags,” he realizes he probably should’ve cheered or “smiled” for the Pocho (De La Hoya) like him (Chazaro), but he doesn’t, instead choosing to keep it real with his father and his father’s friends rooting for Chávez. Chazaro’s poem speaks of the various social barriers facing Chicanos in the U.S.: not only do you have to conform to the macro culture to some extent, but you have to appear to be “real” enough for the Latinx community.
Directly after the Chávez vs De La Hoya poem, in “Backyard Boxing,” Chazaro describes how young men in his Bay Area neighborhood used backyard boxing as a way to test their boyhoods and reach for manhood, while mimicking their role models and/or idols. Chazaro eventually becomes numb from such a hard-nosed childhood, that after so many punches he’d “forgotten how to hurt.” Although these punches are coming as “skinny, weak/ haymakers” from teenagers, their visceral intent to become the tough or macho men they grew up idolizing in rap and sports, speaks to the dilemma of their childhoods: their bodies are young, but their minds have felt the guttural lure of machismo.
Finally, in “Untitled Memory,” Chazaro offers a final homage to the Bay Area, not only his home but his muse. Sitting in a tow-away zone in Oakland, waiting for someone, Chazaro is at peace on Broadway with his comic book: West Coast Avengers. Not even the smell of piss or weed or clouds or graffiti can break his loyalty to the Bay. In fact, the everyday fusion of these elements is what makes the Bay unique and vibrant to Chazaro. This fusion of the gritty and the sublime in the Bay are what made Chazaro the man and poet he is today; he intensely (and correctly) honors this connection.
Alan Chazaro is a high school teacher at the Oakland School for the Arts, the former Lawrence Ferlinghetti Fellow at the University of San Francisco, and a June Jordan Poetry for the People alum at UC Berkeley. A Bay Area native, his poems have been featured in the San Francisco Chronicle, Puerto del Sol, Huizache, Acentos Review, and Ninth Letter. He is a recipient of an AWP Intro Journals Award and has been nominated for multiple Pushcart Prizes. His first poetry collection, This is Not a Frank Ocean Cover Album (Black Lawrence Press, 2019), was the winner of the 2018 Black River Chapbook Competition, and his second book, Piñata Theory (Black Lawrence Press, 2019), was awarded the 2018 Hudson Prize.
Jose Hernandez Diaz is a 2017 NEA Poetry Fellow. His work appears in The American Poetry Review, Cincinnati Review, diode, Huizache, Iowa Review, The Nation, Poetry, The Progressive, Witness, and in the Best American Nonrequired Reading 2011. His chapbook of prose poems The Fire Eater is forthcoming in February 2020 with Texas Review Press. He tweets at @JoseHernandezDz.