Hustle by David Tomas Martinez

by David Tomas Martinez
Sarabande Books, May 2014
84 pages / $14.95  Buy from Amazon or Sarabande Books







Hustle, David Tomas Martinez’s debut book of poetry, is a cry from the street written with developed-over-time, intelligent style with pace the and moxie of a tom cat. The opening poem, placed even before the table of contents and dedication, “On Palomar Mountain” establishes a theme that will carry its way throughout this four part collection of poems as it begins, “The dark peoples things//for keys, coins, pencils / and pens our pockets grieve.” Those three things their pockets lack are the book’s foundation. Keys, coins, pencils and pens tell a story with nothing but “a lighter for a flashlight” that is begging to be told. It is the story of the bold but shed in a sensitive light as the poem ends with a “walk into the side of a Sunday night.”

While fairytale readers and romantic poets might object to Hustle’s style, those with their boots sunk deep in urban black-top pavement will resonated with the jazzy, up-beat rhythm of Martinez’s lines. Lines chopped short and neat with stanzas generally organized into few line bunches compliment the underlying sentiments of the words as the narrator (presumably Martinez himself) declares ownership of what is to be presented in the opening poem of section one:

A car want to be stolen,
the night desires to be revved,
will leave the door unlocked,
a key in the wheel well
or designedly dropped from a visor.
A window will always wink
to be broken by bits of spark plug
or jimmied down the glass.
This is mine.
Where is the window to break
Iin your life?…

Literally inviting the reader to break into the life of the story, Martinez teaches the reader to hot-wire, jimmy-rig, and break an entry into the rest of the book. Clearly, the man in in possession of a story that needs to be told. Have no doubts about it, this is Martinez’s own story. Collectively, the poems become a memoir, highlighting details of the poet’s life which some might find shocking coming from a well-spoken, educated individual.

To tell his story, Martinez organizes the book into four sections. In sections one and two, he continues with the themes that have been established in the beginning of the book while incorporating the facets of growing up ruff which are often overlooked. The importance of a (dis)functional family life, for example, is first mentioned in part II of “Calaveras”

Yes, families are supposed to be circuses.
Accept is, and accept that the acrobat’s taffy
of satin will twirl, and the bears in tutus will spin
over the exposes in the warped wood
and cracks in the waxy linoleum,
all the while your grandfather will yell
“You no like it, go in the canyon and eat tomatoes.”

Martinez combines the roughness of the streets with the nostalgia and warmth of remembering a somewhat unconditional depiction of the support of a family to create an endearing, though at times misguided, protagonist as the subject of the book.

Part 2 opens with a poem entitled “To the Young” stating,

Only Chicano rockers
moshing in a corner
with leather jackets
and skin head pins,
and white boys
banging crip
with dirty blonde corn
rows held tight with gel
can know
your pain.
And their mothers,

This excerpt stands out as an example of what Martinez is doing with the idea of family in this book. It’s understated, as is often in life, but, still, the role is a significant source of support and security in a place where support and security might be otherwise difficult to find. While the first half of the book demonstrates what it is like for an adolescent caught up in the rough part of town, it never lifts a watchful eye from the cousins, mothers, and grand parents.

The book takes a somewhat unexpected turn in section 3 where Martinez makes a clear transition from the kind in the streets to an introspective, self-aware tinker. Opening with a style of writing previously unused in the book on a long narrative poem entitled “Motion and Rest” that contemplates the action of parts 1 and 2 with “The only animals [he] knew growing up [which] were pigeons. These / ubiquitous little hipsters, their mismatched feathers / and congregating ways, are rarely targets of predators,” become a brilliant metaphor for the life previously described. Like pigeons, kids in the street flock together dawning vibrant colors which ward off predators. People often refer to this as gang activity, though the book makes it perfectly clear that this is the nature of life in certain corners of American neighborhoods. The Pigeon, a non-migratory bird, also becomes a symbol for those who are entrapped in this life style, Martinez is not one of them.

Along with offering a more reflective, mature outlook on the subject of this book, Martinez reveals his since of humor in this section with the word play in “The Sofa King” counter balance the tension and friction established in sections 1 and 2, which he carries approximately into the last section of the book.

Here, the more retrospective section, Martinez attempts to step away from it all and consider what it means to be a person, alive and from the streets of San Diego and what exactly it is he is doing in a place like Texas. Exploring the idea of death through local character Willie James Jones and hip-hop hero Tupac Shakur, both of whom appear to have had a significant influence on Martinez’s style aesthetics, takes time to reflect on those who have fallen victim to the “Hustle” of the streets. The book is to be released by Sarabande Books in May of 2014 and is a highly recommended read.


Stephen Sherwood was born in Wichita, Kansas, grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and writes in San Diego, California.

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  1. Josh Goodchild

      What you’ve included here is really amazing. I will probably buy this.

  2. Daniel Romo

      Sold. Good to see men of color getting some love on here.