A PEOPLE OF SORROWS
BITTER COFFEE BY FRANK VARELA, REVIEWED BY SHIN YU PAI
Frank Varela's most recent book of poems, Bitter Coffee (March Abrazo Press, 2001), is an impressive collection of writing from an original voice. An emerging writer who has been a presence on the Chicago poetry scene for years, Varela's poetic sensibilities are shaped by modernist poetry and the ancestral and cultural origins of the poet.
The collection opens with the poem "Contemplating Greek Mythology While Gazing at the Waters of San Juan Bay" which aptly prepares the reader for the journey ahead: Travel through time, place, and history with the poet. The poem mingles elements of several ancient Greek myths with Puerto Rican culture, and a new take on the Icarus myth, which becomes a recurring motif throughout the book.
Let's say they got the legend all wrong.
Icarus, Daedalus's son, never flamed out
for a seaman's death in the blue Aegean,
but flew, never near the sun,
escaping the Labyrinth for an exile's life
on Cristo Street, right here in Old San Juan.
Now the real story: He, Icarus, astonished
by the adrenaline of flight,
could not abide a life of ordinary existence.
Father, son squabbled, came to blows.
Leaving the old man behind,
Icarus flew back to Athens to earn his bread
as a philosopher among philosophers.
In Corinth, he met a local girl,
where she, now his wife,
to a stillborn child –
The vast majority of poems in Bitter Coffee pay homage to the poet's cultural and literary heroes: Historical figures who played significant roles in advancing the Puerto Rican independence movement, like Ramon Emeterio Betances and Pedro Albizu Campos, in addition to poets Julia de Burgos, W.C. Williams, Ezra Pound. Of this group of praise poems, the most successful of these works are the ones in which Varela is able to connect these icons to his own experiences and succeed in taking his work a step beyond elegy or praise, investing the poems with the heart of the poet.
In "Letter to Don Pedro", dedicated to Pedro Albizu Campos, a leader in the Puerto Rican independence movement, the poet writes of the controversy surrounding the proposed installation of a sculpture of Campos intended to honor Chicago's Puerto Rican community.
They didn't put your statue up in Humboldt Park.
Perhaps it's for the best.
I really can't imagine you looking
heroically over Midwestern vistas,
next to the monument for Vikings…
The other night I dreamt I saw you near Division Street
soaring over congregating spirits.
Some were angry, some confused.
When you told them they had wings,
instead of flying, they fell face down,
their fingers bleeding from scraping concrete.
My people left their land while you were still beautiful –
they adopted new ways, left behind old traditions.
But my son he counts his numbers uno, dos, tres
and when his time comes,
he will learn your story straight."
The poem is almost elegiac in tone. Responding to the loss of a public and community opportunity to acknowledge a key figure in the history of Puerto Ricans, the poet is moved to write his own personal tribute to Don Pedro and reaffirm his heritage. The reader is taken back to the image of Icarus, which first appears in the opening poem of the book. While the poet imagines a different ending in his retelling of the Icarus myth in "Contemplating Greek Mythology…", the Puerto Rican-American immigrants identified with Icarus in "Letter to Don Pedro" are distanced from old ways and traditions and true to the Greek myth in their gradual fall to earth.
Other noteworthy poems illuminating the poet's literary lineage include an homage to William Carlos Williams, in which Varela divulges that the two poets have more in common than their love for language:
In 1970, I picked up a book by the poet William Carlos Williams
in an old San Juan bookstore. I wasn't much of a fan, because
my models were than Pound and Eliot, the great modernists, who
seemed more European than American in temperament and
politics. I looked up, and the shop's owner startled me with the
following information: "Did you know that Williams was Puerto
Rican on his mother's side? I think he still has relative living
The ensuing poem is a meditation upon the images found in Williams' poems, which express the poet's deepening appreciation for his predecessor. Varela chooses to address Williams as "Don Carlos", the formal salutation used when addressing Puerto Rican gentleman.
You gave us living words
every time you climbed
out of bed to watch
the morning light
slide across the walls
of the north room,
before your patients
came in with their aches, their sorrows…
Don Carlos, your healing fingers
unearthed poems notched
from the cadence
of American English:
Queen Anne's lace,
sparrows in dust storms,
and yes, a lady –
not Watteau's notorious flirt,
but the pretty woman,
you saw yesterday in the park,
sitting alone in her thoughts,
on spring's first morning,
devouring the sun.
While Varela introduces the reader to a variety of fascinating historical and cultural figures, the poet's narratives are at their richest and most compelling in pieces exploring the poet's own ancestral and family history – poems in which a grown man recalls Sunday visits to an impoverished aunt, the burial of a beloved mother, and memories of the poet's grandfather.
Years ago grandfather cleared
ten acres by Cibuco
to wrench subsistence from red clay.
Family pictures revealed
a lanky, broad-shouldered man
silhouetted against an aqua sky,
red dust staining his shirt orange
in days rough, without mercy.
Yet he loved his land and seeded that love
among his children even when the wind
scattered them to a distant place.
Grieving Black Thursday,
grandfather watched as an ox-cart
carried his people north to Babylon and exile.
Years later I saw the farmhouse set
among overgrown fields.
The barn long collapsed.
Only the ribs of the south framing
stood raised against the turquoise sky.
I uprooted can grass
and crumbled clay between my fingers –
this is what men live and die for.
(from "Black Earth")
Varela writes in "Black Earth" of his own contrasting connection to the earth, which he expands upon in a later poem. "The Gardener" centers upon the poet's experience of working the land, though in the very different context of cultivating a snow-blanketed garden in winter.
Through the juxtaposition of old and new world traditions that occurs throughout the book in both the sequencing of poems and their multiple narratives, the reader is able to trace a rich history of Puerto Rican culture through a balance of both cultural and personal stories. At the close of the book, the reader is left with the image of a culture that has struggled to excel in the new world, an image from which the book takes its title: A people of sorrows as sharp as bitter coffee.
Editor's Note: Frank Varela is also the author of Serpent Underfoot, also from March/Abrazo Press (for more information about March/Abrazo Press please write to email@example.com ). Varela's work can be found elsewhere in Another Chicago Magazine, Puerta del Sol, Power Lines (Tia Chucha Press), and on ChicagoPoetry.com. Varela is a senior staff member of The Chicago Public Library and one of the coordinators of it's annual poetry festival.
--Shin Yu Pai
TIA CHUCHA PRESS DELIVERS A SOUTHPAW
Rise by A. Van Jordan. Tia Chucha Press, 2001. 84 pages. $11.95. Reviewed by Shin Yu Pai.
Rise, A. Van Jordan's first book of poems, is simply fantastic in its scope of material and ambition. Just when you start developing a sense of Van Jordan's material and perspectives on racism, jazz, love between men and women, the reader's attention is quickly shifted to another subject that blows open wide the African American experience. The poet subverts expectations by surprising his reader throughout his collection with all the skill of the southpaw combining punches, a fighter who carries "nightfall in each hand".
The speaker in Van Jordan's opening poem "Notes from a Southpaw" reminds himself to "Remember history," when confronted with a rude patron in a DC bar. The narrative flashes between experiences of racism in the speaker's early childhood and a larger contemplation of the countless men throughout history who "were called niggers in front of their wives and children but couldn't do anything about it". Though a physical confrontation is imagined and manifested in "Notes from a Southpaw", it is not the negative stereotypes of African Americans like O.J. Simpson as conjured by the speaker's antagonist in the opening poem that the reader is left with, but images of brave and tragic figures of African-Americans throughout history. Throughout Rise, the reader is led to re-member history through the personal narratives of figures like John Henry, Henry "Box" Brown, and a Bensonhurst resident who remembers the murder of a young Yusef Hawkins.
History as explored by A. Van Jordan encompasses both myth and reality; the poet slips with ease and authority into the voice of John Henry, a railroad worker of legendary strength who raced and beat a steam drill. Posthumously mytholigized in folklore, Henry appears in Van Jordan's retelling of the myth, "John Henry Tells Alan Lomax All About the Work Song The Night Before He Races the Steam Drill". Famed ethnomusicologist song-hunter Alan Lomax, who played an instrumental role in developing the Library of Congress' Archive of American Folksong, comes out of retirement to interview John Henry, a simple railroad worker who is transformed before the reader's eyes into a deeply philosophical man:
What is it that keeps a man singing through the pain and the hard labor?
Isn't it better for a man to die
buildin' something? I mean a man could die in a bar
or in some woman's bed, or he could die as quietly as
a woman saying – for the last time- I love you,
in his own bed in the middle of the night,
but ain't nobody gonna sing no song about those men.
Naw, you gotta get out there and wrestle with the bears
of life and labor: the boss man, the bad men, the steam drills
that want to take your job. All those machines
against one man's voice.
Similarly unforgettable, is the narrative of Henry "Box" Brown – a slave who escaped to freedom in a box 3 foot wide by 2 feet long. The poet imagines the reader into the horrifying experience of Henry Brown who survived the passage from Virginia to Philadelphia, crammed into a tiny wooden box.
The crate marked "This Side Up
With Care," but no one cared and no one
bent to break his falls or to stop the blood
from rushing to his temple –
two hours on his head, veins strained, eyes
bulged, death's breath held –
The reader can not help but respond emotionally to these narratives that burn with violence and a history of deep suffering.
Taking from headline news, the poet composes narratives drawn from more recent history -the murder of a young Yusef Hawkins beaten to death by a gang of kids with baseball bats in Bensonhurst, NY in the late 1980s and a retrospective look at the race riots that took place in Greenwood, Oklahoma in the early 1900s provoked by a Dick Rowland tripping and falling into the arms of a white female elevator operator who claimed he assaulted her.
Though the vast majority of A. Van Jordan's poems led me to question and contemplate history, the poet is also equipped with a brilliant humor that he uses to delve into philosophical discourses. In "What Does It Mean When a Man Dreams of Lingerie" the poem's speaker receives instructions on love from musician Charlie Mingus in the setting of a Victoria's Secret store.
Look at this body stockin' boy.
You see this labyrinth of lace, intricacy,
chaos in structure;
that's our lives.
We're just down here vibrating.
Men and women are like
a duet of a drum set
and a bass
that don't talk to each other.
They don't love anymore
because they don't talk anymore.
A man can play the hell outta a woman,
be all over her like a horn,
but he won't know her like his horn;
that's why they can't make music.
You gotta love her
from her fresh hair to her dirty panties.
Even in a darkly humorous poem as "What Does It Mean…", the poet skillfully pairs together gross details with the profane, and in doing so leads the reader to move beyond the baseness of human experience and to ascend into the possibility of something beyond this bodily, earth-bound experience.
For a unique, one-of-a-kind experience of Van Jordan's work, I highly recommend visiting Born Magazine project link www.bornmagazine.com/projects/lifestory/wa/. A Portland-based webzine of multi-media collaborations integrating elements of both image, sound, and text, Born Magazine connects visual artists with poets and writers to create works that cross traditional boundaries between poetry, video, and sound. The designer commissioned to interpret Van Jordan's "The Lifestory of Eddie James "Son"House, Jr. As Told Through His Hands" incorporates sound, flash animation, and visual graphics into the piece, bringing a whole a new life to the poem. The results are stunning -- the music the reader hears as a background to so many of Van Jordan's poems (whether Robert Johnson, Bessie Smith, or Miles Davis) takes physical form as the pacing of the ghazal's couplet stanzas keeps rhythm with the musical accompaniment.
Rise is a wonderful first collection of work by a young writer who's literary career promises much more.
--Shin Yu Pai
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Note: Shin Yu Pai takes on "Bitter Coffee" and "Rise". Shin Yu Pai is a poet and photographer living in Boston, MA, and a former Chicago denizen.