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Point of Origin

By (March 1, 2013) No Comment

Puerto RicoPuertorico

By Alejandro Ventura
Brooklyn Arts Press 2012

When I found Alejandro Ventura’s first book, Puerto Rico, in my mailbox, I stared at its title. I was suddenly conscious of my ignorance of the island—one that Julia Alvarez says “becomes our own” as we read Ventura’s poems. Ventura’s title forced me to consider not only what, if anything, do I know about Puerto Rico, but what do I know about the importance of “place” in poetry? The title challenges the reader to isolate their preconceptions and assumptions. Of course, by giving the book the name of its chief subject, Ventura negates any gradual unfolding of the book’s key rhetorical concern—something that can be enjoyable to discover––and provides an implicit lens through which to view each poem. Ventura confronts the reader directly, but we soon find he is less confrontational than inquisitive and slightly sardonic.

As Ventura attempts to make Puerto Rico the reader’s own island, we find echoes of Frost’s North of Boston and New Hampshire.  Although different, the books are ideologically linked by their attempt to recreate specific locations and moods for the reader, and the speaker, to explore—to grow closer to.  Here are lines from Puerto Rico’s opening poem, aptly named considering Ventura’s style, “In Media Res:”

        You don’t go to your place of birth but are always leaving it,
travelling at night in search of the first possible vacancy.
What’s in a name, Puerto Rico?  Island as broad as it has breadth,
as high as it is, and of its own color.  Will the world bend an ear for it?

One’s origin can provoke myriad feelings, some not very pleasant, yet we are drawn to investigate and know our origin despite “always leaving it.” Ventura, who includes a biography that states he was born in Puerto Rico to Dominican parents but raised by his mother and a Puerto Rican step-father, mostly in the U.S., exposes his unique relationship with the island—one that is more frayed than fixed.  As a result, certain poems are concerned with “facts,” or things “I know to be true” showing the speaker’s desire to relive and recreate certainties: “Some rain will make the beach its own horizon, / if the lightning is right, suggesting nowhere but ground. / Unfortunately for us the shore hems a space, this country[.]”  Puerto Rico brings a nebulous subject to the reader, and in some ways to Ventura, allowing us to witness the poet rediscover distant memories, explore questions around the poetics of place and contemplate its significance, but also to add some register-lowering silliness—which we find in more poems than I expected.

With place, we must also think of language, and Ventura does “listen to stories in a strange tongue,” claim “[l]anguage keeps one free as a fence,” and notes a general “problem of language.”  His final and longest poem, “The Poetry of Appropriation,” has a section devoted to English lessons. However, this book of poems is not overly weighted with words post-colonial scholars might use to aid an ongoing critique of colonialism—it is one that shows and embraces its influences (Ashbery, pop-culture, Imagism) rather than criticizing their power.  Ventura is as open as he is quixotic in his poetic quest to reclaim and redefine his complicated identity.

AlejandroVenturaVentura’s heritage is felt, yet he does not need many lines to impress it. In “Back to the Future,” we find the hundreds of years of colonial rule consolidated to one line, “First the Spanish, then the Americans.” In “Sweet Plantains” we find more personal scenes where Ventura runs from his grandfather and notices “…how temperate / the barefoot women appear in raw fabric.” In “Directions Home,” we find the poet in the U.S. where, “Ideally a flute plays Yankee Doodle as you enter New Jersey.” This mix of colonial underpinnings, childhood scenes backed by a Puerto Rican landscape, and present musings from the states defines Puerto Rico. But, more than expected, Ventura’s tone shifts in waves throughout the book.

I mentioned Ashbery earlier, and Ventura makes the New York School poet’s influence plain, writing, “All I want is Ashbery, and only most of the time.”  This poem, titled “A Public Art,” is one of my favorites in Puerto Rico.  To be subtly complex, evocative, and overtly humorous are some of Ventura’s strengths.  The poem continues, revealing these traits in combination:

        He said he would have Crispin Glover play him in a movie,
but that won’t put the world back together.
An unintentional process brings intended results.
My kingdom for a form, then.
A belief before believe, one that doesn’t taste of women
murdering us with their obscene morality.
They whisper terrible things: come closer,
I will share with you the secrets of the deep
As if the apocalypse will grant us a sense of belonging,
or the zombies bring us together, riding waves
or skateboards.  Some Zarathustra will come
to lift this burden of too much freedom.
In heaven, everything is done with as little effort as possible,
as it is now.  Writing takes you from one place again.
What altered beast rises from its grave, yet anointed?

Image-rich and shockingly funny—those skateboarding zombies—this poem evokes a sidelong sadness where what is here now, a broken world, is not helped by heaven.  “In heaven, everything is done with as little effort as possible, / as it is now.”  Only writing can save us, Ventura claims, and that will suffice.  In another poem he tells us, “I’ll settle for the clear line of sight / of a witty observation or two,” with which I believe most writers would agree.

In “You Are Either Making Mangu or Something Else Entirely,” Ventura is again able to weave multiple themes into one poem. Here we find complexity of place, emotional insight and ironic humor:

        There is an American tower along the mountain pass to Las Marias
and a Spanish one overlooks the bay at Guánica.
Perhaps they communicate, by pigeon or raven.
Wait, are there ravens on the island?  Someone call an ornithologist.
Once in a blue moon I like to meet myself in space,
caught in a time loop, like Ijon Tichy in the Star Diaries.

This mix-match of poems, some where deadly seriousness enters when a “man’s kidney’s fail” or when we are told to “see if yours was a happy childhood, tie your shoes,” others where the speaker is “caught in a time loop, like Ijon Tichy in the Star Diaries,” can be challenging. There is a difference between pleasant surprise and discontinuity, and Puerto Rico is ripe for this debate.  It is as if Ventura begins with directness, in media res, that cannot be sustained.  Fortunately, the deviations are entertaining, but do those deviations from the explicit focus of this collection undermine its effectiveness?

Italo Calvino’s first memo on lightness in Six Memos For The Next Millennium provides insight into Ventura’s method and burden. Referencing the battle between Perseus and Medusa and the lightness that enables him (then Pegasus afterward), Calvino writes, “his strength always lies in a refusal to look directly, but not in a refusal of the reality in which he is fated to live; he carries the reality with him and accepts it as his particular burden.” Calvino’s quote resonates further with the quick use of myth in Puerto Rico’s opening poem, “The Minotaur couldn’t escape his father any more than Icarus.”  Ventura’s particular burden for this book is to hold the weight of Puerto Rico and through his writing reveal its beauty and complexity—to lighten it. He cannot look directly, living in the United States, so he must rely on memories.  Through them, Ventura dips in and out of poems, questioning himself, complicating images, and the result is a wonderful intrigue.

Again, to reduce Puerto Rico too much, as merely a book of post-colonial identity poetics, would be an injustice to Ventura’s skill and to the complexity within. Though some poems are filled with short rants, such as “Church” where he writes, “what we’re after is a stupid muttering of a doxology,” or in the final poem, “I have seen as pathetic a thing as I could ever imagine,” the overall quality of each poem is high. A few bad poems can ruin a short book of only 50 pages, but a few bad lines won’t.  Puerto Rico is a successful collection that advances the narrative of the poet’s relationship to place and origin while being completely entertaining.

Joe Betz teaches composition and creative writing at two community colleges in and around Bloomington, IN. Look for poems forthcoming in The Portland Review and Natural Bridge. In 2009, he was the Laurence Goldstein Prize winner, judged by Paul Muldoon. He is happy you like poetry and can be contacted at joe.betz.ii@gmail.com.