Monday, November 20, 2017

Diaspora - Selected and New Poems - Frank Varela (Arte Publico Press)

Today's book of poetry:
Diaspora - Selected and New Poems.  Frank Varela.   Arte Publico Press.  Houston, Texas. 2016.


     "All I wanted was the impossible:
     To be the who I am in a land
     unafraid of the me I have become."
                     from "Autobiography"
                     Frank Varela

Frank Varela is all about family and community and place and belonging, the real basics, and these are virtues Today's book of poetry can get behind and applaud.  It makes Diaspora - Selected and New Poems, into a very personal investment.

Varela, from what Today's book of poetry can tell is Puerto Rican but born in the continental United States as part of the great diaspora of economics.  Varela's world somehow seems richer than our even though one takes places inside the other.  Varela's world seems richer despite the implied financial divide between the haves and the have-nots.  The us and them.

What Today's book of poetry takes away from Varela's Diaspora is a clear vision of inclusion, the "diaspora" Varela speaks of isn't limited to the Puerto Rican community and Varela is clear about that.  His world is all about inclusion.

But mostly Varela is a fine story-teller disguised as a poet and he wears it well.

Black Earth

Time, like an ever-rolling stream, bears all its sons away.
                      Our God, Our Help in Ages Past (Protestant Hymn)

I hoe furrows in my garden, careful not to disturb the roots.
This land is rich with decay and past seasons.
On my best days, I can reach into the soil
and marry my soul with the green world--
tarragon, escarole, lemon balm, sage.
Envy the power of black earth,
before clay seeps into view,
and no stones, the farmer's curse.

Years ago, grandfather cleared twenty acres by Cibuco
to wrench subsistence from red clay.
Family portraits revealed a lanky, broad-shouldered man
silhouetted gray against an aqua sky,
red dust staining his shirt orange in days rough and without mercy.
Yet he loved his land and seeded that love among his children
even when the wind scattered them to distant places.
Grandfather watched as a public car
carried my mother and father
for their journey north to Babylon and exile.

Years later, I saw the farmhouse set among overgrown fields;
the barn long collapsed; only the ribs of the north framing
stood raised against the turquoise sky.
Your soul spoke to me that night,
when the wind troubled the netting around my bed.
I laid half watching a moth batter itself
senseless against the light.
The room's furniture reminded me of another era,
when men defined their lives through the labor of their hands.

Footsteps sent the floorboards creaking.
I felt your presence in the hallway.
The door opened and there you stood:
A specter dressed in white haunted
by a stranger in search of his past.
Abuelo, I have travelled far to this place of silence,
where your labors broke you before your final rest.
My people took your bones and set them down into black earth.
Sleep easy, grandfather, nothing kills love.

...

Words to remember:  "nothing kills love."  Family in the present and family in the past, Varela seems intent on paying proper respect to his ancestors and that is a good thing.  Varela is a city boy who is still tied to the red clay his beloved Grandfather tilled with fierce determination, love, sense of purpose.  And perhaps that's the biggest impression Today's book of poetry takes away from Varela's Diaspora - Varela wants to make it clear where he came from and where he feels he belongs.  To understand that, and to see that even on hard pavement a little red dust escapes from Varela's footsteps.  Varela is writing from the perspective of the other, from the outside of the bigger, dominant culture.  More than anything I hear echoes of Henri Charrière's bold voice as played by Steve McQueen - "I'm still here you bastards."

It takes a big voice to bridge those cultural and social walls but Varela has big shoulders, just like his grandfather.

Autobiography

It was never who or what I was
I am simply who I am
and what I am never depended
on what people thought of me.

That wisdom got drilled into my head
by an iron-willed grandmother
who could out think any man
in the five boroughs of New York.

Identity was never a question
of geography and language
or time and distance

I was a spic in the United States
a gringo in the land of my parent's birth.
I got it coming and going,
but I never came to sorrow
for skin I never was.

I was always on the outside looking in,
so call yourself what you will,
because I am who I am
and not the who you think I ought to be.

All I wanted was the impossible:
To be the who I am in a land
unafraid of the me I have become.

...

We had our first snow of the season yesterday and some of the minions decided it was the perfect excuse to sleep in. Luckily I know where they all live.  After I snow-trudged through the morning's ice and hammer-fisted a few front doors demanding response - I was able to raise sufficient enthusiasm for this morning's efforts.  That and a little terror. 

Once everyone had arrived back at our offices, hands warmed by the latest Annette Funicello latte special with whipped cream and the cinnamon chocolate sprinkles from Toby's arse -- we were able to have our morning read.

Frank Varela's Diaspora - Selected and New Poems made for a great morning read.  Humour and sorrow, love and respect, duty, all of it with a warm and human, almost gentle touch.

The Sweatshop

                     for Shirley Stephenson

If you don't know anything about work,
skip over the next few lines.

Mama was always home after dark
even during the summer from her job
at the sweatshop.

Labored for Mr. Klein,
an old Jew from the Bronx,
who hired anyone who wanted to work
bend over an industrial sewing machine,
an ebony beast snarling, spitting,
its silver fang, piercing, stabbing,
consuming bobbins of threads,
and fingers if you're not careful.
And she wasn't that day.

A blue line of thread stitched clean
from nail to knuckle
the bloody flow
from finger to finger
elbow to floor.

The doctor ordered seven days off,
the same with Mr. Klein.
Even the shop steward,
who never did anything for the seamstresses,
shouted: "Maria, go home."

But you never missed a day at the sweatshop,
because if you didn't clock in,
you wouldn't get paid.
Ever.

Next morning,
the alarm rattled the stars.
Mama in slippers and robe
shuffled from bedroom to bath,
from bath to dresser,
blouse on, earrings next,
make-up last.

At five
she left for work.

...

Today's book of poetry will have Milo, our head tech, on the hunt for Frank Varela's earlier titles.  You will too after Diaspora. 

Sometimes good poetry just makes you feel like you are welcome.  Frank Varela may sometimes sound like he has a complaint or two, entirely justifiable, but in fact this sweet bird is singing.

Image result for frank varela photo

Frank Varela
Photo: Doug Mungavin

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

FRANK VARELA is the author of Serpent Underfoot (March/Abrazo Press, 1993), Bitter Coffee (March/Abrazo Press, 2001) and Caleb’s Exile (Elf Creative Workshop, 2009). He lives and works in Las Cruces, New Mexico.


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