Frank Varela or the Off-Modern Poet

Brooklyn-born Diaspora poet Frank Varela circumvents the modernity hype by pioneering instead a voice that abolishes time.

Frank Varela (b. 1949) has penned three books of poetry, Serpent Underfoot (1993), Bitter Coffee (2001), and Caleb’s Exile (2009), each consistent in the grip and depth of his subjects, and far-reaching in his pursuit for a space amidst displacement and renewal.

The author himself, son of the Diaspora from Puerto Rico in the United States, was born and early bred in Brooklyn, New York. By the late 1970s, after living as “a gringo in the land of my parent’s birth,” he wrote and read his poetry in Chicago. It was there, from the Windy City, where his work flew beyond what critics may dub today as the Puerto Rican Renaissance in the Mid-West.

His poetry has appeared ever since in many journals. He has also published a collection of children’s stories. Critical acclaim for Frank Varela surges, but due to certain vices, the task of categorizing literature written by Puerto Ricans abroad still fails to pin one of his greatest attainments.

The Off-Modern Poet

Modernism in Latin America undergirds key operations at stake in Frank Valera’s poetry, not in its commonly held notion as a late nineteenth century fad, but in its timely assertion of the subcontinent’s uniqueness at the face of unrelenting foreign influence and control. Postmodernism in the United States emerged after World War II as a logical appendage—hence, the prefix “post”— to its impending world power dominance.

But in order to be modern today a poet needs not to stand “in” either end of this already fatigued tug of war in literature. Poetry might as well “detour into some unexplored potentialities of the modern project” in an “off” mode, as Svetlana Boym first proposed in The Future of Nostalgia.

Frank Varela eludes the Modernist-versus-Postmodernist divide without subverting the main rootage of his inspirations. By switching “off” as it were, he ignites within the overbearing “Nation of exiles and outcasts” a timeless counterglow fueled through memories that “burn / hotter than asphalt” (Caleb’s Exile).

The Abolition of Time

Though Octavio Paz would have argued that Latin American Modernism subsumes this off-modern bypass, or what he called the abolition of time, the mere renaming of its application does refresh “the search for a future”, which “always ends with re-conquest of the past.”

In his title poem “Bitter Coffee,” Frank Varela feels how his “ancestors’ ghosts / return at day’s end / to witness the present, / as I ponder the past. / I hear their voices / just outside my window / in the rustle of dry leaves, / the flutter of wings.” Among many other possible feats of the imagination, Past and Present become One, and that Oneness eludes the exponential linearity of time.

If the poet’s “people’s history began,” as the above quoted poem reads, “where all journeys begin, / with one step forward— / and pain, / a single bead of sweat,” that history now will never succumb to the forgetful absoluteness of modernity. “Absolute past, absolute future / converge into the unavoidable now,” writes Frank Varela in “Manhattan 1958” (Serpent Underfoot). “A distant bugle sounds retreat. / I’m a boy once more […]”

New Visions and Hope

Why would Svetlana Boym sustain in her “Off-Modern Manifesto” that nostalgia “is longing for [a] home that no longer exists or most likely, has never existed”? That bittersweet spell, would have replied Miguel de Unamuno, fosters new visions and hope especially at the brunt of change.

In the prologue of his first published book of poems, Frank Varela reminded his readers that energy is eternal; it mediates between the poet and his readers. In the poet’s “Autobiography,” the energy remains off-modern, for only on wind of this kind poetry will fly to undo the impossible, “to be the who I am in a land / unafraid of the me I have become.”

[November 18, 2010]

Image: They’re Biting by Paul Klee, 1920