Frank Varela’s Latest Collection of Poetry: "Goya’s Birds"

The poet bests himself as he weds his upcoming collection to the art of the late mad and telling great master.

That “noise in my head…,” complained at the end Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes, the first of the modern painters from Spain (1746-1828) whose work chronicled the madness of war and its crunch on the human spirit. Years later, at the brink of yet another Spanish crisis in 1898, his fellow countryman Ángel Ganivet would reflect from his own desperate behalf: “The feeling of lost love, being extremely vulgar, can move delicately when the one who suffers it allows you to see its effects out of a poetic attitude.”

In this upcoming collection of new poems by Frank Varela in tandem with the works of a master painter restores the once celebrated avant-garde thrust of poetry, when marrying it dialogically to different imaginative genres did not derange purists. The match between Goya’s imagery and the poetic attitude this book entails would have pleased Ganivet, himself an audacious writer at the forefront of Modernism.

Against the Rejoices of Evil

Varela’s stream of titles in poetry began with Serpent Underfoot, in 1993, followed by Bitter Coffee (2001) and then Caleb’s Exile (2009). Throughout these pages, he sails on a language that inches its cargo toward crisp simplicity and intimateness. But nowhere the confessional branding of his voice attains the dark and at times almost haunting pitch as in Goya’s Birds—a pitch that rushes at times “…like a bevy of quail flushed out / from under a bush.”

The riddance of demons retrofitted to a Goyaesque ambit suits the gatherer of this collection. The congeniality feels honest, never forced nor distantly foreign to the emotional sheath of a greater family.

As with the dogged monsters in Goya’s nightmares, who must now reckon with the artist’s exposure of their disgraceful frown, here too Varela mugshots his, and in doing so, he calls upon the better angels of our nature against their deeds. Nothing less dreadful to the grimy rejoices of evil than a thorough wash from the suds of poetry, for it also hoists the reader to the higher tiers of human accord and sensibility.

Words, like little fish, elude my grasp

… “but life is stirring, / emerging / from its cocoon of sleep.” Amid the sense of loss, displacement, pain, there is much more to celebrate in the eager seizing of spirits that may have otherwise fled into somber hollows. Without those “defining points of time, / where life seems more than life, not fractured by the chaos / of daily living, or silenced by the shadows of an empty room,” transcendence hopelessly wanes.

Varela has always been an easy poet-friend. In Goya’s Birds, he again gives himself, openly, without ever demanding anything in return by inexpensive implicitness or omission. It is all in the clean and wholehearted cruise of his verses. A lengthier biography would only add incidental details. The reader at the end closes the flaps of his books with the sensation of having gained an ally whose unrequited love flowers within.

The Ultimate Irony

Notwithstanding the mixed lashings of feelings, the poems here embrace experimentations in form and style that range from the haiku to the prosaic narrative, set in either the tropics or farther north, in the icier city. Goya-like social denouncement avoids gushy solipsism, as with the inverted irony in “Snow Falls on Puerto Rico”—a pun drawn from a Christmas holiday event in San Juan, when its mayor had a load of snow flown in by plane to the city during three consecutive years in the early 1950s, so that poor children there could play with it.

Goya’s share of ironies also bordered surrealist overtones that may likewise stir a chuckle if excised from their original context. The caprices in his art obeyed to the “shameful waste of life,” against which painting had to defenestrate all its rules. Hence, the ultimate irony: to innovate in the face of a faithless exile, madden by noises in the head, and yet, as Varela ratifies in this title, to express love, and experience it.

[October 10, 2013]

Image: Twittering Machine by Paul Klee, 1922