Book prologue to Caleb’s Exile (2009) by Frank Varela.
Once again, Frank Varela (Serpent Underfoot, 1993; Bitter Coffee, 2001) is about to rescue the reader inveigled by the rather flimsy tags fastened on Puerto Rican literature written in the U.S. and chiefly in English. If there is anything peripheral in his latest collection of poetry, it reengages an à rebours on those now worn out descriptors mechanically applied to the tropical identities trapped between the inner-city demons of the mainland and the cathartic seraphs of memory. Exile here becomes a timeless predicament heeded not by relying on the urgent cries of the voiceless at the cost of even further “politically correct” pigeonholing, but by raising problematic interrogatives in an otherwise spun out liturgy of lyric fluencies and connections. “How do you prepare for exile?”—ask these pages from the outset. “Are there roadmaps? Study guides? / Libraries are completely useless— / no Frommer’s Diaspora, / no Idiot’s Guide to Banishment.” Nor any other easy jack-normative that may raise the reader fruitfully above the “inconvenience of geography.”
For starters, let us sample wholesale a new “Geography Lesson” in the typical multi-coded radiance of this book, one that attempts in general to dislodge the conventional spatial wedge that so often pits the islanders with their diasporic continental foil:
Of Puerto Ricans,
there are two—
those born on the island,
others like me,
the children of exiles.
We have one face,
but live on two islands:
North, New York City
burns my lips
whenever my tongue
cleaves its concrete syllables.
part of a larger archipelago
sprayed out like granules of salt
across the Caribbean.
Two halves separated
by the inconvenience of geography,
wishing, sometimes, the other
would simply go away.
Question: What is distance?
The space between two points.
Question: Of my two islands,
which one should I love the best?
North or South,
Open resolutions such as this one, as if typically wrought against the conditioned askance of firstworlders, question at the heart of matters the extent into which postmodernity and globalization belies its own capacity for connection. A lopsided discord seems only to have sharpened since its cruder origin: “Two nations are in thy womb, and two manners of people shall be separated…” —sources Frank Varela from the scriptures’ imagery by way of epigraphic guidance. His poetry disarms while remaining oddly impervious to any miserabilist slandering though masked under the benevolent ring once tolled by hyped nudgers in the global information village.
Despite common assumptions, a New Age galloping on its pretense to deliver an unsurpassed cross-cultural medium may have not in fact leaped a jot in bridging “rival nations” from “thy bowels” (Žižek), and the case of Puerto Rico, especially, would embody a troubling instance of this fallacy. The poem in Caleb’s Exile entitled “The World According to Pedro Juan Soto’s Spiks” (an allusion to the 1956 landmark collection of short stories and miniatures rooted on the Puerto Rican’s fate in New York City), the subjects fall “into their own desperation, each alone, each self-contained.” —But “isn’t that the calamity of our age”, the narrator is quick to infer in parenthesis. In an ironic twist to sheer antinomy, the smoke and mirrors denned in some of the most revolutionary sci/tech advancements seems only to have broadened the awry divide.
The fresh poetic reparation to this premise of discontent in our days (see Bennett) unfolds as Frank Varela has his storefront grocer in Spanish Harlem connect with Brueghel, just as his former scholar “from the red hills of Cibuco”, who dies from a bullet wound “hotter than an asteroid,” connects with the Nietzsche that once dazzled him. The freshness consists in that a rather “off-modern” mode analogous to Boym’s coinage with respect to the fabled notion of progressive linearity keys these connections. The reader senses indeed how an afterglow fed by the clairvoyance of longing grapples with the essential meaning of distance. After all, “…how did Dante feel / when he left Florence?” The accidents and his figurative arrests may have varied, but he bewailed no different from most of those that emerge from the inner pogroms of exclusion. “…You will leave everything you love most: …You are to know the bitter taste / of others’ bread, how salty it is, and know / how hard a path it is for one who goes / ascending and descending others’ stairs...” —A path contained today by the virtual walls of neoliberalism, one might add as an updated metaphor.
Straight from the candid evocations of love and loose earthy reminiscences, Caleb’s Exile parries by virtue of its own off-modern birthright the high jinks in postmodern critical theory. Latin American writers, as Luce López-Baralt recently noted, could ransack at will from all the literary traditions free from the anxieties of an esthetic impeachment precisely for the reason that, strictly speaking, they do not belong to any one sole tradition. José Lezama Lima had legitimized the snatching with daring poetic flair: We must “…enter the alien temple moved by curiosity, win it over by sympathy, and then carry it over to the taste of our omniscient liberty.”
Omniscient liberty, this is Frank Varela’s greatest assertion in these poems, as in the “honest report” rendered by Caleb to his people. The faithful Caleb from the Hebrew Bible, rewarded by God for reclaiming the Promised Land seized by giants, spared himself the last forty years of his life wandering in the desert for his deed. God’s prize for the courageous that stand before a people of “great stature,” people that devour their inhabitants, is not to die as slaves or in the wilderness. Those that never dishearten a fellow exile shall conquer a place of their own and remain as strong as ever, “for war, and for going and coming” from the “Lethal nation”: The nation of “smart bombs, / illiterate children / where ignorance spews out / in the noise of talk radio, / reality television.” Here stands Caleb before “the ten–horned beast [that] consumes refugees with iron teeth, / bronze claws […] gazing / at the waters of Babylon, / remembering the kingdom / of flowers.”
The off-modern connection amid the “Nation of exiles / and outcasts, / whose memories burn hotter / than asphalt,” kindle the aged frissons of doers afar. “O father—writes Frank Varela— / how right you were when you said / that once I left, I would never return...”. “Exile is just like drowning,” but Caleb must never cease his claim to “…return a poet and at the font / of my baptism take the laurel crown...”
Oliver Bennett, Cultural Pessimism: Narratives of Decline in the Postmodern World. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2001.
Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia. New York: Basic Books, 2001.
Slavol Žižek, “Fear thy Neighbour as Thyself!,” Violence: Six Sideways Reflections. New York: Picador, 2008, Chapter 2, pp. 40-73.
Image: KN the Blacksmith by Paul Klee, 1922