Frank Varela’s Diaspora: Selected and New Poems

The inner flame holds afresh in this latest release.

New poems by Frank Varela (b.1949) preceded by a tidy choice from those harvested for three decades might at first foreshadow a want for closure, especially at a time when his past, he says, has become longer than his future. Expectedly, a golden dictum in vogue since time immemorial advices poets to master the art of guessing the right moment to garner, and close shop. How many have tarnished an otherwise brilliant deed by yielding to a last temptation at the autumn of their lives?

Not so in this book by the seasoned Brooklyn-born Boricua poet, Diaspora: Selected and New Poems (2016), courageously undertaken by Arte Público Press, which has thus become a beacon for any serious dive into Hispanic literature in the United States. In the abyssal latitudes where each of Varela’s enunciations seem to root, amid the aftermath of exodus, indigence, dismissal, and the persistence of its sores, the survey reassembles with an admixture of fresh timber the landing of a staircase that leads to an even higher plateau.

Generational Deontology

Doomed development policies that peaked at the end of the Second World War drove scores of Puerto Ricans away from their foreign-controlled island. “They came weeping rivers of sorrow, / weeping with opened veins, / weeping in the city that never weeps,” yet any attempt to round off matters and reckon in Diaspora befalls tacitly on the urge to redeem their relevance to those who, overwhelmed by the same demons, again take off north to the mainland at historical rates.

This overarching ring of a generational deontology fulfilled by those born far from their place of origin metamorphizes at its best in these pages into a glow of a white egret postured near the gravesite on the day of Varela’s father’s burial in Puerto Rico, “a blossom opening on Eden’s first day.” As in a long and steep flight of steps, rungs of pathos left behind, the poet finds respite in his conflicting irony, and before whatever may flower into a promise: “Rest easy, Daddy, your accounts are settled. / Assets balanced. Liabilities reconciled. My final obligation? / To muscle your casket into the earth’s ravenous mouth.” What will henceforth prompt expedient duties at a broader scale for the larger part of the insular nation now domiciled abroad?

A Place on a Map

Since 1982, poetry readership in United States plunges percentagewise to single digit numbers. Edmund Wilson had already worried about this gradual cutback in a 1934 essay rhetorically entitled “Is Verse a Dying Technique?” University campuses nowadays play out more than ever a paradox by breeding apathy toward this genre's demise. Myriads of truths were “only once imagined,” noted William Blake, but most Millennials bypass altogether how the said technique of yore often sets the imagination toward exploits that reach far beyond the boundaries drawn by the reality at hand.

“And if we chose freedom, / would they deny us a place on a map?” —probes Varela in the closing lines of “The Status Question.” While colonialist sophistry trudges ad nauseum the essential dilemma Puerto Rico has faced since the dawn of the twentieth century, Diaspora nails in swiftly what is also at stake for the now so-called Stateside Puerto Ricans.


The universal connectiveness of Varela’s writing hones a diasporic experience too often canned by softball scholarship and criticism. Publishers cater to readers hooked to a whitewashed market that capitalizes on the appeasement of mainstream faults and guilt. Of all books published worldwide, top newspapers in the West review less than ten percent of those published by authors marginalized in one way or another. In the end, incidental factors aside, literature is either good or bad, and limited access or sales of material labelled “othered,” “peripheral,” “ethnic,” …bear no correlation to its inherent quality.

A remarkable quality in Varela unfolds on how he tends to ink verses as with soot tapped from an intimate, cathartic, all-telling delirium, speckled with arcane nuggets at times, though likewise enriching when cracked. In Democritean aesthetics, only such a mental state composes the most elevated poetry. “Delirium! The highest degree of delirium!” —roared Jean Dubuffet in the plastic arts. Sublimated delirium surges in hindsight mode by an erstwhile child subjected to enduring harm from who should have cared most: “The first slap stuns—burns. / Your tongue swells. / The next blow, / that acid taste in your mouth / is your own blood, stupid.”

The Emotional Front

Whatever lies at the core of misfortune is not, of course, a necessary condition for poetic attainment, but poetry alone, by default, enlists in the ranks of what the late National Poet from Puerto Rico, Juan Antonio Corretjer, called the “emotional front.” Without such a battleground, especially in “The Country Without a Name,” a consummated sense of identity and prospection withers. Self-assured, Varela sustains in his “Autobiography” that identity has nothing to do with language and geography, or time and distance. “…I am who I am, / and not the who you think I ought to be.”

Late in the ninetieth century José Martí, confronted with the maddening scuffle for fortune and debauchery in the United States, also underscored among Latin Americans the importance of deploying their “energetic roots of the heart.” To borrow from the always-lovely-to-quote Anne Brontë when she describes one of her key characters in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, extraneous feelings hauls the spirit to “abject submission and deprecatory self-abasement.”

Diaspora habitually matches in turn the mindset Erasmus extols in The Praise of Folly: “a certain joyful loss of reason, and which liberates the soul from distressing care.” Here, an analogy involving coyotes who loiter in Chicago’s Humboldt Park: “Could it be that they, too, are members of the Diaspora, / who’ve lost their identity, their ancestral turf, / their reasons for existence, / cast adrift in a city far from home?” Exiles in need for a hearty prop “can learn much from the coyotes. / Imagine the stories they could tell us, / under the light of a fingernail moon.”

Not only from coyotes, but also from a bestiary-like spin of racoons, serpents, tarantulas, and that white egret, whose wings span like a blossom opening and is about to fly, freely, high across the tropical heavens.

[July 28, 2017]

Image: Dream City by Paul Klee, 1921