Book Review: Puerto Rico By Alejandro Ventura
By Alejandro Ventura
Brooklyn Arts Press, 60 pages, $15
When it comes to oceanic feelings, novelists reach for fishing poles and poets reach for binoculars. Being the latter, I’ve spent my life trying to find a pile of dirt in the high seas. I want to build a fire on it. Combine the five ancient elements into one miraculous instant. But this god-damned planet—earthly rotations and lunatic revolutions aren’t kind to lumps of firmament. Tides, waves, and currents wreak their petty havoc by the minute. That pile is gone in a blink. Along comes Alejandro Ventura. He was born on a pile of dirt in the ocean. It was a big one. It had mountains. It had a race track. Puerto Rico. Rich Harbor. Heaven of intimacy. Where his body grew inside his mother’s body before leaving her womb face first. And then the pile of dirt was gone and just like that the whole world became a subdivision in New Jersey.
Ventura’s debut collection of poems Puerto Rico is slim without being slight, intelligent without being “smart.” He signals that his journey is backward and forward to intimacy—to Puerto Rico—early in the going. In “Beginnings” he writes “I don’t understand the winter. / Blindly, I felt for things that made life bearable” and “The land is fallow here. The animals can sense your guilt.” Ventura doesn’t play games with his lines the way some poets use gaps or step down enjambments or a sickness of commas which tell the reader when to breathe. He assumes we’ve got the breathing part nailed and instead breaks his lines with a maul—a sentence, a sentence, a sentence. The heavy downward energy keeps our feet moving so that we don’t lose a toe. “Beginnings” continues, “The only decent way to die is in your lover’s arms… / An oath is sworn, perilously close to intimacy.”
“A Waiting” is like several poems in this collection, a good one, but also one where the speaker focuses in, controls the shot and just at the moment of genuine intimacy, pulls back one curtain:
What remained, when last we swam at Sandy Hook
and were embarrassed by nudity?
We got lost somewhere along the beach,
and yet, as Deleuze says, no sense of falling explains the face in vertigo.
Like Fontana’s Attese, black gauze supports the canvas.
Brothers abide and are divided.
One remembers the gesture that makes the wound,
but this explains nothing of our lives together.
Who can say when a duration has occurred,
as when the grass becomes a field?
It has nothing to do with color, and is timeless.
For instance, why do I mention that day at the beach?
I love this poem. It’s a single-room apartment but it feels so big with its space and time and involuntary memory. The speaker’s self-conscious note which ends the poem has cousins in many of these searching laments. At times the whole poem seems drunk and Ventura’s sober thinking voice slips past. At others, the poems are very sober and his glancing remark seems a little buzzed, as if the intimacy had gotten too real or scary and a little distance was needed to help him find the rail. In “You Are Either Making Mangu or Something Else Entirely” his un-analytic description of place is smoldering: “There is an American tower along the mountain pass to Las Marias / and a Spanish one overlooks the bay at Guanica. / Perhaps they communicate, by pigeon or raven. / Wait, are there ravens on the island? Someone call an ornithologist.”
True, Ventura does address his own contrary side, so it’s not as if I’m calling him out. He calls himself out with such lines as “Free and whole, with no more cynicism than was necessary” and “the only thing you know at death is disbelief” and “no one can disabuse you if you don’t believe in anything, / and merely go about yourself, collecting postcards” and “as if the Apocalypse will grant us a sense of belonging.” In fact, the greatest barrier to arriving at intimacy—which means language and place and seduction—is to believe it can still exist. Ventura doesn’t believe it in most of these poems, but in a few he does, and the results may drop you to the ground. In “Culebra” the poet’s body absorbs his whole loss, nurses teasing him about his round ass after a game of stickball goes awry:
To feel the body’s weight descend the hill with the lesser island above you.
Sunscreen oil eases along the fingernails, which ease along the curve
of the thigh line. The waves continue to cylinder on land.
When your mother dies your fingertips roll into the rosary,
beads being so unlike music. This is a general rule
not unlike the one in the hospital in La Vega, where young women
tell you how round your ass is, after a stickball
lofted into the neighbor’s lawn spiked your arm into an iron finial,
to paint it with a skin of rust and clear your mind of sound.
There’s something I cannot get past, reading Ventura, which is that over fifty years later I still live close to where I came out face-first. His thousand mile wound seems so much bigger than my little ten mile mishap. I’ve driven the wound countless times—it’s on the way to the Post Office and the Feed Store. I’ve walked those miles and ridden horses back and forth, and even though my “Puerto Rico” is so much nearer to me (even on cloudy nights I see its lights), the intimacy is no easier to grasp. I wish for it, too, and I think that’s the story Ventura has walked all of us into. Maybe this is why I sometimes get moist approaching the outskirts of Hampstead. In Ventura I have a brother, and maybe we’ll fight now and then about what it means to be a poem but it’s nice to have him sharing some of the heavy lifting, the big dead weight of not believing anything, or else the little one pound weight of a rum bottle as we share sips off the rim.
I guess what I’m saying is, I liked this book and I look forward to the next.