Travels in Puerto Rico

Charlie Kennedy

I’m no poet.

I don’t pretend to know too much about the genre, either. Poetry makes me nervous – it is unknown territory, Puerto Rico Cover Imageand perhaps as a fiction writer I tread carefully around the art form. I know poets, and I read poetry too. The problem is I don’t always understand poetry. I like my beginning, middle and end – that faithful, supportive, reassuring structure. I’m always trying to find a meaning in text, even if I can’t always see it on first, or even second read. With poetry, well, the meanings don’t make the poem. It’s that freedom of expression and lack of constraint that causes me discomfort.

There, I’ve said it – my secret is out. Yet you really don’t need to be a poet to enjoy reading Alejandro Ventura’s wonderfully imaginative work, collected in his first book of poetry, Puerto Rico.

Ventura’s work is bound within a non-threatening, slender slither of a book, dressed simplistically in a muted palette of abstract art. It seems approachable. Open the cover and you’re greeted with a quote from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Shakespeare – a man whose prose is poetic, yet has stood the test of time as understandable (if you choose to bear with the old English language) – a man who could be argued was a poet, a playwright, and a novelist. Ok, I’m curious. I’ll turn the page.

No fancy stanza layout, no enjambment to confuse reading direction, no asymmetrical dance across and around the page to get to the next word. Instead I’m greeted with simplistic lines of text, offering wisdom, insight, and humor. I’m getting into this. I read on.

The native Puerto Rican, who in later years moved with his family to New Jersey, does well covering a plethora of topics that are obviously close to his heart with grace. The forty poems chosen to represent his titled work Puerto Rico certainly echo a knowledge and passion for the combination of issues and emotions examined. Of course, with such a title, thoughts on home and family are closely covered.

Naturally, not all of the choices in this debut book of poetry resonate as favorably – on a couple of occasions one struggles to see past the words or symbols on the page. Take "Birth Certificate", for example, which involves nothing more than three unevenly spaced single line stanzas, with $2 repeated twice on each line. Does this count as poetry? In a sense, perhaps. It leaves the reader thinking for certain, but it’s questionable whether you buy into Ventura’s idea represented, whatever it might be.

"To Be a Family" catches you off guard in the same way. There’s something interesting and even enjoyable that lingers in the idea of listing the Spanish alphabet, broken into twelve lines – an implied sense of loyalty to language and family that is perhaps hinted at within the lines, and a certain enjoyable rhythm that comes from reading the letters aloud. Again though, as a reader perhaps you’re left vulnerable, open to too much interpretation to the inspiration and intention of the piece, and the conclusion is confusion.

But two out of forty works is not enough to deter reading, and the overall effect of the book leaves an impression of a modern, astute use of language played with in a simplistic and honest manner with a dash of humor. Ventura’s imagination shines through in vivid, playful, humble text that is endearing, lightly tugging at heartstrings. Perhaps what makes this debut collection so pleasing is the humanity that touches each of the topics – a mish-mash of the ordinary, the mundane, with a skill that makes the ordinary unique and interesting, such as in "The Zen of Baseball":

Not the cool air gravity of the sidewalk,
not the orchestra of reverse beepings,
not all the intervals of an early summer’s hum
will secure for us a means of living.
Take note of small animals: their eyes
keep to the ground. It is a reverie
of lawn movers, yet the image of grass
remains entirely unaccounted for.
Once in a ballgame hot dogs
were cannoned like t-shirts
into the cool air gravity of the stadium
where it showered bits of meat and foil.

It’s this kind of down-to-earth approach on a myriad of topics that makes Puerto Rico a pleasure to read, poet novice or not.

Puerto Rico
By Alejandro Ventura
Brooklyn Arts Press
ISBN: 978-1-936767-15-1



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