Vincent Toro

TRANSMISSIONS FROM LA ISLA: Two New Books by Puerto Rican Poets


Vincent Toro is a Boricua poet, playwright, and professor. He is the author of two poetry collections: Tertulia and Stereo.Island.Mosaic., which won the Poetry Society of America’s Norma Farber First Book Award. Vincent is a recipient of the Caribbean Writer’s Cecile De Jongh Poetry Prize, the Spanish Repertory Theater’s Nuestras Voces Playwriting Award, a Poet’s House Emerging Poets Fellowship, a New York Council for the Arts Fellowship in Poetry, and a New Jersey State Council for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship. His poetry and prose have been published in dozens of magazines and journals and has been anthologized in Saul Williams’ CHORUS, Puerto Rico En Mi Corazon, Best American Experimental Writing 2015, Misrepresented People, and The Breakbeat Poets Vol. 4: LatiNEXT. He is an Assistant Professor of English at Rider University, is a Dodge Foundation Poet, and is a contributing editor for Kweli Literary Journal.

Autonomy. Self-determination. Visibility. The Puerto Rican poetic tradition has been built, at least in part, upon these themes. For the Puerto Rican, though, these are not merely literary subjects chosen for the purpose of creating content; they are things that have been denied the Puerto Rican people for more than 500 years. When we write about autonomy, self- determination, visibility, we are taking action to attain them. Our poetry is consistently an attempt at decolonization, efforts to reclaim, respond, and react to incessant incursion. Our dances were banned by the Spanish crown, the schools were shuttered by corporate decree, our leaders have been imprisoned, the beaches annexed and sold off to highest bidder, presidents have mocked us with tossed paper towels and feudal economic policies; it's been a centuries spanning project of domination aimed at trying to silence and saddle us. No wonder there is such a long and rich legacy of verse devoted to resistance that has been birthed on La Isla. From Palés Matos to Otero to De Burgos to Pastor, Puerto Rican poets always seem to bloom from our cane fields, cays, and barrios to record, rebuild, and to forge new futures for the island, its inhabitants, and its diaspora.

In the aftermath of two hurricanes - one natural and one man-made (Maria and the PROMESA bill) - and the ousting of a governor, and two years into a global pandemic, two marvelous and absolutely essential poetry collections born of this Boricua poetic legacy have arrived to hold our hands and wake us: X/Ex/Exis by Raquel Salas Rivera, and To Love an Island by Ana Portnoy Brimmer.

To Love An Island is structured so as to capture the movement of circular migration now common to the life of Puerto Ricans: a journey from island to mainland and back again (and again and again). These migrations are sometimes forced: by natural disaster, political disaster, and personal disaster. As expressed in its title, the collection examines what it means to love an island, its people, its complicated history, its weather that creates both abundance and precarity. In keeping with the above-mentioned Puerto Rican poetic legacy, the book is a documentary of survival, calling for the autonomy that is ever so elusive for Puerto Ricans. In the opening poem, a farmer proclaims, "we have to grow our own to be our own," a necessary declaration in a place that was bootstrapped, the land, culture, and economy seized from the residents and handed over to foreign interests by military and economic force. Growing one’s own food - and one’s own culture - is presented here as the only way forward.

In “Breath,” Ana Portnoy Brimmer offers another reading of the now ubiquitous "I can't breathe” cry. Only here it is the lack of power on the island that shuts down respirators, suffocating those connected to them en masse. In utilizing this now famous quote in a new context (for North Americans), the poem acts in solidarity with Black Lives Matter and other social justice  movements while illustrating how disaster capitalism also functions to kill of people of color and poor folks.  “GERD” turns a visit to the doctor into a metaphor for how the colonized body is vulnerable, susceptible to illness in a foreign land where one is a "legal alien". “Educación” functions as a how-to guide for surviving the precarity that all colonized people live with, directions that end, like so many poems in the Puerto Rican tradition, in calls for unity and collectivity, for taking care of one another because clearly no imperialist, capitalist system will. With “American Airlines Flight #188” Portnoy Brimmer uses the lyric to speak directly to power, an open address to Julia Keleher, the former secretary of Education of Puerto Rico who was indicted on fraud and conspiracy charges in a scandal that siphoned millions of dollars of public funds into the hands of her friends and business partners.

The poems of both Portnoy Brimmer and Salas Rivera are filled with historical references and responses to current events, another common trait of Puerto Rican poetry. In contrast, North American poetry often seems so bereft of history, perhaps because that history too often reveals the countless monstrous infractions committed by it, whereas Puerto Ricans do not have the luxury of ignoring history, its discontents, the tragedies and trauma that Puerto Rico’s colonial history has wrought upon its people. This history is confronted perhaps most directly in “Rhizomatic,” a poem that serves as both hinge and anchor in the collection. Here Portnoy Brimmer casts an indictment upon the leaders who have stolen the land and handed it over to private interests, however the poem closes with an act of defiance to these corrupt deeds: "this land is no one's. This land is of itself."

In the series of poems in the chapter “Forced Flowering,” the poet returns the reader to the natural world. Following “Rhizomatic", this return becomes yet another survival strategy, one that offers the body solace and hope. Here she moves through the fauna, from sargassum to tulips to clementines, until she turns herself into a pelican and is "loved to wholeness again." The poet here contributes to the legacy of Caribbean poetry that summons the natural world as the hero that will capsize the galleons of patriarchal imperialist capitalism.

Through the closing cycle of poems "Guillotine - a Flag," the poet reckons with the violence wrought when power attempts to claim paradise, challenging the toxic masculinity of the former governor in "The Governor and the Cock," culminating in "Let It Tremble," a poem that evokes the spirit of the protest that led to Governor Rossello's ousting, a protest that shut down Highway 18, the largest and most frequented road on the island. Closing with a very Puerto Rican cautious optimism, Portnoy Brimmer proclaims, "Puerto Rico is ours, even if it trembles again and collapses on us entirely."

Several times in To Love an Island Ana Portnoy Brimmer cites - and summons - Raquel Salas Rivera. Salas Rivera’s recurring presence in Portnoy Brimmer’s collection speaks to their friendship as well as to the collective spirit and camaraderie among Puerto Rican artists. But these citations also prove necessary, for Raquel Salas Rivera's work epitomizes the intellect and spirit of Puerto Rican poetry. 

Salas Rivera's poetry is a complex synthesis of Boricua literary legacies, evoking - and very much progressing - the island’s rich and eclectic poetic styles and themes: the surreal political humor of Pedro Pietri, the intimate truth telling of Julia De Burgos and Olga Nolla, the nationalist anthems of Clemente Soto Velez, Manuel Ramon Otero’s experimental flourishes and his challenging of archaic gender norms, and the rhetoerotics of Lilliana Ramos Collado’s “proems” - they are all present in the rhizomatic roots of his poetry. He fuses them all as a means of documenting colonialism’s cause and effect, of indicting the guilty, celebrating the resistors, and conjuring new possibilities for the marginalized and oppressed. Salas Rivera is Puerto Rican and a trans man. Both identities inform his work, for his poetry is an active struggle for visibility and autonomy, but it seeks a visibility that does not need approval from institutions of power and autonomy that does not come with caveats or conditions. 

X/Ex/Exis opens with "notes on seasons," which functions as an ars poetica that lays forth this poetic intention. The poem confronts the refusal of Spanish, also a colonizer's language, to acknowledge the usage of "x" - this is presented with a deliberate ambiguity - the letter x is almost non-existent in the Spanish lexicon, and the "X" as LGBTQIA identity marker is not recognized by the heteronormative patriarchal structure of the colonizer's institutions. Without this recognition, Salas Rivera writes, "it's as if I had no nation."

Colonial power relies on systems that lock people into fixed positions. A person must be able to be categorized through labels generated and approved by the colonizing power. To not be easily placed in a category means to not be acknowledged as a person. But both Puerto Rican identity and trans identity are far too complex and rich for power’s labels of control. Moreover, to be opaque and uncategorizable is to live as an agent of resistance. Thus power attempts to fix or erase the person in question. Rather than concede to this dynamic and admit defeat, Salas Rivera instead finds a means of liberation through fluidity, through a person's ability to transform and exist in “opacity” (as Édouard Glissant articulated). He makes this material in a letter to lions at the Mayaguez zoo (in the poem): "I know that right now you are lions, and you've spent a lot of time in the heat, but when you become snakes no fence will be able to contain you."

But transforming from a lion to a snake can be painful when even your own people work to uphold patriarchal colonial systems that want to keep you a caged lion. The proceeding poems illustrate how family members and neighbors impose oppressive norms through seemingly mundane actions and interactions such as going to church, family members casually encouraging him to perform feminine roles via criticisms veiled as compliments, and his mother insists on calling him daughter "despite my corrections."

It is remarkable the way Salas Rivera is able to make palpable for the reader the ways in which even loved ones act as accomplice in attempting to fix - and thus hurt - trans people, how the commitment to heteronormativity causes bewildering complications, such as in the poem "entrance”:

               (The barber thought I was fine
               and let me enter the barber shop,
               despite the constitutive violence of gender,
               via the constitutive violence
                                                             of gender.)

At the heart of this intersectionality, it seems, is a common conflict: whether it is because he is queer and trans or because he is Boricua and multilingual, there are forces bent on imposing their will upon on the poet and his people, a circumstance that makes these acts of poetic resistance a necessity.

               we say no
               But the great NO awaits
               With mammoth scissors
               To cut the ribbon that ties us


Another significant thematic element in Salas Rivera's oeuvre is that of translation. The poet has always insisted on his work being presented in both Spanish and English, another act of resistance that asserts the right to be represented in entirety, without having any part of one's identity severed or segmented to fit someone's limited paradigms. The poet translates his own work, and has written and spoken about this at length elsewhere. But here the act of translation and the representation of both languages contributes to the liberatory act of metamorphosis, as overtly proclaimed in the title of his poem, "each translation is a transformation." The poem itself confronts the bomb - both as metaphorical and literal agent of annihilation. The bomb, see, is the opposite of transformation. The bomb erases while transformation rebirths. The bomb, and bomb makers, are anti-human: "bombs don't cry / bombs don't write poems." However, they are built and dropped by governments, which are made up of humans. Later, in the poem "a beach exists," the reader is taken to a site of colonial violence to witness white men killing habitat that transforms into mythical creatures (mermaids) that amputate themselves to escape the violence. But the brutality persists, the killers create systems that legitimize and absolve their violence. The persistence of violence is a terrible reality, and yet…

…in the book's final section, the poet profoundly makes clear that the colonizing, patriarchal death machine is one that is well on its way to obsoletion. He continues to compose acts of transformation toward revelation and liberation. As in the work of countless Caribbean poets such as Derek Walcott, Kamau Brathwaite and Nancy Morejon, the sea, in its immensity, its complexity, its near timelessness, serves as the revitalizing agent that reveals the frailty of the colonizing force. From it, we can find the means to recalibrate and grow. Through metaphor, Salas Rivera offers reconnection with the sea’s illimitable force: "I am a jeva as divine as the sea and jevo as divine as the sea and jeve as divine as the sea." This wrestling with oppressive forces and multiplicitous selves proves to be both blessing and curse: it creates a good deal of pain, but also offers the gift of multiplicitous consciousness from which is born vibrant new realities where "monads stretch out without borders and their shards laugh like windows broken by revolutions."

In the final pages, Salas Rivera declares, "our reality is richer than language." Of course this is true, but the language of poets like Raquel Salas Rivera and Ana Portnoy Brimmer provide us - at least those of us who can trace their lineage back to this tiny magnificent island in the Caribbean - with tools to heal, transform, resist, and dream beyond a reality that has been none to kind our gente, but from which we have built so many different glowing and sonorous worlds.

© The Acentos Review 2022