|Apr/May 2006 Book Reviews|
The Portable Famine
BkMk Press (2005) 64 pages
Rane Arroyo's The Portable Famine is the winner of University of Missouri-Kansas City's 2004 John Ciardi Award competition. Arroyo, Director of the Creative Writing Program at the University of Toledo, has followed the recognizable "career path" of the professional poet with more success than most. His poetry has appeared in a wide range of small literary journals, some as august as The Massachusetts Review, Kenyon Review and Quarterly West. Subsequently, that poetry has appeared in slim volumes produced by capable small presses. Along the way, he has picked up a number of respected second and third tier prizes including the Carl Sandburg Poetry Prize and a Pushcart Prize.
Not many pages of The Portable Famine need be turned before the reason for Arroyo's success becomes clear enough. He writes poetry well, sometimes exceptionally well. The details are always human and best served slightly surreal. The metaphors are inventive, even insightful at times. A liberal scattering of colloquial references to popular culture prevents any sense of literature.
Dr. Arroyo identifies himself, with some frequency, as a gay, Midwestern/Chicagoan, Puerto Rican poet. ‘I now live in Toledo near the Jeep factory," he informs us, in his BkMk Press author interview, "where all kinds of people live next to each other. Neighbors have gotten used to us: our 'noisy' house color (South Beach gold-green), askew garden, antique French doors we chose over an expensive car." Everything that suggests place in this description is available in any medium-sized American city. Once they lose their ghetto-chic, nationality and ethnicity become conspicuously a matter of consumption choice (French doors, Dutch oven, Puerto Rican poet) — a kind of meta-branding. And now even ghetto-chic has become another product angling for market share.
The "global homogenization for corporate profit," of which Arroyo speaks in the same interview, is evident in this as in so many mainstream books of poetry published in recent decades. There is nothing definitively Midwestern, Chicagoan or Puerto Rican in the poems found in The Portable Famine. The most identifiably "Puerto Rican" poem is aptly titled "Returning to Puerto Rico as a Stranger." The poet speaks of his ancestral homeland with more intuitive understanding than a guidebook. As the poem ends, a particularly striking Lorca-esque image follows a very contemporary American observation:
The dead don"t care about my family roots,
but they do envy my daily running about.
They send me a moon without a translator.
The poem as a whole amounts to a watercolor wash of a vaguely exotic landscape utilizing two Spanish words. As these lines suggest, it might be called "American" or "Andalusian" with as much justification as "Puerto Rican."
Lorca's Andalusia is a poetry in which a distant, mysterious world that no longer exists has been contacted. It is that place from which his voice reaches us and we all can be native there in some small way of the heart. To be American indeed involves a "daily running about," free from attachment to the past, envied not only by the dead. These are the traits that mark out poem and poet.
Arroyo's largely vestigial claims of place and collective identity notwithstanding, what saves The Portable Famine from being just another volume is his ability to capture a sense of a life almost entirely unmoored from these qualities. Those claims are ironically among the better evidence that place and identity are seriously faltering. They describe our desire to rebuild the constructs of centuries-and-soil with what materials happen to lie at hand. The results are often tawdry:
Miami is the mating ground
for plastic pink flamingos
that may yet nest in our souls.
This being the case, our most realized places are those American cities we tend to think of as being brazenly assertive: Miami, New Orleans, New York. It is by virtue of this fact that they remain islands in an ocean of the nondescript. When the poet imagines entitling a volume of poems The Burrito King of Toledo, Ohio, the reader is reminded that even the poet's present "hometown" seeks to be somewhere by being garish. But the Burrito King is swallowed up in the rustbelt, mid-sized city sameness of Toledo, barely an assertion even there, definitely a symptom.
All of the landscapes here, except for those few cities able to draw upon the capital of their jazz history or neon assertiveness, are more or less interchangeable. In Provo, Utah,
The stoned and stunned
still cruise Main Street, just chasing
their own tales.
The same can be said of a thousand Main Streets. Acquaintances pass through the poet's life that clearly belong to the same generic milieu:
You, the almost prince,
wash dishes, process words, drink.
Even the new London, now seeking not to be left behind by virtue of clinging to a past that can only be perceived as baggage, begins to be recognizably unmoored:
I'm returned to
Bloomsbury where they sell
Virginia Woolf burgers.
Arroyo chooses to avoid exaggeration. All of this is impossibly exaggerated as it is. There is no need to highlight anything in a landscape that seeks to be a "place" by virtue of exploitation or in a people who must do their best to achieve identity within such a context.
Sexuality, however, remains sufficiently fundamental that it can still serve to provide a degree of personal identity. Correspondingly, Arroyo's gay lifestyle serves as an anchor to book and life. What history is possible, then, plays itself out in the cropped events of the individual life:
My body wants
to be someone else's history.
Or so it seems until some enormously shocking event forces a bit of irresistibly collective history upon us:
Even realized buildings unthread,
yield to historical forces that may steal your
youth long before you can misspend it.
Add to these a professional identity-component, a favorite color and a few personal quirks and one has the sparse materials from which we attempt to construct our selves.
As good as such poems as "Details as Revelations," "My Brief New Orleans" and "The Burrito King of Toledo, Ohio" are, it is also evident in the less successful poems that Arroyo shares the disadvantages of his time. At times he descends to unintended bathos or to concatenations of vaguely related images. All attempts to wax philosophical fall flat for lack of materials.
All of this comes together, in a way, near the end of The Portable Famine, in the poem "Book Signings." Among a number of images, sufficiently related to qualify the poem as being "good," Arroyo asks the question: "Why do these hieroglyphics matter to strangers?" He suggests one possible answer in the next line: "I have yet to heal my own mirror, much less theirs." The trendy pop-psychology image of "the mirror" gives the question an ironic pathos, but the sense that issues of identity are at the heart of the matter is to the point. In the third section of the poem he ticks off a catalogue of well-known early and mid-20th century writers, and the places with which they are identified, and ends with the question, "will any place actually be mine?"
As Rane Arroyo has intuited, some considerable portion of his readers are searching his books, as they search all they read, for materials to shore up their tenuous constructs of place and identity. And that is what they'll find in The Portable Famine: the search, not the materials. It amounts to an honest answer and we need more honest answers.