By Allison White
Puerto Rican Poetry: A Selection from Aboriginal
to Contemporary Times, ed. Roberto Márquez
(University of Massachusetts Press, ISBN 978-1558-49561-6, 490 pp)
Mural in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. Photograph by Nicholas Laughlin
From the outset, an anthology attracts negative expectations. By its very nature, to the uninformed audience it defines its subject by what it leaves out, limiting a genre to the choices of the editor. For something as under-represented as Puerto Rican poetry, this is a very grave threat, potentially leaving many influential voices aside. Even more risky is the aspect of translation, as few poetic works rendered into another language properly satisfy their audiences.
Puerto Rican Poetry, however, masterfully avoids these problems. The editor, Roberto Márquez, has eagerly sought to fill in gaps, pulling poetry from any source he finds in order to provide the most thorough presentation possible. Indeed, this is as complete as any anthology with such an ambitious goal could be. Beyond that, the translations are fluid illustrations of the power of language, not of its great fallacies; each poem leaps off the page with a litheness surprising for any work not in its original tongue.
This anthology maps Puerto Rican poetry from the first cultural collision between the Spaniards and the Taíno Indians, to the modern-day reconciliation of a Nuyorican and Puerto Rican identity. Across the very precise selection of poetry one is taken on a journey through the history of the identity struggles of the Puerto Rican people, whether they be racial, political, or literary. The poets featured pass through, and influence, each Latin American genre as they go, although their verse is always marked by a love for the homeland, a theme found in nearly every poet’s works.
Many of the poems are politically charged as well, whether this is manifested in the fight against Spanish colonisers or American ones. Additionally, the reader has the rare chance to watch society’s focus shift from white creole elite to poor jíbaro peasant, from revived indigenous ancestors to acknowledged African roots, all of which is then pitted against Anglo-American racial standards, resulting in the artistic explosion that has been the Nuyorican movement.
Within the vast space that all these themes encompass, the most famous poets (Julia de Burgos, Luis Lloréns Torres, and Luis Palés Matos, to name a few) are side by side with schoolteachers, doctors, and ordinary people. It is startling to see that not only does Márquez include the essential poetry of the Puerto Rican literary canon, he also uncovers obscure, forgotten poems, scarce enough in their original language and even rarer in English. Notably, he has translated many anonymous folk songs, décimas, coplas, and bombas, gems from a class and time nearly lost to oblivion. These alone make this anthology valuable.
One of the finest aspects of Puerto Rican Poetry is the translation, carefully crafted by the editor himself. Márquez replicates both the most playful local speech and eloquent verse with dexterity. These are not just excellent translations; surely they are some of the best translations available for many of these poems, if not the only ones.
Márquez mentions in his introduction that his intention was to bring Puerto Rican poetry to the classroom; however, it is safe to say that his short but dense literary criticisms and the phrasing of the translated works would be ill suited for most younger students. This is a book to be embraced by academics and anyone seeking a comprehensive understanding of the island’s literature. Despite this, Puerto Rican Poetry could additionally serve as a reference for those who need access to these rare poems, because few books address such a wide breadth of material, especially in English. This collection is a treasure trove that has the potential to bring an under-appreciated genre successfully to a new audience, and a priceless resource for anyone exploring Puerto Rican poetry, especially those who previously would have been hindered by language or lack of available sources.
Allison White is a student who writes about Puerto Rican language, history, and culture at www.speakingboricua.blogspot.com.
A version of this review was first published in The Latin American Review of Books.