JACK AGUEROS

Martín Espada
Poet, Essayist, Editor & Translator

Jack Agüeros

(1934- )

 

Introduction

 

            Jack Agüeros is one of the most accomplished and versatile of all Latino writers. Consider the range of his production in the last thirty years: poetry, short fiction, translation, plays, essays, theatre criticism, journalism, scriptwriting, childrens' stories. He has received grants and awards in three different disciplines--for poetry, fiction, and playwriting--which is a rare feat indeed. He has served the community since the 1960s as a political activist and cultural worker, directing the only Puerto Rican museum on the mainland for almost a decade. Nearing seventy, he is an elder who has earned our attention and respect. Yet he has not received the recognition and reward  he deserves, either from the mainstream literary world or from the Puerto Rican literary community. This essay will explore the accomplishments of Jack Agüeros, focusing mostly on his poetry, and consider his place in the spectrum of Latino literature.

 

Biographical Background

 

            Jack Agüeros was born in East Harlem, New York in 1934. His parents migrated from Puerto Rico. His father, a police officer on the island, came to New York in 1920, and worked in restaurants and factories. His mother arrived in 1931 and worked as a seamstress in the garment district. Agüeros recalls receiving Home Relief (an early form of welfare) in childhood. He graduated from Benjamin Franklin high school in 1953, then spent four years in the Air Force, where--ironically, given his later life as a dissident--he became a guided missile instructor. After his discharge from the Air Force, he continued his education with a BA in English from Brooklyn College in 1964 and an MA in  Urban Studies from Occidental College in 1970. At Brooklyn College he received his first literary awards, in poetry and playwriting.

 

            Agüeros was best known as a community activist in the 1960s, working with organizations from the Henry Street Settlement to the Puerto Rican Community Development Project. In 1968, he was appointed Deputy Comissioner of the Community Development Agency, and controversy ensued. Agüeros staged a five day hunger strike in his office to protest mistreatment of the Puerto Rican community by the city administration, stating thirteen conditions to be met before his fast would end. The New York Times featured a dramatic photo of Agüeros in his office, his conditions posted on the wall behind  him. Various city officials, and even representatives of the church, visited him in a vain attempt to terminate the protest; finally, a letter from Mayor John Lindsay, meeting most of the conditions, persuaded Agüeros to end his hunger strike. He lost twenty pounds in five days. He also demonstrated a gritty integrity that would be later reflected in his body of writing.

 

            From 1977 to 1986, Jack Agüeros was Executive Director of the Museo del Barrio in East Harlem. He invigorated the institution, assembling an impressive collection of carved wooden saints from Puerto Rico, providing space to local Puerto Rican artists and writers, and organizing an annual Three Kings' Day Parade in the barrio, complete with sheep and camels. This position also ended in controversy, as Agüeros was maneuvered out of the Museo by arts administrators at the New York State Council for the Arts and the Mayor's Office, who perceived him as a threat. In the late 1980s he became very active in the theatre community, translating a number of plays for Joseph Papp's Public Theater and the Puerto Rican Traveling Theater. He also earned a McDonald's Latino Dramatist Award in 1989.

 

Publishing History

            Agüeros began publishing essays in 1970. He reported on a historic conference of Puerto Rican and Chicano activists for The Village Voice, and wrote a moving account of his childhood called "Halfway to Dick and Jane: A Puerto Rican Pilgrimage" for a collection called The Immigrant Experience in 1971. An early landmark anthology of Puerto Rican literature, entitled Borinquen, was published by Knopf in 1974 and featured several Agüeros poems. Given this record, it is suprising to note that Agüeros did not publish his first book until 1991, when he was fifty-seven years old; however, he went on to publish a total of five books in eleven years.

           

            Two small presses have published the five books in question: Hanging Loose Press and Curbstone Press. Both presses are typical of the small operations that heroically sustain poetry, Latino literature, and political writing in the wake of neglect or hostility in the culture as a whole. Hanging Loose has published three collections of poetry by Agüeros: Correspondence Between the Stonehaulers (1991); Sonnets from the Puerto Rican (1996); and Lord, Is This a Psalm? (2002). Curbstone has published a collection of short fiction by Agüeros, entitled Dominoes and Other Stories from the Puerto Rican (1993), and his translations of the great Puerto Rican poet Julia de Burgos, Song of the Simple Truth: The Complete Poems (1997). In 2008, Curbstone will publish his translations of José Martí: Come, Come, My Boiling Blood: The Complete Poems.

           

            Poetry and fiction published by Jack Agüeros in these collections also won him two fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts. The critical response to these works was very favorable, though no major newspaper or magazine took notice. In the poetry journal Parnassus, Colette Inez wrote: "With compassion for and indignation at social injustice, he pays homage to the fallen heroes of the barrio, and to those lost in the blur of repetitive work, made  invisible or distorted by the lenses of ignorance, fear and bigotry." David Slavitt, in The Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook 1993, praised the title story of Dominoes as "a marvel of apparent effortlessness but nonetheless enormous skill," and cited Agüeros himself as "a writer of very great gifts."

 

The Sonnets

            Jack Agüeros is one of the few Latino poets who uses the sonnet, and one of the few writers of the sonnet who engages political themes. Agüeros has a traditional grounding in the sonnet form; unlike the Cuban-American poet Rafael Campo, who also writes sonnets, Agüeros breaks with many traditions of the form.

           

            Agüeros was introduced to the sonnet in high school (by a Mrs. Finnegan), and cites such influences as Shakespeare, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. In fact, the title of his second book, Sonnets From the Puerto Rican, is a deliberate play on Browning's Sonnets From the Portuguese.  Indeed, Browning was not Portuguese, and Agüeros is very Puerto Rican. However, these sonnets go well beyond the assertion of cultural identity.

           

            Agüeros takes some delight, first of all, in bending the form itself. He dispenses with iambic pentameter, of course; though each sonnet is fourteen lines, and many divide themselves into three quatrains and a couplet, at times there are only three stanzas, or a stanza of eight lines, or perhaps a concluding "couplet" of only one line.  These departures are not accidental; the poet knows, even loves, the traditional form. Breaking with the sonnet form in this case may be a declaration of the poet's anarchistic nature, or a reflection of the broken urban world, like a jagged bottle, addressed as subject matter by these sonnets. As a bilingual, bicultural poet, Agüeros is aware that his language will not satisfy the gatekeepers of either the King's English or the Queen's Spanish. 

                                                                                                                                   

 

In any event, the poet suggests the form by departing from  it, using it as a device for organizing his thoughts or creating dramatic tension within the poem. His couplets often answer a question posed by the poem, or provide a moral, or--in the case of humorous sonnets--deliver a punchline. Many of his poems end with a lyrical flourish, a sharp "turn," thanks to the poet's strong feel for the couplet.

 

            There are sonnets here in startling variety. There are historical sonnets and journalistic sonnets. There are sonnets evoking landscapes, of the city and elsewhere. There are portraits in sonnet form, mostly of people in the Puerto Rican community. There are sonnets about work and death. There are sonnets of love and loss. There are philosophical sonnets. The vision is sweeping, the range of references extraordinary, from the indigenous inhabitants of Puerto Rico called the Taínos to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Oftentimes in these poems we see the sonneteer as advocate, demanding respect for his damned and forgotten people and places through the use of a form associated with high art.

 

            The poet knows his history, and is unafraid to draw parallels between one conquest and another. There are two poems called "Sonnet After Columbus," I and II. "Columbus I" begins from the perspective of the Taínos watching "the little boy boats blow onto our shore: / Our burned out tree canoes were larger and sleeker, / The Caribbean was quiet, tranquil as ourselves, but / These men were all more hellish than any hurricane." By poem's end, the Spanish conquerors of Puerto Rico have become "Yankee," who "sailed in our bays and put paper feet on our throats, / Paper hands in our pockets, papered the trees and land, / Papered our eyes..." The paper, of course, is the U.S. dollar. Throats are silenced, eyes blinded, pockets picked, land plundered, by the new colonialism. These observations lead, in the couplet, to the poet's indictment of both colonizer and colonized: "The names of the incarcerated? You and me. / Charge? Not throwing tea in the bay." In fourteen lines Agüeros concisely sums up the frustration of the world's oldest colony. After five hundred years of occupation--four centuries under Spain and one century under the United States--Puerto Rico is still waiting for its Boston Tea Party, and the poet waits too.

 

            If Public Enemy is "the CNN of the ghetto," then Jack Agüeros may be the PBS of the barrio. Thus we have a sonnet cycle about the Happy Land Social Club fire, which killed eighty-seven people in 1990, more than half immigrants from Honduras.  The fire was set by the jealous lover of a woman who worked at the club; miraculously, she escaped unharmed. Agüeros goes beyond the story of Julio and Lydia, confronting the owners of the building for their violations of fire laws (there were no sprinklers or emergency lights), the courts that slapped the owners with a light fine, and the politicians who failed to keep their promises to the families of the victims.

 

The most haunting sonnet in this series of five is the fourth: "Sonnet for the Only Monument Around, October 1994." In a journalistic vein, the poet surveys the scene of the fire more than four years later. He observes vividly that "Smoke stains the cornices / of its few small windows, / hangs over the transom, like / bunting, of its only door."  A sign posted by the city announces that a granite monument to the dead will be erected in September 1994. The penultimate line in the poem brings us forceful, immediate reportage: "Under my October feet, a ditch full of debris is the only monument."

 

            The poet's visual sensibility, his photographic eye, is in full evidence here. The ghostly images of the building and the street carry the emotional weight of  the poem. There is a strong sense of place and time;  in fact, various Agüeros poems bear an exact date, like a newspaper. The poet's instinct that the Anglo newspapers will never do justice to the "eighty-seven dead dancers" is a major motivation for the creation of these journalistic sonnets. The poet seeks to rescue the dead from oblivion, if only on a symbolic level. He understands the difference between a granite monument and a poem; but if the dead cannot have the dignity of granite, then they will have the dignity of a sonnet.

 

            There are other urban landscapes in these sonnets: the number 6 subway train, Tompkins Square Park. But these are not urban pastorals. What interests Agüeros about the landscapes of the city are the people that inhabit them. This is especially true when the people are invisible, fading into their environment, for the poet considers it his mission to make the invisible visible. One such sonnet is "Sonnet for Heaven Below," documenting a time in New York City when the homeless lived and slept in the subway system by the thousands.

 

Agüeros insists that we subvert the traditional definitions of beauty and ugliness, that we gaze upon the "ugly" until it becomes "beautiful." Thus the homeless in this sonnet become fallen angels. The second stanza captures this transformation: "acid rain fractures their / Feathers, and french fries and Coca-Cola corrupt / The color of their skin and make them sing hoarsely. / The gossamer shoes so perfect for kicking clouds / Stain and tear on the concrete..."

 

            Behind the fantastic imagery is a serious argument: the homeless must be re-imagined. Even the title challenges the reader. "Heaven" is not in the sky above, but "Below," here on earth, because we create our heaven in this place, with an ethos of compassion for fallen angels.  When least expected, Agüeros turns this poem in the last line with characteristic humor: "Mercifully, angels aren't tourists, so they are spared total disdain."

                                                                                                                                               

            The most striking of the sonnets are dedicated to individual portraiture. These poems most clearly demonstrate the unique marriage of form and content found in the work of Agüeros. Where else will we find a sonnet for a middleweight boxer killed in the ring? Or for a Puerto Rican cab driver? Has there ever been another sonnet written for an accused criminal nicknamed "Maddog?" In these poems the impulse towards advocacy shines through brilliantly. If no one else will speak for "Maddog," with the "many multiplying stones / Fast piling across the opening of his life," then the poet, invoking Handel's Messiah, declares: "I stand up." The poet sees García pushing a clothes rack through the garment district and observes that he gets "no heroic couplet;" of course, Agüeros makes this observation in the couplet of a poem dedicated to García.

 

            It would be a mistake to read these sonnets only for their content. There is also craft here. If the poet has an eye, he also has an ear, as in "Sonnet for Angelo Monterosa." The poet's friend, Angelo, a small-time crook, has been murdered by shotgun. The poem dedicated to his memory fills to the brim with hard alliteration, underscoring hard realities. He is angry with his dead friend and the murderers, "Killed and killers, killing and dealing dope." There is "blood on the jukebox," the percussive repetition of wasted lives echoed in "the cowbell, the conga and your corpse." In the comically titled "Sonnet Substantially Like the Words of Fulano Rodríguez One Position Ahead of Me on the Unemployment Line," Agüeros uses softer alliterative language to mimic the relentless spinning of the protagonist, twirled like a top by the social service bureaucracy: "this is where the state celebrates its sport...Your string is both your leash and lash."

           

            If there are sonnets of advocacy, there are also sonnets of autobiography. If there are portraits, then there are also self-portraits. Agüeros once  considered writing a collection of poems about his work history, called "The Book of Jobs." Though that book never came to fruition, there survives a poem called "Sonnet: How I Became a Moving Man." Here the poet's "so-called partners" allow him, on his first day, to move a huge washing machine down fours flights of tenement stairs bare-handed, slicing those hands bloody in the process. "What are you going to do now, Kid?" he is asked. His answer, and the response of his co-workers, form the stunning couplet that ends the poem: "'Go get the refrigerator,' I said. 'No,' they said, 'we will / Teach you straps now that you are a man who knows bleeding.'" The bloody hands do not represent, as one might assume, some kind of stigmata. Rather, the bleeding becomes a metaphor for the painfully-acquired knowledge that comes with the years.

 

            No consideration of Agüeros would be complete without an examination of the love sonnets. At first glance, there is a superficial resemblance to the love sonnets of Pablo Neruda. Neruda's sonnets focused exclusively on his great love, Matilde Urrutia; likewise, the Agüeros love sonnets focus intensely on one woman, Yolanda Rodríguez. However, a better comparison with Neruda's work exists. The love sonnets of Agüeros, in tone and content, more closely resemble Neruda's famed "Song of Despair." There is a sense of anguish over loss, a profound sadness at the transitory nature of love itself, pervading these poems.

 

            There is also a fundamental distinction between the young Neruda, twenty years old when he published the "Song of Despair," and the more mature Agüeros, past sixty when he published his love sonnets. Whereas Neruda told his lover, "in you everything sank," Agüeros might well have written, "in me everything sank." This poet holds himself responsible for the loss of love. These sonnets call upon the traditional vocabulary of the love sonnet--words like  "heart" and "soul"--but with a frankness that is very contemporary. They are raw, brutally honest, charged with emotion.

 

            They are also funny. Time after time, Agüeros avoid the maudlin with his surreal sense of humor. "Sonnet for Me, Your Orbiting Dog," begins: "I am a muzzled dog spun by planet you." In "Sonnet for You, My Moon," the poet mocks his own inability to weep, saying of his tears: "my eyes / are two meticulous waiters incapable of spilling one drop." Elsewhere, he wonders aloud: "How come my bed is empty, even when I am in it?" His self-deprecating humor can be visceral; he compares his testicles to "rejectable" prunes. He also offers theories of love, tested by experience, like a street-corner philosopher. Love, he has learned, is "a good book borrowed" as if from the library, but "Never say," the poet warns, "this is my book."

 

            The combination of the aging process and the loss of love produce in Agüeros a paradoxical fascination with death. In the same sonnets where he mourns the end of love, Agüeros speaks of death as a "warm hand" or "welcome as a trip around the world." He sneers at death, "all my teeth in full derision," or becomes "chatty" with the Grim Reaper, since "endless silence" awaits.

 

The Psalms

 

            Jack Agüeros also writes in a much more unusual form than the sonnet: the psalm. In these short, spare, often hilarious poems, Agüeros talks to the Lord; whether he actually believes in the Lord is open to question. The psalms divide themselves into two basic kinds: poems of praise and poems of heresy. Though the psalms and sonnets have in common the same passion for justice and the same commitment to a Puerto Rican identity, the psalms give the poet further license to engage in both celebration and satire.

                                                                                                                                               

            Though some may recall the psalms of Ernesto Cardenal, for me Neruda again comes to mind. The Agüeros psalms written as hymns of praise closely parallel Neruda's odes, celebrating "ordinary" things and people usually considered unworthy of attention. Neruda wrote an ode to a spoon; Agüeros writes of the pilón, or mortar, in his kitchen. Neruda wrote odes to the artichoke, the tomato, the onion, the lemon, garlic, and French fries; Agüeros writes psalms singing the praises of Puerto Rican delicacies such as rice and beans, tostones, pasteles, bacalao and coquito. Neruda wrote an ode to the dictionary; Agüeros writes a psalm in defense of Spanish.

 

            The food poems merit a closer reading. The "Psalm for Bacalao" begins by invoking the word itself four times; clearly, the poet is savoring the very flavor of the word, "bacalao," which refers to salted and dried codfish. The wonder of bacalao in the poem goes well beyond its flavor in combination with "green bananas / onions and scrambled eggs." The wonder is that Puerto Ricans have bacalao at all, since the cod "doesn't swim anywhere / near Puerto Rico." The psalm, like the ode, performs a didactic function in the best sense: it educates us about the subject in the process of praising that subject. Since this is a psalm, however, Agüeros makes a transition into the language of miracles: "And Lord / since it's a fish / thank you for letting it fly / to Puerto Rico." This hyperbolic language of the miraculous is often a source of humor in the psalms.

 

            Other psalms in praise of food or drink begin with a light touch, then move into the realm of social commentary. The "Psalm for Coquito"--"a nog with coconut milk and rum," as the poem explains--serves as a springboard for satire on the hypocrises of the Christmas season. The poem begins with a joke: every other ingredient in coquito, it seems, is rum. Yet, if the poet is a bit tipsy from the coquito, he realizes upon reading the newspaper that the world is drunk on greed, money and power. He envisions a "dark-skinned family" evicted from "a manger in the South Bronx" and taking up residence at a homeless shelter, "where there were no beds or blankets, / but José got Prozac, / María got Methadone, / and Baby Jesus got scolded for not having a job yet." With this resolution to the poem Agüeros lampoons the Christian right, who would scorn the infant Jesus and his family for their poverty.

 

            The food psalms serve another purpose for Agüeros. Since food is a cultural signifier, Agüeros is able to celebrate a Puerto Rican self through these particular poems. A poem in praise of bacalao is actually a poem in praise of Puerto Rican identity. Both the identity and the food continue to be shunned or disrespected; thus, the poem is not only entertaining, but necessary.

 

            Not all the psalms about food involve praise. At least one challenges a God who would allow hunger to exist in the world. "Psalm for the World Restaurant" notes that the "Angel in charge" passes out a strange menu: "One page has no food, / one page has half portions, / one page is all chemical killers." This is a unique way to evoke starvation, malnutrition, and pesticide poisoning, respectively. The mind's eye of the reader might skip over the usual images, so the poet's job is find a new way, a crazy angle, if need be, to grab the reader's attention. Agüeros uses the Angel to personify capitalist economics: "stuffing his face with raw profits / has destroyed his taste buds." He sardonically urges the Lord to cancel the Angel's "subscription / to Gourmet Magazine."

 

            This is the voice of the poet as heretic. He wrestles with a major philosophical question in these poems: How could a just God tolerate vast human suffering? Instead of leaving that question draped in mid-air for the theologians to contemplate, Agüeros abandons the polite manners of theology and confronts the Lord directly. This confrontation comes with a sharp satirical edge. The "Psalm for Distribution" is a good example, and is quoted here in its entirety:

 

                        Lord,

                        on 8th Street

                        between 6th Avenue and Broadway

                        in Greenwich Village

                        there are enough shoe stores

                        with enough shoes

                        to make me wonder

                        why there are shoeless people

                        on the earth.

 

                        Lord,

                        You have to fire the Angel

                        in charge of distribution.

 

            The poem begins by undercutting a basic assumption: maybe the all-seeing God is not all-seeing. The poet presents the injustice so obvious to him, but perhaps unnoticed by the Deity.  The Lord, as the lawyers say, has "actual or constructive knowledge" of the problem, i.e. he either knows or should know.

 

The notion of a compassionate God turning a blind eye is frightening, yet Agüeros shifts the sobering tone with a punchline. Here the universe is managed by an inept bureaucracy of Angels. The Angel of Distribution can and should be fired by God for his spectacular incompetence. This Angel also represents a capitalist system that produces enough resources for everyone, but fails utterly in the fair distribution of those resources. The shoes become, metaphorically, all the basic necessities of life.

                                                                                                                                               

The heretical voice in the psalms also mocks the church. Agüeros points out that the Pope is fond of a particular car: the Mercedes Benz. (He has five of them.) In poem after poem, the laughter of the poet comes at the expense of the religious hierarchy, from the New Jersey Bishops to the International Theological Commission, which ruled that gays could be sanctified if they were "chaste." Agüeros tugs on the robes of the Lord to ask: "can't you send Jesus / to turn over a few tables / in the temples?"

 

            Yet, the poet insists, he has not lost his faith. An atheist would not be writing psalms, would not address a monologue to the Lord. As Agüeros says in "Psalm for My Faith:" "Lord, it's not true / that my faith is cooling. / It's just that people / are saying that candle smoke / has caused cancer in church mice, / and I also worry that candlelight / is too weak to reach your cloud." He is not in the business of libeling any religion; he is simply a man with questions.

 

            Agüeros reserves his harshest questions for the state; he has lost faith, it seems, in that particular human institution. Two strong psalms about police brutality, written many years apart, serve as evidence. The first, "Psalm for Equations," recalls a lethal incident at the Algiers Motel in Detroit more than thirty years ago, and concludes furiously: "Lord, you need a new / Angel of Explanations / and a new Angel of Equations / because the dead blacks / far outnumber / the credible police." The second, "Psalm for Amadou Diallo," includes a footnote explaining that Diallo was killed in the South Bronx by four police who shot him 41 times despite the fact that he was unarmed. This is a model of poetry as the art of the concise, proving that the understatement of outrage can pack an emotional wallop:

 

                        Amadou Diallo

                        1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

                        Amadou Diallo

                        8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14

                        Amadou Diallo

                        15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21

                        Amadou Diallo

                        21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28

                        Amadou Diallo

                        29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35,

                        Amadou Diallo

                        36, 37, 38, 39, 40, 41,

                        Amadou Diallo

                        41,?

                        Amadou Diallo

                        41, 41, 41!

 

Other Poems

            On occasion, Agüeros has written poems which are neither sonnets nor psalms. There are short, fragmentary poems that tell stories in brief or offer thumbnail sketches of people on the block. "Making Him" recalls a junkie, Crazy Benny, who had a disagreement with a crooked dealer going by the equally colorful name of Little Louie. Benny, "with trembling hands," pushed Little Louie off a roof, enforcing an ethical code of the street and becoming, ironically, "a humanitarian of sorts." "And He" sums up the drug addict's dilemma without blame or sentimentality: "Gorilla in and out /  Of jail, on and off / Drugs. Thirty-three. / He likes it, and / He does not like it."

 

                                                                                                                                   

 

            The title poem of the poet's first collection, "Correspondence Between the Stonehaulers," is an outstanding experiment with the epic voice. The six page poem--by far the longest in his body of work--is an imagined dialogue between a slave in ancient Egypt and another slave in the Inca Empire. Their postcards fly back and forth across centuries. They compare strange creatures (crocodiles versus condors). They also compare the proclamations of their rulers: both the Pharoah, Cheops, and the Inca, Manco Capac, decree that "Public works will save us." Both laborers are aware of their exploitation. Nevertheless, both take pride in the raising of their stone monuments.

           

            The poem makes clear that these monuments to kings are, in fact, monuments to the builders.  This is a visionary point of view on labor and history, which refers to and echoes Neruda's "Heights of Macchu Picchu." There is also the echo of Brecht's great question: "Who built Thebes of the seven gates?" The poem pays homage on multiple levels: to the historical African and Native roots of Latin American heritage, to the resiliency of those who labor, to their creativity, artistic and otherwise. The poem ends with a tribute to this yearning for expression, and the potential for solidarity among those condemned to silence by their rulers, and by history. The slave of Egypt speaks:

           

            My friend, one day I will step

            Through the jungle and see the

            Head you carved, and I already love

            It, and one day you will tread the

            Soft hot sand and come upon my

            Reposing lion-man, smiling.

            It is so easy to smile,

            So hard to put it on stone.

 

I cut my finger in your memory.

 

Translation

            Jack Agüeros deserves enormous credit for his translations of Julia de Burgos. An entire essay could easily be devoted to this undertaking; space permits only a brief appreciation.

 

            Julia de Burgos is considered by many the greatest poet produced by the island of Puerto Rico. She is certainly the most beloved.  Poems such as "Río Grande de Loiza" define the Puerto Rican nation, from its natural splendor to its legacy of struggle; other poems, such as her famous "To Julia de Burgos," anticipate the rise of feminism, asserting the rights of women: "who governs in me is me." She wrote love poems and political poems, free verse and sonnets, mastering the entire poetic spectrum. A teacher on the island, she migrated to New York in the 1940s, where she worked closely with two other major Puerto Rican poets, Juan Antonio Corretjer and Clemente Soto Vélez, on a journal called Pueblos Hispanos. Like them, she advocated independence for Puerto Rico.

 

            Julia de Burgos collapsed on an East Harlem street and died in 1953 from complications due to alcoholism. She was not yet forty. (Agüeros notes that Dylan Thomas met the same fate, at the same age, in the same year and in the same city.) She left behind only two published collections of poetry. A third was published posthumously. The first challenge Agüeros faced was not as a translator, but as an investigator. The early death of Julia de Burgos left countless "lost poems" in its wake.

 

            Agüeros set out to find the "lost poems." He discovered fifty of these uncollected poems in, as he puts it, "obscure magazines, flyers, journals" and elsewhere.  One discovered poem, "The Voices of the Dead," is an epic piece that ranks with the greatest works of Julia de Burgos, an anti-war poem that resonates to the present day. He even found two poems in English. As Agüeros himself admits, there will always be more "lost poems." However, he has performed a remarkable service in publishing the most complete edition of this poet available either in English or Spanish. Song of the Simple Truth, with more than two hundred poems in a bilingual format, and a very useful introduction by the translator, represents a literary landmark.

 

            As a translator of poetry, Agüeros is rigorous and faithful. He resists the urge to embellish, update, or improve upon the original. He is respectful without being reverential. While he does not impose  his own agenda on the poems, there are certain similarities between his poetry and his translations. Like the poems of Agüeros, the translations are admirably clear and direct, playful one moment and profound the next.

 

            In fact, Agüeros and Julia de Burgos share a number of characteristics. Both are equally comfortable with lyrics of love or protest. Both favor the independence of Puerto Rico. Both write sonnets. At first glance, it might appear that Agüeros the poet has influenced Agüeros the translator. It is more likely that Julia the poet influenced Agüeros the poet, and we are seeing that influence come full circle.

 

Short Fiction

           

            As with the translations of Jack Agüeros, his short fiction merits its own essay. Again, space limitations make only the briefest consideration possible; in addition, an analysis of the fiction is somewhat beyond the scope of my expertise. Nevertheless, a few words about Dominoes are in order.

 

            Agüeros is, as we have seen, a gifted narrative poet. He writes with an admirable clarity and conciseness. He can sum up the life and death of Angelo Monterosa in fourteen lines. With a few brushstrokes of language he can capture the essence of a character who might take countless pages to develop in a novel. He has a strong grasp of basic narrative principles: who, what, when, where. The same qualities found in the poetry may be found in the short fiction. This holds true not only for language, but for content. Agüeros becomes an advocate in Dominoes. The people in these stories evoke the words of Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano: They are "the ones who have been waiting on line for centuries to get into history."

 

            And who are they? The first and last stories in Dominoes answer that question, and demonstrate the impressive range of this collection. The title story organizes itself around a game of dominoes on a barrio street. There is an accusation of cheating, a fight, a stabbing death. Yet Agüeros sees the action  with a raptor's eye, capturing poignant detail: a screaming woman so anguished that she kneels over the wrong body following the brawl. Ebarito, the "pretty boy" barber, held in contempt by other men, survives the fight only because of the trimming scissors in his pocket, which he uses to kill a man who has his "massive hands" wrapped around the barber's throat. Yet Agüeros makes clear that the violence victimizes everyone. This is not a simplistic tale of triumph over a neighborhood bully. The final, unforgettable image of the story gives us Ebarito, informed by an impatient doctor that his vocal cords have been crushed, trying to point to his mouth, and taken by surprise when he cannot: "his left arm was manacled to the bed." Fade to black. The End.

 

            Perhaps the reader might expect a tale about a fatal stabbing in the street from a barrio storyteller. In the hands of a lesser writer, such a story might even reinforce a few stereotypes, though Agüeros presents his characters as fully dimensional human beings, male and female, and compels us to care about them. Nothing, however, can prepare the reader for "Agua Viva: A Sculpture by Alfredo González," the striking story that closes the collection.

 

            Alfredo González is different, strange, an outcast who has been defined by the professionals as mentally ill, "traumatized" but "harmless." He has not washed his hands, or spoken a word, in five years. He collects iron and steel of every description, in his driveway, in his house, that "hive of the iron bee...the complex of chambers of the iron ant," where there is no water or light or gas.  Alfredo envisions a "sculpture." He wants to create something called "Agua Viva," because a certain tangle of chains and pulleys reminds him of the jellyfish in Puerto Rico. The local boys taunt Alfredo, calling him "filthy Fredo." Not satisfied with insults, they spray gasoline and try to burn him out. Alfredo and a neighbor repel the attack; the neighbor offers a shave, a bath, a beer. Alfredo responds to this simple gesture of humanity: "Fredo shook his head and made a sound like a hack saw on cast iron. It was 'yes'." (Agüeros is capable of ending a story the way Joe Frazier could end a fight with a left hook.)

 

            We never learn the source of Alfredo's trauma. We know only, as the neighbor says, that something "happened" to him, and also that he was institutionalized for a year. Yet Agüeros invests this character with such dignity, such integrity, that his apparent madness is secondary. He is, after all, an artist. For the storyteller there is a powerful sense of identification with the most isolated, feared and misunderstood people among us.  Agüeros also brings great authority to his account of Alfredo's obsession: he himself collects pieces of iron and steel, carefully displayed throughout his New York apartment.

 

Literary Reputation

           

            Despite his impressive record of accomplishment, Jack Agüeros does not rank among the most celebrated of Latino writers. His work is missing from  many anthologies and textbooks of Latino literature. (The reader will note the absence of works about Agüeros in the bibliography.) In a community full of neglected writers, the neglect of Agüeros seems particularly unjust.

 

            There are some objective reasons for his relative lack of recognition. His poetry is published by small presses, with limited means of promotion and distribution. Again, Agüeros did not publish his first book till the age of fifty-seven, which qualifies as a late start.

 

            Yet Agüeros would appear to be a prime candidate for crossing over into mainstream literary acceptance. He writes in the sonnet form. He addresses a broad range of subjects beyond the Puerto Rican experience. His sense of humor can build bridges with a wider audience. His poetry readings are wildly successful with all kinds of audiences.

 

            On the other hand, Agüeros is both unabashedly Puerto Rican and unashamedly political. No Puerto Rican writer in this country has ever won a Pulitzer, or a National Book Award, or a National Book Critics Circle Award, or a MacArthur "genius" grant. Puerto Ricans are still perceived in the popular imagination as illiterate and ignorant. If Puerto Ricans cannot read, the logic goes, then they cannot write, and therefore there are no Puerto Rican writers.

                                                                                                                                   

There are exceptions, an occasional breakthrough, but even then the Puerto Rican writer is often treated as a literary noble savage. If, like Agüeros, the poet writes in a political vein, then the violation of literary etiquette is complete. This poet's great offense is not that he takes liberties with the sonnet form, but rather that he demands liberty for those who lack it. In his defense of the  "incarcerated" Agüeros, fittingly enough, writes as a child of Whitman, who spoke for the "interminable generations of prisoners and slaves."

 

            A more complex question remains: why Agüeros has not received his due in the Puerto Rican literary world. His stubborn independence, his utter uniqueness, may work against him in this context. He defies expectations, even within his own community. Perhaps his embrace of the sonnet puzzles those who seek more "authentic" Puerto Rican or urban expression. The work of Agüeros is hardly assimilationist, yet he also rejects the authenticity yardstick. For Agüeros, being Puerto Rican is necessary but not sufficient; those expecting an exclusive focus on cultural identity will be disappointed. Agüeros is also a modest man, relatively unconcerned with promoting his work and uninterested in the business of recognition.

 

            Nevertheless, what ultimately matters is not literary reputation but the work itself, and Jack Agüeros has created a body of work that will last, that will tell future readers the sad, angry, funny truth about being Puerto Rican, and being human, at the end of a troubled century. He is an original.

 

 

           


 

                                                                                                                                               

Bibliography: Works by Jack Agüeros

 

Poetry

Correspondence Between the Stonehaulers. New York: Hanging Loose Press, 1991.

 

Sonnets from the Puerto Rican. New York: Hanging Loose Press, 1996.

 

Lord, Is This a Psalm? New York: Hanging Loose Press, 2002.

 

Fiction

 

Dominoes and Other Stories from the Puerto Rican. Willimantic, CT: Curbstone Press, 1993.

 

Translation

 

Song of the Simple Truth: The Complete Poems of Julia de Burgos. Willimantic, CT: Curbstone Press, 1997.

 

Come, Come, My Boiling Blood: The Complete Poems of José Martí. Willmantic, CT: Curbstone Press, 2009.

 

Essays

"Halfway to Dick and Jane: A Puerto Rican Pilgrimage," in The Immigrant Experience: The Anguish of Becoming American.  Edited by Thomas Wheeler. New York: The Dial Press, 1971.

           

"Beyond the Crust," in Daily Fare: Essays from the Multicultural Experience.  Edited by Kathleen Aguero. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1993.

 

 

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