What is it to mourn your beloveds in a national atmosphere ever thickening with new griefs, one in which you must continuously grieve the state-sanctioned oppression and murder of fellow BIPOC? What can be the consolations, what can lighten the burden, of a particular sense of inherited loss, its centuries of weight bearing down through the generations on each individual?
The poems in Roberto Carlos Garcia’s third book, [Elegies], invite these questions. The speaker observes, “To remember is to grieve,” a common enough sentiment in elegiac writing, but one that usually alludes more or less exclusively to personal losses. The poems in [Elegies] lament the passing of family members and friends who reside now only in the speaker’s memory, but they also pay tribute to those living on in collective memory—cultural figures like Amiri Baraka and Gabriel García Márquez, generations of ancestors, victims of police violence. [Elegies] is a study in the particular ways that, for this speaker who identifies as Afro-Latinx, remembrance and grieving transcend the personal.
Losses like those of his grandmother, estranged father, and friends are magnified by the horrors of ancestral memory, which exact an additional “cost,” as one of the central poems explains. Here, descendants of the enslaved and others subjected to colonialism experience a shared grief that itself mutates, becoming an entity that lives on in the cells, developing its own consciousness: “The grief, so terribly long—remembers.” What the grief remembers in [Elegies] is both distant and recent history—a catalogue of microaggressions, scenes of enslaved ancestors, encounters with early explorers, deadly interactions with police.
But if grief is communal, so is healing, and it is made possible though one of many types of life-sustaining relationships. Gratitude and mourning are often threaded through the same poem, where a joyful family interaction will lighten a dark moment. A stressful day transforms when the speaker and his daughter sing along to Bill Withers, and suddenly, “There’s no impossible days / & joy rises from the soles of her Kimpossible sneakers.” Grief over the loss of Mami, the grandmother who raised him, is leavened by the memory of dancing with her in the kitchen, where “even Alzheimer’s couldn’t steal” her “easy two step” or the lyrics of her “favorite bachatas.”
The community of fellow artists, mostly BIPOC, is a kind of extended family of creative cousins and parents that offers a different kind of solace. Elegized and praised through reference, allusion, and quotation, those who have passed—Gwendolyn Brooks, Maya Angelou, Gil Scott Heron—speak alongside living artists, like poets Willie Perdomo and Patrick Rosal. Fellow artists provide the creative bonds and wisdom that sustain the speaker, and they are frequently found dropping their deadpan observations about resilience. A line borrowed from Jay-Z introduces a sense of wonder, given historical and material circumstances, that he is both alive and at least nominally free: “I’m shocked too, I’m supposed to be locked up too.” Garcia acknowledges that the creative family are bound together by the set of continuous refrains about injustice that they have been forced to sing over the generations: “We are sharing the same stories, songs & poems over a span of decades—same but different / again & again, rewind.” Those songs are then appropriated by the culture at large—specifically by its white members—and often treated as a form of sheer amusement, prompting the speaker’s confrontational question, “Are you not entertained?” White society continues to enjoy these works of art as mere spectacle, refusing to acknowledge the systemic problems they reveal.
[Elegies] pays tribute to the way-back ancestors, those of the Afro-Latinx diaspora, who have made the speaker’s life possible, both in practical terms and through their example. Their sacrifices and achievements buoy Garcia’s creative work. In the poem titled with a quote from Rumi, “The ocean pours through a jar…it swims inside the fish,” the speaker imagines walking underwater “all the way to the Caribbean” all the way to the past. He knows that “water is the doorway between worlds,” and when he reaches that other world:
me & my ancestors have a séance in the soil
& like a geyser, ancestors lift me high
into the sky dressed in bone white pants
shirtless & barefoot shouting birdsong.
The songs—the poems—are acts of retracing his ancestral lineage to confront their oppression. This seems an effort to reclaim both his own agency and his ancestors’ stolen humanity. He reaffirms their dignity and his own through his artmaking process.
I am reminded of James Baldwin’s indelible statement, quoted in Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric that the “endless struggle to achieve and reveal and confirm a human identity, human authority, contains, for all its horror, something very beautiful.” For Garcia’s speaker, the struggle itself is continually refracted through the consciousness of the artist. Artistic production at once is and reveals this terrible beauty inherent in the struggle, the process and products of artmaking both a kind of balm. For Garcia, art is an essential way that people manage to endure, for as Garcia’s borrowed line in “Cento for a Mood” instructs us, “Our world survives / on two things: first the poet and second the poet.”
All of this points to the way that Garcia’s book responds to these personal and historical injuries. His poems are salves for the actual people affected, that are active and generative and grow out of the individuals’ own efforts. Nothing can atone for present and historical abuses, the deaths of loved ones, but through community building and creativity, survivors can imagine a more tolerable present and a new future. Inasmuch as [Elegies] is a protest, a rallying cry, and a reckoning, it is also a shout-out to those who have come through and a celebration of their survival. In fact, rather than “consolation,” this book offers what would more accurately be called “models for survival,” passed down through generations by necessity.
Garcia hits his stride when jamming together “high” and popular culture, comedy and tragedy, formal tradition and innovation. He is particularly strong when vernacular butts up against more poetic diction, illustrating the poet’s vision of a democratized model of literary authority. The book creates tension in the way it juxtaposes elegies of great lyric beauty with scenes from a childhood in New York City that sound “like your favorite rapper’s first album.” These poems present a collage of deprivation, love, violence, and humor that show the young artist developing his sensibilities where “even the burning skulls of dead apartment buildings seemed beautiful.” The fact of his adult accomplishment becomes even starker as he depicts a youth devoid of hope, one where imagining a future for himself felt impossible, for “What the fuck was a tomorrow?”
“The Cost” is a long poem in four sections that shifts between lineation and prose. Its middle sections draw from the speaker’s childhood experience of discrimination at a pool party and a later discussion with his own son about passing. But the impactful first and fourth sections conflate the speaker’s present with the historic past and projected future. Esteban is Mustafa Azemmouri, a Moroccan slave and the first African to guide explorers to the new world; in the poem he seems to be both ancestor and ancestral enemy. The helper to the colonizer who is also colonial ancestor serves as the guide to the Caribbean homeland, which is joyous, oppressive, and deadly. The speaker and Esteban are approaching the coast on a ship. What from afar appears to be “our people dancing and drinking, dressed like lords” to “calypso, bachata, soca” looks different on arrival. “The bloody shackled feet of carnival dancers” come into focus.
The atrocities of slavery haunt everyday activities and lurk beneath the surface of the speaker’s joys. The carnival grinds on through centuries of development, the people chained but still attempting to dance, to carry on. The speaker can suddenly see the outlines of an all-inclusive resort just beyond the carnival dancers, white dudes golfing on the green. He imagines a future in which the resorts and colonizers themselves are wiped off the map in a hurricane, global warming leaving the island in its pre-colonized state, but even such total destruction could not erase the damage. After the storm, Esteban grabs the speaker by the head, forces his face toward the sea: “What do you see in the water?” he demands. The answer is suggested from a line just above: “the Middle Passage dead / at the bottom.”
The most deeply affecting elegies are those about Mami, the speaker’s grandmother who raised him. “Elegy in which grief sends me” finds the speaker experiencing her death, his most personal and present grief, through the prism of historical remembrance. He envisions himself in the role of the performer, the singer/poet, soother of self and others, “pounding a sandalwood tambourine / to soothe fellow travelers in the dark.” The grief is sending the speaker “backward” in time to the originary source of his exhaustion: “Mami, I look at what I’m running from, / the palatial estate burning inside me. / The world wants me to ignore it.”
But he doesn’t ignore it. Instead, he uses it. Against this mourning, escaped from the conditions of captivity on the estate, he asserts his freedom. He becomes his “own parade steadily advancing.” This is no longer an enslaved performer. The “chint chint” of his tambourine is the sound of his own performance, now reclaimed for himself, for Mami, for his ancestors, and for his extended community. In a related act of reclamation, the speaker affects a kind of reverse colonization, renaming cities for Mami. All the five boroughs of New York plus Long Island and London are to be called “La Isla de La Altagracia,” Altagracia being both Mami’s name and an epithet of the Virgin Mary, patron saint of the Dominican Republic. This act stakes a claim for the dispossessed, subverting the colonizers’ power of official designation.
Love and art are aligned, sustaining life in the face of death. Like other types of families, one’s creative family can operate through an economy of sharing, an economy of the gift. [Elegies] offers up this idea in form as much as in content. The book makes use of traditional forms like the zuihitsu and the cento—the latter a type of literary borrowing and tribute to other poets. Sensing that contemporary forms are needed, Garcia creates what he calls “the mixtape,” which “resembles a cento” as it borrows from poets, but it also allows borrowing from “fiction, nonfiction, rap lyrics, and other forms of literature.” The form, then, expands the community, and all the forms of borrowed-ness work together, creating a kind of family discussion. Or a literary barn raising. It is this kind of communal construction in art that makes a meeting place for the artists and communities in diaspora that exist all over the world and on either side of the veil. It isn’t built on someone else’s land or with other people’s sweat. It is a house made of the names and words of the beloveds. It’s big enough for everybody, and it is a place for them to come home.