Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Psalms according to Jack Agüeros

Martín Espada comments on
The Psalms according to Jack Agüeros:

...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:

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.

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 question
All material © Martín Espada,

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