Treasure island


Roberto Márquez’s comprehensive anthology, Puerto Rican Poetry, is a priceless resource for anyone exploring the nation’s verse through history

Puerto Rican Poetry: A Selection from Aboriginal to Contemporary Times
Edited by Roberto Márquez
2007, University of Massachusetts Press
490 pages

Reviewed by A. White

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: An Anthology from Aboriginal to Contemporary Times, however, masterfully avoids these problems. The collection is one that has eagerly sought to fill in gaps, pulling poetry from any source it 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 language.

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.

Politically charged

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 the editor 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 of the anonymous 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, most carefully crafted by the editor himself. Roberto 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.

The editor mentions in his introduction that his intentions were to bring Puerto Rican poetry to the classroom; however, it is safe to say that the 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 with success an under-appreciated genre to a new audience and, as such, is a priceless resource for anyone exploring Puerto Rican poetry, especially those who previously would have been hindered by language or lack of available sources.

A. White is an undergraduate student and writes a blog about Puerto Rico called Speaking Boricua