After writing and publishing for more than 25 years, Jack Agüeros produced his first volume of poetry, Correspondence Between the Stonehaulers (Hanging Loose Press) in 1991, projecting an utterly unique voice. Here is a Puerto Rican poet, a political and cultural activist born in the city of New York nearly 60 years ago, writing of his despised community with anger, humor, and affection, but also with a craft more than equal to his commitment, bringing us a surprising and original encounter of form and subject.
Jack Agüeros writes sonnets. His ongoing series is called "Sonnets From the Puerto Rican," a neatly ironic reference to the "Sonnets From the Portuguese" by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. These are sonnets of the street: their subjects are often the homeless, the exploited, the addicted, the anonymous dead, in portraiture and landscape. Agüeros becomes an advocate in these poems, paying homage, choosing the sonnet form quite deliberately to bestow dignity on undignified lives and demand respect for those usually denied that respect. How many sonnets exist in the world for the homeless of Tompkins Square Park, or for a tubercular bindery worker?
Jack Agüeros also writes psalms. In the psalms he asks questions of God, a character in whom he may or may not believe. There is a wry social satirist at work in these poems, for the questions he asks are pointed as much at the church, or the government, or the corporate culture, or us, as they are at the inscrutable Lord.
That a writer of this inventiveness had to wait a quarter-century for his first book to emerge is testimony to the cultural blockade against Puerto Rican artists in this society (note the fate of Jorge Soto, eulogized here by Agüeros), a blockade only now being lifted -- slowly -- by the movement for multiculturalism. In fact, the situation of a writer like Jack Agüeros is testimony to the need for such a movement. Thankfully, we will not have to wait another quarter-century for the next book; Curbstone Press will publish a collection of his short fiction later this year.
What follows are four sonnets and two psalms of relatively recent vintage. These poems are characteristic of the poet, his clear, strong language, his intelligent compassion.
Sonnet For Raymond Castro
Raymond Castro was good at gin rummy. Always dribbled twice before
Taking his right hook shot in the Catholic gym, was handsome like
Alan Ladd, tall and gangly like James Stewart, but did not make
Movies or stutter; sang romantic songs, drank and danced boleros.
Quit Junior High School, took a job packing books at a bindery.
Year after year while I studied or taught Guided Missiles, or
Studied again, Raymond Castro packed books days, drank at night.
Fridays paid last week's bill, Saturdays started credit again.
When asked for a cigarette, he would touch each butt like a bead
On a rosary, reciting, "this one for lunch, these two for dinner,"
Through the pack. When Raymond Castro first got tubercular he
Looked fat as if filled with air, and when he died I don't know
Where I was or where he lies, and the dictionary he gave me signed
"To Jackie, Your Ace, Ray 1952" is misplaced but not forgotten.
Sonnet For Miss Beausoleil
Two threatening kids dared me. I loved her but was ten,
So I surely printed, "Miss Beausoleil is a motherfucker."
Right in Spanish Harlem on Lexington Avenue and 106th St.
Right next to the main entrance of PS 107 grammar school.
The same two aspiring Iagos I'm sure squealed on me and
Her face was hard, but her eyes were the Virgen Dolorosa
Which became x-ray hands thoroughly searching my soul
For evidence of perdition, for evidence of redemption.
I dumbly whispered, "I wrote it and spelled it correctly."
The rest is lost except for this: I didn't know her
Name meant Beautiful Sun, nor how to revise my writing;
Repressed what my punishment was, but never forgot her.
I apologize now, Miss Beausoleil, for me and the terrible kids
And assure you, that I don't value pure spelling anymore.
Sonnet: Tompkins Square Park, October 18th, 1989, 5:45 pm.
It could be a painting by Norman Rockwell or any American romantic
Landscapist: Old trees undress in the waning light and bleached
Leaves fall limp like soft garments at their feet. My weak eyes
Are about to say wood smoke hangs pretty, but my nose interrupts
Calling it acrid air. I squint creating a close-up, and then I
See the small figures from Pieter Breughel and Hieronymus Bosch
In a field of shacks and cardboard co-ops in Gothic bloom as if
In a garden grown by Edgar Allen Poe. Old oil drums are recycled
Into open ovens with moist wood crackling, cooking and heating,
Serving as hearths to homeless men and women whose shadows mock
Them dancing and darting in runic time, randomly choreographed
By high spitting flames, and Hell is the name I now give this
Tableaux, where the American axiom of abundance is annulled and
The quality of compassion has been left out in the rain, rusting.
Sonnet For Jorge Soto, Painter,
b. 1947, New York,
d. 1987, Vermont.
Jorge Soto had a brain like Einstein and the body of a bear
With the doubly large attendant appetites. His brain liked
To eat art history, theories of composition, color, line and
Perspective. His brain liked to wrestle with professors and
Curators. His body liked to eat cuchifritos rice beans roast
Pork and tostones. His body liked to drink beer wine whiskey
And heroin. His brain liked to hit museums and art openings,
His body liked women, salsa and soft lit shooting galleries.
Jorge Soto had a hand with a rapidograph for a sixth finger
Directly connected to his brain. Standing or sitting Jorge
Listened to his brain by sketching, and when that galloping
Brain approached the speed of light, then Jorge the bear would
Bend it by rapidly injecting a dose of time now into its path.
When I am asked, "Did he paint a masterpiece?", I say "Yes he did,
And, he was one."
Psalm For Modernization
The New Jersey Bishops
Went to see the Governor.
They are not opposed
To state sponsored gambling --
They just don't like
That it cuts into their
I say we gotta modernize,
Sing hymns and chant the daily numbers,
And what about a slot machine
That will pay big
If you hit three bleeding hearts of Jesus?
Psalms For The New Catechism,
Some of us are getting
Very worried about Christmas
So here's a suggestion:
The new catechism should declare
A new holy day of obligation
For the Adoration of Merchandise
And Excessive Consumption of Alcohol.
On Christmas Day
We might figure out something
Spiritual to do.
"Sonnet For Raymond Castro" originally appeared in Parnassus; "Sonnet for Miss Beausoleil" originally appeared in Callaloo.