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 ³Sonnets
From the Puerto Rican,² a neatly ironic reference to the ³Sonnets From
the Portuguese² 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
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
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.
[This Poet¹s Sampler was originally printed in the previous issue
of the Boston Review. Because the layout did not do justice to the poems,
we reprint them here ‹ ED.]
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 week¹s bill, Saturdays started credit again.
When asked for a cigarette, he would touch each butt like a bead
On a rosary, reciting, ³this one for lunch, these two for dinner,²
Through the pack. When Raymond Castro first got tubercular he
Looked fat as if filled with air, and when he died I don¹t know
Where I was or where he lies, and the dictionary he gave me signed
³To Jackie, Your Ace, Ray 1952² is misplaced but not forgotten.
Sonnet For Miss Beausoleil
Two threatening kids dared me. I loved her but was ten,
So I surely printed, ³Miss Beausoleil is a motherfucker.²
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 I¹m 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, ³I wrote it and spelled it correctly.²
The rest is lost except for this: I didn¹t 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 don¹t 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, ³Did he paint a masterpiece?², I say ³Yes he did,
And, he was one.²
Psalm For Modernization
The New Jersey Bishops
Went to see the Governor.
They are not opposed
To state sponsored gambling ‹
They just don¹t 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, # 17
Some of us are getting
Very worried about Christmas
So here¹s 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.
³Sonnet For Raymond Castro² originally appeared in Parnassus;
³Sonnet for Miss Beausoleil² originally appeared in Callaloo.