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The subtitle of this book extrapolates further: “3 Generations of Puertorriqueña Poets Look at Their American Lives.” Read that sentence more closely and suddenly the simple description opens up to complexity: three generations promises to cover an expansive range of different (and differing) perspectives and experiences; that it’s “Puertorriqueña” and not “Puerto Rican” affirms a gendered and a bilingual identity; and the concept of nationality–American–stretches beyond the continent and U.S. history and culture when we are reminded to include the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. And finally, coming across a book in which three poets happen to be grandmother, mother, and granddaughter, situates writing as artistic legacy, a most fitting symbol for the life-blood that unites three distinct imaginations.
Such is the project that poet and editor Linda Rodriguez conceived when she learned about Anita Vélez-Mitchell, her daughter Gloria Vando, and Vando’s daughter Anika Paris. Rodriguez braids the works of the three poets into four categories: “Home,” “Mothers and Daughters,” “Familia,” “Love,” and “Telling Stories.” But these general themes are simply convenient starting points for the three individual journeys that at times turn to each other for conversation or inspiration.
For Vélez-Mitchell, who was born in Vieques just one year before Puerto Ricans were granted U.S. citizenship, poetry is also an archive for the memories of her beloved homeland, its troubled political history, the painful separation after her migration to the U.S.:
The land has memory too.
Borinquen bemoans my
absence…I sense it blue.
Vando, the most published of the three poets, and the first in her family to be born stateside, writes negotiating the pull and tug of two cultures:
San Juan, you’re not for me.
My cadence quails and stumbles
on your ancient stones.
And Paris, whose youth is highlighted when her lines are punctuated with references to TiVo, the iPod and popular TV shows, has the advantage of scaffolding her work with an awareness of the world nurtured by the two poet-visions that came before her:
We third-generationers get the watered-down
version of our grandparents’ stories
the language barrier widening in time
the evolution of technology carrying us into the future
while the coquí’s song fades in the distance.
It’s worth clarifying that despite the domestic gestures of the categories and the title, the three poets also turn their gazes toward unexpected places, like Vélez-Mitchell taking issue with Plato (“you had your excuses/ for knocking poets/ off their pedestals”); Vando responding to her mother’s fascination with the gangster Dillinger (“I’ve never had the hots for desperados”); and Paris pondering mortality after the death of Michael Jackson.
This is but a glimpse into the numerous intersections of these three poets’ voices. And it’s interesting to take note of how the intertwined threads leave space to allow each poet to preserve the soloist song of “I” without blurring into a chorus-like “we.” The shared space is the book itself, a beautiful testament to a family tradition.