Roberto F. Santiago’s debut poetry collection, Angel Park, (forthcoming April 10, 2015) finds a musicality in overheard train conversations and the percussion of brewing coffee or hanging laundry. When reading this stunning collection, I lingered over every syllable and vibration, wanting to dance to a Bomba, to live the poems out loud.
Angel Park navigates the intersection of identity and locality. Set in the Bronx, the first section, “Home,” takes readers on subways from Castle Hill and back again, listening in on dialogues and discourse. Santiago writes that “English never tastes the same” in one poem while in “Collected Spanishes,” he shows readers how savory various versions of English or Spanish can be:
Abuelo’s Spanish folds itself into English
Tea sandwiches. Cucumber and watercress
covered in adobo y habichuela negra.
The delicious discussions on language in this section are juxtaposed with topics of academic exams. In “I Don’t Want to Take the GRE,” Santiago reveals how the formal language of the academy is “dead,” forcing readers to reexamine their ideas of standardization. On the other hand, “Spanish Placement Exam” proves how necessary other tests, or rather other languages, can be: “This test is the only thing/ that stands between / a little boy / and a eulogy / his Abuela can understand.”
The second section, “Away,” shifts the narrative to Harlem and other neighborhoods in Manhattan, riding once more on trains and considering the languages of others: “Their tones are chicken soup; / broth and briny. Agreement between the women is pappardelle, / overcooked.” The author’s use of synesthesia becomes its own dinner for the reader’s senses—flavorful and tempting.
Readers not only taste more in this section, but they also meet more characters, many of whom are often seen through the eyes of an unnoticed observer, making the reader as much of a voyeur as the speaker. In “Away,” we listen to a man who endures the shouts of “fag” from across the street; we hear about Coley who needs crystal “to sing the body electric” and women who have to bare their bodies after someone else “snapped” their “words in half / like a whip, or a twig, or even a bone.”
As more stories are introduced, readers experience more grief. We mourn for lost brothers, husbands, fathers, cousins. In “a year without,” the speaker confesses, “If I permit this year to petal and waft / to the cement, then you never really were.” Santiago invites us to question prayer and trauma and guilt, causing us to ache for some solace in a ritual, whether that ritual is prayer or poetry. “a year without” ends: “If there could be / nothingness for a second / there would be you.”
The collection closes with the section “Far Away,” which includes poems set in Montreal, Paris, and Austria. What takes the speaker even farther is the love that is found and made. Romance and sex spill into lines without cliché, once again due to Santiago’s play with language. In “The Year Science Took Heaven,” the speaker admits, “I craved you / craved you to wear the possessive pronoun / that tied you back to my orbit”; in “As a Feather,” he proclaims, “I like my men like I like my men: thrush-velvet and lit / like a slot machine minutes before jackpot.” Santiago’s poetry is a love story, making me fall for these men, those cities, his sounds.
Within this third section, a reader might stumble over some of the language, particularly in poems such as “The Ways of Men” and “Workshop (or To Kiss Another Writer).” The latter reads:
To kiss another writer is wit
poured thick in glasses.
An emberrich amberswish
that wicks sweetflame past lips
perforating the tongue.
Yet, stumbling over these rhythms and rhymes is not a bad trip. I enjoyed the fall, each clutter of new verbs and nouns “perforating” my tongue. Santiago’s fresh lines never take me out of his poems; rather they urge me to delve deeper.
Santiago’s words compel audiences to keep reading, to dance their own salsa, feeling all its rhythm and heat. I did not want this book to end. However, I took comfort in the lines of the final poem “For Those Left Behind”: “comfort in knowing / endings are never /as final as they sound.”