Pigeons don’t impress us. (Well, most of us.) Rather than marvel, we shrug at the rock dove’s ubiquity, if we acknowledge their existence at all—encountering them on sidewalks, at bus stops and train stations, and even backyard bird feeders. But what if we revered the resilience of pigeons and their ability to not only carve out an ostensibly meager life in the smallest of crevices but to thrive in spite of the lowliness culturally assigned to them, in spite of what we perceive as their ordinariness or even inferiority? What if underneath all of that, there’s something to which a people could aspire? Something holy, a strength to lean on, or a story?
Dimitri Reyes discovers exactly that in his debut poetry collection Papi Pichón (Get Fresh Books, 2023). It’s an incisive and dynamic exploration of what it is to be a Puerto Rican living in America. Reyes deftly personifies the eponymous bird, elevating the pigeon to the realm of sacredness, ancestors, and perhaps most importantly, storytelling. As Vincent Toro writes in the book’s introduction, “[Papi Pichón] is one of us, our tíos, abuelos and brothers, the barrio griot who serves as a living archive for the community.” Papi Pichón’s stardom is accessible: he lives right down the street, he works at the train station, he is as regular as he is righteous. His triumphs, which are also his people’s triumphs, are hard-won yet still subject to theft. And though the victories sometimes hang in the balance, his people keep reasons to dance.
No matter that, as the speaker recounts in the opening poem, Papi Pichón was born an orphan who “hatched out of a poem, pink and dumb, / a son to none” and nested in newspaper. Regardless, Papi Pichón makes a suitable “placeholder / when we can’t see Jesus.” And even when playing this role of an “understudy,” he remains proud. These lines are from one version of Papi Pichón’s origin story, for a second version follows later. That there are two histories detailing Papi Pichón’s provenance is an intelligent choice for a collection that endeavors to capture the blendedness of Puerto Rican heritage. In response to being asked whether he’s “Indian,” Papi Pichón wonders in another poem, “Whether they think Asian or mistake India for Americas / I am not sure. / Either way, the question stands, what is it to be Indio / when the many shades of brown become another gray area?”
Puerto Rican roots stretch from Taíno homeland, snake through Spain, and trace Africa’s west coast converging in the place known as both Borikén and Puerto Rico, giving rise to the island’s present people. Such multistoried, woven-together heritage justifies and perhaps even demands the necessity of different ways to tell an origin story. It also pairs perfectly with the lively, multifaceted poetics on display throughout Papi Pichón. Like numerous poems in the collection, “Papi Pichón’s Origin Story Version 1” is arranged in couplets, a shape suggestive of binaries which, Reyes reminds us, are never as impermeable as they imply. We feel tension in couplets tugged taut across the page, but we also see them unspool in smart, surprising ways that favor possibility over predictability. Reyes’s pressurized linework results in enjambment that creates linguistic cliffhangers, inviting readers to briefly consider what sits in a sentence’s pause and the white space between stanzas. In “Papi Pichón Shadowboxes with His Legacy,” Reyes writes of Papi’s ancestors, the “generations of bodies before him.”
In the cockpits of backyards, clubs, or back alleys
of clubs, they’re here. With their opponent against the ropes
morphed into urinal or dumpster, clobbering and swinging
until one hears that inner viejo say, hit em’ with the bolo and then
it cuts quick like sugarcane. Through the art of a fist-to-chin
connection, I demonstrate how human can make human blood
trickle down slow, gushing aloe. Each time, swollen appendages
make mountains of blueprints with spit and bone skin graphed
on another man’s fists to be worn as a flag. In these moments,
I begin to question where those hands have been. But who am I
to wait for sacks of daggers to speak a double-edged legacy
when every bob and weave comes with the wind of a whisper.
In “Made in América,” another poem strung in couplets, the speaker contemplates a recently delivered package of items that feel less like the handcrafted patriotic emblems he longed for, and more like cheaply manufactured party favors. “I will not be taken seriously,” he declares towards the end of the poem, with the line briefly suspended as a jarring admission until we tumble into the one that follows: “during Hispanic Heritage Month,” he continues, “even when the pain of my flag // begins to crown the crackle / of heavy tongue through teeth.” Whether it’s a desire for a mini flag or a pair of maracas, such longing for tangible and authentically made representations of Puerto Rican identity sits at odds with pervasive mass production that is far more interested in making a quick buck. Reyes returns to this idea in “Papi Pichón Shops for Guayaberas in a Department Store,” where the speaker considers the titular garment while reflecting on the island.
How I wish clothing rack guayaberas
would turn any Suncup into a piña colada,
shake my Tropicana carton into a mojito,
instantaneously equipping it with an umbrella
like the one I’d sit under wearing this particular
Known as the “camisa de Yucatán,” guayaberas are popular throughout much of Latin America and the Caribbean, though their history is admittedly hazy. The Philippines, Cuba, and Mexico have laid enthusiastic claim to its origins, with the latter two countries having extensively produced guayaberas during the first half of the 20th century. It feels apt for such a garment to be so beloved by numerous diasporic peoples for whom, due to colonialism, tracing lineages and origins produces a patchy hodgepodge of results—when such lineages are traceable at all. But as with Papi Pichón who “had no parents,” the guayabera’s origins aren’t everything. In other words, their lack of distinctly Puerto Rican origins—and the lack of precisely documented origins in general—does not preclude the speaker from yearning for the cultural tether the guayabera signifies. He caresses the shirt “to hear croaks battle cackles / inside El Yunque […] / to feel the howling from machines that make these $70 copies.” Acknowledging the consumerist absurdity that capitalizes on such desire, he states, “In the middle of a department store // I put on the guayabera to witness myself getting / backhanded in the mirror by my ancestors // for being swindled.”
Showcasing an impressive range, Reyes confidently maneuvers both subject matter and form in Papi Pichón. He condenses the arrival of colonists to Borikén in a captivating sonnet, writing “Now— / when no one is looking, I see Orishas swap spit with / Chupacabras, bloody lips that still exist on a gift / shop t-shirt.” He gives the title character an appearance in A Charlie Brown Christmas, sets him loose to the rhythms of bomba, is reminded of him by a Pieter Brueghel painting, and speculates on what he might be up to in the multiverse, where “Hondas are the official brand of NASCAR” and “fossil fuels are sacred ancestors.” He plants Papi Pichón amidst the Newark Puerto Rican Rebellion of 1974, in conversation with Ntozake Shange, and even on an autopsy table. He imagines Hurricane Maria as both tempest and temptress (one with whom Papi Pichón dances), and catalogs the storm’s wake in an arresting poem full of end-stopped lines:
And shop-owners are still waiting for tourists,
for their workers to return.
And madres are washing clothes in a creek that wasn’t
And padres collect brackish water in milk jugs to wash
One of the collection’s most inventive moments arrives in “Papi Pichón Develops Habichuelology Through Cooking & Existing.” As playful as it is damning, “Habichuelology” is at once a recipe for red beans and a cheeky Mad Libs experiment. The poem begins,
“Follow (1) product directions for preparation.” A numbered list accompanying the poem clarifies that “appropriate” is the word missing in step one, explaining, “like appropriation but not quite. As in suitable for handcuffs on the wrists like leaf blowers on backs. As in you not knowing the differences between our black, red, brown, and pink skins.” This exciting polysemous exercise continues, bridging the distance context creates by flipping effortlessly between denotative definitions, culinary vocabulary, and slang. For instance, the recipe calls for canned tomato sauce, but not without the reminder that “canned” may also mean “jailed, imprisoned, incarcerated, and/or detained.
If there were any uncertainty, this word bank makes clear that the recipe is intended for an audience outside of the Puerto Rican cultural sphere, specifically one aligned with white supremacist ideals. And when a culture-starved white audience calls upon Papi Pichón to bob his way onto the stage to perform what Sandra Ruiz calls Ricanness, as Vincent Toro references in the book’s introduction, Reyes demonstrates that Papi Pichón knows the audience, knows his lines, and will deliver them with a bite. Still, Papi Pichón knows to reserve his very best for his people, who wouldn’t demand such performances in the first place—a people whose “voices ring beautifully,” a people “bound to living much more than dying.”