LINDA RODRIGUEZ Reviews
The Portable Famine by Rane Arroyo
(BkMk Press, 2005)
Rane Arroyo’s seventh book of poetry, The Portable Famine, is concerned with diaspora, the peculiarly American diaspora of the child of immigrants, the diaspora of a gay man in a heterosexual world, the diaspora of the artist and intellectual who leaves his working-class origins behind. These poems take the reader on a trip around the United States and around the world with stops in Chicago, Reykjavik, New York, London, Pittsburgh, Florence, Greece, Utah, Tijuana, Miami, San Juan, and Toledo. Along the way, Arroyo takes us to visit a world where “our bodies are the books/ spilling alphabets without fear” and “Letters are/ the secret ribs of creatures we cannot/ destroy,” a world where plastic pink flamingos mate and nest in our souls and Enrique Iglesias swims with the narrator of one poem in a pool atop the Empire State Building. Early in the book, the poet tells us “a zillion Adams/ have come and gone, and it’s my turn at the wheel of fortune” as he gathers us up as companions on his journeying.
Remembering his Puerto Rican immigrant family, Arroyo asks, “How many times do we/ have to start a new life in America?” and remembers how “we circled/ the square roots of restlessness.” He writes of his family’s displacement in the Midwest of winter and snow and of his father’s trudging to and from the Ohio factory where he found work. His poems follow the arc his close family takes as members try to adjust to life in the United States and scatter away from the closeness they brought with them from the islands. In later years, he seeks some semblance of that lost sense of belonging in the hearts of wild young lovers in Utah and warier and wearier partners in New York, as well as the anonymous arms of men looking for the same anonymous connections in sun-baked resorts.
Above all, in this wandering and leavetaking, Arroyo the lost finds himself and leads us to a similar finding through a knife-sharp awareness of the enormity and complexity to be found in the details of daily life. For example, in New Orleans, seeing a little African American child crying at being abandoned by her mother on the street, he finds himself longing for that child to belong to him, imagines himself as an overprotective and strict father trying futilely to protect her from the pain the world inevitably brings. And in Tijuana, overjoyed at a negative blood test for AIDS and ready to celebrate with frenetic wildness, he suddenly finds himself concerned with the life of the displaced Jamaican maids in his hotel.
These powerful poems are so specific with details and particulars that the life they breathe becomes universal, and we realize through Arroyo’s exploration of his several diasporas that we are all living in some kind of diaspora ourselves, that it is the nature of human existence to long for a past belonging that will never come again.
Vice-president of the Latino Writers Collective, Linda Rodriguez has published poetry and fiction in numerous journals and anthologies. She has also published a chapbook, Skin Hunger, and numerous articles for general and scholarly publications, most recently three articles in the Encyclopedia of Hispanic Literature. Her cookbook, The “I Don’t Know How to Cook” Book: Mexican (Adams Media) was just published. Her book of poetry, Heart’s Migration, will be published by Tia Chucha Press in April 2009.