In the author’s note to Roberto Carlos Garcia’s debut collection Melancolía (Červená Barva Press, 2016), Garcia defines melancolía as that which “makes poets long for things that have been, that have yet to pass, and that might have never existed,” as well as a “thirst for joy and...pain...the shame of lusting, of not being able to have the thing or person you desire.” Read in conjunction with Garcia’s ambitious and nuanced second collection black/Maybe: An Afro Lyric (Willow Books, 2018), for this speaker and poet melancolía is rooted in a personal and historical ache not to have a thing or person, but to be and be seen as the person he wishes to be.
Many of the poems in Melancolía are pastural or necro-pastural meditations, as the speaker searches nature or the artificial symmetry of suburbia for an answer, some balm for his deep aches.
For example, in “Self-medicate,” the speaker conjures escape—razing the landscape to shine:
I’m keeping the moon in a mason jar with wine;
when it shines at a right angle I swig
openmouthed, belch sparks, nuzzle deeper
into the soil’s shoulder, in a bed of dead leaves,
& pray it all catches fire
Then I’ll be an ember on a blazing landscape—
I’ll be like the stars.
Also, in “Heal thy self,” there’s a desire to return to the natural order and beauty of the world, “to drink & be sated by such beauty/to forget what ties me to the animal world,/mortgages, & hard swallows.”
However, as much as the speaker endeavors “to seek beauty,/to give the world hope,” he can’t shake a “morbidity/trampling the roses within,” where “morbidity” is an awareness of complicity, inaction, passivity—as citizen and poet. In “No currency,” Garcia investigates suburbia’s bind:
I’m a father of three growing fat Meanwhile
hunger is killing nations / gluttony is killing nations,
I wear floppy feet
but as El Generalissimo, I will complete the carnage,
the crazy complicity...
Divine a poem,
or a poet, for that matter
What you imply is fireworks,
but the truth is empty wine bottles.
The reader catches early glimpses of the speaker’s awakening and protest, as in the first of two poems titled Melancolía, this one after Giorgio De Chirico’s painting with the same name. The speaker contends: “I suppose the symmetry of fresh-cut lawns,/polished cars, & opposing driveways/is the only dunce cap I can wear,/my flag in the wind & I don’t believe in it.
However, it is not until “Duplicity” that the reader has a clear sense of the speaker’s lived experience: “First thing I do/as I breathe into a room/is search/for brown & black faces,/bobbing in America’s/post racial waters//...until,//some(not brown or black)one/tosses me/an integration life-/line.” And now melancolía is confounded by/with racial and ethnic identity.
The most searing poems in the collection interrogate the “white eye,” as in “Self portrait in American black” where the speaker rotates through the apportioned social positions (created by whites) for black Americans, culminating in:
I am that I am what
America’s narrative makes me:
A STRUGGLE ENSUES,
A BRIEF ALTERCATION,
& I stand as death’s bride
arms raised—arms wide,
for your mind’s white eye/I.
This poem, and others, such as “In white silence” and “A riot in images” are poignant elegies for black and brown Americans, where the speaker is an amalgam or invisible, carrying these tragedies forward without directly implicating the I’s own personal and historical struggle, a strategy reserved for Garcia’s black/Maybe: An Afro Lyric. Still, the reader discovers a deep truth in “Toil,” where the speaker recounts a neighbor who left an anonymous letter calling his yard ghetto (an incident revisited in the second collection):
...because it’s too easy to work
hard against something while telling yourself
you’re working to achieve it; & honestly
I sleep pretty good at night, but my toil,
so far as the green grass of neatly manicured
lawns, has been for naught; & that shit, my love,
along with wanting the neatly manicured lawn
& the “friendly” approval of neighbors,
contains the mystery that haunts me.
If melancolía is a mystery in Garcia’s first collection, black/Maybe is a poetic exploration of identity, self, and history, which in the spirit of Aimé Césaire’s Negritude “[takes] charge of one’s destiny as a black man, of one’s history and culture.” This collection is framed by two lyric prose pieces: “Home [An Irrevocable Condition]” and “black Maybe.” In the latter, Garcia asserts, “America thrusts black or white upon you quickly, you have to decide, you have to know who and what you are.” This question of identity, of self is richly investigated through polyphonic lyrics, a chorus of elders and black and brown scholars, an honest examination of family and Dominican history, and vulnerable personal narratives.
While several poems in Melancolía elegize black and brown lives, the poems in black/Maybe bring black and brown voices to life, quoting seminal thinkers and writers, such as Césaire, Baraka, and Baldwin; family and friends—especially Mamá Ana; and the speaker, himself, unfiltered, showing his “bricks.”
In the collection’s second poem, “Mamá Ana’s flat nose,” Mamá Ana reveals the family’s roots extend to “Castilian gypsy” and “Papa Africa,” with “skin, nose & hair an antenna/To both ancestors,/Beyond the grave.” This early affirmation is undercut by the poem’s last line: “We’re not black, we’re tan Now callate!” Immediately, the reader hears the conflicting voices forming the speaker’s sense of identity.
In “Back to school” and “Back to school (the B side),” the speaker wrangles with the labels his peers give him: one, black; another, Spanish/Puerto Rican. In the first, after a summer spent in the DR, dreaming of sharing Dominican slang with Brenda Vazquez, the speaker is ambushed by Brenda: “Hay que Negro, tu pareces un puro Negro!” Though the speaker was excited to share their shared language, it becomes the weapon used against him—ousting him as black. As his peers erupted into chants of “El Negro, el Negro, el Negro!” the speaker shrank, and he is haunted by his grandmother’s warning: “AVOID THE SUN YOU ARE TOO BLACK ALREADY.” However, in the remix, another peer asserts, “You ain’t Black You/think you Black but you ain’t,/you Spanish.”
Other poems in this section continue to explore and claim identity in this way, trying to find the space and language for it, as in “Identity repair poem”:
I mean soy negro,
but I’m black
And this quest to be seen as one is continues beyond childhood, as in the poem “The day a poet I looked-up-to clowned me”:
He shook my hand so violently
I thought he’d shake me off
I just finished saying my last name
when he smiled real big
and nudged me aside...
Oh, you’re not Black black?
& I’m cast off
aboard my great-great
grand-pappy’s Middle Passage,
his slaver to
salt sea air of Caribbean cane-fields.
As Garcia later discusses in the lyric essay “black Maybe,” he could not imagine how many times he would have to answer the question “Where are you from?” occupying the liminal space of “being black in between,” while negotiating the paradox of being “black in a country that by all indications hates black people, and [...] descended from people that are black, but pretend not to be black.” Throughout the book, Garcia skillfully recreates the complexities of the Afro-Latinx identity, opening the conversation to many voices and providing historical context.
In “Casta,” Garcia invokes the colonial era las castas, examining how this social hierarchy has been modified and perpetuated through the North American practice of applying a rule of hypodescent; the plethora of language in Spanish and English to describe non-white skin; and the US census categories, identifying each race as “Hispanic/Latino” or “Not Hispanic/Latino.” The poem is a hybrid of the catalog/definition poem, which is an apt form for the constructed categories, and it is punctuated by the refrain: “And It Goes On.”
The book’s fourth section is more overtly political, as the poems reclaim language, history, landmarks, and lives. The speaker seems rooted in his sense of self and is present to the multiple histories and struggles that birthed him and what he carries forward. In “‘A Dream Pimped’: poem on the MLK Memorial in D.C,” the speaker rebukes politicians and idealists alike. He contrasts King’s marble white statue with Einstein’s bronze one a few blocks away and reminds “the man wanted redistribution of wealth not white granite/glory...don’t pimp The Dream.”
Another striking turn in this section is the speaker’s clear reclamation of language, especially “Elegy Written for the N-word on behalf of the word Nigger by a Nigga” and “Speak the lingo.” In the three-part “Elegy...,” Garcia showcases his mastery of the polyphonic lyric, examining the N-word as outsider, insider(s)—with a three-character dialogue, and as the word itself:
Never believe no one’s listening,
I am not prefix to
bulging crotch, lips, nose, style, ass, hair,
walk, talk, dancing, step or fetch,
I am not a brand or anecdote,
I am not endorsement I am hate.
Similarly, in “Speak the lingo,” Garcia reclaims identity, heritage, and language by offering six definitions (and pronunciations) for the word latino, ending with the most affirming:
what the world would be
if people marry,
As Garcia lays claim to being an “angry Black man” in the last poem of the section, Mamá Ana returns for the final Chorus: “Write beautiful things, Mijo,//only beautiful things.” At this point, the reader knows that even if Mamá Ana could not see the beauty in black, the speaker has arrived here and discovered one way to assuage melancolía is through an understanding and acceptance of “[his] blackness, [& his] history.”
The titular essay “black Maybe” is another hybrid—part personal essay, part literary journalism, part call to action—reminding how Garcia can tell his story, using “the truths [he’s] pieced together from history’s lies,” and be “proud to walk black and beautiful in the sun.”
Emari DiGiorgio is the author of Girl Torpedo, the winner of the 2017 Numinous Orison, Luminous Origin Literary Award, and The Things a Body Might Become. She’s the recipient of the Auburn Witness Poetry Prize, the Ellen La Forge Memorial Poetry Prize, the Elinor Benedict Poetry Prize, RHINO’s Founder’s Prize, and a poetry fellowship from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. She’s received residencies from the Vermont Studio Center, Sundress Academy of the Arts, and Rivendell Writers’ Colony. She teaches at Stockton University, is a Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation Poet, is the Senior Reviews Editor for Tupelo Quarterly, and hosts World Above, a monthly reading series in Atlantic City, NJ.