This review spills out on the heels of an election that devastated and broke the hearts of millions. An election that showed the country that racism is alive and well; it goes to your child’s school, it sits next to you at your local watering hole, it shares a fence with you. This is not news, but it is eye opening on a large scale. Roberto Carlos Garcia knows this. Knew this. In his beautifully crafted first full- length collection, Melancolia (Cervena Barva Press, 2016), the Dominican-American poet-speaker navigates a world where “otherness” is a two dimensional “them” and yet he is on the page and in the world, a three dimensional man whose struggles mirror so many of our own. If this book was necessary before November and it was, it is that much more necessary now. It teaches us, the readers, how to see one another and ourselves as whole.
This collection of poetry is not overtly political and that is where its radical power lies. Garcia manages to paint a portrait of a man, who is in a way an “everyman”- father, husband, son, dreamer, mower of his lawn - a man longing for the “want” and stuck in the “should”. This “everyman” is also Dominican American, his skin is brown and so his “everyman” existence now becomes fraught with fighting the small and large battles that minorities and people of color must fight in order to live and survive in this country. From “that neighbor” who always has a comment about his lawn to being the only person of color in the room, Garcia, subtly and poetically brings to light issues that need to be spoken/written about today more than ever. Here is a poet who shows us how to survive all the small or big tragedies of suburbia, where “firefighters come to save the house & die”. Though Garcia walks the well worn path of poets trapped in the “American Dream”, his footsteps seem somehow different, unsure and surefooted at the same time. In poems like “The Apocalypse up close”, the poet has one foot behind the picket fence, and one furiously stomping to the beat of a protest chant: “We repent! We repent;/ it’s dark down here We/ repent; we can’t see or smell/ We repent; we can’t see or smell/ We repent! We repent;” This book is filled with dichotomies, but any three dimensional, fleshed out entity is and so we relate, we empathise and hopefully we learn about ourselves and each other.
The speaker in the book reads as simultaneously calm and tumultuous, as giving in and fighting back, as lonely and bombarded by stimuli, as longing to belong and desperately looking for a way out of “belonging”. This constant and consistent juxtapositioning adds a layer of depth to the melancholy described in these poems. Garcia explores the different aspects that comprise our identity. The beauty of this book is in the subtleness of this exploration. There are no grand pronouncements or neon signs pointing to a catharsis or a conclusion, but an intricately painted portrait of a man, whom the world would label as “other” for his words, for his heritage and yet, he does not condemn or shame. He questions. He peels back the blanket, turns off the heat, washes the window. He asks us to get a little less comfortable and look out into our collective backyard, to wake a little bit more, a little bit harder.
In the poem “Belief System”, like many others in the book, the poet-speaker’s melancholy takes the shape of an artist, a lover stuck in the duties of quotidian. “I believe in the magic of kissing/ of low-cut dresses, too much wine,/ & slow dancing”. Garcia may be the only romantic left on this earth. He still believes in something more- beautiful, present, more alive than the “is”. He sees the world, the seasons changing, mother earth’s renewal and decay from behind a kitchen window, or a screen door. You can envision him standing there, wistfully looking out. Or is it you, behind that window? But the poem ends with “When I weep like this everyone hates me” and the speaker is woken up into a world that has no room to house the romantics, the prophets who turn “water into wine”, the big belief systems. Garcia’s tone is observational and calm. But it’s not as simple as that. This is a speaker who wants. He sees it all and wants it all from within his cage. The calm in his voice, is not the calm of his soul. It is melancolia. It’s the distance that these windows create, maybe they aren’t one hundred percent transparent, which is the nature of glass and so these vibrant colors of the outside are dulled, lulled into a sense of calm.
The language adds yet another layer. What does this speaker long for? Another life? An artist’s life? But the “devil is in the details” and so what art and what time does he desire? His words are a mix of today’s colloquialisms and high language that harkens back to Neruda’s honeyed tongue. His poems exude elegance of an era stomped out by the fast paced. His words take their hat off indoors. His language holds the door open, as in the poem “What can I tell you”: “ I confess/ from you I learned/ sweat is poison as well as nectar…” Garcia’s words, these weighted, exquisite dancers are so rarely seen in our speech, in our conversations, in our lives. The poet gifts us with tiny relics of yesterday’s nobility, strengthening the sense of melancholy, the sense of not belonging in a time or a place where humor is a clown’s useless nose and beauty is something to dream about. His language too, suffers from displacement, like its speaker. His language too, yearns for something more. And in this book it finds a home, where every letter, every subtle simile is placed gently, and yet meaningfully: “ I confess/ I drink your furious glow/ like the color black,/ like a poet”. And isn’t that what we need to know, what we need to be reminded of every day, every minute. Isn’t that what we yearn for too? A place to call home, all of us, every color, every race, everyone. Don’t we all yearn the same yearn?
Garcia seamlessly flows between language of elegance and that of modernity/ the un-beauty. The poem “Toil”, lands the speaker in his comfortable bed where everything is “pretty good”, but still there is “that neighbor” and a lawn that’s never good enough and memories of the “ghetto” and survival. And how does one fight the quotidian fight when life has been once a fight for survival. Language here, holds all the answers: “ 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…” In just three lines, the poet manages to encompass a world of contradictions. “I sleep pretty good”, not “well” but “good”, maybe grammatically improper but it’s understood; it’s spoken in the every day and it’s understood. Most importantly it does the trick: the speaker sleeps. But then, the beautiful high language sneaks its way in with that “naught” and we are back to the beauty, to the place of once-was. I don’t know if this poet-speaker has ever been there, but he wants to be; he has established himself a dreamer, after all. And dreams are a sign of bad sleep; they have no place in his cushy existence. They have no place in a space where sleep and safety and longevity are the goal. But they are there anyway, underneath where yearning is, ever-awake. The poet-speaker knows that to “sleep pretty good”, is to discard the wild dreamer side and so the next word brings us crashing back to reality, the “shit” of it all. The harsh language jolts us awake and here we are in the suburbs where “that neighbor” writes anonymous letters about the state of your lawn. Where you are “pretty good” but not good enough.
Sure, there is sadness here. It wouldn’t be melancholy without it, but there is also something else at play in this collection. Something specifically melancholic and not depressive. There is a fire, the same that the firefighters fight in the first poem, the autumn leaves blaze in in “this is not an Elegy”. A fire of longing yes, but also a fire of yearning. One that can not be extinguished with the passing of time, responsibilities or a life more ordinary. There is a fire of living and need for change. There is a need for betterment. For a better tomorrow, for his children, for his words, for his people, for us. It’s strange and beautiful that a collection titled Melancolia manages to foster hope. This melancholy that so often resurrects the past or the “if only”, only manages to unearth its roots and the job of roots is to foster growth. To give it, over and over again, to funnel life into otherwise dead things.