Puti/White by Patria Rivera

We live in a world of surplus. The problem with surplus is one of displacement: too much of one thing excludes another. Eat too much and you’ll lose your swiftness. Listen to too much heavy metal and you’ll lose your sense of silence (unless you lose your hearing first). The same is true with poetry. Publish too many books and you’ll lose sight of the good stuff.

This is a problem for readers. Given a choice between a new book by a new poet, or a “classic” book by an established poet, I think most readers would choose safely and buy an established poet’s book.

The problem for readers is a problem for poets. How do poets make their work relevant to contemporary readers? With so many books to choose from, what can poets do to make readers care about their work?

I’m sure some people will argue that this is a problem with the readership. Surely, they may argue, readers must “work” to find value in what they choose to read. Not so. As I see it, there’s plenty in the world we could find meaningful, if we chose to. Like the tree outside my window. There’s lots of meaning in that tree if I chose to make the effort. But a tree isn’t a book of poetry; there’s supposed to be a reason for the book to exist. That’s the poet’s job to the reader.

This is a problem Patria Rivera seems to struggle with in Puti/White (Frontenac House 2005). Rivera’s best poems in Puti/White deliver a clear message in a clear form, yet allow the reader space to consider the questions she poses. A poem like “Suspicious Cargo” captures this balance of mood, meaning, form and thought. This poem collects the emotions of those involved in human smuggling rings. We hear from the captain of the ship who finds the suspicious cargo and we hear from the wife of a man who tried to smuggle himself out of China. This poem communicates a sense regret and injustice with strong images and poetic language. It’s a poem with something to say. It’s a poem that’s built in a way that allows the reader to consider larger questions.

Another fine poem is “1945.” While some of the prose poems in this collection come across as clumsy and unfinished, lyric poems like “1945” stand out as some of the better pieces. Take the cadence in the final stanza of “1945”:

Oh, how you loved to sleep in stairwells,
even after falling many times,
always dreaming of cowboys,
the gut of ropes and guns,
what the sun holds up close,
the thump of drums and horses.

Or examine the opening stanza of “G.E. Radio”:

This is the house Father built
On the edge of our small town.
A wooden house with a thatched roof
And nipa shingles all around.

“G.E. Radio” provides a glimpse into the thoughts of a child who wonders how a radio makes music. Are there people inside the radio? When the child removes the back from the radio she finds tubes and wires. It’s a poem with a sentiment most people can recognize, yet its form and simplicity give it a resonance.

These are just a few examples of good poems from a competent if plain spoken poet. Where this collection suffers is in the question I raised earlier: How does a book of poetry communicate its meaning to readers who have innumerable reasons not to care?

I think Rivera tries too hard to provide answers to rushed and inconsiderate readers. The first page of the book contains a preface that attempts to explain the purpose of the collection. I won’t repeat it here, but it seems to me to be unnecessary. It’s obvious from reading the poems that cultural identity is a major theme. Same with the glossary – the meanings of many of the foreign words are unnecessary to appreciating most of the poems in this book. Same with the prefatory remarks and epigraphs that explain (and clutter) many of the poems. All this hints at a hesitancy that undermines the efforts of the poet’s work. There are many good poems in Puti/White that can stand on their own. I wonder why Rivera isn’t more confident in this fact.

Perhaps this awkwardness comes from the autobiographical quality of Rivera’s poems. Clearly these poems are statements of her beliefs and snapshots of her experiences. It makes sense that Rivera would want to explain to the reader what’s happening so there’s no confusion about what she’s trying to tell us. But I don’t think the people who may get the most enjoyment from these poems – Filipino-Canadians who share many experiences with Rivera – need the long-winded explanations. They’ll get these poems. As individual poems, each serves as a meditation on what it means to belong to two cultures. Taken as a whole, this book of poems offers Rivera’s statement on what it means to come from another place and another time and to live with only memories of that other place.

Considerate readers will enjoy many of the poems included in Puti/White. Inconsiderate readers – those who would be turned off by the cover, for instance – will consider Puti/Whitesurplus. That’s a shame because this book certainly has some poems that are worth reading.