Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Two Poems by Jake Ricafrente

Before the most recent issue of MiPOesias, I don't think I quite appreciated the concept of "discovering" "undiscovered" talent in poetry, which many poetry editors have expressed as one of the most enjoyable aspects of choosing poems for publication. It wasn't that I thought that these editors were paying lip-service to the idea. I imagine that such "discoveries" must happen. All poets have to start somewhere, and there are many different kinds of beginnings, from a first publication in a literary journal to a first award/prize received to a first collection of poems.

But pretty much all the poets whose poems I have come across in literary journals, anthologies, or books were poets who had already had numerous publication credits before, if not one or a few collections of poems published. It is seldom that I read the poetry of a fairly new poet and come away feeling very confident that this poet will someday be published in many literary magazines, have an excellent first collection of poetry with a major publisher, and receive many accolades from various organizations and publications.

I had exactly such a feeling, however, upon reading the two poems of Jake Ricafrente published in the Asian-American issue of MiPOesias. While I'm familiar with the poetry of most of the poets in this issue, the Asian-American poetry world not being unimaginably large, I had never come across any of Ricafrente's work before. Now I think that there are many great poems in this issue, but I feel that Ricafrente's two poems achieve an unmistakable quality of transcendence, like the best poems of Adrienne Su -- and I chose to mention Su here, because Ricafrente's "White Plastics" reminds me of Su's "Savannah Crabs."

Reading the first poem, "Concerning Glass," I perceive it as the more ambitious of the two poems, even though the latter is more technically accomplished. Consisting of four stanzas, the poem successfully takes on the difficult task of drawing out the different facets of a single word (glass, in this case) through an entire poem, while at the same time it is also an "Asian/Asian-American poem" in the sense that it makes oblique references to the Asian race/ethnicity/nationality of the speaker in various stanzas.

More specifically, I think that the second stanza is the poem's strongest, because it so deftly transitions from a broken glass to the speaker's "father's dog" to the "crass vet" to the speaker's "last good teacher" to a detailed description of the teacher's eye and the speaker's reaction to it. These shifts, akin to shifts in memory, are done through original turns of phrase and sharply detailed descriptions. Throughout the poem, there are many brilliant lines. I would say, however, that I think the first stanza should have started with the third line, as "Light's the thing that," instead of with references to bending light. Perhaps the sight of light bending through glass inspired the first draft of the poem, but the opening two lines distracted me a bit by self-consciously pointing to the notion that many other poems contain references to "bending light" and drawing attention to it as a cliche. My favorite lines in the poem are the final eight lines or so in the last stanza, which flow naturally from the rest of the poem, are well-earned, and make me think of the best work of Davis McCombs and Marilyn Chin.

I really like the second poem, "White Plastics," as well. It does two separate things together perhaps as well as I've come across in any poem -- it shows great skill in the use of classical forms, while at the same time, it is also a fascinating meditation on racial identity. First, I found the poem very techncially accomplished. It is written in blank verse, composed of rhyming couplets, and appears to be a kind of variation on the sonnet, though it contains eighteen lines. Second, the speaker of the poem seems to be someone of mixed race, and the poem basically deals with the experiences of the speaker upon encountering himself as "the other" by some members of his family.

Here is my reading of the narrative of the poem. Everything is superficially idyllic, but the speaker is aware of this superficiality. The speaker suddenly becomes aware of himself as a "half-breed, some percent/ of full." There is a festive dinner in Poughkeepsie, perhaps Thanksgiving dinner, with the "white" side of his family. The food is great and the speaker is enjoying himself, but the "white" members of his family "gather round to scout" him and his brown skin as if he were a foreigner. The speaker feels "other-ed" by this experience and presents the profound question of whether it is better to assimilate or to take pride in one's racial/ethnic heritage in a multicultural American society. To a certain extent, the speaker cannot fully answer this question on his own -- and by extension, none of us can fully answer this question on our own -- because our experiences as individuals are formed and mediated by our histories and communities. The "Pilgrims" are an essential part of the speaker's language of history, just as the aunts who may perceive him at least partly on the basis of his skin color are a part of his family. There are hugs, and there is some measure of acceptance, even though this acceptance is one that must be negotiated.

At any rate, that was my reading of "White Plastics." I thought that both of Jake Ricafrente's poems were quite successful, filled with heart and wit and effectively balancing narrative and lyricism, and I look forward to reading more of his poetry in the future.


Blogger A. D. said...

I was struck by J.R.'s poems as well., remember noting how young he looked. Good call.

1:12 PM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Thanks, A.D. Yes, it's the first time that I'd come across his poetry, and it'll be great to read more of his work in the future.

2:48 AM  
Blogger Freudian Slip said...

J.R.'s work is definitely good stuff. Thanks for sharing :)

5:30 PM  
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