Ariel Robello's My Sweet Unconditional
I have difficulty remembering that this book is a debut collection of poetry. I say this with perfect clarity of mind. For not only does this book introduce us to a talented new voice, the book is highly polished, well thought out, organized, a reader can almost follow a timeline, the book is thematic, layered, a complete reading experience, and above all, highly literary. Either the writer has more experience than what we are led to believe or she spent many endless hours carefully crafting this book. I'll tend to believe craft over experience. All the poems stand individually alone. All the poems also lead into one another to formulate a highly stylized method, to illustrate a writer's personality, an emerging philosophy and view of life. These poems are the result of reflection and technique. Ariel Robello is very generous with her words, not necessarily to her poetic subject and matter, but to what she has achieved in being able to show and share with her readers, as the title says, sweetly and unconditionally.
The book is a triptych, separated into three distinct chapters, and should be viewed as such, separate but creating an overall painting. The first chapter, "La Gata (The Cat)," deals almost exclusively with life in the Greater Los Angeles area, the trials and tribulations of the barrios east of downtown and how a girl with that background also relates to the other more savory and unsavory parts of town. A nagging sense of laying down backdrop and setting permeates this first chapter and almost lulls you into thinking that this is exclusively an ethnic and cultural book. The ethnicity is omnipresent throughout, poems peppered with Spanish and slang, the exotic foods and smells, the Latino culture quirks, recognizable to both the initiated and uninitiated alike. Yet, the book is also strangely free of cultural cliches, the poems are too truthful and dignified, and a definite devil begins to peek behind the details. Is she compassionate to her surroundings? I'd say yes, in the sense that she has immortalized without judgment. See for yourself:
Rico Suave liked to lick muneca virgins
enough to get them loose
and when they closed their eyes
he would slip
down their skirts.
On the corner of Figueroa and Cintron
a lady sits wrapped in black lace
twenty-four candles at her feet
I should not know the number but I do.
eyes tied back with black lightening
charcoal rope braided behind her
with pomegranate lips split open, Jamie
could not say no.
In the second chapter, "Burnt Bridges," Ariel Robello expands her surroundings, with almost travelogue cinematic quality. She certainly expands her sophistication, the majority of the poems are still set in Los Angeles but they become more cosmopolitan and worldly. She writes about loss and rebirth, about gaining education, and is able to still bind the themes back to her common origin. This chapter awakens awareness of possibilities and is able to describe parallel worlds with the same unapologetic detail. She realizes that the more she expands knowledge and changes her standard of life, the more she separates herself from whom she was and where she's been. She also acknowledges, albeit grudgingly, that the sacrifices and hardships endured by those before her are geared so that she can excel above and beyond, perhaps by her powers of cognition, understanding, and observation. This is a strange allusion, the "burnt bridges" and passage into artistic maturity. My favorite poems in this chapter are those where she expands her experience universally, beyond Los Angeles, and back to her roots and Latin history.
nighttime in your mother's bed is a marathon of creed
incessant chirping of coquis
abusive rain on tin rooftop
knowing you'd rather miss your island than own her.
This particular poem was a pleasure to find, since the poem tells me that she is in-part Puerto Rican. A flaw or a strength in the book is that you are never quite sure what her exact background really is- she mentions the volcanoes surrounding Mexico City, calls herself an Aztec girl, talks of travels to El Salvador, and references Puerto Rico. She recognizes that in Los Angeles there exist only amalgamated Latinos, hybrids with two mutual languages, a shared communal collective, and a strength in intertwined identity.
An identity which shines brightest in the third chapter, "Observation Notes from the New World Order." This is the most objective chapter in the book, where we see her reach her full potential as a chronicler of the human spirit. These are poems of the icons that surround her, stories of the people that have become representational of her experience. Hardly any poems in this final chapter are written in the first person; a few are written in the "we" perspective: city girls we click in similar tongues / how we left our men behind / to travel to school to taste other lips / they laugh, say our men are thick veins in the sides of our necks / throbbing reminders of how weak we can be.
Ariel Robello has a very clear understanding of her past and present. She has poured out her heart in a magical way so that we too can understand her world through her understanding. The poems are not indulgent nor are they meant to be sympathetic. They are truthful depictions of an important segment of Los Angeles. They are painful but also celebrate life. They denote a cemented heritage through fragmentation. They highlight the laborious journey that we all undertake. In a sense, these poems are flesh incarnate, real and respectful, stripped to the point of vulnerability, full of human love and emotion.
The art forms behind the coordinated themes are very mature and carefully fashioned. The craft is natural and seemingly effortless. I am very curious about the themes in her next book and any future conceptual poetry from this very articulate and extremely smart writer.
My Sweet Unconditional, by Ariel Robello. Copyright 2005, Tia Chucha Press, $13.95, ISBN # 1-882688-29-5