Thursday, August 17, 2017

Andres Rojas: From the Lost Letters to Matias Perez, Aeronaut

This is another episode of  "Poetry? I just don't get it..." A series where I post a poem or group of poems by one author, followed by anything the author wants to say about the work. This time around it's a poem by Andres Rojas. (Other poets in the series can be found on the tab above.)

Last spring, I was surfing the net, looking for poems of a friend of mine, as you do (see the last post of "Poetry? I just don't get it..."), and found a few at Compose. I clicked to the staff page, to see who the poetry editor was, and was stunned to see the face of a friend I hadn't seen in thirty years: Andres Rojas!

In the late 80's I lived in Jacksonville, Florida, and during that time I was lucky enough to hang out with several wonderful poets and artists. One of those artists was Andres. He was born in Cuba and came to the US at the age of 13 (on the Mariel Boatlift). He is poet, essayist, editor, philosopher, singer/songwriter (watching him play his songs back then encouraged me to start writing my own)... 

I followed a link on Compose to his blogsite and began reading his published poems and immediately wanted to post one here. His work has appeared in Barrow Street, Colorado Review, Massachusetts Review, New England Review, and Notre Dame Review, among many others. For more of his poetry, go to his site at:

It is how Andy speaks of loss, and its connection to absence, that draws me in. Read the poem, then read the essay, then read the poem again. So many connections in such a short span of time. Illumination awaits.



I imagine what you saw—a boulevard
of moonlight on water, waves

like names on a chart,
your absence, like weather, a given.

My father disappeared
into another country

when I was five—why
not you, a hundred years before?

My first memory is him.
He carries me against his neck,

the beach receding as he walks us
into a life I don’t yet see.

Sometimes I wish
that were the last of him

I kept. Of what’s beyond us,
we know nothing, or we know

enough, the particulars of loss:
sand, the westering sun,

a wind-seized balloon,
the sea.

(Previously published in AGNI)


Of What’s To Come

                                                Being dead means being left behind.
                                                                        And being alive comes to the same.

                                                                                    --Gjertrude Schnackenberg

Ziggy Stardust & The Spiders From Mars
David Bowie died on January 10th, 2016, on my sister's birthday. Ziggy Stardust is one of the few albums I've never gotten over; "Rock and Roll Suicide" nails it: "and the clock waits so patiently on your song." I've tried to cover it, but I don't have the range. Reach and grasp, and so on. Bowie’s death on my sister’s birthday was a reminder of what we really celebrate when we celebrate one more year of someone’s life.
Seventeen days later, my friend Shelbey emailed me a writing prompt she had ran into, "You are an astronaut. Describe your perfect day." Her piece began, "It takes ninety-two minutes to circle the earth." That's the International Space Station's orbital time. The ISS is 236 miles high, but closer to Earth than my home in Jacksonville, Florida, is to, say, Atlanta. Moving at the ISS's speed, I'd get there in 50 seconds. My friends in south Florida are hours farther. Of course, these things are relative: the higher you are, the slower you go, and the longer it takes to go around the earth back to where you started from.
I answered Shelbey with a quick, 11-line poem (all of 56 syllables) riffing off Bowie, "We Know Major Tom's a Junkie," imagining each orbit as a life-cycle: a quick life, a quick death, followed by another, and another, and another. (I write about death often; it’s my go-to metaphor for loss.) 

Over the next few days I drafted and redrafted the poem, but I felt it had stalled. On February 8, 2016, I happened to read (and copied into my journal) Soren Stockman's "Morning in Wyoming," which had been published almost a year earlier in The Literary Review and which I'd belatedly found via Twitter: "Death will be gorgeous. There is no love / when there is nothing but love." What do we, the living, know about death? Maybe not much, but more than the dead, who don't even know they are dead: there is no death when there is nothing but death, but there’s not much else either. 

I turned Stockman's words to my own use: "Death / will not lack beauty / altogether, nor that love / which never takes us with it." Then, on February 16, 2016, I hand wrote a few lines on the latest draft: "I can't tell what you see right now." On the 18th, the 13th anniversary of my father's death (of hepatitis C and cirrhosis of the liver, but more on that later), I wrote, "I imagine what you saw." I'd gone from observing my own limitations to empathy, and I felt the writing shift under me.
Matias Perez
Five days later, the first draft of a new poem launched by my father and that new line arrived in the person of Matías Pérez, Cuba's legendary (lost) balloonist. Pérez was an early ballooning enthusiast who became a folkloric figure: on his second flight out of Havana, he vanished, never to be found except in the popular saying that still endures: "He flew off like Matías Pérez." What happened is easily surmised: after a long day of waiting for strong winds to subside, Pérez took off from Old Havana on what he imagined would be a short flight to the west. Instead, the wind carried him north into the Florida Straits, where he came down that night with no hope of rescue. He was not the first, and certainly not the last, Cuban to die in those waters.
I was, of course, using the new poem to address my father in all his absences: when I was five, he left for the United States; as far as I knew, he had disappeared, vanished. He thought my mother (pregnant with my sister) and I would get our exit visas in a matter of days and follow him to the U.S. shortly; I didn't see him again for eight years. He was 90 miles and a universe away. I wrote him a few times, and he answered once, but he was not one for writing: I think he coped with his loss by not thinking about us after a while.

Mariel Boat lift, 1980
By the time we reunited in Miami, via the Mariel boat lift, he had become addicted to heroin and had kicked the habit, taken up quaaludes and alcohol (he was not a good drunk), and made and spent a significant amount of money as a small-time drug runner in South Florida. He had a void somewhere in him that could not be filled, but he did not fail to try: power over my mother, my sister, and me, in various manifestations; prostitutes; casual drug use over the years; God before, during, and after both the prostitutes and the drugs, until he was too ill and had only God left. He could be friendly and entertaining if he didn't feel threatened, but being around him was like living with a wild bear who could go into a dark rage at the slightest perceived provocation. 

After almost a decade of trying to have any real connection with him, I finally removed myself as much as I could and kept him at bay for the last 14 years of his life. This time I was the one who did the leaving; his death simply confirmed what I had already accomplished. I had mourned his loss already, years earlier. There is no loss, I suppose, where there is nothing but loss, but there's not much of anything else either. Thankfully, I have never been in such a desolation, except through my father.
Ironically, I find myself working on this piece over Father’s Day weekend – ironically because “From the Lost Letters to Matias Perez, Aeronaut” is not about my father any more than it is about Matias Perez or Bowie’s Major Tom. While writing the poem, I was accompanying my mother to her radiation appointments following a cancer diagnosis and a (successful) partial mastectomy. For several years I had been preparing myself for the inevitable (I have loss issues, yes; I do these things), and yet when the time came, I found myself wholly unprepared for the possibility of her loss. She is in the poem, too, but no one would know it. 

At the same time, I was coming to accept that my last six years of work had not produced a publishable manuscript: despite dozens of queries and contest submissions, despite hundreds of dollars on manuscript consultation fees and entry fees, I was still bookless (and still am, though I now have a nifty phrase to show for my efforts: “It will not be for lack of trying”). I was, though not literally (not even literarily, though there’s hope there), letting go of the expectation I would soon have a first book out and instead girding for the reality of a long, grinding process still ahead, with no guarantees.
Of what’s to come, I know nothing or I know enough. I think I know enough. Most of us do, of course. There is no wisdom where there is nothing but wisdom. Randall Jarrell called it pain; I prefer to call it life. And there is no life where there is nothing but life. Or, as Jarrell also put it, the ways we miss our lives are life.

Andres Rojas


Some Links

The Perils of Poetry/Tedx talk with Andres

No comments:

Post a Comment