Friday, November 13, 2009

A Love Story Beginning in Spanish, by Judith Ortiz Cofer

The verse and prose poems in A Love Story Beginning in Spanish (University of Georgia Press, 2005) demonstrate that one can never escape the pull of parents, of family. Judith Ortiz Cofer doesn’t wish to escape that pull, but she does write about it in these poems about her parents, her recollections of her youth, her memories of Puerto Rico, and her thoughts about her own daughter. These mostly personal poems vary widely in form and style. Although each poem is discrete from the others, together they make a narrative. One theme is language—implied in the title. The “love story” is, I think, about Cofer’s feelings for her parents. It begins in Spanish because that was the language she was born into. But she spent much of her early life around people who also spoke English. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, as she writes in her poem “A Theory of Chaos: October 1962,” she suddenly discovered she could speak and understand English. Eventually English becomes her primary language, and her loss of Spanish, at least as a language that comes easily and naturally to her, is a sign of her separation from the island and culture into which she was born, as she explains in “Where You Need to Go.”

These poems reflect the powerful image of Cofer’s father who, at least in these poems, was warm and loving to wife and daughter in the early years, but who over time grew darker in mood and drifted away. He is a haunting presence. Less troubling and less distinct is Cofer’s mother, and many of the poems describe the poet’s imagined recollections of her as a young wife and mother (see, for example, “Siempre”) and then trace the mother-daughter relationship through more than five decades.

Among the excellent poems in this collection, “First Job: The Southern Sweets Sandwich Shop and Bakery” especially stands out—it is about Cofer’s experience as a young teenager working at a Southern candy shop and of the others who work there. Another notable poem is “Before the Storm,” about the poet’s visit to her mother as a hurricane approaches Puerto Rico. In several prose poems Cofer experiments with repetition and rhythm in a style that verges on incantation: these include “The Names of the Dead: An Essay on the Phrase,” “Dominoes: A Meditation on the Game,” and the title poem.

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