Poetry, first and foremost, is emotional. It’s holding a lighted candle inside a circle of gasoline. It can burst at any time. There is danger in its fibers, in the demons and the wounds it can expose, with pain as its companion, even as it rejoices. Verse is hurt, and art is a disease that can only be cured by art. A poet, therefore, writes to save the soul of the reader who awaits, the ideal reader, who is a stranger that knows the poet better than anyone, including the poet.  

A poem is a collection of light and darkness, equally clear and blinding. It shakes us from complacency. It slaps the blindfold off. It breaks the glass that protects us from knowledge. With shattering comes life. We feel alive when we’re trapped amid the words, and the words nourish us. As we fall under the spell of their beauty, we celebrate their power, their life-giving paradox. “Know that in some sense you are already dead.” Borges knew it. Sometimes we feel so alive that it hurts. The thing that will hurt the most has already happened as we wait for it to happen, and no one awaits you where you’re going, except everyone. Poetry is a contradiction, a scar that keeps reopening, a lesson to unlearn at every stop.  

In her peaceful isolation, Emily Dickinson felt the thrill of poetry taking the top of her head off. Concomitantly, Walt Whitman contained multitudes while singing of himself. Great poetry is everything. Sometimes life interrupts it, but it proliferates, melting into every time-infested chasm to achieve immortality. The poet makes the sacrifice to live enslaved to its desires, but the poet is a tenant, and poetry owns the heart of anyone who dares to create and define it. 

Javier Ávila Poems 

                         Denied Service

                                                    Upon being heard speaking Spanish
at the entrance of a restaurant in Hazleton, PA.

Should I have told the waitress
that my father never had a good night’s sleep,
that he was haunted by recurrent nightmares
after that day when he, a young man
with stripes on his shoulders,
led Private Díaz and Private González
to the safety of the trenches,
and rescued Corporal Murphy, Private Williams,
and Private First Class De León
from the hovering claws of tanks and gunfire
before he tried and failed to save Private Rivera,
twenty-year-old Carlos Rivera, Carlitos,
beloved father of newborn María Rivera,
to whom he promised to return
safely from Korea? My father,
deafened by the shots, the shrieks of torture,
the agony of oscillating bullets,
dragged Carlitos’ body through smoke and ashes,
saw the blood run in rivulets over the mud;
the tourniquet was not enough to stop the flow,
and as Carlitos bled to death, my father said:
Hold on, my friend. Aguanta
que pronto salimos de esto,
but they would not get out in time for life,
and for Carlitos, who whispered
mi María as his last breath,
that would be it. This cross
my father carried with him every day.

Should I have told the waitress
that my uncle lost both legs in Vietnam,
and that the phantom pain
no morphine could erase
—the throbbing of the stumps,
the constant pounding, sharp like a tornado,
relentless like the memory of war—
would follow him throughout the bitter journey
from opium to Prozac?
And a decade after his return to the island,
he still assured my mother
that the American Military Academy
was the best choice for me to learn
the discipline of service.

Should I have told the waitress
that both my father and my uncle,
who worked for the federal government,
died in the same Veterans Hospital
in Guaynabo, the same year
my cousin enlisted
in the US Marine Corps?

Should I have told the waitress
that after years with the JROTC
insignia on my sleeve
and a bilingual education on the island
that Spain forgot,
I now teach English to native English speakers
in North America,
the English that I learned in the Caribbean,
specifically the US Commonwealth
(yes, a commonwealth,
like the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania)
Puerto Rico
where I was born and raised?

Should I have told the waitress
that having this skin
that white people pay good money for
at the tanning salon
is not a crime?
That saying salud instead of “Bless you”
when someone sneezes
is not a crime?
That greeting friends with a kiss
instead of a handshake
is not a crime?
That teaching Spanish to my son,
who calls the mainland home,
is not a crime?
That I cannot remove the plátano stain on his back
nor would I want to
because he is the grandson of Sergeant Avila,
who sacrificed his health for us,
who didn’t let Carlitos die in vain,
who taught me well the value
of silence
and of words,
who knew since he was the same age as this woman
who has already judged me
that there are things in this world
that cannot be denied.
Soy ciudadano de los Estados Unidos.
Y soy puertorriqueño.

Should I have told the waitress
anything
when she called me
a foreigner?
_____________________________________________________

En casa de Abuela

Doña Vene,
the best cook in San Juan,
did not own any measuring cups.
Her kitchen was too small to fit two people,
and when she seasoned the food,
it appeared as though she threw spice
after spice, leaves, and sofrito
randomly into the old pots and pans.

Her freezer housed the snow
that afflicts old appliances;
on the countertops, a glass jar with reused oil
beside a clogged strainer
would terrify anyone interested in longevity.
And there she was—ninety years old,
dark, minuscule, and hunched
in her lavender sleeping gown,
flattening plantains,
mixing recao with red bell peppers,
flashing a nearly toothless smile
that would look like a vagrant’s
if she were on the street.

And then, she would serve us
on the cobalt blue plates
steamy white rice, red beans,
chicken fricasé, tostones, a slice of avocado
from the tree that she planted in her youth,
and she reminded us that there
was flan de coco for dessert.

“Eat everything,” she said,
as she walked to the living room
to sit on her red armchair
and rub witch hazel on her legs.
We devoured the meal. We always did,
knowing once again,
that despite what anyone would say,
we were never poor.
__________________________________________________

María de los Ángeles de la Cruz De Jesús

is
not
an atheist
by accident.
_________________________________________________

Back in the Good Old Days

Back in the good old days,
women couldn’t vote
and had no access to a college education
or a career.

Back in the good old days,
a negro could be stoned to death
for moving into a white neighborhood,
and segregated water fountains
saved humans from colored disease.

Back in the good old days,
the white man who raped my black
great grandmother
never spent a minute in prison
and lived to do it again and again
to her and others.

Back in the good old days
our people were lynched
for the color of our skin,
and our owners believed
we should be grateful for being brought
from Africa to America.

Back in the good old days,
we had no voice.
This is how we learned
what it meant
to have privilege.

Privilege
is being able to say:
“I want my country back.”
_____________________________________________

Certainties

No one awaits you in London.
You will waste another sabbatical.
Inertia quietly haunts you.
Someone will discard photographs of your past.
You will blindly reject the beauty
of a subtle woman.
Your books are laughable to the young.
The poetry you write today consumes you.
You suffer it purposelessly, sometimes on purpose.
The unfair memory of the face of your first love
has already vanished.

Time does not care about your exercise routine.
Orphanhood awaits you.
You will lose, irreparably,
landscapes, hope, loyal dogs.
You will not return to you.
You will uselessly chase
what you once considered irrelevant.
And you will not be the protagonist
of your own funeral.
__________________________________________

Album

You will also be the dead relative
of some young stranger who will ask:
Who was that, Grandpa?
And he will turn the page.
__________________________________________

Notes on the Death of My Father

                              I

I heard it and just sighed.
Armed with a fictitious, inexplicable calm,
I went to his bedroom and opened his closet.
The scent of his skin betrayed me.
I chose the navy blue necktie,
his only suit, black,
and the white shirt. I ironed it
and starched
his absence with my tears.

                             II

Of the vast selection of boxes,
I decided that brown with copper lines
was the best, although it was the second cheapest one,
according to the salesman with the saddest of faces
and the heaviest of mustaches.
The tiny mortician asked
how my father combed his hair.
Back, I said to him.
Good, he replied.
And I gave him the clothes.

                             III

There in the coffin,
inert, consumed, and clear,
he rested in defeat. I asked for his blessing.
I remember having touched
the almost imperceptible scar on his knuckle
from the scratch of the cat
that still awaits him.
I held his hand and looked at him again,
and his face was my face.

                            IV

I regret that we never bid farewell,
that he didn’t see me wed,
that my mother is alone with the cat.
I wish I’d had more patience
when, fragile, he was losing
the battle with his body.
I would walk with him at his slow pace
and feed him his oatmeal in the old spoon
that he always preferred.
And of so many words that I could say to him,
if I could,
I would say that now I understand
why he left.

NCC will host Dr. Ávila via an interactive Zoom presentation on Thursday, 3/18, at 7 p.m. as he performs his one-man show, “The Trouble with My Name,” a blend of comedy and poetry to shed light on issues of language, race, and equity. Professor of English Dr. Javier Ávila’s culturally rich and poignant performance provides a fascinating perspective of American Latinos who struggle to dispel misconceptions about their identity and place in the world. Register for this free event at northampton.edu/virtual.

© 2020 by Javier Ávila

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Javier Avila
Javier Ávila (San Juan, Puerto Rico) is the recipient of numerous literary awards, including the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture Poetry Award and the Pen Club Book of the Year Award. His dual-language poetry anthology Vapor brings together poems from his award-winning books. His best-selling novel Different was made into a movie entitled Miente. Two of his other novels, The Professor in Ruins and The Oldest Profession, explore Puerto Rico’s academic underworld. Ávila’s most recent novel, the thriller Polvo, was published in 2019. In 2021, he received the prestigious Cultural Arts Award given by the American Association of Hispanics in Higher Education. Ávila is a professor of English; in 2015, he was named Pennsylvania’s Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education. He is the first Latino to receive this honor. For the last four years, Ávila has toured the country with his highly acclaimed one-man show, The Trouble with My Name, a performance that blends poetry and satire to explore the American Latino experience.