on Frank Varela

Frank Varela Frank Varela brews strong stuff. In Chicago, he's regarded as a classicist compared to the free-wheeling spoken word crowd that pervades much of the city's literary environment. However, when listening to Frank Varela, you will notice that he is a consummate speaker. His voice is certain, punctual, and considered. As the regular editor of the Book of Voices, I noticed that Varela's recording sessions went very smoothly, with all but two poems committed to audio in one straight take. So I would respectfully differ with those who'd say that Frank Varela is strictly a page poet.

Getting into Frank Varela's work is a lot like translating the magical realism of Latin American literature to Yankee turf. Varela's writing reflects part the emergence of Borinqueñs in the mainstream of American life. And in a sense, where the culture supports the magic, so the magic will follow, even to the prairies of Illinois, even in spite of the will of los siete dioses Africanos.

For example, Americans are used to thinking of such places as California or New York having posession of mythic powers. But in Varela's writing, however, there's a lot of magic in and around Chicago's everyday neighborhoods. Guiding spirits, family members and Puerto Rican luminaries alike, walk as freely among us on the streets as they do in our memories. North Avenue, Humboldt Park, Roberto Clemente High School, Western Avenue... These are all landmarks in the heart of Chicago's Puerto Rican quarter on the city's west side.

Humboldt Park resonates with Varela's search (and, generally, Borinqueñs' search, too) for place and voice. This search serves two purposes. It is a way to find identity and distinction among other people, to celebrate what is especially Puerto Rican. It is also a way into American society, to recognize where Puerto Ricans stand as a part of America and take stock of the culture's saga to date. This could be told with political stridency, but Varela chooses to disarm his readers instead.

The message is steeped in -- and related by way of -- other special places in the city, too. They may impose power and class... Michigan Avenue and Sears Tower, for example. But these sites are outside the neighborhood, and their fall from power in Varela's stories keys a universality that equates these places with the humblest of intersections near Humboldt Park.

All that would be sufficient to begin reckoning Varela's writing, but for one remaining theme: love. I believe that a poet has not begun to tap into their fuller life as an artist until they have composed a poem centered on love, that can express an understanding of it well. One should never trust a poet who cannot write a love poem. On love, Varela definitely redeems the reader's trust. Strong magic brews in his respect for love. A recurring presence in this work, drawn from his latest book, Bitter Coffee, is Varela's love for his wife. This writing is delicate, contained in small, close lines, since the love it expresses is a precious jewel.

Take a moment to sip the poetry of Frank Varela.

- KEH, May 2002

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