Linton Kwesi Johnson reviews Pedro Pietri’s collection Puerto Rican Obituary in Race & Class, Volume XVI, Number 4, April, 1975.
Puerto Rican Obituary
By PEDRO PIETRI (New York, Monthly Review Press, 1973). £1.25
For the committed poet, words cannot be shallow echoes of themselves, or poetry the outer thrust of the inner cry, nor yet the cryptic construct of abstract ideas with hidden meaning. The poet who is making a political statement and is dealing with a social situation – who is writing from the people to the people – must perforce use the language of the people, not the private rarified language of the poet. Pedro Pietri’s Puerto Rican Obituary is ‘a political art’; it is tenderness. His words might not be as ‘hip’ as those of a Imamu Baraka or Sonia Sanchez or the Last Poets, but they are certainly ‘live words of the hip world’ – of Pietri’s world, the ghetto world of the Puerto Ricans in America.
It is the real life images of the ghettoes of Spanish Harlem, of New York, of America, which are the real life images of Pietri’s poetry that comes at you like a reel from a real life movie. In Pietri’s world people live together and yet apart, not knowing their next door neighbours for they are completely estranged and separated from themselves:
isolation is the name of the game
you do not know
your next door neighbour’s name
your next door neighbour
does not know your name
you have been living on
the same floor since this
so-called promised land opened
the only way you get to know each other
is after one or the other dies.
It is a world of ‘muggers’ and junkies and pushers’ and housing projects and poverty programmes and prostitution and ‘white owned stores’ and ‘bill collectors who are well train/to forget how to hubla espanol/when you fall back on those weekly payments’. It is a world of ‘Dead-End Streets’ where religion is not the opium of the masses but the ideological wool pulled over their eyes, a big con trick. It is a world where junkies daily practise the cult of death and hope is those ’empty dreams/from the make-believe bedrooms’.
Pietri sees his people’s world not through the poets contrived eyes, but through his own eyes. He writes with sarcasm, irony, cynicism and a harsh witticism. The Puerto Rican is likened unto a cockroach in a low income housing project where he is ‘dejected’, ‘rejected’, ‘neglected and disrespected’ and genocide is the only reality that is projected:
The life expectancy
of a cockroach in those days
was ten times longer than it is today
Ten seconds to ten minutes is the new limit
those damn housing projects are to blame.
As the title of the book suggests, the death of his people is the central theme to which Pedro Pietri addresses himself in Puerto Rican Obituary. His people live to die and work to live to die in a dying world where
From the nervous breakdown streets
where the mice live like millionaires
and the people do not live at all
are dead and were never alive
There is a sort of tension between life and death, between living and dying, throughout the poems. Here living is dying and life has no meaning. There are only dreams. ‘Vanity of vanity saith the preacher, vanity of vanities, all is vanity. What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?’ is the question posed by the ‘wisened’ Soloman. ‘One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but for the Puerto Rican, death abideth forever, says Pietri. ‘They worked/they worked/they worked/and they died’. They all died hating, dreaming, waiting.
They all died
like a hero sandwich dies
in the garment district
at twelve o’clock in the afternoon
social security numbers to ashes
union dues to dust
In the poem titled ‘O/D’ we see the junkie who has given himself up to the cult of death, practising the cult of death in an attempt to escape from the living nightmare that is the reality of his existence.
is your birthday again
and you are inside the cake
baked from the flesh
of the dead mice that fell
from your mouth while
you bathe in the urine
after accidently falling into the toilet bowl
trying to spit out the nails
that your blood swallow
when your eyeballs become
the definition of wrong numbers
trying to light the ice cubes
that replaced the candles
Pablo Pietri is a politically conscious artist who knows that art is an instrument or vehicle for the communication of ideas and the transformation of consciousness. He knows the power of the word as a catalyst of consciousness. His poetry therefore cannot but be political since his concern is the predicament of his people in the belly of the monster. It is the reality of his people’s situation in all its sordid nakedness that is mirrored in Pietri’s Puerto Rican Obituary. The poems are addressed to Puerto Ricans in particular and the rest of America in general. The poet writes from a labyrinthine love for his people; he is speaking as one of his people to his people, and writes with a certain knowingness. Puerto Rican Obituary is a mirror in which the Puerto Rican can see himself through his own eyes, through Pietri’s eyes.
It is only by showing people themselves and their situation through their own eyes that the artist can hope to transform their consciousness, and this is the formidable task Pedro Pietri pursues in his poems, which are simple truths whose very simplicity can be fightening. Puerto Rican Obituary is a social critique, but more than that, it stands out as one of the most forceful indictments against America for perpetuating and making the fetish of the cult of death both at home and abroad. In the words of one of my bretheren, Vincent Myrie, Puerto Rican Obituary ‘is a jewel of thought which is living reality. It is present testimony of present wrongs. It is beautiful.’
University of London
Linton Kwesi Johnson