Latest Nuyorican Poetry Filled with Flair and Rhythm
Review: 'Hypocrisy Held Hostage' by Jose Angel Figueroa
By Robert Waddell
Jose Angel Figueroa’s newest book of poetry, “Hypocrisy Held Hostage” is a collection of early and newer work by one of the original Nuyorican Poets. Figueroa, on the page and on the stage, has always had a flair for the dramatic, but his poetry here captures the rapturous rhythms of nature. Figueroa proves that he was listening to the sounds around him as well as to his own heart beat.
For example, in the poem “I Saw Puerto Rico Once,” he writes “I came from the nest/all birds thought they could find/where the grass spreads/across the common/and the roots of trees/the earth of roads/and the water of rivers/longed my thoughts/to come home again.” As in many poems, Figueroa shows his respect and reverence for nature and that he is from a pastoral Puerto Rican land. Like much of original Nuyorican poetry, the images are full of desire, passion and some nostalgia for the Eden-like island paradise of Puerto Rico.
Then, those bucolic poems are interrupted by equally compelling works that show more urban settings. As if nature were a dream, in a jolt, the poet is awakened to harsh realities. In “Boricua a Raffy Rodriguez,” Figueroa writes “…you were/ born somewhere/between American Airlines near San Juan/ and Kennedy Airport/ near The Bronx…”
To be sure, Jose Angel Figueroa is part of the Nuyorican literary movement begun by Miguel Algarin and Miguel Pinero. He, however, differentiates between his connections between the island and the city. He is never overly nostalgic but he transports the reader or the listener to a pastoral or urban setting without mixing or getting the two confused. He tries to remain literal, but his literary heart takes flight; he writes with a pallet of many Caribbean colors and never forgets his grounding or his island roots whether Borinquen or Manhattan.
For example, when Figueroa writes of love in “Stop Killing Me,” he speaks of doubts and desires and “nakedness hidden in the blues,” hiding poems in his lover’s room feeling as though he has a split personality. In the past, Nuyoricans had to wrestle with the notion of being Puerto Rican or being an American and now Boricuas don’t have to choose, they can be both. In this poem, he speaks of love, but also the love of the two cultures he emerges from.
Figueroa’s poetry is compactly packed into words and lines of electric passion. There is depth, heart thumping, shirt ripping ecstasy that comes from a dose of summer lightning and showers. This poet has the explosiveness of an Adrian Rich and some Neruda where the night and shadows and twilight of inner space collide with outer realities. Figueroa is a master of poetry where he is baring his soul from the mountain top and at the same time showing great humility and sincerity. The poet and poetry are unique in their vision and hospitality to the world that he creates with his words.
When the poet writes phrases like “counterfeit dreams,” a reader can’t help but remember Pedro Pietri. Figueroa pays homage to Pietri, Pablo Neruda and Amiri Baraka. Figueroa is imbued with spirit and poetic flavor from the great poets he eulogizes (even a little Jorge Brandon). "Hypocrisy Held Hostage" is an interesting alliteration and the title for a book of poetry that deals with a Puerto Rican’s exterior and interior voyage at home and in the United States. (If hypocrisy were held hostage, who would pay the ransom and do we negotiate with linguistic terrorists?)
However, Figueroa's poetry stretches out as far as a flamboyant Flamboyan tree. Once, Figueroa found a poetry reading at the Nuyorican Poets Café called “Cocktails,” dedicated to poetry about the male member, objectionable. But, he’s mellowed and with the poem “Womanizer,” he writes: “Before them was the naked/horror; the wisdom of the/penis; known to conquer if/not possess to consume and/spit out with masked emotion,/bedrock hearts of passion.”
This is the Jose Angel Figueroa I know and love.
Written in both English and Spanish, and published by the Centro de Publicaciones Academicas in Puerto Rico,“Hypocrisy Held Hostage” is a testament to the skill and curiosity of Jose Angel Figueroa. His poetry is both elegant with an edge and sharp, not like a razor, but sharp enough to cut through the morass of every day living and show rays of sunlight. For poetry lovers, “Hypocrisy Held Hostage” is a fine collection full of longing for freedom, shades and gradations of love and the warm outstretched hands of a Puerto Rican poet ultimately declamando the spirit of the word.
Robert Waddell contributes his writings to "Puerto Rico Sun." He is a freelance journalist based in the Bronx.