Modern-day San Juan is a metropolitan urban center, caught half-way between the comfort that pertains to all contemporary cities, the socio-economic tensions that are so widespread across western forms of capitalism, and the unequivocally Antillean character of its personality, awarded by much more than its proximity to the Caribbean Sea. So much is made clear by Loretta Collins Klobah in her first collection of poems, The Twelve-Foot Neon Woman, published by Peepal Tree Press in 2011.
Spanning close to thirty poems, two thirds of which have been published over the past decade in various journals and anthologies, Collins’ collection provides an intense, committed and multifarious view of the present reality from a fundamentally Caribbean perspective. Nevertheless, The Twelve-Foot Neon Woman is not a traditional compendium of lyrical ramblings designed to get the reader to join the writer in a journey of escapism away from the bitterness of real life. In this sense, the book is confrontational and often even deliberately blunt, not only in the presentation of the themes it addresses but also in the way it uses traditional forms.
The extent to which Collins is prepared to stretch the boundaries of established conventions is palpable from the very onset, even before reaching the first poem, as the epigraph on the opening page is taken from “Profesión esperanza,” a true salsa classic, made famous by El Sonero Mayor, Ismael “Maelo” Rivera, one of the greatest artists to have graced the profession all time. It is true, perhaps, that by now there is hardly much transgression in opening or dedicating a book of poems to a musician – after all, the list of singer/songwriters, from Marley to Cohen or Dylan, who have been fully incorporated into the establishment of recognized “artists” is extensive and ever growing. The decision to do so, however, remains a distinctive statement, and, indeed, a precept intended to guide, inform or complement our reading of the text.
ISMAEL RIVERA: “PROFESIÓN ESPERANZA”
Thus, with Maelo’s smooth, grave voice and the contrasting rhythms of “Profesión esperanza” still reverberating in our head, we delve into the first two poems of the collection, “Cereus of the Night Passages” and “La Madonna Urbana” (a previously unpublished piece), the two items in which Loretta Collins most emphatically, and perhaps also most successfully, ventures into the next of her linguistic experiments: the blend of Spanish and English. Again, there is nothing unique, or even innovative, about this blend – hundreds of thousands of people communicate this way on a daily basis, and culturally diverse writers have been proposing this form of expression for some time – other than the fact that, paired with the rhythm of salsa and the presence of Ismael Rivera, it almost forces readers to wrap their tongues around the delicate cadence of foreign words and to embrace a meaning that often will remain obscure to many.
The significance of Collins’ combination of languages is obviously enhanced by the poetic form in general, and by her specific manipulation of sounds and rhythm, which largely dominates the reading experience. Nevertheless, beyond concerns for language and music, Collins’ poetry is highly engaged with issues of personal and collective consequence that crowd her work with anecdotal references. In this sense, her activism, which is central to the topics she explores, is often directed towards the issues of crime and safety in San Juan, of political scandals on the island and, primarily, of excessive use of force or widespread abuse by members of the police in Puerto Rico, not least during the clashes that recently took place at the Río Piedras campus of the university, where she is a Professor.
Deeply emotive at various levels, The Twelve-Foot Neon Woman sometimes serves as a simple vehicle to ventilate Collins’ most virulent forms of anger, indignation and, also, desire. However, like the writer herself, the collection is never rooted to a single place. Rather, it roams from island to island, from setting to setting, with an acute and prevalent connection to the Caribbean, almost as a sentiment, instead of a geographic area. This is precisely the ingredient that links experiences of genuine friendship in the less affluent suburbs of London with helpless panic during the passage of a hurricane in Carriacou. This, too, allows for the rational exasperation at the state of affairs in Puerto Rico to coexist with the ancient spiritual cult for María Lionza, the Queen, in a collection that is complex, and yet unitary.
I am often asked whether a book is good or bad: fortunately, these terms are neither absolute (what’s good for me might not be for you), nor are they terribly helpful, at least when it comes to literature. Thus, The Twelve-Foot Neon Woman is a lot more than good (or bad): it is diverse and, like most poetry, it is essentially emotional; it is musical to the core and infectious at that, although it is also experimental and, consequently, full of surprises, some of which fail to live up to their expectations. On the balance, however, I would say its rewards fully outweigh its shortcomings, so this one counts among the recommended.
PUBLISHED BY THE WEEKENDER SUPPLEMENT OF THE DAILY HERALD OF SINT MAARTEN ON SATURDAY, JANUARY 15, 2012.