one more from Vincent Cooper

zarzamoracover_3_origIn my recent microreview & interview of Vincent Cooper’s Zarzamora (Jade Publishing, 2019), I spoke about Cooper’s ability to tap into lyricism that catalogues and captures through immersive narrative. When the subject is family, loss, and memory, taking one’s time with the weight of each detail is necessary and instructive. What matters ultimately, though, is what is evoked.

The poem “Sepia Boys” (below) does a great job of using narrative and poetic techniques to tell a story beyond the story being told. As the narrative develops around a photograph of the title’s “sepia boys,” a tension begins to grow around the chosen details:

Cousin plays with the ashtray lid on the door
The squeak of open. Close. Open. Close.
A slap to that hand.

This stanza is a good example of the way pacing develops through phrasing. As the details here are doled out, a sense of routine weariness is created. The juxtaposition of details, however, sharpens the narrative with tension. It’s a clear moment: the act of playing with an ashtray lid is quickly shut down by a slap. Yet, the emphasis on sound (squeak, slap) makes a simple moment haunting. This narrative push and pull is the main engine of the poem. This mix of pacing and juxtaposition evokes the restlessness behind the lives of the boys in the photograph.

As an ekphrasis, this poem aptly fulfills the job of exploring the imaginative space inspired by the photograph. The poem goes beyond that, however, by taking its time not only with memory details but also meditative ones as well. Cooper’s sense of narrative here goes beyond story in that it seeks to stir up for readers not understanding but the space to understand. In using narrative lyric to hold the lives and deaths of others, this poem holds a clear and engaging impression of the speaker’s inner work to create a space for understanding within himself.

Sepia Boys – Vincent Cooper

The kids today are gone away petitioning the dust
With no one to look up to
Because they’re looking up to us – Bad Religion

Cousins are across the street,
playing in the park.
With concrete turtles to sit on,
steel bars to climb.

A sun-scorched slide with sand at the bottom.

I have ripped jeans at the knees.
Park Police watch brown kids sweat,
laughing with friends.

Grandparents, mothers and fathers
watch their children
play rough.

A mother, concerned, clenches her fist,
yells from the screen door.

Let them learn, he says.

Lunch is on the stove.
Beans …cooking slowly.

The kids come back
holding hands,
reaching for a manguera.

Cool water from the green hose
passed over mouths.
Water dripping from chins.

Primos file into the house.
Boys pee into one toilet together,
and primas go with Ama or tía.

Fingers webbed with black ligas;
picture day for the familia.
All of us rush into the car, after.

Cousin plays with the ashtray lid on the door
The squeak of open. Close. Open. Close.
A slap to that hand.

A warning that some reward will be taken.
Later,
the sepia boys pose with two front teeth exposed.

A brown mound of hair and eyebrows styled with mother’s hands.
A smile held for a momentary snap.
An endearing image forever.

The kids grew up to be high school dropout junky hippies
while others worked hard for the city or served in the military.
And they’d still call each other from pay phones to come over and drink

To spend every second, they could together,
or drive by
with a hand gesture beer signal.

The sepia boys are mostly gone.
Toothy pictures to remember them all
and hot summers that burned the grass brown.

Chicharras in the trees
ranting their rants.
No more empty beers cans scraping across street to the curb

Or cigarette smoke that tears up eyes to a sneeze.
It all ended, and some people want to know why.
It’s because they all finally died.

We chose to let them go.
It was only their body that died that day.
Their spirit still walked the streets to a methadone clinic

–to take away their back pain.
The fellas were still out on the porch drinking.
In your mind as you drove by, memories in sepia tone.

It’s in our DNA to suffer as it is to fight.
If we choose to die, or live in the dark,
sepia tone boys and girls stay in boxes.

They go from the house to the garage,
and those pictures dust up.
They fade.

Spiders and roaches crawl over them,
their bodies in the ground.
They die again.

Do you want them to die again?

Mother is a westside original,
and part of her exists in me
as I write and as I live.

My kids look up to me.
All our kids look up to us.
In adoration.

We are their first heroes.
Their first poets.
Their guides

that try to hide the frustrations of the world.
Behind coffee sips and mass shootings,
we love them.

We find love in the cemeteries of our bellies
and hearts.
We take it all back and have more.

Don’t let them kill you too.

microreview & interview: Zarzamora by Vincent Cooper

review by José Angel Araguz

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Vincent Cooper’s Zarzamora: Poetry of Survival (Jade Publishing, 2019) is a collection grounded in the great traditions of Chicano poetry. These poems recall the immersive narratives of Jimmy Santiago Baca and Luis J. Rodriguez along with the image-driven lyricism of Gary Soto’s early work. What sets Cooper’s work apart is the distinct perspective of his poetic sensisbility. Whether through dream or memory, Cooper’s visceral lyricism catalogues as well as captures life on and beyond Zarzamora Street.

The collection’s title invites a fitting metaphor. The word zarzamora translates to blackberry which immediately sets one thinking in terms of bramble and tangled overgrowth. Instead of a traditional family tree, these poems deal with family as a similar sprawling entity. Stories of uncles and brothers are engaged in a way that explores a necessary public toughness as well as private depths.

The death of one uncle in particular, Danny, serves as a catalyst for the aforementioned duality, forcing family to open up and reach out to one another. “Five Bullets,” for example, describes a speaker and brother meeeting for “beers and plática,” a ritual public act haunted by personal tragedy. One can feel this haunting in the following stanza:

“I can’t believe Danny is dead,” he blurts.
Surprised, mid-drink, I assent.
The restaurant darkens
and warps into The San Fernando Cememtery.
Bar stools become tombstones.
We dive into Uncle Danny’s uncovered grave.
Stand on his casket
together. Speaking the sacred to the public
worms watching from the niches of the Earth.

This surrealistic blurring and change of scene evokes how sudden memories can come and take over one’s reverie. A similar move occurs in the poem’s ending lines describing a moment as the two men leave the bar: “I leave a tip, as if / a handful of dirt.” Lines like these show how death can color daily life. This imaginative space where memory and feeling blur is where Cooper’s poetic sensibility flourishes.

As much as Danny’s death haunts the speaker of these poems, Danny’s own voice — present in the collection through letters written from prison — serves to further the experience, countering meditations on the life lived with the living presence granted by words. In these letters, the somber, straightforward tone of the poems is checked and challenged by Danny meditating in an imaginative space of his own. Writing from prison, Danny meditates on his own past as well as reaches out and, through his advice to the poet, gestures towards the future.

In one early letter, Danny reflects on family not writing to him:

“Some people have a hard time writing and others like me and you can express ourselves better in writing. Anyway, it doesn’t mean they love us any less because they don’t write. It’s just part of who they are.”

There is a power to this statement that speaks to the heart of the collection. On one level, Danny is working through the complicated feelings of not receiving word from people he cares about; on another level, he is defining the space between him and the poet. In naming “part of who they are” as not being able to express themselves in writing, there’s the implied naming of a part of who Danny and the poet are, a part of them able to honor life through words. As Zarzamora moves through its poems of varied voices and recollections, Cooper’s poetic mission runs parallel to Danny’s epistolary one. Both men are seeking to understand and hold onto lives often overshadowed by death and misunderstanding.

Through unflinching honesty and nuanced lyricism, Zarzamora stands as a testament to the personal lives involved in the poems while also honoring Chicano identity. In this book, Cooper represents narratives and voices often overlooked through poems that evoke their necessary human presence. “Brazos” (below), is a good example of what I mean. Through some riffing with tropes associated with the devil, this poem works out a real sense of the high stakes reckoned with in the world of this book.

Brazos – Vincent Cooper

The devil danced with the most the beautiful
women in the room
before they noticed his feet.
He ran away from the chicanos who chased him
into the bathroom
of the baile where
he vanished,
and Sulphur remained.

He crept behind children playing little league,
hid under the bed of chicano lovers making love,
and laughed in our faces during the depression
of our lives…

And he was present when my Tíos died.
We whispered I love you’s into Mike’s ear
while the devil was massaging Mike’s bare feet.
Saying, “He can’t hear you.”
Told Tony to leave the house
and meet five bullets down the street.
Laughing and swimming in Tony’s pool of blood.
He picked up Danny off the toilet
and threw him onto the living room floor without
air to breathe.
He rode shotgun with Jody.
Infected him with AIDS
watched Jody rot in a prison cell.

He had been present at all our miseries
because the reckless familia
only knows to live on the thinnest edge of life and
death.
Every day with a methadone trip
and heroin and liquor
and worst of all “love.”

They made a fungus of love,
mildew smiles.
Black rotted teeth.
Honey brown chests
with Old English tattoos, on
spore covered stomach muscles.
Their drunken killer smiles dimpled,
telling stories,
our brazos wrapped around their shoulders.
We, the naive, craved their empty promises.
We were naive.

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Influence Question: How would you say this collection reflects your idea of what poetry is/can be?

Vincent Cooper: I knew, even as a child that I was witnessing something artistic, conversations and other moments resonated. Years ago, a poet said that the first poets you encounter are your tios, tias and primos. This is absolutely correct in my case. My where is South Texas/ Southern California. What I heard were uncles singing and telling jokes. Brown men playing basketball here in the barrio is what I saw. Old schoolers dressed in guayaberas n’ Stacy’s clacking. Smelling like barbecue, tortillas burning on the comal, Old Milwaukee or Schaefer beer and sweat. Some comments or praise I’ve received is “Thank you for sharing personal experiences.” The only thing I can do is write a true and honest account of my experience. I write about being here in the barrio and about missing the barrio. My community. I don’t understand why this wouldn’t be for the literary canon. I write the way I remember it. This is simply the life that we have here in San Antonio.

Influence Question: What were the challenges in writing these poems and how did you work through them?

Vincent Cooper: I am a masochist. The wheels have to be spinning already. There has to be a poem manifesting, prompted by a scene, memory, other writings. It might be an encounter with a relative that will trigger a poem –and it’s typically a negative thing happening that spurs the main idea to the poem. I don’t naturally just go sit at a desk and start typing up a million words. These poems in Zarzamora go back about 10 years. Right around the death of my Uncle Mike, I wrote pages of Westside San Antonio poetry. I debated writing these poems as prose or even as a novel. The narrative style is how I’ve written for at least 20 years. Initial edits by Viktoria made these bits of narrative into poetry. The voice and story was there but she taught me about breath, line breaks –or no line break, etc. She handed me books by Lucille Clifton and Li Young Lee too help build up and process.

Offending relatives was something that crossed my mind and I did remove poems, stories, and letters from Zarzamora. There was one letter where my uncle Danny had written racist comments. He was trying to stick up for me, or cheer me up, regarding an incident that happened in school. I think my relatives who’ve not even purchased the book are probably still offended, but I know this book is my experience not theirs.

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Special thanks to Vincent Cooper for participating! To keep up with Cooper’s work, follow him on Twitter: @vinnycoop13. Copies of Zarzamora can be purchased from Jade Publishing.

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Vincent Cooper is the author of Zarzamora – Poetry of Survival and Where the Reckless Ones Come to Die. His poetry can also be found in Huizache 6, Huizache 8, The Acentos Review and Riversedge Journal. His forthcoming manuscript The Other Side of Semper Fi chronicle’s his tumultuous stint in the Marines pre/post America- 9/11.