There are poets who love language for its own sake (Dylan Thomas), and then there are poets who love manipulating language to serve conceptual ends (T.S. Eliot). It can be argued that many if not most of today's bards fit easily into one or the other category. Sometimes, though, we encounter a writer who experiments (or at least flirts) with both approaches--on the one hand, creating poems that sing from the more unconscious part of the brain and, on the other, fashioning difficult verse that references other poems, other works of art, and therefore meeting the needs of a more academic reader.
A professor at the University of Toledo in Ohio, Rane Arroyo is the rarest of literary breeds. His poems are simultaneously attractive, approachable and yet highly aesthetic. For this and other reasons, we have too many kind words for Arroyo and his new book, The Buried Sea: New and Selected Poems.
Arroyo says the title comes from a dream he had, in which he and Hart Crane walked through a cornfield and approached a scarecrow dressed as a sailor. In the dream, Crane said to the living poet, mysteriously, "The sea buries us no matter how far inland we are." Clearly, Arroyo was inspired by this message, this reminder that death is inevitable, making life more precious and worth enjoying than we realize in our waking life.
Other things wait for us in the language-rich depths of Arroyo's verse--namely, Satan. In "Imagine the Devil Doing the Tango," the Dark One even manages to grab the reader (or at least someone addressed in second person) as a dance partner.
His thick tail dragging unharmed
through lava. His raw laughter
and his rude phallus. Joy pours
you a cup of cheer. The feet stop
and the talk turns to Haitian
cemetery architecture. No whispering.
Leaves fly back to trees, tongues
on fire with the light of Eternity.
As you can probably tell, the problem any critic faces when excerpting even just a bit of Arroyo's poetry is that one doesn't know when--or doesn't want--to stop. It's that powerful, that fun. Note the clever wordplay and lyrical innuendo of words like "phallus" immediately mashed up against "joy pours." You can tell the poet is having naughty fun when composing this piece, even if the final lines suggest something very dark, namely that having too much naughty leads to oblivion or decrescendo: "Just then Lucifer abandons you. / The ballroom shrinks to the size of / a half-note. What exactly is music?"
Arroyo almost answers that question with another more personal yet equally gorgeous poem, "The Last Rumba in Toronto." Here, the speaker, having just defended his master's thesis, and his lover enter the vibrant swirl of street life. The moment makes the poet wonder what the point of pursuing an advanced degree might be--until he finds himself being picked up and put on someone's shoulders in a nightclub: "I become David, Goliath's disco partner." Back in his apartment, the speaker intertwines with his lover, listening to rumba music on the radio while hearing even sweeter music: "all I need to know is your heartbeat / is my heartbeat."
Indeed, as much as Arroyo remains a part of the university that spawned his professional career, he rattles the cage's velvet bars. In one of his new poems, "Salsa Capitalism," he makes a point of broadcasting his love of what intellectuals consider "lowbrow" culture:
Friends say, write a poem for J-Lo
and it's career suicide, kamikaze
loco. So--this one is for her, my J-Lo.
We're both here by sheer will, our unstill
spirits distilled into steppingstones.
Permission from who? And for what?
The internal rhyme scheme ("will," "unstill," "distilled") is a pleasure to read. And the answer to the question posed, at least in nearly every one of his exquisitely crafted poems, is life and laughter and, of course love, an emotion that doesn't cost a thing, "just everything / that you have and what an audit can't find. / The current slowly becomes currency." In other words, Arroyo doesn't have a whole lot of conceptual notions to impart; instead he offers a tidal wave of language with which to submerge your senses.
Something this critic may be purposely leaving out is the fact that Arroyo identifies as a Puerto Rican gay writer of the Midwest, but let's not let the comparatively meager goals of identity politics sully what he has accomplished in the more than 20 years he has been writing and publishing collections of poetry. The Buried Sea is a mammoth love letter to language, a message in a bottle adrift in today's waters but likely to survive for eons when it will be excavated by anyone with an interest in great poetry.