Book Review: Venturous Journeys by Jesus J. Barquet
Jesus J. Barquet will give an English-Spanish reading and discussion of his book of poetry Venturous Journeys / Los viajes venturosos (Madrid: Verbum, 2015) at the Southwest Festival of the Written Word on Friday, September 29, 2017 at 3:30pm at the Seedboat Gallery. He will also participate in a panel on setting up your own publishing imprint on Saturday, September 30 at 1:30pm at the Silver City Public Library.
Roberta Brown reviewed Venturous Journeys:
Last November while visiting my mother in Miami, I awakened one morning to learn that Fidel Castro had died. The day exploded in celebration, and we joined in, sipping 2 for 1 Cuba Libres and conversing with friends throughout the day. That night, backyards swelled with acapella song. Nobody cared how loud things got in this typically quiet neighborhood on that night. I lay awake in the early morning listening to the singing coming from the house next door knowing that, although a Miami native, I would never truly understand what Castro’s death symbolized for my hometown’s Cuban exile community.
Like the events of that day, Jesús J. Barquet’s Venturous Journeys brings an exile’s awareness to the non-exile reader, and though elegiac at times, Venturous Journeys is more than an elegy for a lost homeland, speaking to readers both inside and outside of the Cuban diaspora. Born in Havana in 1953, Jesús J. Barquet arrived in the U.S. as part of the Mariel boatlift in 1980. Since 1991, Barquet has been a professor at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, and has published many poetry collections. Venturous Journeys, his latest, follows one exile’s path from Cuba to the U.S. and then west through New Orleans and Texas, ending ultimately in New Mexico, in a route mirroring that of the poet himself. The poems marking this geographical trip traverse universal journeys of love, loss, nostalgia for home, as well as hope amidst the strangeness of new places.
Barquet quotes the stirring last stanza of Tennyson’s Ulysses for the book’s epigram, whose lines begin, “Come, my friends, / ‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.” In Tennyson’s poem, the wily Ulysses who fought to return to his beloved Ithaca from which he had been exiled now finds himself unsuited to life there, and proposes to leave again for an uncertain future. Barquet’s collection likewise explores both the pull of home and the ways in which distance alters the exile’s relationship with home. In something of an exile’s paradox, the poem Echo observes: “When we were there / the question was to leave: / Now that we are not there / the answer is to return.” To what though will the exile return, and after all these decades, will it be a place he recognizes? Will he have changed as much as the place has changed in his absence, making each of them an odd fit for the other, as happened with Ulysses, Barquet’s poems seem to ask.
Barquet also invokes historical figures in his poems of exile. The first poem in the collection entitled Song of the Banished opens with a reference to Columbus who carries “all his luggage in his eyes” and finds himself “Banished, senile, with /no legs where to grow.” In reminding readers that Columbus, whose exploits forced the exile of millions, ended up an exile himself, Barquet asserts the intention to explore the exile experience from surprising vantage points.
Another historical figure permanently altered by exile, Alvar Núñez Cabeza De Vaca makes an appearance in Barquet’s book as well, providing a clever bookend to the Columbus reference at the start of Venturous Journeys. Following a shipwreck and forced exile, De Vaca shifted away from his identification as a conqueror, and wrote movingly about peoples he had previously misunderstood. Barquet entitles this portion of his collection Shipwrecks, inviting readers to consider their own personal transformative shipwrecks as De Vaca and Barquet himself have done. In Did I, the speaker asks: “Did I make it / or shipwreck,” the answer seeming to be both at once.
As life is a journey whose steps can be retraced only through the mind, Barquet reminds us that we all are exiles from our pasts when in the poem Impossible Return as one example he writes, “Not even dogs will recognize you,” and “Doorknockers will have forgotten your fingerprints.” In Ubi Sum (Where Am I), the speaker of the poem recounts “the patio where [he] played, the games where [he] forgot, the pillow where [he] learned to chat with all things.” Thoughts of home turn naturally from the world of things to family as in Barquet’s poem The House, whose speaker recalls “mother / with her sweet, sad kitchen smell / refrying a burning and soothing taste / for us.” The loss of place and distance of time combine to form a familiar lament that few but Barquet capture so well in words.
Politicians often focus on what they perceive is given to the exile who immigrates. Barquet’s poetry reminds readers what the exile gives up in emigrating. Exile is a disorienting state of being endemic to everyone on life’s epic journey—and Jesús J. Barquet’s Venturous Journeys captures in verse the nuance of exile in ways no reader will want to miss.
Jesús J. Barquet (Havana, 1953) arrived in the US in 1980, via the Mariel Boatlift. He is a Professor Emeritus of NMSU, and the founder and Editor Chief of La Mirada publishing house since 2014. Barquet won the “Letras de Oro Prize” for his Consagración de La Habana (1991); and the “Lourdes Casal Prize” for his Escrituras poéticas de una nación (1998). He was 2nd Prize Winner of “Chicano-Latino Poetry” for his Un no rompido sueño (1994). Among his books of poetry are Sin decir el mar, Sagradas herejías, JJ/CC, Sin fecha de extinción, Los viajes venturosos /Venturous Journeys, and the compilation Cuerpos del delirio.