Absinthe Literary Review, Book Reviews
B O O K   R E V I E W

Winter 2003

Americano by Emanuel Xavier  


Emanuel Xavier
Suspect Thoughts Press, San Francisco
73 pp. $12.95




In interview furnished with Americano, Emanuel Xavier’s new poetry collection, the gay Ecuadorian/Puerto Rican-American poet relates how his first collection, Pier Queen—a volume admittedly fluffed with “‘filler’ poems”— found an audience “somewhere between its strengths and weaknesses.” That phrase also haunts any critical reading of Xavier’s new work.

Some of the poems in Americano show an emotional strength and anecdotal verity worthy of a Genet or Ginsberg. The leadoff poem, “Wars and Rumors of Wars,” bears complex and uncompromising emotional imagery:

It is said when skin is cut,
and then pressed together, it seals
but what about acid-burned skulls
engraved with the word ’faggot’


Another poem, “It Rained the Day They Buried Tito Puente,” reveals hints of the aforementioned Ginsberg in its layers of visceral atmosphere, in its ability to force the  reader into the proverbial angry streets. In these poems and others, Xavier comes across as a poet on the verge of uncategorical profundity. His strengths are surely waxing.     

Unfortunately, his weaknesses often fail to show significant signs of waning. Too many of the poems in Americano betray the self-conscious voice and the cliché posturing that are, unquestionably, occupational hazards of his Spoken Word roots. Having sprung from the Nuyorican seedbed, Xavier can’t seem to help falling back into the cliché-ridden and often risible patter that has risen from what Harold Bloom, in the introduction for a recent volume of modern American poetry, termed “the Brave New World of communal uplift.”

In “Burning Down the House” for example, we see this passage:


so there will always be someone applauding

at the next ball         

           always catching their falls

           always licking their balls

altar boys attending the priest’s skirt

lost in a club full of treachery, jealousy, potential saints and flirts

And this, from “The World Before Me”:


I’ve been searching my soul tonight

lit only by this candlelight

slowly melting away

knocking it over to set this prison on fire


(This poem also contains the line: “living in a church where I sleep with voodoo dolls,” on unattributed loan from Sara McLachlan’s “Building a Mystery”)


Please. This kind of fare might (might) fly on Russell Simmons “Def Poetry Jam” but frankly it has as much truck with good poetry as a nicely bound presentation of Def Leppard or Michael Jackson lyrics—that is to say: a tangential relationship at best. Yes, they all spring from a common evolutionary ancestor, but to to cram them into the same classification is to undermine their individual validity and forms. There’s a reason “performance” precedes “poet” in “performance poet;” there’s a reason “Spoken” precedes “Word” in “Spoken Word”—and that reason is that performance and speech often necessarily involve considerations that impair the poet’s ability to be purely poetic. Country music lyrics are poetry at a base level too but only a simpleton would call Garth-friggin’- Brooks or Hank Williams Sr. a great poet. This is not dry classicist elitism. The same argument could be made about some of Moliere’s performance works as well—though the argument wouldn't hold up as well against most of  Shakespeare’s folio. He was just too damn good at sublimating one then the other. That, and he wrote great poetry).

Slam and performance are beasts unto themselves, and attention to their demands (in terms of rhythm and LCD verbiage) cannot help but divert the poet’s attention from what may be called poetic “root.” In interview and in passages from his work, Xavier shows he is quite aware of the existence of this dichotomy and is simultaneously captivated and infuriated by it. The mistake refugees from the Spoken Word movement often make in trying to complete the jump to print eminence and permanence is in believing that there is some elitist poetry cadre out there with a sinister plan to keep SWers from significant publication. (Quite the opposite is true, industry-wide at this point.) What is out there is a group of literary editors and publishers who find it hard to foster the notion that it’s okay for English-speaking poets to have a rudimentary grasp of the language. Xavier makes clear, both in elegant and poignant phrase, and in his decision to move towards a more de rigueur (though no less energetic) poetic style that he has recognized this as an important issue. He suffers cries of “sell-out” from one side and “weak execution” from the other. But his poetic eye is sharp (when it’s open); his ear is keen (when it’s not tilted in pursuit of applause); and his memory is filled with pertinent memories and sapience. I have little doubt that, if he pays a modicum of attention to “real” poeticism and language craft (Let’s start with the whole “lay/lie” thing, hmm?), he will overcome his weaknesses and become a poet of prominence. If he dwells too much on clichés, rap-shallow rhyme, and the oppressed victim angle, there is doubt. 

Yes, there is much inconsistency in Xavier’s work, but we should reiterate that the strong work is peculiarly strong and probably worth a look (an extra plug for the poem “Risk,” which balances common relationship jargon with riveting memories of violence against homosexuals—gripping stuff). Though the book is nicely mounted (good job by Suspect Thoughts Press on presentation), we might be more prone to recommend it were its price more in keeping with its razor-thin profile. Still, if you have some money to burn and would like a glimpse inside the fascinating world of a gay Ecuadorian/Nuyorican former prostitute, this may be the book for you. There is some worthy matter here.

- CAW -