Angel Park

By Roberto Santiago


Lethe Press
April 2015

Reviewed by Michael VanCalbergh


The coming of age narrative is a powerful staple of American literature. One of the greatest things about this narrative is its ability to represent an individual story of growing up while simultaneously allowing each of us to identify intimately with it. But its major limitation is that it doesn't go beyond the growing experience. What do we do after an experience changes our life? Where do we go? How do we use what we've learned? In Roberto Santiago's debut poetry collection, Angel Park, we get answers to these questions with the foundation, the exploration, and the solidification of a complex and complete identity in a book of gorgeous lyrical work.

Santiago's first section is aptly titled after the place where the foundation of a person's identity grows, "Home." Many of the poems in this section use an Abuela as the vehicle for which the speaker starts exploring the themes that will run throughout the book. In "¡Canta Coqui, Canta!" Santiago's fascination with how language and culture intersect develops when the speaker is having popcorn with his Abuelita: 

On a bed made
of too many pillows
Mi Abuelita sits up
and nibbles into English.

Stories of Arecibo without
street lamps, without time,
without roofs and first kisses
on montañas alta spin

A few poems later, Santiago introduces explorations of gender-identity and sexuality into the conversation. He expertly examines a child's understanding of and interaction with sexuality in "florals" when the speaker wishes that his mother had picked him up because he wants "to be just like her." When told by others that he cannot be like his mother, the speaker responds with perfect childhood stubbornness: "i still want to anyways." The readers are then introduced in "He Writes Like a Girl" to a slightly older speaker who's dealing with being teased about his "Wrist bending to perfect / the curl" of a "g" and then to the intimate glances exchanged between young men while stretching in "Odd Man Out." In this latter poem we are again introduced to Santiago's refusal to see one aspect of the self as separate from the rest because as the speaker in the poem is becoming attracted to a boy, Kenny, he is also aware that the Dean "had denied the entire class" of non-white kids from taking an AP test "save for Kenny," the only white kid in the class.

"Home" follows the narrative of a young adult struggling to place himself within multiple languages, linguistically and otherwise. The section ends with poems about a young man being expelled from his own home and into the streets, and bedrooms, of New York. The reader follows the speakers of these poems as they leave the comfort and basic understanding of self into the next section, "Away."

With "Away" Santiago starts experimenting and visually representing the search for self that the speakers are going through. In "Eyewitness" a speaker mistakes a part of a helicopter falling from the sky as a shooting star. But after we get these seemingly straightforward events of the poem, Santiago repeats his lines, but breaks them across the page. This allows the reader to completely change the way the moment is read:

                   What I initially thought was a shooting
star,           was actually the                                      fuselage
of a            police                                                       helicopter once searchlight
now                                                                             sky-writer
                  hailing metalfeather and bone.                        
                  I made my wish anyway.

The poems in this section are moving across the page, forcing the reader to participate in the struggle to identify meaning as the poems themselves struggle to resist strict interpretation. Of course they want to be understood, but Santiago refuses to allow them to assume one identity or fall to a single meaning.

Even when the poems are more traditionally oriented, the topics and language vault us into a world of searching. In "A Year with Her Husband" the speaker reflects on his affair with a married man, exploring the guilt, secrets, and absolute passion that this brings. The speaker states, "For you, I am what lies / beneath. Dancing / to the tempo / of sweat beads." Universally understandable yet immediately inexplicable, the speaker is sexually free but hidden away and trapped inside this dance. The reader is also given the intimately searing poems "a year without" and "another year without" where Santiago explores grieving and loss. In the former, the speaker wants to "circle the earth / reverse the jetstream, / pull the stratosphere closer" and stop time from moving past the loss. Santiago reminds us that time does keep moving and as we move farther away from loss it becomes "easier to go a full twenty-four hours" without thinking about it.

Angel Park then transitions to its final section, "FarAway." The poems in this section take a very literal departure from the previous two sections by placing us in King Henry's England, Toronto, Montreal, Paris, Austria, and even Pluto. But this literal interpretation of the section moving further away from the first section's "Home" is only a small part of how far away this section travels.

The poems physically seem to resemble many of the poems in the first section, but they are quite separate. The reader gets to see Santiago's work shine brightest in poems like "Coup de Foudre" where the speaker extols his passion for a love:

Fanning pink-noise with the bat of lash, carnation flushed cheeks expand
as tuberose-pouted lips part to release tongue, lick, and breath.

How easy it is to forget the others at the table . . .

. . .

Inertia. He smiles when I speak. There is something almost lovely

in his tone. A cold thunder striking the concrete.
I hope to be that cement one day.

If the second section of the book is the exploration of identity, then the third section is the complete expression of a fully formed being. Skipping the realization of who these speakers are, Santiago's poems revel in the language of a fulfilled self. Santiago's speakers now say things like, "I like my men like I like my men: thrush-velvet and lit" and:

His almost-lavender
mix of juniper & tongue
urged me to lean in like a palm
genuflecting to the will of a storm

These speakers are not looking to understand the intersections of identity because they have gone through it and come out the other side singing. They celebrate their sexuality freely and redefine language to fit the needs of the moment. The "night featherbreaks," hands will "rope&knot us," and a boy "slitherwalked across Eden." Language is recombined to make a more complete and specific way of expressing a distinct moment. For Santiago language and identity are the mixtures of multitudes; to adhere to strict rules is to deny a complete understanding.

These final poems mix and twirl the different parts that create identity and let loose honest, passionate declarations of love. It's not necessarily love for another, though many of them include a "lover," but love of self, the kind of love that only comes through a gradual and intense separation from the comfortable "Home" and a sincere exploration when "Away." Instead of coming back home changed, as narratives often do, Angel Park takes us farther away from what we know. It takes us to "the realm of the spirit" where "there is life, and then there is / consciousness." And we are thankful that we've accepted the invitation to dance.