Universal


The Present Day
, Ernesto Priego, (104 pp, 6,95, Leafe Press)


Priego is an Anglo-Mexican poet. His bilingualism is immediately apparent in The Present Day. While mostly in English, there are number of poems in Spanish or which incorporate Spanish. The words are not translated but allowed to stand as equals with the English text. Even if you're not a Spanish speaker, and I'm not, you get a sense that in either tongue Priego's approach is equally terse and searching. He favours staccato lines of either questions or declarations, which though projected outward, crucially turn back on themselves and so the reader too.

The work is not nationalistic, pan-nationalistic or consciously marginal. It's universal without having to state so. It's universal in the way all good poetry is because it humane. It's pleasing to read about love, pain, reason, nature and poetry without irony, or obscurantism. They are there to be apprehended and poetry is the means.

Take for example one of the few titled poems 'After Parliament Fields'. The poem begins with astronaut. An astronaut is in some ways a modern angel or sprite, something to wonder at and be amazed by. The end of the poem is the most revealing of Priego's style:

   Eve-
   rything you
   say
   is poetry
   to
   my eyes

It would seem that Priego has studied his twentieth century well. It has the formal brevity of everyone since the Imagists. The shape of it says something more. This is a poem for a t-shirt. You can see it printed and billowing across some young man or woman. Yet, the resemblance is an appropriation. It's form is there to remind us that poems and words can reach out beyond the page.

The final line of the aforementioned poem, which overturns the empty inclusivity, recalls the irony and absurdity of today. On one hand he had a point, poems can be visual. On the other it simply amuses with its mock profundity. In another poem, Priego's attempts to write are thwarted because an image is already 'copyrighted'. Otherwise, Priego can start by parodying the announcement on the tube only to remind us of the gap 'between you / heart & the platform'. In all these instances the humor serves to make us look more closely at the world. Other pieces have this mock 'guerrilla' tone. On the surface they are declarative. When you consider them, they make you stop. They hook, rather than propel. What poems simply reads: 'What a nightmare, / Reason'.

When Priego does engage more directly with politics, his work remains subtle. He doesn't assume the mantle of spokesperson or warrior poet. In one of the first untitled poems of the collection he writes: 'but when I read "revolutionary force" / I can't help reading "revolutionary farce".' He's no conservative, merely despondent and likens change to a flip of a coin. In other occasions his engagement can be more lyrical. His poem 'Suave Patria' ends with 'Despierta. Suave Patria: / del cielo solo cultivaras granadas' (Wake up, gentle Motherland, / from the sky you will only harvest grenades.) Before the revolution became a farce, Priego has a sense of its tragedy.

Whereas the terseness of the poems cited tends to lend many of the poems a casualness, a just knocked off over coffee feel, Priego is capable of quite an expressive range. In the poem 'Imagine Dee-Eich-Law-Rence' the lines cascade, building and surging on the images: 'Feathered snake / fallen angel, sinking city, / burning feet' in one musical instant he rolls together Christian and Aztec mythology. In other poems the rhythm can be harsher as for example in 'Written at the National Portrait Gallery'

   she sits
   in black
   in time
   a smile
   a glow
   a halo
   I'm blinded

The rhythm gives a sense of the moment of creation. The series of iambs resemble the muted steps of visitors to the gallery. The rhythm also gives the poems its drama, its force. We can't help but accent the 'ed', so the past participle, the marker of completion, is given an added phonological finality.

Despite the title, Ernesto Priego's collection is not a straightforward celebration of now. He is wary about the present. His engagement is tentative. He prods and teases and turns the world around, so that he takes us a little out of step so we can be better acquainted with it.

          Ryan Scott 2011