review by José Angel Araguz
Vincent Cooper’s Zarzamora: Poetry of Survival (Jade Publishing, 2019) is a collection grounded in the great traditions of Chicano poetry. These poems recall the immersive narratives of Jimmy Santiago Baca and Luis J. Rodriguez along with the image-driven lyricism of Gary Soto’s early work. What sets Cooper’s work apart is the distinct perspective of his poetic sensisbility. Whether through dream or memory, Cooper’s visceral lyricism catalogues as well as captures life on and beyond Zarzamora Street.
The collection’s title invites a fitting metaphor. The word zarzamora translates to blackberry which immediately sets one thinking in terms of bramble and tangled overgrowth. Instead of a traditional family tree, these poems deal with family as a similar sprawling entity. Stories of uncles and brothers are engaged in a way that explores a necessary public toughness as well as private depths.
The death of one uncle in particular, Danny, serves as a catalyst for the aforementioned duality, forcing family to open up and reach out to one another. “Five Bullets,” for example, describes a speaker and brother meeeting for “beers and plática,” a ritual public act haunted by personal tragedy. One can feel this haunting in the following stanza:
“I can’t believe Danny is dead,” he blurts.
Surprised, mid-drink, I assent.
The restaurant darkens
and warps into The San Fernando Cememtery.
Bar stools become tombstones.
We dive into Uncle Danny’s uncovered grave.
Stand on his casket
together. Speaking the sacred to the public
worms watching from the niches of the Earth.
This surrealistic blurring and change of scene evokes how sudden memories can come and take over one’s reverie. A similar move occurs in the poem’s ending lines describing a moment as the two men leave the bar: “I leave a tip, as if / a handful of dirt.” Lines like these show how death can color daily life. This imaginative space where memory and feeling blur is where Cooper’s poetic sensibility flourishes.
As much as Danny’s death haunts the speaker of these poems, Danny’s own voice — present in the collection through letters written from prison — serves to further the experience, countering meditations on the life lived with the living presence granted by words. In these letters, the somber, straightforward tone of the poems is checked and challenged by Danny meditating in an imaginative space of his own. Writing from prison, Danny meditates on his own past as well as reaches out and, through his advice to the poet, gestures towards the future.
In one early letter, Danny reflects on family not writing to him:
“Some people have a hard time writing and others like me and you can express ourselves better in writing. Anyway, it doesn’t mean they love us any less because they don’t write. It’s just part of who they are.”
There is a power to this statement that speaks to the heart of the collection. On one level, Danny is working through the complicated feelings of not receiving word from people he cares about; on another level, he is defining the space between him and the poet. In naming “part of who they are” as not being able to express themselves in writing, there’s the implied naming of a part of who Danny and the poet are, a part of them able to honor life through words. As Zarzamora moves through its poems of varied voices and recollections, Cooper’s poetic mission runs parallel to Danny’s epistolary one. Both men are seeking to understand and hold onto lives often overshadowed by death and misunderstanding.
Through unflinching honesty and nuanced lyricism, Zarzamora stands as a testament to the personal lives involved in the poems while also honoring Chicano identity. In this book, Cooper represents narratives and voices often overlooked through poems that evoke their necessary human presence. “Brazos” (below), is a good example of what I mean. Through some riffing with tropes associated with the devil, this poem works out a real sense of the high stakes reckoned with in the world of this book.
Brazos – Vincent Cooper
The devil danced with the most the beautiful
women in the room
before they noticed his feet.
He ran away from the chicanos who chased him
into the bathroom
of the baile where
and Sulphur remained.
He crept behind children playing little league,
hid under the bed of chicano lovers making love,
and laughed in our faces during the depression
of our lives…
And he was present when my Tíos died.
We whispered I love you’s into Mike’s ear
while the devil was massaging Mike’s bare feet.
Saying, “He can’t hear you.”
Told Tony to leave the house
and meet five bullets down the street.
Laughing and swimming in Tony’s pool of blood.
He picked up Danny off the toilet
and threw him onto the living room floor without
air to breathe.
He rode shotgun with Jody.
Infected him with AIDS
watched Jody rot in a prison cell.
He had been present at all our miseries
because the reckless familia
only knows to live on the thinnest edge of life and
Every day with a methadone trip
and heroin and liquor
and worst of all “love.”
They made a fungus of love,
Black rotted teeth.
Honey brown chests
with Old English tattoos, on
spore covered stomach muscles.
Their drunken killer smiles dimpled,
our brazos wrapped around their shoulders.
We, the naive, craved their empty promises.
We were naive.
Influence Question: How would you say this collection reflects your idea of what poetry is/can be?
Vincent Cooper: I knew, even as a child that I was witnessing something artistic, conversations and other moments resonated. Years ago, a poet said that the first poets you encounter are your tios, tias and primos. This is absolutely correct in my case. My where is South Texas/ Southern California. What I heard were uncles singing and telling jokes. Brown men playing basketball here in the barrio is what I saw. Old schoolers dressed in guayaberas n’ Stacy’s clacking. Smelling like barbecue, tortillas burning on the comal, Old Milwaukee or Schaefer beer and sweat. Some comments or praise I’ve received is “Thank you for sharing personal experiences.” The only thing I can do is write a true and honest account of my experience. I write about being here in the barrio and about missing the barrio. My community. I don’t understand why this wouldn’t be for the literary canon. I write the way I remember it. This is simply the life that we have here in San Antonio.
Influence Question: What were the challenges in writing these poems and how did you work through them?
Vincent Cooper: I am a masochist. The wheels have to be spinning already. There has to be a poem manifesting, prompted by a scene, memory, other writings. It might be an encounter with a relative that will trigger a poem –and it’s typically a negative thing happening that spurs the main idea to the poem. I don’t naturally just go sit at a desk and start typing up a million words. These poems in Zarzamora go back about 10 years. Right around the death of my Uncle Mike, I wrote pages of Westside San Antonio poetry. I debated writing these poems as prose or even as a novel. The narrative style is how I’ve written for at least 20 years. Initial edits by Viktoria made these bits of narrative into poetry. The voice and story was there but she taught me about breath, line breaks –or no line break, etc. She handed me books by Lucille Clifton and Li Young Lee too help build up and process.
Offending relatives was something that crossed my mind and I did remove poems, stories, and letters from Zarzamora. There was one letter where my uncle Danny had written racist comments. He was trying to stick up for me, or cheer me up, regarding an incident that happened in school. I think my relatives who’ve not even purchased the book are probably still offended, but I know this book is my experience not theirs.
Vincent Cooper is the author of Zarzamora – Poetry of Survival and Where the Reckless Ones Come to Die. His poetry can also be found in Huizache 6, Huizache 8, The Acentos Review and Riversedge Journal. His forthcoming manuscript The Other Side of Semper Fi chronicle’s his tumultuous stint in the Marines pre/post America- 9/11.