October 4, 2007

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Imago, by Joseph O. Legaspi (CavanKerry Press, 2007, 83 pages)
Reviewed by Dan Szczesny dsczesny@hippopress.com

Joseph O. Legaspi’s startling first book, Imago, is by far the find of the year. The native of Philippines has assembled a stark, riveting collection of verse, which is a throwback to the simple portrait writing of poets like Pablo Neruda while burning new ground with its descriptions of village and immigrant life.

“Imago,” which can mean either an adult insect or an idealized image of the self or another, usually a parent, is applied over and over in the poetry, both as a metaphor for the narrator’s coming of age prior to coming to America and in the overwhelming presence of Legaspi’s parents, who cast their shadows over nearly every poem.

The first three sections of the book are devoted to the exploration of village life and family structure. Bold, but simply drawn, like Neruda, Legaspi writes about everyday life in deadly raw and uncommon fashion. The challenges of village life — killing chickens, flying kites, eating watermelon — are studied through the wondering eyes of a child learning to become an adult. The best poem in the book, and the one that most directly relates to Legaspi’s overriding themes of family and simple beauty, is “Imagines Love Poem to My Mother From My Father.” In it, Legaspi’s father watches from a tree as his future wife scales and guts a fish. His father is mesmerized by the unpleasant, mundane task and wishes he were the fish, a metaphor for Legaspi’s own fascination with highlighting everyday tasks in unexpected ways.

Later, upon their arrival in America, Legaspi reflects on the loss his mother feels for their past life in “The Immigrant’s Son.”

My mother misses the splintered Old World
house where my grandmother resided
upstairs with her unmarried children
and in the apartment rooms below lived
her married children and their children,
families sleeping side by side
on beds pushed together.

Imago is the essence of poetry. Legaspi cares not a whit for performance or verbal acrobatics. His descriptions of the pride he feels sleeping next to his father, the way a bamboo floor groans like a violin or the feeling of warmth of newly baked bread pressed against his stomach are achingly beautiful without the cheap Hallmark sentiment that such poetry can often collapse into.

If you buy one book of poetry this year, this is it. A+Dan Szczesny