October 2021 \ News \ Book Review
Alphabets of Latin America by Abhay K

This slim but meaty collection of poems regales us both with elegant poetry and a splendid, panoramic introduction to many facets of the mestizo continent

By Jorge Heine

How do you convey the sheer, overwhelming, numbing diversity of “nuestra América “ as José Martí used to say, or “la América morena”, the term I prefer, in a short book of poems? Abhay’s solution was brilliant: by means of the alphabet, using it for countries, politicians, and writers, and take it from there.

Latin America has a dramatic geography, with some of the highest mountains and longest rivers in the world, and Abhay’s poems capture that perfectly. On the Andes, “The green breasts/ of Earth/ rise to quench the thirst/ of insatiable humanity”; or on the Atacama desert, the driest desert in the world, “in the vastness of the desert/ the road merely a line/ snowcapped Andes/ sibylline as ever”; or his poem on the Amazon, “The anaconda was missing/ so they offered us piranha fishing/ in consolation/and bathing with pink dolphins/ in the black river”.

Yet, the majority of Latin Americans live in cities, and the eagle’s eye with which these poems capture city scenes is breath-taking—in “Avenida Paulista”, “the destitute squat on the sidewalk/ as installations of modern art”; the poem on the Carnival in Rio, one of the longest, and most powerful; or life in Bogotá, with its huge bookstores, restaurants, the Gold Museum and Botero; as well as on the sad decadence of Valparaiso, once one of the great seven ports of the world, and now , “streets stale/ reeking of decay/ ageing and death”; on Manaus, “where rivers meet/ bearing different colors/ and an opera is heard/ in the middle of the jungle”; on Santiago, “guarded by the Andes/ wearing a veil of smoke”; or on Cartagena de Indias, where “an orange flame/ burns in the sky / the city squirms/ then revels/ inhaling the smell”.

Latin America is nothing if not sensuality, and these verses show an uncanny ability to convey it. Much as Neruda had an ode to red wine, Abhay has a poem on caipirinha, Brazil’s national drink, with another line that says it all, “Brazil is body, caipirinha its soul”.

Abhay was based in Brazil, and Brazil is very much at the center of this book, as is in many ways Rio de Janeiro, the old capital, “ciudade maravilhosa”, as the song says. Thus, poems on the statue of Christ the Redeemer; on the Itamaraty Palace (the former headquarters of Brazil’s Foreign Ministry, “Anaesthetized, clinical, green/ ready to build the scalpel/ of words—to slash, to heal”); on its revelry, and on its glorious beaches, Ipanema and Copacabana. “I have heard Copacabana is full of beauties/… I have seen them lying in the sand/ wearing nothing but a book in their hand”… Bahia, and Porto Alegre also make cameo appearances.

Yet, there is no doubt that the spirit of Latin America is to be found in the pages of this book. Without missing a beat, these lines recreate the colors, the rhythms, the cadences and the pre-Columbian roots of a region of vast, empty spaces that ache to be filled with words, as Neruda used to say. Abhay has done so with verve, gusto and brio, displaying a sensibility both ancient and post-modern. This slim but meaty collection of poems regales us both with elegant poetry and a splendid, panoramic introduction to many facets of the mestizo continent.


Jorge Heine is a research professor at the Pardee School of Global Studies, Boston University, and a former Chilean Ambassador to India. Courtesy: Financial Express Online

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