Kara Candito writes within the vast context of western poetic traditions. Her poetry demands a familiarity with forms and an understanding of historical context. Just as her first collection, Taste of Cherry, requires an acquaintance with Baudelaire to be truly appreciated, so in her new collection, the Agha Shahid Ali prizewinner, Spectator, Federico Garcia Lorca is the Vergil to her Dante. In short, Candito's poetry is both intellectual and sensual, and while the subjects of the lyrics are intensely personal, the themes of identity and personal destiny are universal.
The poems in the first of the four parts involve Candito's family — begin at the beginning, right? — in an almost mythic tone. The titles suggest this feeling of fable — "Creation Myth, 1979 (Reappropriated)," "Family Elegy in a Late Style of Fire," "A Genealogy of the Father," among others. "Initiative #4: Lorca" opens the collection; in an appropriately Lorcaesque surrealistic touch, the dead poet appears at the foot of Candito's bed (Vergil leading Dante is not so farfetched at all). This poem concludes:
Bodies matter, how they break open,
which animals we let inside us. I am here
to learn how to suffer more beautifully,
to smile for the white air and give everything away.
And away we go...
But Candito's verse is far from somber, angst-drenched soul-searching, even with all the introspection. She writes with sly, self-deprecating humor, as at the start of "Creation Myth":
Apprentice of the deadpan entrance — born on Labor Day
two weeks late, plopped onto the lap of a heat wave; the doctor
dragged off the tenth hole; your father sobbing
in the waiting room, cigars stillborn in the box. The firstborn should be a son.
Many of the poems in this collection seem to occur "in transit," as if Candito is working toward a destination (more on this later — the arrival): a bus ride in "Camino Real," airplanes in "V's Dream on the Plane from Mexico City to Chicago" and "Holding Pattern, Lifted," even an elevator ("Elevator: A Love Story")! Throughout these poems, with Lorca as metaphorical guide ("Lorca's Last Letter to Dali, August 20, 1936," "Lorca Recalls His First Love," "Lorca Addresses His Sister before Her Wedding," "Ten Years Apprenticeship in the Republic of Carnivorous Love"), Candito seems to be moving toward her destiny as poet (and woman?), getting past the landmines and pitfalls and roadblocks, as in a mythological heroic quest. Or, as she observes in "Dying in an Earthquake in Mexico City": "It's not us. It's the universe/throwing us up." All this movement, all this striving. I was born just to get to you.
Especially in the fourth, final section, the poems start to focus on Candito's marriage to Victor Castro, a Mexican citizen, her love destiny. The final section begins with the long, often amusing "Ars Amatoria: So You Want to Marry a Foreign National," which again takes place in an airplane. Perhaps with a sly glance at Lorca's "Llanta por Ignacio Sanchez Mejias," she writes these comical but touching lines:
By now you will have begun the final descent. Relinquish
your cup and napkin to the stewardess,
who waves a white garbage bag
like a matador.
The collection concludes with the poem. "An Epithalamium with Swan Song." An epithalamium, of course, is a centuries old form, a poem written for a bride on her wedding day, going as far back as Sappho and Catullus with famous examples by Edmund Spenser and E. E. Cummings. This, then, is the poetic destination of Spectator: love. With humor, Candito implores her husband: "remember me//as that skinny girl with Lorcaesque eyes."
The poems leading up to this climactic poem run a gamut of emotions and poetic expression. Take these lines from "There Are Lots of Guns Here —" (a poem about relocating from Mexico to Wisconsin):
the veteran on the first floor
who stalks the parking lot barefoot
in the rain then backs his truck
into six different spots. We cannot trust
that he hates you for being an immigrant
or that he has a gun but maybe one day
soon we'll dial 911 and I do not think
I could write the transformative elegy
the one that turns from grief
to consolation in memory
to an affirmation of immortality.
Yes, elegies have always been over-rated in my book! Weep for Adonais? Go ahead, weep.
About the title of the collection, Spectator. This overarching title concept picks up on the theme of the flâneur from Taste of Cherry, the detached observer who is an active participant in the life of the city. Interestingly, the cover of Spectator shows a sculpture of a blindfolded goat (or horse? — Olympia by Beth Cavener), indicating that the real observation is interior, the look inward — self–discovery, self–actualization.
I think my favorite poems in Spectator come in the third section, "Deathbed" and "Dear Forgiveness," which highlight Candito's humor and her stunning and original use of language and image, as in the opening stanza from "Dear Forgiveness,":
Remember when we met on OKCupid?
You called the profile picture of me in scorpion pose
beneath a palmetto tree playful and suggestive.
How long can you hold that? you asked, and for maybe two minutes
I was rare and witty, a smart romantic comedy.
Smart and romantic indeed. Also clever and lyrical and insightful.