Poems to Fernando

by Janine Pommy Vega
   This first book by janine pommy vega contains poems that were written between 1963 and 1967. The book documents Vega’s marriage to Peruvian painter, Fernando Vega, who died suddenly of a heroin overdose in November 1965 on the island of Ibiza off the coast of Spain; her grief and solitude in Paris after his death; and the aftermath on her return to the United States. The writing is devotional, spiritually intense, and charged with a blend of mortal and immortal love—that is, companionate, romantic marriage that is mediated through a strong religious intuition that there is a higher love to which all phenomena owe the ebb and flow of their temporal existence. This recourse to the rapturous language and the experience of a higher purpose acts as salvific and a means of channeling the sense of abandonment and the natural dissociation that accompanies sudden (traumatic) loss and the grief that follows. In many ways it is unique in that it combines a celebration of domestic love and marriage—usually a Beat anathema—with a wild spiritual yearning, a theme that we associate with Beat writing but not necessarily with Beat writing by women. Vega’s writing is both identifiably Beat and tinged with broader female concerns that were typical of the era.
   The first section of the book is the eponymous “Poems to Fernando,” made up of 16 poems, most of them only one page long—and since the book is one of the City Lights Pocket Book series, a breakthrough design in minimalism that is intended for easy portability, these are very short pages indeed. This section is in turn divided into two parts: The first corresponds roughly to the period in which the couple lived together in Jerusalem and Paris, then apart as Fernando Vega travels to Ibiza while the author stays in Paris; the second, following her husband’s death, traces the author’s disbelief, shock, and compensatory conviction that her husband’s spirit is still alive, dispersed into nature and the cosmos beyond nature. This series is characterized by a delicacy and a sensitivity of spirit and language that resonates with the compact, fragmented, intimate, oblique styles and sensibilities of other modernist women writers such as Emily Dickinson, H. D., Lorrine Niedecker, and even Edna St. Vincent Millay in its focus on the emotional phenomenology of romantic love. This genealogy is not usually associated directly with Beat literature (for example, in standard secondary literature on the Beat phenomenon, Whitman is far more often cited than Dickinson as an immediate forebear) but with movements and tendencies adjacent to it, most of which also overlapped in influence and/or personal association: namely avante-garde high modernism and its most well-known U.S. precursors, the Black Mountain School and objectivism. (However it does resonate with the work of joanne kyger, another spiritually motivated Beat writer.) This first section is the emotional and aesthetic heart of the book.
   The second section, appropriately titled “Other Poems,” turns away from the powerful experiences and emotions associated with erotic love and its sudden end. Instead, it chronicles in looser, longer, and less coherent poems the San Francisco scene of drugs, poetry readings, friends, mentors and liaisons, and the conjunction of higher yearning and loneliness. The latter nexus (of spiritual need and loneliness) is clearly, though not overtly, unfulfilled by the frenetic activity of the “scene.” The shift in tone and focus from the first half of the book to the second enacts a transition from a Dickinsonian orientation to an attempt at Whitmanism, and it is clear where Vega’s fire lies. It is in the interior, the whispered, in the domestic aspect of Bohemianism rather than in public declamation. The volume demonstrates that Vega’s scale is more nuanced and intimate than that of her male counterparts and is less grandiose. Nonetheless, she shares with allen ginsberg, jack kerouac, and others of her cohort a desire to turn the hell of loss or abjection to spiritual grist and seeing the “will” of the “Lord”—or a cosmic pattern—in both the minutiae of closely observed natural detail (inherited from the William Carlos Williams branch of American poetry’s genealogy) and the personal tragedy of complete abandonment. Both the everyday and the catastrophic become vibrantly charged with spiritual possibilities, providing opportunities for the “marriage of Heaven and Hell” (a poem by William Blake whose title spells out a fundamental Beat ethos).
   “Poems to Fernando,” the poem cycle that comprises the first half of the book, is written for—not about—the painter. The poems are immediate and fresh, many taking the form of personal address that is complete with second-person pronouns, and this effect makes the emotion almost unbearably intimate for the reader, who knows what is coming. Their elegiac power comes partially from the innocence with which the poet, not knowing of the impending death of her husband in the first several poems, nonetheless revels in his already almost otherworldly significance to her—a significance that makes it possible for her to survive his loss, as she has already endowed him and their relationship with supernatural powers that transcend time and space. Before his death, she writes:
   in-here is gone forth to meet in-there, &
   we ARE bound below a sound or gesture;
   beneath distance, before time, at the foot of
   silent forest, meet me here, I love you.
   and after:
   For my love with you is deep as the space
   between stars
   & that my song is sung before does not lessen
   its validity;
   I speak to you, always as I would speak before
   or write letters
   to the space between clouds, that patch of
   sky-or the sky deserting me, to that place invisible
   beyond me
   As we follow the poet through her early months of widowhood, we see how her visionary tendencies stand her in good stead, enabling an ongoing reciprocity with her husband whereby they can continue to hear and see each other through their common apprehension of the cosmos both natural and supernatural, physical and metaphysical. Her observations about unpeopled landscapes, while often minimalist and hasty (a glimpse from a moving train window, and so on), indicate that she reads them as profoundly saturated with personality and purpose, conveying a particular message to her. That there is no resolution of this grief in the duration of the book (the second half does not so much document a recovery as redirect the author’s energy) is entirely appropriate to the unfinishedness and fragmentation that are part of the volume’s reality, beauty, and strength.
■ Damon, Maria. “Revelations of Companionate Love, or, the Hurts of Women: Janine Pommy Vega’s Poems to Fernando.” Girls Who Wore Black: Women Writing the Beat Generation, edited by Ronna C. Johnson and Nancy M. Grace. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2002. 205–226.
■ Vega, Janine Pommy. Tracking the Serpent: Journeys to Four Continents. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1997.
   Maria Damon

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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