When Life Is Art, Dying Is Simply Not an Option
By DAVID GONZALEZ
Whatever snowy winter grace that fluttered to earth had already deserted
Sedgwick Avenue, where the sidewalk was a slippery gray washboard of ice
Six flights up, Pedro Pietri sat in a room where the hiss of a radiator gave way to warmer thoughts of the islands - in his case, Manhattan and Puerto Rico.
Those two places - one within view across the 207th Street Bridge, the
other just as vivid in his soul - have been his touchstones as a poet chronicling
contradiction of tropical people living in urban wastelands. In the late 1960's, fresh from Vietnam, he enlisted in another battle, this time alongside artists, writers and
activists who resolved the paradox of migration by embracing their identity as Nuyoricans, celebrating their dual existence as both Puerto Ricans and New Yorkers.
Few did that better than Mr. Pietri, who captured the absurdities, the
heartbreak and the hope of his parents' generation in "Puerto Rican Obituary."
An epic elegy for his fellow migrants who turned their backs on their heritage
to chase what he saw as an elusive American dream, it won him international
acclaim and inspired the
Nuyorican cultural movement.
As he produced a nonstop barrage of poems, plays and other performance
pieces, Mr. Pietri helped found and nurture the Nuyorican Poets Cafe on
the Lower East
Side, which remains a mecca for performance poets who had not even been born 31 years ago when he published his meditation on a people's lonely spiritual death.
But now, the poet himself is dying. At least that is what doctors told
him when they said he had inoperable stomach cancer. Mr. Pietri, weeks
shy of 60, has another
opinion, a poetic prerogative shared by those who have dared to dream of a Nuyorican utopia. They have rallied around him, exchanging e-mail messages and staging poetry readings to help him raise much of the $30,000 he needs for holistic treatment in Mexico.
"The hospital gave up, but my friends and family will not let me give
up," he said at his sister's Bronx apartment shortly before he left for
Mexico last week. "Being a
poet can be very complicated and a very lonely experience. We have this attitude that we are the only ones, this misconception. But we are not alone."
Always dressed in black and wearing a floppy applejack cap, Mr. Pietri cut a memorable - if sometimes hard-partying or misunderstood - figure. He called himself El Reverendo, presiding over his Church of Our Lady of the Tomatoes, carrying a briefcase filled with condoms that he tossed out at readings.
Black was as much a political choice as it was a fashion statement for Mr. Pietri, who adopted it after serving with a light-infantry brigade in Vietnam.
"I realized who the real enemy was, and it was not the Vietcong in their
black pajamas, but the mercenaries who invaded their country," he said.
"This is in mourning
for that person who died in Vietnam."
The person he became was a poet, who burst upon the scene in 1973 with the book "Puerto Rican Obituary," a collection that has since been translated into Spanish, Italian and German, even though it is difficult to find a copy in the original English.
The title poem is a dirge for the dashed dreams of Juan, Miguel, Milagros, Olga and Manuel, who never questioned, never complained and died waiting for raises that never came or bickering over who spoke better broken English.
Its power provoked tears and anger among thousands of Puerto Ricans who saw their families in the five. More important, it expressed his credo that to survive in the broken-promise land, they should look at their roots and revel in their culture. Small wonder, it ends on a note of love.
It was, to many, a revelation.
"He captured that social death and the hope that there is recourse to humanity in the Puerto Rican culture that people had cut themselves off from," said Juan Flores, a professor at Hunter College who is helping Mr. Pietri compile an anthology of his work. "It was not just about the poverty, but about the crass materialist culture that leads us all into illusions about ourselves."
Martin Espada, a poet and English professor at the University of Massachusetts,
said "Puerto Rican Obituary" inspired him at a time when washing dishes
looming as a career choice.
"I see him in the tradition of Whitman in that he brought an epic voice
to the Puerto Rican experience," he said. "Some have called it a mock epic,
as if the Puerto
Rican people are not worthy of epic treatment. But the mission of the Puerto Rican writer today is to make the invisible visible. Pedro did that 30 years ago with
'Puerto Rican Obituary.' "
He continued to do so in other volumes like "Traffic Violations" and
plays like "The Masses Are Asses," touching on the absurdities of life
and politics with humor,
intricate wordplay and affection.
"I could have stopped with the 'Obituary,' but creativity does not work
that way," he said. "Once you begin, there is no end. Life is not going
to let you off the hook.
Everything has not been explained yet."
Now he has many collaborators as he strives to define an ever-evolving
community. He knows that some people are worried that Nuyoricans will be
lost in the city's
multinational Latino mix. Not him, especially when he sees young urban writers, like Mariposa or the Welfare Poets, who combine the personal and the political.
"Extinction is not on our agenda," he said. "There is no assimilation for us. It is possible to be on two islands at the same time. That is why we are still here."
Call them relentless or romantic, but many of the people touched by
his words have flocked to poetry readings on the colder of the two islands,
where they have
ponied up donations for Mr. Pietri's alternative treatment, which is not covered by traditional insurance. Some of them have been urging friends in other cities to help.
"I called Puerto Rico, and the person I talked to said, 'You know, he
is going to die from this,' '' said Maria Teresa Fernandez, the poet who
goes by the stage name
Mariposa. "Oh, no, we don't have any time for hopelessness. Hope and action is faith. In the end it is going to be O.K. If it's not O.K., it's not the end."
A few nights ago, a standing-room-only crowd packed the Nuyorican Poets Cafe for the latest benefit reading. The audience was typical Pietri, shattering boundaries and expectations: Poets and fans sat alongside curiosity seekers and even friends from his old Army unit. On stage, a succession of poets paid homage, while Mr. Pietri's 8-year-old son, Speedo, passed around a top hat.
Although Mr. Pietri had already gone to Mexico, he was still a towering presence, as his colleague Adal Maldonado played a short video recorded a few days earlier. On it, the thin man behind black shades spoke in a hoarse voice, once again inhabiting two places at once.
"This is not me," he said. "This is somebody else."
Jokingly, he thanked people for the marijuana they had sent him. But he also vowed, quite seriously, that he would be back among them.
"It's not about psychedelics," he said. "It's about closeness."
There was much to do, and to be done together, said the gentle man who nonetheless refuses to go gently into any night.
"If you ever get sick, don't go to the hospital," he said. "Call your relatives. Call your friends. Call your fellow poets. They will make you feel better."