"A Blanquito in El Barrio" is a parade of fringe urban characters tinged in tropical light (under soot), a borinquen carnival, sexy sometimes, baroque others, festive or nightmarish.
This collection of poems from 1966 through 1969 offers a view of Puerto Rican culture in East Harlem by a white guy (blanquito) from Connecticut, a survey of sixties New York and the drug scene that characterized it, as well as impressions of immigrant life, settled Nuyorica.
The clash of cultures spins sparks over most every page, as in “Reunion,” where an announcement in the doorway that “We are Catholics” contrasts starkly with the commission of adultery beyond its threshold.
The style in “Blanquito” is plainspoken, almost prosodic. There is little that is opaque or requiring contortions of linguistic comprehension. Sometimes this works in poetry, sometimes it doesn't. Here it does, the sparing, but forward-driving narrative possesses the preciousness of verse.
In “Fluteflirting,” the bond between music and sensuality coheres into erotica, without ever employing a hardcore vocabulary:
“He trills at the end of an arpeggio.
Her shoulders shake, nipples harden.
“He flutter-tongues high G.
Her legs tremble, eyes closed.”
The scene between dancer and flautist is literally choreographed through typography, the poet playing at puppeteer. The result is simple and on point, but open-ended rather than pat.
For all his clean lines, sometimes, like a musician who has kept with the beat too long, Fagiani breaks out in a redolent riff, as in “125th St.” where:
“...girls in straw hats wave at me
with mocha tans
and strawberry fingertips."
Music is very important to “Blanquito,” which generates its own and commemorates much of what was heard on El Barrio's streets in those times. It even comes with a discography, the names of bands and song titles themselves a kind of found art: “Soul Makossa,” Manu Dibango. “Boogaloo Blues,” Johnny Colón...
Not that Fagiani's is a candy-striped, timbale-splashed El Barrio. In “Blanquito,” The Spanish Harlem of the time is rendered in an earthy pallet, bruises and all, without repugnance or even detachment, rather with an intimation that what is ugly is also part of the beauty of the whole.
Fagiani is a founding member of the Vito Marcantonio Forum and “A Blanquito in El Barrio” is dedicated to the unjustly forgotten East Harlem congressman.
Litany of San Vito.
San Vito of East Harlem Pray for us
San Vito bread of the poor Pray for us
San Vito crucified by Wall Street Pray for us
San Vito Martyr of McCarthyism Pray for us
From the jail cell walls San Vito deliver us
From the backyard crap game San Vito deliver us
From the loan shark's vig San Vito deliver us
From the drunken stupor San Vito deliver us
From TB and asthma San Vito protect us
From the social worker's visit San Vito protect us
From the immigration raids San Vito protect us
From the landlord's greed San Vito protect us”
Read on its own, the piece's rhythm links the people of El Barrio and their congressman, the kindness he showed them, his secular sanctification and their mutual victimization by the same unforgiving forces.
Seen as part of a larger canvas, the poem serves as a kind of reprise, linking Vito Marcantonio to characters come before in “Blanquito.
In “Cuchifrito,” the blanquito finds himself turned on by the salacious way a puertoriqueña he's casing slurps her greasy native treats.
“La Capitana” recounts a childhood social worker hauling her innocent charges to confront the bureaucrats who have cut their summer program funding.
“First Day in El Barrio” has an Italian cop born there, before it went Puerto Rican, mocking the blanquito and his crusading friends for being heavy on book learning and short on street smarts.
“when he began his barrio beat
he was young and idealistic too
and wanted to help people.
But in no time he learned
that except for a few residents
too scared to say a word
mostly he met backstabbers,
sneaks, junkies, welfare bums,
dope addicts and cutthroats.”
“La Loca,” depicts a straight-playing secretary and mother of three who gets her freak on by hitting some weed and dancing for multiple macho admirers at something called the Hunts Point Plaza.
And there are numerous junkies laying about the streets and alleys of Gil Fagiani's East Harlem, notable among them the “Fashionista” whose journey on junk takes him from dandy to dirtbag.
“Blanquito” dives into an unknown or, worse, ignored world, recuperates the lives of humans treated as something less than human. Without it, the junkies and petty thieves and desperate but honest ones who pass anonymously and without imprint on the collective memory, would be dust.
The book introduces us to the jail cell walls, the backyard crap game, to the druggy stupors so that, by the time San Vito makes his appearance, these are not single-shot sentences, but markers for full-blown characters.
The yarns in “Blanquito” are woven from ecstatic party vibe, lowdown hangovers or overdoses, stories of people who try hard getting the same raw deal as those who don't do. There is fried food, swampy summers streets with the sewer smell rising up, the final goodbye to someone who had it coming, the whole flawed festival of urban immigrant life.
Binding the tales of misery together with a lighthearted filigree is the incessant push of the desperate, confused, or wronged characters to not just live, but to insist on joy. In amplifying their drive, Fagiani infuses his story-in-poems with that same joy.
Portrait of "San Vito" by Roman O'Cadiz