The White Islands / Las Islas Blancas

Mar­jorie Agosín; Jacque­line Nan­fi­to, trans.
  • Review
By – October 29, 2018

There is some­thing more than place that defines home. Explor­ers know this. Expa­tri­ates know this. Refugees of reli­gious per­se­cu­tion, war, and nat­ur­al dis­as­ters also know this to be true. Each new land to which the dis­placed arrive intro­duces new tra­di­tions, lan­guages, smells and tastes, to the exiled.

In The White Islands,Agosín envi­sions her spir­i­tu­al Sephardic ances­tors as a sis­ter­hood of shared prayers that coa­lesce to add a col­or to the poet­ic can­vas­es and quick­ly dis­si­pate, only to reap­pear with anoth­er brush­stroke. These poems cre­ate a feel­ing in the read­er of a lost but hope­ful sailor who moves clos­er to a new home island just to have her ship drift away into a sud­den fog. The poet­ic sequences are best read straight through, pro­duc­ing a choral effect.

Some of the best metaphors in the col­lec­tion com­pare mem­o­ry to the sense of smell, giv­ing the work a dreamy, even heady qual­i­ty. The beau­ti­ful olfac­to­ry details of anise, wine, jas­mine, cracked pome­gran­ate, mint, and hon­ey place this book in the edenic islands of the Mediterranean.

The col­lec­tion has a few arrest­ing moments that high­light its focus on Jew­ish iden­ti­ty and con­scious­ness. Two vers­es in the book’s sec­ond sequence, Oro’s Keys, strike as par­tic­u­lar­ly haunt­ing. From the poem I saw them pass by,”: Sit­ting incred­u­lous on the banks of the river/​They were the chil­dren of so many wars/​And they con­gre­gat­ed in lost dominions/​An orphan­age in silence.” The poem The silence enshrouds your face” ends, And you tell him about the white islands/​About the night in Rhodes with the wind galloping/​The Jews in the ves­sels of death.” This dread of a break­down in hered­i­tary com­mu­ni­ca­tion and of fun­da­men­tal sur­vival feels per­pet­u­al­ly contemporary.

In an inter­view with the jour­nal Black­bird, Agosín, who has a com­plex famil­ial his­to­ry of exile her­self, explains, I don’t feel that I belong, which is very good for a poet, to feel like a stranger.” This col­lec­tion allows the read­er to take on that feel­ing of being a stranger, open­ing the reader’s mind to that of the poet her­self. This trans­fer­able numi­nous­ness makes for pow­er­ful, open work. Ulti­mate­ly, these poems are prayers, arch­i­pel­ag­ic, of remem­brance — and prayers for a new home, shin­ing white, found at sea.

Austin Sanchez-Moran is a poet and teacher who received his MFA from George Mason Uni­ver­si­ty, and now teach­es high school Eng­lish in West­ern Maine.

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