The Habit of Buenos Aires
by Lorraine Healey
38 poems/71 pages
A Tebot Bach Book
Small Press Distribution
reviewed by Ed Bennett
When we Americans think of immigration to the New World we invariably picture boatloads of Europeans debarking at Ellis Island. We see the great American melting pot taking in (or, in more than some cases, rejecting) the huddled masses seeking freedom and opportunity. In actuality, more immigrants made the journey to South America, especially the southern Europeans. There were large settlements of Italians in Argentina and Brazil. The preponderance of German names of leaders in Chile and Paraguay is quite evident. When Simon Bolivar began his wars for South American Independence, his second in command was Bernardo O’Higgins. The actual truth of the matter was that there was more opportunity in the US, but there was far less xenophobia in Latin America.
Lorraine Healey’s latest work, “A Habit of Buenos Aires”, is the product of this diaspora to the Southern Hemisphere. She was born in Buenos Aires and is of both Irish and Italian heritage. This collection of poems celebrates this background as well as her passion for her native Buenos Aires. Growing up in the revolutionary culture of Argentina in the 70s and 80s, many of the reflections are starkly honest, even those seen through the eyes of a child. In “March 24, 1976” a child goes to school, noticing that her bus was virtually empty and the streets had far fewer people than usual. She discovers:
“Another empty bus home, our keys
surprising Mom. There was no school.
There’d been a coup.
There’d been a coup.”
The repetition in the last two lines takes this poem beyond a simple narrative. The idea of yet another coup, with the implied silence afterward between mother and daughter is daunting. Even the young children become used to the politics and ensuing abuses that the word implies.
She presents an eyewitness to the Mother’s March for “The Disappeared”, their children who have disappeared because of their opposition to the current junta. The mothers march defiantly for their children missing for years, stating:
“they move in cadences of pain and years
flayed raw by menopause and absence.”
There is a passion in Ms. Healey’s poems yet the language is remarkably calm, reminding us that these people we see ion the news are people she knew and cared about. “The Country I Flee From Daily” gives us some idea about the isolation of the immigrant in another country.
“At night the voices burrow
in my dreams and pluck
my broken heart strings.
They play dirges for the dead.
They cry all night.”
Poems about Buenos Aires make up the first section of the book. This section, “The Years of Sorrow” are drawn from memory but are vivid in their description of the city and the people. Section Two, “Kissing the Cobblestones” revolves around her mother and the insights of a young girl growing up in a complicated world. “My Mother’s Faith” has a very divergent view of the Blessed Virgin than most of the devout.
“ She calls on Our Ladies of Everywhere,
of every place the busy Mary
has ever been known to appear –
another woman stuck to a million chores
for a family scattered
as the stars.
There are sensual poems as well, as in “Getting it Right” where the narrator and her boyfriend learn to work their lips and tongues to perfect
of a first kiss”
Sections Three and Four deal with her Irish and Italian ancestry. Ms. Healy shows us her talent by sketching the Ireland of her father’s people who fled the famine and death of nineteenth century Ireland. The stories of privation handed down to her is so beautifully placed before us in “Great-grandchild of the Famine”
“…Every morning demands
the choice between butter and jam – never
both for a great-grandchild of the Famine.
I have inherited all the confusions
that garnish food
but not a single recipe”
In the fourth and final segment, she returns to Buenos Aires yet seeks to learn about her Italian roots. She learns of them in “On a Visit Home, I Ask My Mother Whereabouts in Emilia –Romana-Italy-Her Grandparents Came From”. She find the answer in the city of Ravenna yet sits down to dinner
“and would tell
Julio about the lime-white dawns of Ravenna,
the honest truth of what never happened. Ever”
This is not a poetic memoir. Yes, the sights and memories of two continents are set before us and are explained in detail. What is different is the compassion for all of the diverse peoples mentions in the poetry. One feels pain for the mothers of the missing, the gentle matriarchy of an Irish cemetery or the joy of someone sharing the deepest of love.
Ms. Healey’s biographical information states that she is the first poet to have received a green card solely on the merits of her work. Evidently, that was several administrations ago.This is a mature work of an accomplished poet with her heart filled with Buenos Aires, a city that grew from her European sensibilities. In the midst of all of the wrongdoing her family endured on two continents, she gives us poetry felled with hope. No, this is not a memoir. It is a love song.