A restless migrant gets ensnared in the war on terror in this labyrinthine poem cycle.
Bannowsky’s poems follow the misadventures of Jacobo Males Bitar, the illegitimate son of an immigrant Lebanese spa owner in Ecuador and his Native Ecuadorian accountant. Born in 1985, Jacobo becomes steeped in his mother’s Inca folk traditions and the lore of his father’s far-flung Maronite Catholic clan. True to his immigrant heritage, Jacobo embarks on his own international picaresque when, entranced by the idea of America, he goes to Delaware on a work visa in 2005 and gets a series of cruddy jobs. After he loses his passport, he’s arrested in an Immigration and Customs Enforcement raid and deported to Lebanon, a country he has never seen. There, he’s taken in by Muhammad Abu Barghouti Hamoudi, a Palestinian whose family lives in a refugee camp. Using money earned by smuggling hashish, Jacobo and Hamoudi get forged Turkish passports and leave Beirut during the Israel-Hezbollah War of 2006. Jacobo winds up in Istanbul, where he is kidnapped, handed over to United States intelligence officials, falsely charged with being a terrorist, and flown to Guantánamo Bay. Intertwined with his travails are poetic sketches of other characters, including his father, Elías; Olga Fisch, a Hungarian Jewish woman who left Europe in the 1930s and opened an Indigenous arts-and-crafts shop in Quito; Lawrence Wells, a U.S. special forces officer whose path repeatedly crosses Jacobo’s; and Leila, a Black American woman who shares a brief romance with the protagonist. Other poems digress into deep history. One explores an effort by the seventh-century Byzantine Emperor Constans II to stamp out theological controversies.
Bannowsky makes Jacobo a modern, global Everyman, adrift with other migrant strivers in a world that seems bent on either exploiting or scapegoating him. Yet Jacobo isn’t isolated. He and other wanderers stay tethered to a remembered past while they search for uncertain opportunities and new relationships—the very essence of the human condition from its ancient beginnings, the author suggests. (“Every Maronite shows haplotype J2, / the gene that presents in all Phoenicia’s costal colonies,” Elías boasts. “Thus, from a hundred streams, / we bear the traits of our great ancestors.”) Bannowsky’s characters explore these themes in a profusion of distinctive voices, from the stolid bureaucratese of Jacobo’s Guantánamo interrogators—“History of anxiety and depression: bi-polar symptoms including delusions of being a U.S. Citizen, an American Indian, or an ‘Otavalo from Ecuador’—to Leila’s wary rap soliloquy. (“Whatchu know about my people; / watchu know about the street? / You see a pusher for a preacher / and a hustler for a teacher / in every brother that you meet?”) The author’s poetry mixes quirky erudition with perfectly pitched demotic speech that jumbles street slang with pop genetics and doughnut recipes. His verse captures even a poultry plant with an evocative lyricism (“Like a lone star in the manurey firmament that was / the warehouse, a single light bulb shown / on thousands of white chickens across a sea of dark dirt; they / roiled softly like expiring foam, / clucking mild reproaches at our approach”). The result is an entertaining, soulful verse tale of people trying to find their places in the world.
An engrossing, lushly written, sometimes bleak, but often exuberant meditation on human connectedness.