I am Half Costa Rican and Half Not

By  |  December 4, 2017
Paraíso by Jacob Shores-Argüello is out now from University of Arkansas Press Paraíso by Jacob Shores-Argüello is out now from University of Arkansas Press

Paraíso: Poems by Jacob Shores-Argüello
University of Arkansas Press, December 1, 2017


From “Paradise City” by Guns N’ Roses to John Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” the idea of a heaven and its loss has enticed poets and writers for centuries. Jacob Shores-Argüello’s Paraíso, which was selected by Aracelis Girmay for the inaugural CantoMundo Poetry Series Prize, and was released last week, offers a contemporary epic of one man’s journey to the hell of loss and back—an elegy for the poet’s mother and sense of home.

From the onset, Paraíso asks the reader to take a trip with the poet. Shores-Argüello, who grew up between the American South and his mother’s homeland in Costa Rica, journeys on buses through Nicaragua, to beaches in Panama, the cloud forests. A game is needed to get to know each other. To pass the time. And so the book begins with poems adapted into the form of game rules.

Although the journey of this book is more fraught than a cloud forest, it is more magical, too. The games we play become the way the poems tell their stories, the way they love and grieve. These games help reader and poet get to know each other, while also introducing other urgent relationships between country and self, mother and son, the living and the dead.

In the book’s first poem, “Joke. Fact. Anecdote,” the poet tells of an exchange with an uncle who believes the poet is:

… half Costa Rican and half not, that I
wouldn’t know where to run when shit goes down. I think
that’s the reason I like to play games. It’s important to make
little connections with anyone you can.

This is our first indication that the poet is awakening to his sense of paradise. The poet’s homeland and his mother’s homeland are at odds; he finds refuge in the company of people. 

The game poems also provide the poet’s backstory. In “Joke. Fact. Anecdote,” “There is no winner. You just go back and forth. It is only for playing, for being together.” But more importantly, it creates a circumstance for the poet to reveal private memories.

                                                  ….I guess my mother was
where I’d go when “shit went down.”
….The country I had was her.

Example Anecdote if the category is Mothers:

She had stomach cancer. Not for long, though; you
can’t have it for too long. Sometimes the nurses didn’t
let me in to see her. They thought I was in the wrong
hospital. Maybe I should try Hospital La Catolica in
San José, where the American retirees can afford to die.

Through Shores-Argüello’s slant technique for narrative, we begin to understand his relationship to the living and the dead.

Other poems, though, take more traditional forms. Writing in a simplified language reminiscent of Jack Gilbert’s, these poems complete the pilgrimage through Costa Rica’s agrarian culture, through the poet’s understanding of the sacred and profane.

The second section begins as a hummingbird finds its way “through a crack in the bus window.” The bird becomes “the Holy Spirit above our heads.” The poet is enchanted by this daily life, which is both intimate and foreign to him, and it brings his mother close. As readers travel through a village observing an Easter parade, through lush mountainous roads, they traverse the countryside as the bus bends “branches / through our windows and steal níspero, / water apple, giant milk-hearted guanábana.” The beauty of Shores-Argüello’s Costa Rica is inescapable; it even finds its way into the bus. But idealizations are short-lived. In the world of Paraíso, the feeling is ever present that any experience could be a dream.

When the poet catches a glimpse of North Americans aboard the bus, the dream state dissipates. In poems like “Cerro de la Muerte,” Shores-Argüello also works in the inverse, asking the dream to wake, the sacred to become profane, as his grief transitions. He watches “North Americans on the bus / (who) are frightened by our grease and gluttony.” As the poet shifts the people to whom he belongs, paradise is made and remade, as is hell.

In section three, Funeral Rites, we move even closer to the risks inherent to grief. Now that his mother is gone, Costa Rica has changed. The poet now understands that “Everything is not / perfect, but everything is prayer.”

The poet is “half Costa Rican and half not” as his uncle said earlier, but either half does not take away or diminish the other, both are needed. By the end of Funeral Rites the poet comes to terms with his uncle’s declaration from the opening section. At the end of the day, the poet stands at the top of a volcanic hill overlooking the sea,

in the blue distance, and we open our rum
and drink so long that we forget ourselves,
and remember ourselves again.

To transgress the painful moments of loss, we must wake from the dream to continue living.

A lesser poet would have ended the collection there. The first three sections of Paraíso are about the poet’s two halves trying to come together—the past and the present—and they do. But it is in the next and final section, Magical-Rationalism, where Shores-Argüello's imagination blooms by taking up the lessons learned as lamps, shining light on what is new. Filled with witches and healers, these poems take the form of instructions for confronting the past to overcome loss. With the use of an herbal remedy, the needed conjuring occurs. A healer prepares the elixir and says,

Ask your paradise-tied dead to stand in between you and
your pain. Remember, you must remind them what hurt is.
Grief is a medicine that the dead don’t need. Speak slowly
to them.

As the series editor’s preface notes, “these lines and everywhere in his poetry, he conveys a reverence for the wounded and for the pilgrimages we undertake in search of healing.” It is in this section Paraíso becomes an everyman’s journey.

In W.D. Snodgrass’s Heart’s Needle (1959), Snodgrass established a new role for dreams in contemporary American poetry. The speaker observes the world around him saying “it must recall some old film, lit by lives you want to touch; as if [you’d] slept and must have dreamt this setting, peopled it, and wakened out of it.” Snodgrass’s projection, now famous in its Confessional powers, is a way for the poet to distance himself from the overwhelming subject of self.

In Paraíso, Shores-Argüello transforms Snodgrass’s achievement. Through the scrim of the foreign and the known, Shores-Argüello explores the state in which we are simultaneously awake and dreaming, the grief-state in which we both misplace and find ourselves. Paraíso is a masterful reopening of that ancient mythos of paradise lost and regained, just in time for the 21st century. 

Read “Ghost Story” by Jacob Shores-Argüello from the Fall 2017 issue.


Ruben Quesada is a poet, editor, and translator. His writing and media have been featured at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Poetry Foundation, PloughsharesTriQuarterly, the American Poetry ReviewSouthern Humanities Review, and elsewhere.