Review of Notes on the Return to the Island by Bonafide Rojas

i walk into nuyorican café
on calle san francisco
there’s no poets here,
not that i can see
but i can be wrong
it’s salsa saturday
i pick a corner
watch as men
& women dance
defy gravity

i leave the bar
& wander through
the narrow streets
looking for a secret
i left there ten years before
the sun is creeping
the streets are empty
i walked every street
from calle de luna
to paseo de la princesa
to calle norzagaray
i never found the secret
i went back to el morro
& a cafecito y pan
& the sun is running
all over the great lawn
the ocean is brilliant

but the darkness that
consumed el morro
last night will never
leave the black of my eyes.

 From "Saturday Night in Viejo San Juan"

Bonafide Rojas' new book Notes on the Return to the Island is an expansive, at times labyrinthine, yet intimate look at what Puerto Rico means in relation to New York, in relation to its relationship with the U.S., but most of all, in relation to the author himself, who takes the traditional story of returning home, like any good prodigal son, and rips out its bleeding heart to find the underlying motivation for our deepest desires to discover some semblance of an unattainable home. His book does not shy away from uncomfortable subjects or answers to its myriad of questions: whether they be centered on capitalism, colonialism, racism, displacement, loneliness, or poverty.

But Rojas' biggest concern is Puerto Rico's relationship to the U.S., and teaching his son the importance of independence for his people. At times he appears hopeless when talking about independence, as in "Remember" when a friend tells a child:

"a child rubs up
& tells our friend
i want to be you
when i grow up
they respond  
                     there is no glory
                     in fighting for liberation
                     unless the island is free,
                     most of us will be
                     arrested & some
                     will get killed
the child runs away crying"

But after his long journey of self examination, wandering the streets of New York and San Juan, traversing the Atlantic to the Caribbean and back again, and delving into the deep recesses of his conflicted heart and mind, he still finds a path to hope, in his sprawling coda "In the Mourning of Our Independence" he lists a long litany of abuses and crimes committed against the Puerto Rican people, ending with:

"those who have died
can’t tell their story
but we are not dead
we are here
right now
             living puerto rico
             being puerto rico
             loving puerto rico
             pa’que lo sepas"

Rojas is a poet of uncommon skill and uncompromising strength of vision. His words paint worlds and break hearts, and never once is he not in control. Notes on the Return to the Island is as much a literary kin to Pedro Pietri as it is to Luis Llorens Torres, because whether a boricua is in New York or San Juan, or anywhere else, Borikén lives within the souls of its people.