Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Poem366: “Present Values” by José Edmundo Ocampo Reyes

Present Values by José Edmundo Ocampo Reyes

Present Values by José Edmundo Ocampo Reyes, Durham, North Carolina: Backbone Press, 2018

Reading José Edmundo Ocampo Reyes’ work reinforces on a gut level something that all reasoning people understand, and that is that exposure to diverse voices matters.

Reyes, who was born and raised in the Philippines, offers a clear-eyed cultural critique of the U.S., and elements from his first country pop up in images and linguistic artifacts; at one point he casts a skewed version of “The Lord’s Prayer” in Tagalog, to remarkable effect.

But this writer also offers diversity through his perspective. No bio I can find backs up this supposition, but I think he comes from a background in finance or economics. The title of the book, explained in the front, is a financial term; “present value,” the Oxford English Dictionary tells us, is “the current monetary value of a future payment or series of payments,” or, more specifically, “the present sum of money that will equal this when the income that the sum will generate and inflation are taken into account.”

I should probably be embarrassed to admit this, in a book review, of all places, but I can’t really make sense of that definition. I have a bit of a block when it comes to financial matters, and I feel flummoxed when I try to sort these matters out. What I take from the definition is that the financial term “present value” refers to the worth of something when we factor in its history (what it cost) and its future (how it will appreciate or depreciate).

That feels like a potent metaphor to me, but it’s also an unusual one. Most poets aren’t talking about money. (Despite my misgivings about the topic, I actually write about money all the time, as a way of coping with my discomfort or fear — but I have noticed that very few poets are willing to touch this fraught and complicated topic.)

And the poetic currencies found in this chapbook somewhat resemble the change jar I keep on my kitchen counter. Reyes offers so many different looks, including a ghazal, a sonnet, a villanelle — and this last offering imitates an important Filipino poet José Garcia Villa by including a comma after every word. My change jar is pretty picked over — completely empty of quarters, which are useful at the laundromat, but with the odd international coin settled at the bottom, designating pesos or drams or yuans.

The poem “Present Values,” coming near the end of its eponymous collection, shows the money-minded poet at his most complex and interesting:

From their towers
little gods wage wars,

deploying their red currencies.

                              Couched in possession,

each retort enlarges a world,
constricts another’s.

Reyes unflinchingly examines capitalistic values in this collection, and he finds them wanting. We all knew this, but he lays the evidence bare like a prosecutor:

Arbitrageur, hand poised
to level his skewed

balance; Speculator,
eyes wholly invested in the future.

Finance comes down to a matter of perspective, it would seem — and wars have been started over less.

Of course, when reading about another culture, there are sometimes delightful tidbits, too, like in “Boondocks”:

To show our appreciation for your gift
of language, we’d like to offer you one word
of our own, bundók, which means “mountain.”

In the context of Reyes’ poetry, we are reminded that money, too, is a kind of currency, its value set by the powerful.

While much of Reyes’ work is simply fascinating for the quality of its information, I can’t believe I’ve gotten this far in without specifically praising the quality of his verse. I have a giant poetry crush on his vivid, precise, and frequently unusual vocabulary, and he has an intuitive sense of form, each line working beautifully as line, with the received forms perfectly chosen and occurring very naturally among its sisters in the collection.

But my favorite part of Reyes’ writing is his knock-your-socks-off imagery. In “Jardin des Plantes” is the very pinnacle of this feature, as Reyes describes two gulls fighting over a sparrow, which they ultimately pull apart, with the losing gull (I picture a short end of a wishbone kind of scenario) walking away and the winning bird feasting:

                  When he fishes out the intestine,
like a magician pulling from his pocket a braid of handkerchiefs,
those who have been watching cannot help
but cheer and applaud, even the schoolchildren.

“Like a magician.” Yeah, that works. And there is magic on every page of this excellent volume.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Get help for all your financial problems. Contact Union Solutions to access a wide range of loan facilities. Contact for more information: whats-App +918929509036 Dr James Eric Finance Pvt Ltd Thanks