Book Review

In Nicole Cecilia Delgado’s elegant, bilingual collection adjacent islands, readers discover a minimalist world where the sparsity of the languages is key to connecting with nature. Readers are also privy to correspondence between the author and the translator. In this correspondence, the translator offers an insight into the collection’s true essence—how it “tackles the untranslatability of sea and island, of memories poured into the materiality of this book.” Each poem is a brief, imagistic glimpse of something larger: a person, a landscape, a plant, an animal, or a fish—and better than any photograph, Delgado’s words capture not only the image, but also the emotion which accompanies experiencing a place.

adjacent islands is divided into two main sections—“subtropical dry” and “amoná”—with other sections like “NO TRESPASSING” interspersed between them. This structure mirrors something that might escape readers at first—the geography of the Puerto Rican archipelago and the art of survival in a land of military occupation, radical communitarianism, swiftly changing environments, and an intimate return to nature. Thus, each poem, and ultimately each section, become islands which are adjacent to one another, where the speaker finds a new version of themself and a new means of existence.

The section “amoná” is primarily a camping diary in verse. The speaker offers minimalist yet direct daily entries, which offer intimate interactions with nature. For example, in “Day 4” the speaker offers, “We take a break to gaze / down the cliffs.” The speaker descends into a contemplation about place: “Over there in the distance is Puerto Rico. / That place I’m from.” The speaker then continues reflecting on Puerto Rico’s correlation and relevance to the place where they are making this observation. The poem ends succinctly, yet philosophically: “I’m from a place where silence / and wind abound.” In these simple lines, the speaker communicates a sense of futility as well as a recognition of an individual’s smallness amid nature’s timelessness and vastness.

Other poems rely on extreme minimalism. For example, one of the collection’s quiet turning points occurs in “amoná.” The poem consists of only two words— “It’s inevitable.” This segues into a larger, untitled, prosaic entry:

What’s the story of each empty bottle tossed into
the river that reaches the sea and, eventually, the
shore of an island that should never have known
plastic? Whose are the forgotten footsteps of so
many shoe soles washed up here by the high tide?

Here, readers see the inevitable: how humankind’s waste has made its way into paradise and polluted it. Not even the sea’s power can override the damage humanity’s actions have created. The poem’s structure, as well as its reliance on two rhetorical questions, mimic nature’s attempts to erase what humankind has offered the rivers, landscapes, and seas on which it relies. The lines break, mimicking the bottles which flow from one new environment to another, and the enjambment forces the first question into the next. This forcing mirrors the ways humanity has forced nature to bend and break to humanity’s will and not its own.

In the section “subtropical dry,” the speaker again relies on extreme minimalism to counter longer poems. One of the most notable entries reads, “It’s a rare privilege to sleep outside like this.” The speaker’s usage of the word “privilege” implies a recognition that their experience is not one everyone can share. This poem appears next to a slim, five-lined poem which once more examines humankind’s existence in the context of the natural world:

The breadfruit
goes straight into the fire.

Its pulp will be as sweet as Ursa Minor.

When we’re part of the food chain
we pick fruit up along the way.

The speaker’s full recognition of how humankind is actually inseparable from the natural world occurs in the final stanza. When considered in the context of the previous poem and that poem’s reliance on the word “privilege,” the final stanza makes an even more profound statement, particularly about the colonialism experienced by Puerto Rico. Of the Spanish colonies, Puerto Rico is the only to never gain its independence. Its colonial status dates to its “discovery” nearly 530 years ago by European imperialists. Thus, the poem can be read as a metaphor for how historical imperialists occupied, destroyed, and ultimately collected lands and peoples.

At first, adjacent islands reads like a simple, imagistic take on the natural landscapes of one of the globe’s most beautiful and unique regions. However, multiple readings of the text allow readers to make a variety of interpretations and inferences. In these poems, each word matters and holds significant emotional and intellectual weight, and gentle reminders that we must “connect the stone to the star” because “they balance each other / smell and sky.”

About the Reviewer

Nicole Yurcaba (Ukrainian: Нікола Юрцаба) is a Ukrainian-American poet and essayist. Her poems and essays have appeared in the Atlanta Review, the Lindenwood Review, Whiskey Island, Raven Chronicles, Appalachian Heritage, North of Oxford, and many other online and print journals. Nicole holds an MFA in Writing from Lindenwood University. Nicole teaches poetry workshops for Southern New Hampshire University and works as a career counselor for Blue Ridge Community College. She is a guest book reviewer for Sage Cigarettes, Tupelo Quarterly, Colorado Review, and The Southern Review of Books.