Analysis of Poem "The Latin Deli: An Ars Poetica" by Judith Ortiz Cofer

Updated on June 7, 2018
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Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Judith Ortiz Cofer
Judith Ortiz Cofer | Source

Judith Ortiz Cofer and The Latin Deli: An Ars Poetica

The Latin Deli: An Ars Poetica is a poem that neatly sums up the plight of the latin American immigrant, so often pilloried and misunderstood, but here treated with sympathy and understanding.

  • By focusing on a deli - a shop selling food and other items - and its owner, a strong and resourceful mother figure, the poet has set up a familiar scene but what is unusual is that the speaker brings an objective, impersonal viewpoint, the narrative is distanced, 3rd person. There is no 'I', no personal involvement.
  • Throughout the poem there is a constant referral back to this central figure, the Patroness of Exiles, the motif being that of communication. She listens, she serves, she brings meaning simply by being herself.

So the deli becomes a kind of walk-in poem, hence the Ars Poetica in the title, which means 'the art of poetry' - the people who frequent this establishment are an integral part of this poetic world.

  • There may be different nationalities in the deli - Cubans, Puerto Ricans and so on - but they are all seen as one people by the maternal owner, their common sharing that of homesickness. They all seek solace through contact with food, language and memories of their former home.

Judith Ortiz Cofer knew this world very well. Born in Puerto Rico in 1952 she moved with her family to the USA when a child and grew up in the state of Georgia, eventually becoming a professor at the University of Georgia.

She wrote novels and poetry books exploring the inner worlds of those who were caught between cultures, Latino/Latina Americans searching for a true identity. She especially concentrated on the experiences of females (Latinas) who she believed were unjustly oppressed.

The Latin Deli: An Ars Poetica was first published in 1992 in the Americas Review and was a part of her book The Latin Deli, published in 1993.

The Latin Deli: An Ars Poetica


Presiding over a formica counter,
plastic Mother and Child magnetized
to the top of an ancient register,
the heady mix of smells from the open bins
of dried codfish, the green plantains
hanging in stalks like votive offerings,
she is the Patroness of Exiles,
a woman of no-age who was never pretty,
who spends her days selling canned memories
while listening to the Puerto Ricans complain
that it would be cheaper to fly to San Juan
than to buy a pound of Bustelo coffee here,
and to Cubans perfecting their speech
of a "glorious return" to Havana--where no one
has been allowed to die and nothing to change until then;
to Mexicans who pass through, talking lyrically
of dólares to be made in El Norte--

all wanting the comfort
of spoken Spanish, to gaze upon the family portrait
of her plain wide face, her ample bosom
resting on her plump arms, her look of maternal interest
as they speak to her and each other
of their dreams and their disillusions--
how she smiles understanding,
when they walk down the narrow aisles of her store
reading the labels of packages aloud, as if
they were the names of lost lovers; Suspiros,
Merengues, the stale candy of everyone's childhood.

She spends her days
slicing jamón y queso and wrapping it in wax paper
tied with string: plain ham and cheese
that would cost less at the A&P, but it would not satisfy
the hunger of the fragile old man lost in the folds
of his winter coat, who brings her lists of items
that he reads to her like poetry, or the others,
whose needs she must divine, conjuring up products
from places that now exist only in their hearts--
closed ports she must trade with.

Analysis of The Latin Deli: An Ars Poetica

The Latin Deli: An Ars Poetica is full of vivid imagery and everyday observation. The main theme is that of the uprooting of the immigrant, the latin American with roots in the 'old world' but with a life in the new - the USA.

These immigrants visit the shop to keep in touch with their pasts and to chat with the hostess, who gets to know their emotional dreams and fears, as well as slicing off some ham and cheese for bodily nourishment.

It has lines full of ordinary description and lines with figurative language. There are food items for sale plus memories which come in a can. The synthetic mixes with the natural, as does Spanish with English and the past with the future.

Basically, it combines a fixed biography with the restless world of those not yet assimilated in the new culture, everything seen through the eyes of the Patroness of Exiles.

  • This objective narrative gives the poem a broader context, the speaker is able to commentate, much like in a novel or piece of fiction, seeing life at a distance yet avoiding mere opinion.

So it is that the immigrants are tolerated, welcomed, understood and given sustenance. The Patroness has probably been in a similar situation herself and so puts up with all the gripes and groans, the idiosyncracies and the swing between dream and disappointment.

In a way she is like the Statue of Liberty, welcoming the needy with an open heart and mind, turning no-one away.

  • She mediates between those who long for a return to their homeland but who must find a way of making a living in the new world. She understands the nostalgic grip the past can have on the heart, yet she must somehow do business in the here and now - with those metaphorical closed ports.

So, by creating this world where real life meets poetry - on a customer's list of items - the speaker is able to come to terms with the struggle the shoppers have to gain a sense of identity.

The goods for sale in the deli help them achieve this. The food and candy help restore the self, give consolation and reassurance. It's up to the Patroness to discover just what each of them needs; she gives more than just value for money, she is a magician for these migrants, she mothers them and restores something to their souls.

More Analysis of The Latin deli: An Ars Poetica

The Latin Deli: An Ars Poetica is a free verse poem of three stanzas, making a total of 38 lines of varying length.

There is no set rhyme scheme or regular meter (metre in British English). This loose arrangement means that stresses vary from line to line and no consistent rhythm exists.

On the page the poem resembles three paragraphs, somewhat like a newspaper article.

Alliteration

There are several examples:

Mother...magnetized

woman...who was

Spends...selling

spoken Spanish

dreams...disillusions

lost lovers.

Language (diction)

The poem is set in the present, bringing the reader directly into the deli and the Patroness with active participles such as:

Presiding/selling/listening/resting/understanding/slicing/wrapping/conjuring.

And note these terms which reflect the longing in some of the shoppers:

selling canned memories/glorious return/perfecting their speech/wanting the comfort of/their dreams and disillusions/the names of lost lovers/reads to her like poetry/exist only in their hearts.

The mix of Spanish with English:

dólares (dollars)

El Norte (the north)

Suspiros

Merengues

jamón y queso (ham and cheese)

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    © 2018 Andrew Spacey

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