Andrés Cerpa’s Bicycle in a Ransacked City: An Elegy
By Bess Cooley
March 30, 2020
Bicycle in a Ransacked City: An Elegy by Andrés Cerpa
2019, Alice James Books
Paperback, 100 pages, $15.95
In a book called Bicycle in a Ransacked City: An Elegy, you’d be forgiven for wondering whether the work is an elegy for the city, a bicycle, or a person unmentioned in the title. And in many ways, it’s an elegy for all of these, for everything the collection contains and for the rest of the world, too. The titular bicycle appears as the final, literal image of the book. A photograph previously mentioned in the poems appears as a period, a finale. The speaker’s father is turned, walking away from the camera, pulling a bicycle next to him down a park-like path, surrounded by trees. We get the caption, “Heriberto Cerpa, PhD. August 12th 1956 – March 5th 2017,” a near-obituary for a father we learn—only in the penultimate poem—has been dying of Parkinson’s for longer than the length of the collection. Certainly, we know throughout that a father is dying, as this book is one long lament for him, one long howl for both the ill father and the sometimes-caregiver son and all he has to grapple with. But it’s not until that second-to-last poem, “Notebook: The Kairos in Chronos,” that we know “the Parkinson’s [is] like birth & death in each season. Each season in a day. He [the father] cracks jokes, stares, & I hold his shoulder.” We don’t get the name of the illness until it’s almost over. We don’t get the photograph of the father until the book is done. We are allowed a more universal take on grief, then, for a book that is about the process more than a diagnosis or death.
So Bicycle in a Ransacked City is more than an elegy for a father dying of Parkinson’s Disease. It’s also a bodily manifestation of a son thinking about that illness constantly, and considering its legacy in his body, seen in moments like: “I wanted to choose // my own life. My body over his. Not my body for his” and “All that I am heir to: hubcaps, carbon, / cardboard & pavement, my father’s body.” We see a responsibility here, an ownership over the ill man, but also a fear, that the speaker’s body will be conflated with the father’s, either someday soon (there is some indication that a few cases of Parkinson’s may be genetic) or that it already has been, as son, as caregiver. Emotionally, the speaker here is tied to his father. Cerpa ensures readers feel that constant heartache in the back of the mind: my father is ill, my father is ill, doesn’t let us forget it even when he isn’t writing about it specifically. It’s that kind of relentlessness coupled with a tenderness for the speaker’s father and for his city—for the seasons and trees and traffic—that make this collection stand out, and that makes readers feel like we get to become part of its sadness and its acceptance.
Many of these poems are aware of that city, the world, weather—it’s often winter, and three poems anchoring the collection are called “Seasonal without Spring.” But even that world, that city, is connected to the speaker’s father since he is the one who infuses the place with emotion—with love and joy, with melancholy and the feeling of loss. The city is the father’s city and, much like that bicycle, it takes on a longing quality here reminiscent of the father’s youthful days, as well as the speaker’s. The title itself emphasizes the city—the Bronx—a “ransacked” city because the place the poems inhabit is no longer the way it used to be. When we hear ransacked we think broken, stolen, ruined, demolished, damaged, forced to be this way by outside parties, and in some ways the book proves the ransacked city and the body ransacked with a foreign illness are the same. We see this from the very beginning, the second poem, “Portrait & Shadow,” where the city and the father are immediately combined: “If he [the father] emerges it is only to watch but not to enter the burning city & Self he still loves.” Cerpa’s speaker shows great tenderness for the city here, in part because it is his father’s city, a father he “hold[s] onto in order to care for his shadow” and who “never gets old,” who “rises each morning & lifts me onto the back of his bicycle, he pedals while I glide above the city in wonder.” So that tenderness, that love, that wonder shows its face throughout this collection, often in surprising moments.
In a book about bicycles, the Bronx, a father’s illness and death, a son’s trouble coming to terms with that illness and how that coming to terms permeates the rest of his life, his relationships, how he sees the world, this collection truly contains multitudes. The images repeat, muddle, become confused, much like Parkinson’s Disease itself, a degenerative neurological disorder (as Cerpa describes it in “Portrait & Shadow,” “My father waits in the dark taking apart what is left of his former selves, like a pianist, drunk at the keys, playing the same four notes”). But there are threads holding the collection together, essentially for the reader’s sake and, I suspect, the speaker’s.
Bicycle in a Ransacked City includes ten poems titled “Notebook: The Kairos in Chronos.” Judging by the table of contents where none of these repeated poems are listed, they serve as section breaks. A repetitive breath between sections in any other book might be a way to pause, to stop and consider all that has happened, all that the book has included. Not for Cerpa. If anything, what are supposed to be breaks are the most intense poems in the collection, with moments like, “Outside the Village Vanguard I watched myself punch through the window of a taxi & walk away,” “the way a slow day of drinking can unclutter the mind / but clutter the room,” “after a night of self sabotage, a determination to obliterate the day, / I woke in a thin sheet,” and “like a coat on a barstool— / I am watching, / because watching’s what’s left.” Not at all breaths of fresh air, these poems allude to the speaker at his worst in many ways, the toll life—his life, his father’s life—has taken on him. During a break, the speaker turns in on himself, turns on himself, and it seems he doesn’t much like what he finds there. And this is the real stuff of the book, isn’t it? The real experience of how living close to someone with a serious, drawn-out illness can make us crazy, can make us want to run away.
Visually, these “Notebook” poems are set on a background of crumpled paper, showing the act of writing itself, admitting the shape of the poem. Again, we have the supposed break here acting as the opposite, not letting us breathe as the speaker is not allowed to breathe. Before each new section, a page that physically brings to mind a mistake, a crumpling, then an unfolding, a desire to smooth it all out, the crinkles in the page still visible. The shape of the lines, too, are far less traditionally structured than much of the book. The long, double-spaced lines look almost haphazard, as if the speaker finally, in his notebook, can be less intentional, less bound to couplets or tercets, or even to the few long, blocky one-stanza poems. For this speaker—for anyone close to a family member with a chronic illness, particularly one that affects the brain as Parkinson’s does—that crumpled and smoothed-out paper, the lines that in many ways match an emotional and neurological breaking-down is the only breath he gets.
Only one other poem title repeats, and not nearly as often: “Seasonal without Spring” poems. There are three (autumn, winter, summer), true to their names, and this other thread that leads us through the collection functions mostly opposite to the “Kairos in Chronos” poems: they look out. And, often, back. “Autumn” is the poem in which we first learn of that photograph of the father with his bike, and when we go back to a child speaker getting ready for school, already dealing with an ailing father who “became distant with disease the way a boy falls beneath the ice, before the men that cannot save him.” The seasonals are filled with woodpeckers, with sky, handball courts, dusk, the varying lights of the city. But no spring, no regrowth, no what was lost coming back. This outside environment remains the father’s Bronx, which “he can never return to, where his youth is held in the thin frame of a bicycle // as it cuts through a billow of smoke. The city burned each night and each morning he rose to ride through the rubble.” Cerpa rises over and over again in this book to tackle that rubble, to take it on, pick it up, and, difficult as it is, to look through it.
BESS COOLEY won the 2017 Mississippi Review Poetry Prize, and her work has also appeared or is forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, the Journal, Verse Daily, and Forklift, Ohio, among other journals. Her book reviews can be found online at Kenyon Review, Electric Literature, and Sycamore Review. A graduate of Knox College and the MFA program at Purdue University, she lives in Knoxville and teaches at the University of Tennessee, where she is also managing editor of online content for Grist, an editorial reader at Spry, and co-founding editor of Peatsmoke.