REVIEW by Desi Tsvetkova

NWR Issue r36

Hey Bert

by Roberto Pastore

In 2019, Roberto Pastore published his first poetry collection, entitled Hey Bert. There’s a beautiful toucan illustrated on the cover, standing atop a palm tree, no doubt admiring its own vibrant tropical colours. The back cover blurb promises the reader a spectacular journey through different mediums of poetry, comparable to names like John Giorno, Anne Waldman, and Julia Heyward..

From the Contents page, we learn that the collection is divided into three parts – ‘Throat’, ‘Belly’, and ‘Heart’. At first glance, these are simply anatomical parts of the body; however, as Pastore himself states in an interview with publishers Parthian – they are ‘parts of the body that our culture attaches certain qualities or expectations to.’ He does not say much after that, stating he wants to leave their significance for the reader to interpret.

The first poem, ‘Salutation’ immediately made me feel at home. However, while the title might suggest a salutation to a new day, the poem itself is laced with a tension that most of us have felt throughout our lives – a feeling of anxiety that goes deep down to the bone, making us numb:

You might notice a sensation
in the tips of your fingers, you might hear
a faint buzzing. It might be coming from somewhere far
away, or very near.

The poem, however, ends on a relatively positive note, which tells the reader that it’s OK to feel that tension sometimes, but not let it in so completely that it ruins whatever awaits you. It is a strong beginning to a promising collection, immediately indicating the emotional impact of the poems.

The first part is heavily rooted in the past, bringing a sense of unveiled intimacy as we glimpse the poet’s mind. Pastore attaches many geographical pins on this map of his past, in particular using street names, such as in ‘Grasmere Way’ and ‘that Scotch Street fog’ in ‘The Incoming’. These references ground the poems, giving them a personal touch, connecting the author and the reader through specifics.

‘Past Extends’ is almost an Orpheic journey of attempting (and failing) to resist the urge to look back at the past. This is that temptation to go back to one’s old self, while desperately trying to drag the present through the treacherous tunnels of Hades. The poem ends on a particularly powerful note:

the past’s a tightrope
so find your centre of gravity
your own centre of gravity, got it, biped?
everything behind you is inert
everything behind you is no longer yours

The ‘Belly’ section continues the experimentality of the poetry from ‘Throat’, and builds upon it through a sense of mysticism and spirituality. ‘New Boy’, in particular, displays this section’s themes of time and memory, exploring how the fluidity of these concepts can be manipulated by a false sense of remembrance. Although I did struggle with this part of the collection, due to it being significantly preoccupied with the subconscious, nevertheless, ‘The Contents Of a Human Body’ resonated in its deep emotional complexity:

my father taught me silence
I’ll never see my father again, probably
I’ll never see my father again

It begins on a hesitant note, which the author quickly tries to reaffirm into something more tangible, yet as the poem progresses, a more impalpable sense of probability creeps in again – evidence of the complex feelings towards his father figure. There is love, but there is also resentment, perhaps even guilt. It’s a complicated spectrum; one which the author is trying to come to terms with.

The ‘Heart’ is a part of the present, more deeply rooted in the now than any of the other poems. The author is learning from his past instead of letting it devour him. He is in recovery. Now, there is joy in the present, regardless of struggles:

These periods of flatness are okay, I entrust them,
I too am an experiment in living, and kindness. I know
what’s in the basement, I love everything above and below.
Never again will I refute joy. Never again will my heart be a
a mechanical claw in a lonely arcade.

The image that arises in my mind when reading the ‘Throat’ section is of something lodged in one’s throat that will not go away, no matter how many times one tries to cough it up. ‘Belly’, meanwhile, is involves the subconscious attempt to make sense of trauma; much like chewed up food, the poems here need to be chewed and digested. ‘Heart’ embraces that past, letting it become a part of the future; these poems are the veins that pump love into that emotional chamber.

Hey Bert is a powerful blend of the past and the present, of one’s journey through the dark tunnels of trauma.

Desi Tsvetkova is this season’s reviewer-in-residence, in a new partnership with Swansea University’s College of Arts and Humanities.


previous review: Lost
next review: The Nightingale Silenced and Other Late Unpublished Writings


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