Andres Cerpa’s first collection of poetry is intense and devastating. Titled “Bicycle in a Ransacked City: An Elegy,” the collection has much to elegize: a father, a place, a family, a childhood. Always at the center of the ruminating, confessional poems is Cerpa himself, a young poet from Staten Island who is forced to care for his ill father, while dealing with drug abuse and depression as he enters adulthood. Cerpa’s voice is reminiscent of an adolescent Sylvia Plath writing Rainer Maria Rilke poems. To read this collection is to step into Cerpa’s mind — to enter a ransacked world, bleak yet beautiful.
In the final line of the collection, Cerpa writes, “I have learned the world’s secret: that all is lost, even the losing.” Much is lost in “Bicycle in a Ransacked City.” Most visible, however, is the loss of Cerpa’s father, who developed Parkinson’s disease at 44. Cerpa’s father is a figure of both love and horror in the collection. In “Seasonal without Spring: Autumn,” Cerpa says his father “became distant with disease the way a boy falls beneath the ice / before the men that cannot save him— / the cold like a forever on his lips.” Audible in these lines are Cerpa’s contradictory feelings towards his father. Facing the once brilliant man who now wears Depend diapers, Cerpa is both the scared boy of “At the Tree Line” and the helpless caretaker of “Portrait & Shadow” and “Fear of Intimacy.”
But Cerpa’s poems are about much more than his feelings. Behind Cerpa’s raw confessional poems is a careful symbolic structure that gives his free verse a sense of psychological unity. Death appears in many forms throughout the collection, often accompanied by birds. “Seasonal without Spring: Winter” finds the poet depressed, with “the page open to the forest of Dante’s suicides / while a blue bird cocks its head on the sill.” And “Buried in Darkness, Light” shows us the poet in a heroin haze on a train, watching “the light of decay” breathe “through its yellow teeth, clear as birdsong.” The origin of this association between birds and death becomes clear when Cerpa’s father describes Parkinson’s to him by saying, “This is what it does to you,” and gesturing, with trembling hands, to “so many birds rising in unison.” In many ways, this pairing is apt: Birds herald the new day, and Cerpa’s anxiety about the loss of time is never far from his fear of death.
The most evocative era in Cerpa’s life seems to be his childhood, as evoked by the ever-present bicycle symbolism. Bicycles bookend the collection, appearing in the title, on the front cover, and in an image of the poet’s father printed after the last poem. Yet the symbol of the bicycle is only alive in Cerpa’s memory: “Portrait & Shadow” contains a childhood flashback in which his father “lifts me onto the back of his bicycle / he pedals while I glide above the city in wonder.” Present bicycles appear decayed and battered: In “So Close to an Ending,” “the buried half of a wheel” represents the remnants of a bicycle left to rust, and in turn, Cerpa’s tumultuous relationship with adulthood. Cerpa is barely a young adult, and disease has destroyed his childhood, just as weather has rusted the bicycle. Throughout the collection, Cerpa struggles to build an adult identity from this wreckage of a childhood erased.
Cerpa’s search for maturity is compelling, but it is also one of his collection’s greatest weaknesses. The parts of “Bicycle in a Ransacked City” not about Cerpa’s father read like the work of a young poet. While this is understandable, it is also limiting. Cerpa seems to be interested in all the subjects young writers are supposed to find interesting. He smokes spliffs and walks around the city at night. He drops street names from Paris, Berlin, and New York. He gets blackout drunk and asks someone if they love him. He is enthralled by a bird tattooed on a girl’s back. These are all honest sentiments, and Cerpa articulates them well, but together they reduce the poems to an unusually high-quality specimen of the often cringy genre of verse about alienated young artists.
That said, Andres Cerpa is a poet with potential. His next collection, The Vault, is scheduled to come out in June 2021. Cerpa recently published three poems from The Vault in The Offing magazine, and they are promising. Light yet weighty, the three poems develop motifs from Cerpa’s first collection in more abstract, yet still lyrical verse. Every poem in “Bicycle in a Ransacked City: An Elegy” takes something from you. Each breaks your heart in its own surprising and sophisticated way. If Cerpa can write about new subjects with the same emotional power, he will cement his place as a poet to watch.
—Staff writer Tadhg G. Larabee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.