Se hablan español, Shmoopers? Don't worry if you're shrugging your shoulders out there. You don't have to know Spanish to enjoy this poem. But you should be aware of the way Spanish contributes to its sound.
We talk more about Spanish over in "Symbols, Imagery, and Wordplay." But, for our purposes here, it's worth noting that the sounds of the deli itself find a neat echo with the inclusion of the Spanish words in the poem. Listening to the poem read out loud would, at times, be just like standing next to someone in the deli while they read a label marked "Suspiros, / Merengues" (27-28).
But that's not the only set of sounds to sync your senses to, Shmoopers. You see what we did there? We strung together a bunch of S sounds, just like the poem does in this section:
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, (4-7)
All the plural nouns in this section make the S sounds really pile up here, creating a poetic effect known as consonance.
We also get some alliteration, with phrases like "spoken Spanish" (19), "dreams and their disillusions" (23), and " lost lovers" (27).
So, what's the deal with all these sonic shenanigans? Is Ortiz Cofer just showing off here? Probably not, given that this is a poem that's in part about language and the music of spoken sounds. Since that's a major focus, we'd say the poem does a great job of using sound techniques to perk up our ears and remind us of just how powerful the music of words can be.
Like any good grocery store, our title offers up a little bit of something for everyone. Let's start at the beginning, shall we? We shall. "The Latin Deli" announces the setting for the poem. We have tons more to say about that over in "Setting," but for now just note how this setting is only described, never stated outright, in the rest of the poem. Without this huge hint from the title, we might as readers have gotten a bit confused by all those bins of dried codfish lying around. The title sets us straight.
So, we have the setting… settled. But that's not all the title does. It also offers this commentary: "An Ars Poetica." Now, "Ars Poetica" sounds like that band you were in back in junior high. Or maybe it's the name of that student literary journal that you've been thinking about submitting to (psst: you should totally do it). In other words, we have a fancy-schmancy term here that sounds… deep.
In reality, though, this is a legit label in the poetry world. It basically refers to a poem, or other text, that sets forth a philosophy of poetry. When you slap "ars poetica" on the title of your poem, you are letting the reader know that this will spell out your approach to writing poetry.
So… what does a grocery store have to do with poetry? Why would Ortiz Cofer call this particular poem her "ars poetica"? Why can't we stop writing questions?
One way to think about this poem is that it's a bit like the grocery store it describes. In other words, it connects people to a sense of home. It's a welcoming place where the language is familiar, a place for memories to come to life. All in all, those are some pretty noble goals for a poem.
In a sense, Ortiz Cofer uses her title to call her shot. This poem is going to represent her Main Goal as a Poet: to bring people together in a way that allows them to preserve their culture and explore their heritage. Maybe, then, there's more to this store owner than meets the eye. It's possible that our poet sees herself as the real "Patroness of Exiles."
Come on in, Shmoopers. Have a look around. What looks good today?
When you read this poem, you're stepping into the setting in a very important way. You're entering the deli and learning about its sights, sounds, and smells. The poem is a guided tour of sorts, but it's not just trying to show you around.
Instead, Ortiz Cofer is trying to show us how a particular place can create an important space. By stocking the shelves with foods from their homelands, the Latin Deli offers customers a way to connect to their memories—just by doing a little shopping.
They do more than shop, though. The people who come to the deli do a lot of talking—with the owner and with each other. Once again, our deli creates a space for connection.
The shoppers connect with the store owner, with each other, and most importantly with their past.
Ultimately, the setting of this poem is so important because is recreates a setting that folks have had to leave behind: home. It's been said (cheesily) that home is where the heart is, but in this case home is where the Merengues are.
The setting, then, is pretty much the whole point of the poem. It celebrates a place that allows people to revisit their homes, no matter how far away they are or how long ago they left.
If we had to describe our speaker in one word, it would be "descriptive." We've never set food in this Latin deli, but thanks to all the sights, sounds, and smells that the speaker includes, we feel like we're right there.
Now, we don't get any info about whether this super-descriptive person is a man, woman, or a dried codfish. For the sake of ease, we can call this speaker a "she," though we should be careful not to confuse her with our poet, Judith Ortiz Cofer. At the same time, some key comments lead us to believe that she and our poet might have a lot in common.
As we pointed out, our speaker beings by giving us a rich and detailed account of the deli. Those observations come from a kind of limited, third person perspective. Once the speaker introduces "the Patroness of Exiles" (7), though, we start to see the deli from the store owner's more complex perspective.
This move to the store owner's experience is interesting, as now the speaker is able to give us more commentary about what her experiences running the store actually mean. She's not just the store owner, for example. She's "the Patroness of Exiles." She doesn't just stock food. She sells "canned memories" (9).
The speaker's running commentary, in fact, is designed to point out how meaningful a place this deli is to its customers. Much like Ortiz Cofer herself, this speaker is calling our attention to this deli, a place we might have ordinarily overlooked. She's pointing out all the ways in which this place, and its products, matter to its customers.
Just as the store owner provides her shoppers this service, then, our speaker is doing the same for us readers. She's there to stock our minds with the knowledge of how a place like this can connect a group of people to the homes they've left behind.
You really don't need a Spanish-English dictionary to enjoy this conversational poem. All you need is an appetite—for cultural connectedness that is.
You can tell you're reading a Judith Ortiz Cofer poem because it sounds like you're suddenly in the middle of an intimate conversation. She's a big fan of using free verse to explore issues of memory, the past, and the Latino experience. Check out some of her other poems, like "El Olvido" and "The Pleasures of Fear."
Pull up a chair, Shmoopers. Take a load off. Let's have a chat—no big whoop. That's kind of what the free verse form says to you as a reader.
Free verse is not about following any set pattern or structure. That's not to say that it just whatever it wants, running through the lines willy-nilly. No, a free verse poem is trying to get across a particular effect and, more often than not, that effect is a conversational tone.
Think about it. We tend not to use rhyme schemes or follow a strict meter when we speak in conversation. Free verse poems recognize this fact, so they break out of traditional forms to encourage readers to focus on what is being said, rather than how it's being said.
And what is being here said has an urgency to it. Just check out the enjambment between the first and second stanzas. We're left hanging at the end of stanza 1, so we rush on to stanza 2 to pick up the idea. This technique is a sly one that poets use to create a sensation of heightened importance for the reader.
So, Ortiz Cofer hits us with an important, insightful conversation. But she's actually doing more than that. One of the major themes of this poem is talking (see "Themes" for more). Check it out:
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-- (10-17)
In this section, the deli customers are talking, talking, talking—about prices, their homes, their work, and so on. They're using their mother tongues (Spanish) to connect to each other and their sense of their homeland. And this poem is using another kind of conversation, delivered through free verse, to explore that idea.
As readers, then, we're in a conversation that is about (in part) conversations. And that is something worth conversing about.
What kind of a deli would it be if it didn't serve food, right? This grocery has foodstuffs in spades. Well, actually it has them in open bins and hanging arrangements. The point is that the poem takes full advantage of all these good eats to craft a sense of the homes that have been left behind by these customers. Food imagery is all over this poem. As readers, it's time to eat that good stuff up.
Going to this deli is a religious experience—both literally and figuratively. If you weren't already aware, Catholicism is the religion of choice for the majority of Latinos—both here in the U.S. and abroad. Any self-respecting Latin deli, then, is going to offer up some choice cuts of religious imagery.
As the title suggests, you need two things to make a Latin deli both Latin and a deli. Food? Check—see "Symbols: Food." Latin? Check—as in, check out all the Spanish vocabulary that this poem is rocking. Those words are there to remind us that, just like food, language plays a pivotal role to connecting us to our sense of home.
Sure, we have a few lovers in this poem, but they're the "lost" kind. Sorry.