By Reviewed by C.S. Gilbert
"Inside the Head
of a Conch Woman"
By J. M. Varela
SeaStory Press, $12.95
When J. M. Varela was Key West Poetry Guild's featured poet last year, she was introduced as "What Mario Sanchez is to Key West art, J. M. Varela is to its verse." The comparison was apt and publication of her first collection, "Inside the Head of a Conch Woman," richly supports the comparison.
J. M. Varela is the nom de plume of Jean Marie Gregory, chosen to honor her Cuban-American roots. Her mom was a Varela and Juana Maria is a bona fide baby name, an initial identity. Noting that fact, however, isn't exactly a pedigree grab; she says bluntly that her father was "a Tennessee hillbilly carpenter who came to Key West to help build the Truman Naval Station."
Varela calls it as she sees it. Her folksy and historically instructive verses can be edifying, ironic, deeply moving or frankly wicked, sometimes all at the same time. Just as Mario Sanchez recorded decades of early 20th century Key West history in his closely observed woodcut/folk art, Varela's 51 poems in "Romancing the Tides" deftly depict decades of late 20th century and early 21st century (1970-2011) history and sociology from a Conch woman's viewpoint. In truth, however, some of the best poems project a genderless intelligence, keen observation ("Kli Kli") and a devastatingly sharp sense of justice ("Nicaraguan Serenade").
Varela is fiercely protective of her tropical island home, skewering tourists, snowbirds and local miscreants, while there are other poems that stare universal reality in the face, touching the heart ("Child at Play").
This is a collection for everyone who loves Key West with an unconditional love -- as she was and as she is, tourists and all.