Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Rumba Atop the Stones: another look

Now and then Letras Latinas Blog likes to give a second life to a piece of writing--such as a book review or an interview--whose first publication had very limited reach. Such was the case with the review that follows, which appeared in print ten years ago in DÁNTA: A Poetry Journal---a gesture I oversaw during my two years as an MFA candidate at Notre Dame. Why today? This evening, the Notre Dame Center for Arts and Culture is hosting a reading featuring Orlando Ricardo Menes, who has recently published, Fetish (University of Nebraska Press, 2013), winner of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry. In fact, Daniel Olivas, over at the Los Angeles Review of Books, has posed three questions for Menes on his latest volume, in the wake of his generous profile at La Bloga. I should add that Menes will be joined by Letras Latinas associates and Notre Dame MFA-ers, Lauro Vazquez and Lynda Letona.

In 2001, Peepal Tree Press, an interesting small house in England that publishes mostly Caribbean writers, brought out Rumba Atop the Stones. Literary scholar Juan Sanchez, who at the time was a PhD candidate in English at Notre Dame, penned a fine review of this fine book. Sanchez is currently an Assistant Professor in the English Department at UCLA.

Without further delay:

A Poetry of Mestizaje

Rumba Atop the Stones 
by Orlando Ricardo Menes
(Peepal Tree Press, 2001)

            The question of what it means to write cross-culturally has been of central concern to many contemporary Latino/a poets as diverse as Gary Soto, Victor Hernández Cruz, Lorna Dee Cervantes, and now Orlando Ricardo Menes. For Menes cross-cultural writing entails much more than simply inserting Spanish into his poems or creating a collage of well-delineated but separate cultures. Rather what distinguishes Menes’ first full-length collection of poetry is its collapsing of the very limits of cultural experience to reveal a fantastical liminal space in which African, European, and indigenous elements intermingle freely like “clean meat & blood/fermented with cinnamon.” By weaving traditional Catholicism with the myths and practices of Santeria, an Afro-Caribbean voodoo religion in which the divine and human interactions is a daily occurrence, Rumba Atop the Stones initiates us into the mystery and beauty surrounding Caribbean life. Rich in history, delicious in its imagery, and penetrating in its vision, Menes creates for us an unforgettable landscape that whisks us from the Ivory Coast of Africa to the cane fields of Cuba in one breath, to the blood-stained streets of Madrid and a forgotten island called Wewee in the next.
            “Dona Flora’s Hothouse” opens and sets the tone of the book with a haunting scene of “a flotilla of blessèd corpses/ drifting” in the Sargasso Sea. Immediately the poem zooms in from its bird’s-eye view of the drowned devotees of Santa Barbara to a detailed portrait of their rotting flesh as “ Tiny crabs burrow ears/oozing cerumen.” We are told enigmatically that “in the tropics the blessèd are incorruptible” as the bodies become soil to be cultivated in Dona Flora’s hothouse: “Sheared parts fructify in African soil/ from Ile-Ife,” the place of creation for the Yoruba people. The earth, fertilized by carcasses that attract Cana-Cana, the mythic vulture of the AfroCuban folklore, yields the sarsaparilla, tamarind, and soursop that will become an offering for the Catholic holy event “All Souls’ Day.” In such descriptions, the borders between Caribbean, African, and European cultures are much more than porous or fluid; they actually break down and dissolve yielding in its place a truly cross-cultural experience that comes to characterize the entire book.
            In this collection of poems, food, flesh, and the grotesque become the privileged sites of the spiritual. Christ’s body, which was broken and offered as food to his disciples, finds parallels in the eating ritual of AfroCuban dockworkers, sugar cane workers, and gods and saints. Sumptuous tropical fruits are described, for example, with uncanny semblance to body part as in “guava bladders, uteri red/ papaya, and mango hearts.” Eating in these poems, consequently, produce moments of both cannibalism and spiritual contact as when Dona Flora takes
            A mango, bruised with machete,
            Lifts the bleeding fruit to bands
            Of amber light, sweet flesh dissolving
            In her mouth, its bare stone returned to the sea.
The intersection of the spiritual with food is also seen in vivid snapshots of eating Saints and gods who “drink rose-apple cider/ eat avocado and turtle fricassee/ rivulets of passion juice” (The Tropics Reclaim Calvary) or, rather grotesquely, drink and eat “sweet blood/ for fertility & 6 loaves of the Sabbath” ( Poem Written for the Feast of Our Lady of Charity). In short, appetites prove to be clear signs of spirituality in this book of poems.
            In Menes’ poetry, truth is also found in the grotesque. For example, in “The Music of Lifeless Creatures,” the poet incites to “Submit and learn” for
            There’s wisdom, power in decay.  The mysteries
            Of verse are found, in the music of lifeless creatures,
            Listen to a dolphin’s innards, the raveled skull
            Of a castaway, the urn in a caracol.

            In many ways, this lesson proves to be the central one of the book. Thus, it is no wonder that, through the worm eaten decomposition of a “a slave’s ribcage and rags of turtle meat,” the “unconscious, shriveled, gangrenous” pigmy (Women of Guaraguasi), and the blood human entrails drying on bone (Blood and Bone), one learns the truth of the African slave trade and the suppressed history of a people preserving their ancestors. Hints of cannibalism, by the same token, suggest a conduit to the spiritual as when Mary’s fingers became “antojitos,” “Sauteed in olive oil and garlic” (Antojitos), transforming into an aphrodisiac.

            Sex also becomes an important site for the spiritual. The connection between the two is the told in the poem “Requiem Shark with Lilies.” Finding a requiem shark with lilies inside, the patron saint of virgins becomes highly sexualized as the lily she clenches “secretes/ burning nectar through/ the pistil; two stamens-long, spiculed-squeeze her ring finger until it’s blue” and “the horny beaked/ stigma punctures/ her fingertip, implants black ovules/ that mix with her own blood/as it shoots over breakers.” The seeds that coagulate her blood “germinate/ inside fish bellies… then migrate home with their hosts / at the start of Lent and breed on Easter Sunday.”  Menes seems to suggest that any idea of a cold and sterile religion “dissolves quickly in ecstasy” (Physical Properties of Faith) in the Carribean.

            Sex also becomes a means of resistance in Menes’ poems. In “Alina,” for example, the lavandera, washerwoman, Alina “ scrapes guaguancó. . .to attract Oshún, owner of love” in the way that “hips and arms/ laboring music that slave laundresses,/cane cutters, midwives performed in secret/ to gratify gods disguised/ as Catholic saints.” Recovering sexuality through her religion affirms her humanity and desire, which the gods approve. The sexual and the spiritual also collapse into one another in “Sade.” In this poem virginals are fingered, Adam copulates “astraddle Eve,” and God masturbates. Such feelings of blasphemy are immediately explained by the poem’s last line, “ to desecrate is to create: / our gift, blessèd Caliban.”

            Slavery, the slave trade, colonialism, oppression, and violence are written everywhere throughout Menes’ book. In poems like “Dido’s Lament,” “AfroCuba,” and “Middle Passage” the poet reveals the troubling mixture of cultures resulting from the slave trade. In “Dido’s Lament” European culture is brought to Cuba by Spanish slave ships.  Maria Signorelli, the opera singer, becomes a site of cultural exchange and interpretation through verses, songs, and statues. To a Spanish Bishop she is Eve, to a salve brought from Lagos she is an “orisha,” and to others, the “whore of Babylon.” As she is presented in the square she is wearing Turkish sandals, guajirito, and a muslin dress. She becomes appropriated by all the cultures that witness and describe her. In “AfroCuba” we get a first person account of a slave working the sugar fields of Cuba as he announces, “ Sugar is the black/ man’s curse.” Menes’ most compelling look at the slave trade, however, is expressed in his poem “Middle Passage,” naming each of its four sections after a leg in the middle of the passage from Algeciras to La Habana.
            There are, to be sure, lighter moments in Menes’ book, as well. In “The Tropics Reclaim Calvary,” for example, Saint Lazarus and Barbara become Cubans as Lazaro “strums his crutch / with leprous fingers” to the bongos of an Afro-Cuban beat and “Barbarita replies/ warbling a danzón/ to the sacred heart.”  Singing and dancing Catholic saints who wish they were “an African god-beautiful, / healthy” is as normal as praying for Yemayá, the indigenous Lady of the Sea, to become a dead acolyte’s spiritual mother. Dead Saints and gods in this imagination are not memories or distant and detached deities but rather close companions in everyday life. Saint Agnes still “sweeps the beach with coco fronds/ collecting cross fish, / aureole urchins, and angels’ quills.”
            And, of course there is Menes’ attention to language. In Rumba atop the Stones its singular and idiosyncratic use is a revelation. Not only do indigenous worlds like kanawa, Wewee, Ochún, mayito, iyá mingle unannounced with Catholic terminology, Menes manages to make English words sound exotic. The result is nothing short of a cross-cultural universe created for all the senses to relish in.

—Juan Sanchez
University of California, Los Angeles

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