The poet and critic Barbara Claire Freeman once wrote:
“The generic convention of the book review is monologic; however nuanced and subtle, the constraints of the form typically allow the inclusion of only one perspective.”
She was introducing a collection of 23 short texts, each responding to a different poem by Brenda Hillman from her collection, Pieces of Air in the Epic. In other words, a collective review—published in issue 33 of Jacket in 2007.
That review served as a model for what Letras Latinas Blog will be presenting here, albeit on a less ambitious scale, but in the same spirit. But rather than publish all the pieces at the same time as was done in Jacket, we are going to roll them out 2 at a time.
We’ll be responding to 10 different poems in Fetish, a collection by Orlando Ricardo Menes, published by University of Nebraska Press in 2013, and winner of the 2012 Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry.
Thade Correa on “Fetish”
In “Fetish,” Orlando Menes’ poetic vision lifts the veil separating the natural and the spiritual, the colonized and the colonizer, the body and the soul, etc., by a delicate rendering of an Eleggua that the poet glimpses standing curiously—and dangerously—close to the altar of Our Lady of Regla Church in Cuba. Eleggua—a trickster god of the crossroads in the Cuban religion of Santeria, often portrayed as a child—is known as the “Way-Opener.” Normatively, the presence of such a figure in a Christian sanctuary would be anathema, but not so in this case: in Cuba, the native spiritual tradition has not been entirely displaced and crushed by the colonizer. The Eleggua has endured, and stands as a holy object among other holy objects, shattering the authoritarian myth that the sacred belongs only to the Western world. Menes’ poem pays homage to this endurance as well as to the Eleggua’s subtle shattering of cultural hegemony.
Like the fetish of Eleggua itself, Menes’ poem is a magical verbal object, a way-opener that offers a glimpse at a psychic crossroads where the grim realities of cultural and spiritual conflicts and their historical contexts are not mended or collapsed into an undifferentiated unity but rather collide and so give birth to a radiant gesture of compassion for the Outcast. That is to say, the poet does not attempt to resolve the tension between the pagan fetish and its postcolonial environment but rather elegizes and praises the Eleggua as a symbol of all that which survives oppression. Despite its presence in the sanctuary, the fetish is not at home where it is, and so the poet wishes to take it back with him to an even more alien (and presumably Midwestern) landscape, “where snow / & hail fall from brittle clouds / that phosphoresce the night sky.” The tenderness that pervades the last lines of the poem in which the poet addresses the fetish is heartbreakingly moving:
Don’t fear. Snow is coconut flakes,
hail rock candy. I will paint
gouache jungles with aquatint vines,
ochre ceibas, orchids that grow
in gessoed moonlight, your lair
of Spanish moss by a bay window
where you will eat red papaya,
drink rum, sun like an iguana
on a yagruma tree.
The landscape of the new home that the poet wishes to grant the Eleggua will be far from comfortable and familiar, and so the poet offers the activity of his own imagination to the fetish to make up for this alienation. In a stroke, the poet’s devotion to the fetish transforms the bleakness of a Midwestern winter into an endless tropical summer.
However, this act takes place only in the imagination and the fetish remains standing where it was first glimpsed. Presumably, it’s still there, still alien, still Other. Yes, it’s true that “poetry makes nothing happen,” as Auden wrote. Yet in spite of this, Menes’ poem affirms that both poetry and love are way-openers, and that the activity of the human imagination, which fuels both endeavors, can and does transform and transfigure the downtrodden and grant new life to the oppressed. It’s also true that poetry
makes anything happen. It only depends how deeply one is able to dream.
Thade Correa hails from Northwest Indiana. He received his M.F.A. in Poetry from the University of Notre Dame (2013), having previously studied at the University of Chicago (M.A., 2010) and Indiana University, Bloomington (B.A. 2006). His poetry, translations, and essays have appeared (or are forthcoming) in various venues, including Poetry City U.S.A., Vol. 4, Bird's Thumb, The Ostrich Review, Actuary Lit, Prime Number, RHINO, Asymptote, Paragraphiti, Ibbetson Street, The Aurorean, and Modern Haiku. In 2012, a collection of his poetry garnered him an Academy of American Poets Prize. A composer and pianist as well as a writer, he currently publishes his music with Alliance Publications. Currently, he teaches writing and music at Indiana University, Northwest and HGS Music Studios, respectively.
Nayelly Barrios on “Village of the Water People”
In Orlando Ricardo Menes’ “Village of the Water People,” the narrator is in search of spiritual renewal. He looks for this, according to the poem’s epigraph, in Western Cuba. The opening stanzas of the poem expose the reader to the rugged landscape through which the speaker treks in order to reach a hut in the mountains. There is an interesting mirroring of the speaker’s spiritual thirst and the horse’s thirst for water in the fourth stanza, “I almost fall / when my horse races to water” (38). Right after this, the speaker is met with the woman they are in search of, Marilú, who feeds him, “grassy coffee, coconut cakes, juicy mango slices” (38). The manner in which the speaker describes Marilú makes it clear that she is a curandera, or spiritual healer. In her hut, which is decked out in lit candles, lithographs of saints, and clay saints, the speaker drinks a concoction out of a calabash cup. Marilú explains that her hut is where individuals come to heal, and that he must drink, “in sips / and slurps. No rush, no quaffs, she says, let the taste linger...” (39). The speaker never reveals from where he traveled, but I am reminded of the contrast of this idea of no rushing: a city life. Perhaps the speaker has traveled from a city where he has not dedicated time to his spirituality, hence this need for spiritual renewal. The speaker seems to be so far removed from just relaxing that Marilú has to teach him. He says she takes his hands and shows him how to slowly intake the liquid from the calabash. The intake of the concoction is followed by prayer as Marilú runs her hands over the speaker. In the fourteenth stanza, the speaker begins to experience the spiritual healing, “I’m a believer, she says, / but just don’t know it” (39). There is a sense of confession, and burden seems to be lifted from the speaker, “My image in the cup told her secrets” (39). After this confession, he is told to “submit, be reverent...feel the grace of wet earth / on your feet, rain’s tingling mercy on your skin” (40). Marilú advises the speaker to allow himself to become one with nature, the same nature that just before this experience tired him out, or perhaps the nature from which he is escaping which has driven him to this spiritual renewal. He is then carried out of the hut by strong arms where “water people hold hands, / pray in a circle, drink from the sky...” (40). As he enters this moment of spiritual hyperawareness, I wonder how much of this experience is merely a mirage or hallucination, but perhaps that doesn’t matter, because there are multiple manners in which one can come into a personal spirituality. In the penultimate line in the final stanza of the poem, the speaker says, “I take small soggy steps, join the circle, / sit in a puddle, hum a hymn, spider lilies in the wind,” (40) and we know that, whether real or imagined, he has entered to the place he yearned for.
Nayelly Barrios is a Rio Grande Valley native. Her work has appeared in Beloit Poetry Journal, Puerto del Sol, Boxcar Poetry Review, The Paris-American and elsewhere. She is co-editor and co-founder of Ostrich Review.