A poem isn’t complete until it has passed through the body and mind of a reader—incorporates what the reader brings to the poem.
Orlando Ricardo Menes may be the first to say that his work doesn’t consciously take on what one might term the political.
And yet a work of art released into the world can take on a life of its own—a life or vision the artist may not have consciously intended.
Lauro Vazquez and Marcelo Hernández Castillo—in their readings of these two poems in Menes' poetry collection Fetish—share with one another what we might call an imagination engaged with politics and history.
Lauro Vazquez on “Aubade: The Charcoal Makers”
In a previous interview, Orlando Ricardo Menes—in answering a question regarding the existence of any “political” influence in his work—replied: “I am not a poet who is enamored with polemics of any type. I am no partisan of political causes, whether from the left or the right.”
And yet “Aubade: The Charcoal Makers” is a deep and compassionate commitment to siding with the truth and beauty of the disfranchised and which survives as a testament against the ugliness of the powerful; whether this be a political prisoner in post-revolutionary Cuba or a community of charcoal makers in pre-revolutionary Cuba as is the case here. The poem borrows its inspiration from the short Cuban film El Mégano (1955) and pays homage to a community of disfranchised charcoal makers on the eve of the revolution:
At sunrise when moths molt to orchids,
& moon frogs sleep in wetland hollows,
the peasants emerge from dead embers,
walking into daylight like bone marionettes
with charcoal skin, loincloths of bark.
One must take great care to appreciate this powerful opening stanza: the language is both exquisite and delicate; the description of sunrise (with its moths that “molt into orchids”) and which marks a new day of inhuman toil by these “bone marionettes” reveals a truth or beauty that also masks or points to a dangerous new possibility; to something that is truly about to break into daylight:
Sunrays knife black water, a gust scythes
the wild cane, & men mine in the muck, not gold
or agates, but fossil wood they pull out bare-
handed, heavy stumps that burn for days
Even the landscape itself with its knifing sunrays and its gust that “scythes the wild cane” is eager for the possibility of taking revenge against the owners of those bodies that labor for days without end and which burn—indeed—like “heavy stumps.” There is a restrained fire lurking in the poet’s deceptively tender language, and which serves as the ladle ever more ready to pour its molten fire on those who like Don Ramón, and others of the swamp’s patricians, who pay the workers:
with credit slips
that buy wet sugar, hard bacalao, old lard.
Don Ramón boasts he can eat three chickens
at a sitting, ramrod fists to make good on threats,
pistol packed in his waist, treating peasants
like milking goats, so docile, so dumb, he thinks[…]
If one takes into account that this poem besides being—perhaps—a political poem is also a poem of ekphrasis, then this appreciation of fire is even more revealing. Ekphrasis which (as poet Tino Villanueva explains) is sometimes understood as written descriptions of visual things, is—in “Aubade: The Charcoal Makers”—complicated a bit further. Aubade is often the title of a piece of music appropriate for dawn or early morning. Here again the delicate and exquisite language reveals again a concealed fire; fire as possibility, fire as light, as morning, fire as life as is the new life that emerges when the old burns away in a brush fire. We are brought back to peasants that “emerge from dead embers,” that pull with bare hands “stumps that burn for days,” and that will restrain their fire no longer:
The revolution is coming, Don Ramón,
stealthy as gunpowder lit by red embers,
that day when peasants rise up at dawn,
burn down your domains in pitched skies,
ashen flurries like confetti, your daughters
drowned in the bog, your diamonds, your gold
fleeting as sugar & butter in a charcoal fire.
Lauro Vazquez is a CantoMundo fellow and holds an M.F.A. from the University of Notre Dame’s Creative Writing Program. He has been a Letras Latinas associate for the past three years, contributing a wide array of content to Letras Latinas Blog, and serving as a coordinator of the Letras Latinas Writers Initiative. Recent poems have appeared in issue #16 of Mandorla: New Writing from the Americas.
Marcelo Hernandez Castillo on “The Gringo Called Ñakak”
Ñakak is a fat extracting mythical monster often described as a white man who hides in the shadows and attacks unsuspecting indigenous people. In this poem we see an amalgamation of globalization and folk myth that creates a reality unknown or willfully ignored by the west but one that is all too real for countries operating in the postcolonial moment. Spivak said that the subaltern cannot speak, that he/she must be spoken for. In the poem’s case, the speaker is the voice of the West, arguably the only voice that authority and power legitimates. Menes alludes to the Eurocentric myth that white is clean and good which creates binaries that perpetuate oppression in former colonial countries. The poem opens with “White is the color of chalk…I am translucent.” The voice is that of Ñakak and can be extended to mean the West speaking to the rest. We see a shadow of Fanon underlining the poem’s execution of turning the myth of Ñakak into the reality of countries like Cuba (but not exclusively) with the allusion to the ownership of natural resources.
“Get me mad, and I’ll breathe fire hot enough to boil a whole glacier to steam. I can grind your bones to powder with my diamond teeth, then sell it to druggists in China who’ll make pills, elixirs, unguents. My fingernails are scalpels that harvest eyes, kidneys, and hearts for whoever pays the most in dollars, Euros, or British Pounds.
Menes uses the myth in order to speak about the reality of exploitation necessary in order to maintain Europe as the center and the rest on the periphery. The grand irony here is that Europe/Ñakak needs the raw materials from the former colonies in order to maintain its dominance. There is a weakness that is evident when Ñakak says “get me mad, and I’ll…” The crucial moment is that Ñakak is not harvesting zinc from Kenya or iron ore from Brazil, but rather, he is harvesting the organs of people and people themselves. In countries that became poorer with the creation of organizations like the IMF which were meant to increase the livelihood of millions, it is difficult not to assume that the West is extracting not only resources, but human lives. Human flesh is the new commodity to keep Europe afloat and the cost is insignificant to the gains made by such global companies. Menes continues with the heart wrenching reality when Ñakak says,
“I own your mountains from dry foothill to snowy peak…and my cauldrons of steel produce lucrative lubricants. Night and day, sleet or hail, they refine the vacuumed fat of those I kidnap, those I buy, those I trick, your neighbor, your wife’s cousin, your own daughter.”
The people themselves have become the fuel that Europe demands in order to survive. This commentary that points to alternate forms of oppression is absolutely necessary if our art is to reflect the exploitation that the US and Europe refuse to acknowledge. This willful ignorance that hides the reality behind each of our daily consumption choices is put on center stage in order to make it difficult to ignore where our food, clothes, household products, i pads, cell phones, and anything else you could think of, come from. The myth is the reality and perhaps the reality may be worse than the myth. Overt forms of slavery have ended in the world but oppression has merely changed disguises. Globalization is possible only with the exploitation of most for the benefit of the few. It is disheartening to know the plight of undeveloped nations is hidden behind product advertising and technology that makes us comfortable. Menes asks us to see the truth in the myth and doesn’t hold back. He is speaking to a western audience and the point is to make us uncomfortable, to allow us for a moment to remember that the privileges we take for granted on a daily basis come at a great cost to those who are excluded from even the most basic of human rights.
Ironically, the poem ends on the reality that without the exploitation of natural resources from developing nations, “global progress would cease. Engines would die, guns would not fire, lasers would go dim, even satellites would fail to orbit the earth.” Menes tells us that if we want to continue to be comfortable we must ignore the cruelty outside. Menes is doing what great poets do, opening our conscious so that we can never close it back up.
Marcelo Hernandez Castillo came to the United States undocumented and is currently a “Dreamer.” He is a Canto Mundo fellow and an MFA candidate at the University of Michigan. He teaches summers at the Atlantic Center for the Arts and his work can be found in Jubilat, New England Review and Drunken Boat, among others. His translations of the Mexican poet Marcelo Uribe are forthcoming.