Two scenarios in Orlando Ricardo Menes’ Fetish.
In the first, nature—nature in the speaker’s childhood taking on mythic qualities. But also the nature of friendship (without giving anything away); the nature of language (without giving anything away).
In the second, history—the weight of family history within the history of an island nation.
Victoria María Castells and Dan Vera add their voices to the chorus.
Victoria María Castells and Dan Vera add their voices to the chorus.
Victoria María Castells on “Sal”
The poem “Sal” shows the conflation of nature, language, and culture for two sixth-grade outsiders, a Cuban immigrant and his only friend, the dark-skinned tomboy Sal. Throughout the poem, there is a preoccupation with exact classification, where the pines in the kitchen of Sal’s grandmother are clarified to be “wild pines—Epidendrums,” the official horticultural grouping. The exact descriptions are at odds with the speaker’s imperfect English as a boy, “the frito-bandito talk Miss Jones called uglier than spit on dirt.” Unintentionally on the teacher’s part but characteristic of the work’s theme, language is again tied to the earth.
In this swampy environment, undomesticated nature is bleeding into the physical setting. The kitchen is described as a “greenhouse” overflowing with plants, and the playtime outside of the shack takes place as if in a mystical landscape. The sense of foreignness is transfigured into the bog, through the wild lists of the evocative and unfamiliar, accounts of drinking “bromeliad water” and diving into “oölite ponds”. Compound words also conjoin agriculture and animal life, with phrases like “centipede vines,” “hog pail,” “alligator pear,” “fingerbone twigs,” “fig crickets,” and “cock’s-spur toes”. Youthful imagination and physical immersion turn the two alienated figures into a natural part of the surroundings, with an inclusivity reflected in this bonded world.
The expanded titling is not kept to only physical objects. “You’re mine now, Sal said, I the boy/ you the girl,” and gender is switched through the power of assertion. With his red lips and wig made of moss, the boy is no longer restricted to one gender or idiom, or even his identity as a human being. The physical union that follows is described through scientific jargon, “tender parts of orchids— stigmas, anthers, ovaries,” as if Sal and the speaker are pollinating. Only after this transfer does Spanish appear in the physical descriptions, for seesaws, bamboo, trees, and mangroves. The boy travels under “ficus roots—jagüey,” in contrast to the earlier Latin identification of Epidendrums. Gender, ethnicity, and wildlife meld into an entity best expressed through a heterogeneous lexicon. The poem ends as the speaker “snaked miles through aquifer,” until he hears “corúa birds coo the dawn gru-gru, gru-gru.” The corúas speak, and immigrant speech has been assimilated into the wild.
Victoria María Castells is a Miami, Florida native. She earned a B.A. in English from Duke University and is an MFA candidate in Fiction at McNeese State.
Dan Vera on “Elegy for Great-Uncle Julio, Cane Cutter”
“Hoy no llego al futuro sangrado de ayer.”
“Today did not arrive bloodied by yesterday.” Silvio Rodríguez
And yet today does bear the stains of the past.
Orlando Ricardo Menes' “Elegy for Great-Uncle Julio, Cane Cutter” retells the story of a pilgrimage to Cuba and visit to long-lost relatives. Menes opens with the story of a family separated by politics. Part of the family left Cuba after the revolution and part of it stayed. The speaker travels to Cuba, to Tío Julio's bohio, the simple earthen home of the Cuban countryside, to meet the figure from childhood stories, to meet him “in the flesh,” to pay respects to blood family and in some way create a wholeness where separation has long existed.
Like all elegies, it is filled with great sadness, which pervades every inch of the poem. Everywhere is evidence of time's passage: the “wilted clippings of Fidel glued to the bedposts” and the “Soviet tractors” rotting in the sheds beside the cane fields. This is not the polished surfaces of the revolution's public quarters but the rough-hewn and collapsing space of the daily laborer.
I was struck by many notes here that are breathtaking in their simple directness: Tío Julio's wife, who offers coffee and an invitation to a meal, revealing the enduring and painful hospitality of those with meager and rationed resources. The cigar box opened to reveal old photographs of family members long gone – evidence of previous generations that are a priceless trove for exiled children who grew up with little access to family histories. The weight of the experience is such that the speaker can bear it no more, begs pardon, and departs over “rutted canefields,” tripping “over pits of memory.” He is left with his “false promises” which he does not enumerate but I believe refers to the pilgrim's inability to capture peace or resolution in the face of such tragic history.
In its specificity this poem is for the numberless Cuban families sundered in the last 50 years by revolutionary history and geopolitics. But in one sense, like all stories of the returning children of refugees, Menes' elegy serves for all those who are a product of departure and exile. In this way it speaks to the larger and ongoing human experience of loss and longing. Indeed this poem is an example of how every exile, [in truth every arrival] is in some way born out of tragedy, out of separation and loss. One discovers this somehow, even in the midst of a happy childhood, that one's parents left something behind, something they cannot communicate. One grows up with the knowledge that there are conversations and relatives that are not available to you.
It's hard for me to recall another poem by a Cuban poet, on or off the island, that has more powerfully told that heartbreaking story. This isn't poetry of victory. It does not argue politics or history. It bears witness to the real pain in history's wake.
Although over one million Cubans have left the island, no one has escaped the hardship and scarring tragedy of the last 50 years. Menes' “Elegy for Great-Uncle Julio, Cane Cutter” is an elegy to a severed body and a dismembered people. The speaker in “Elegy to Tío Julio” documents the cleave points between history and home. These are places poetry is meant to plumb.
What Menes finds in the poem isn't a resolution but a revelation of the miraculous persistence of family ties and their ability to wound, to haunt and to ground us in our helplessness in the face of history. All the protagonist can do is bear witness to the fracture between Cubans on the island and in the diaspora. For more than fifty years the story of Cubans has been one of brokenness and longing. Menes is unafraid to explore these depths; he chooses to remember.
Dan Vera is a writer, editor, and literary historian living in Washington, DC. He's the author of two poetry collections: Speaking Wiri Wiri (Red Hen, 2013), the inaugural winner of the Letras Latinas/Red Hen Poetry Prize, and one of Beltway Poetry's Ten Best Poetry Books of 2013, and The Space Between Our Danger and Delight (Beothuk Books, 2008). His poetry appears in various journals, including Notre Dame Review, Beltway Poetry, Delaware Poetry Review, Gargoyle, and Little Patuxent Review, in addition to the anthologies Divining Divas, Full Moon On K Street, and DC Poets Against the War. He's edited the gay culture journal White Crane, co-created the literary history site, DC Writers’ Homes, and chairs the board of Split This Rock Poetry. LatinoStories.com named him a 2014 Top Ten "New" Latino Author to Watch (and Read) saying "In Speaking Wiri Wiri, Dan Vera shows us why he is earning a reputation as a talented, sophisticated poet who is a master at playing with words. This collection, his second book of poetry, is a dazzling display of language and emotion."