Village Voice: Poems for the Historic Protests in Cuba

08.13.21

In this episode of “Village Voice,” Jim and Margery discuss the historic protests in Cuba with poet Richard Blanco.

The discussion centers on the complexities of the Cuban saga. 

“…This as a humanitarian crisis first and foremost,[we need to] listen to the Cuban people to see what they’re demanding…”  

Richard shares three of his own poems that speak to deprivation, beauty, and the strength of the Cuban people.

“Last Night in Havana”

Drifting from above, the palms seem to sink
willingly into the saffron ground, all I can map
is the marble veins of rivers turning static,
the island coastline retreating like a hem
from the sargasso patches of Caribbean.
I think of you primo, huddled on the edge
of an Almendares curb last night,
El Greco shadow spilt across the street,
and over the tracks stapled to the weeds
below your open bedroom window.
Covered in cobwebs of humid wind,
we slapped at unreachable mosquitos
as Havana’s tenements collapsed around us,
enclosed us like the yellow of old books
or the stucco walls of a hollow chapel.
You confessed you live ankled in the sand
of a revolution, watching an unparted sea,
marking tides and learning currents
that will carry you through the straits
to my door, blistered and salted, but alive.
You said you want silence, you want to leave
the sweep of the labor trains in your window,
the creak of your father’s wheelchair in the hall
searching for a bottle of pills he will find empty,
and the slam of your eyelids forcing sleep.
The tires are ready, bound with piano wire,
the sail will be complete with the linen scraps
your mother will stitch together after midnights
when the neighbors are trying to fall asleep.
Last night in Havana, your face against your knees,
your words drowning with the lees in an empty bottle
of bootleg wine you clutched around the neck
and will keep to store fresh water.

“Visiting Tia Ida”

For thirty-five years she’s watched Old Havana—
seen chorus-lines of columns strip to naked stone,
and stucco walls shrivel, then blossom with weeds.
She’s pitied the churches and palaces aging faster
than her, counted the iron lampposts of El Prado
burning out, one by one, along with her memories
of those five sisters in Miami, so many years away
from her now. She waits in a second-story vivienda
atop a dark flight of stairs she can no longer climb,
slowly falling apart with the rest of La Habana vieja.

Rain begins, stiffens the lines of dingy clothes
waving across broken lunettes of stained-glass
like war torn flags. She curses la revolución—
why she had to stay, why they had to leave—
the cracked wall behind her white and wrinkled
as her hand, reaching for a bottle of violet water
and a jar of ointment on the metal tray-table
with a worn deck of cards and a rotary phone
she insists still works, though nobody calls.
No es fácil—she complains—It’s not easy—
the black-market prices, the daily blackouts—
No es fácil—her age, this loneliness she has
almost accepted as fate—No es fácil estar sola.

Yet everywhere there are precious things
suggesting she has not given up on herself,
on beauty: dusty silk flowers in a wall vase,
poor geisha figurines on her coffee table,
thin velvet pillows, vintage photos pressed
under her dresser’s glass top. Look, she says,
holding up a pink sateen gown from her niece,
which she’s rending to make a new bedspread—
It’ll be beautiful, when I’m done—tears dammed
in her eyes, clear as the rain weeping through
the frail balcony hanging above the street
like a petal about to fall from a dying rose.

“Chilo’s Daughters Sing for Me in Cuba”

They folded and shaped each banana leaf
like a paper flower with their calloused fingers
to make the tamales, filled with thirty ears
of cornmeal ground by hand. They helped
Ramon with the slaughter yesterday, seasoned
the pork overnight with salt, cumin, bay leaves.
They culled through every grain of wild rice
and every pound of black beans they could buy
on the black market. They sold three months
of soap rations for a string of garlic, crushed
the garlic, had enough olive oil to make mojito
for the yuca. They pulled the yuca from the soil
of their father’s field this afternoon—washed it,
cut it, boiled it—until it’s heart bloomed open,
tender and white as its flower. They prepared
jugs of watermelon refresco and set the table
for twenty with borrowed plates and tin cups—
but no napkins. Now, they serve their dishes,
stand around us, and begin singing a cappella
for me, glad I’ve come to see them again, to sit
at their table, eat what their hands have made,
listen to their songs. Rosita sings old boleros
for our tíos and tías still in love with love.
Nivia sings danzones to honor our grandfathers
who’ll be buried in the same ground they tilled.
Delia sings the old décima verses of guajiros
who made poetry out of cutting sugarcane.
And we all sing Guantanamera, over and over
again—Guantanamera because today the food
is plentiful, the earth continues to give them
what they need—Guantanamera for the lyrics
that praise the good people of this country
where the palms growº—guajira Guantanamera
because the revolution that never ends will
never change them, their stories, this land.

ºfrom the lyrics of Guantanamera, a popular Cuban folksong, adapted from Versos Sencillos by Jose Martí

This episode of “Village Voice” aired on GBH Boston Public Radio on August 2nd, 2021