Eating Moors and Christians: A Lyrical Excursion
During his historic visit to Cuba, President Obama said that “El Cubano inventa del aire.” In other words, Cubans have a knack for making something out of nothing. This spirit of ingenuity and resourcefulness fuels poet Sandra M. Castillo’s second poetry collection, Eating Moors and Christians (CavanKerry Press LTD.). It’s present in poems like Peluquera where a hairdresser’s profession becomes a vocation and transcends mundane limitations as she literally and figuratively shapes women’s lives. A generous read, this book boasts 52 poems divided into three sections; the first is titled Cuban Irony, a fitting description since the narrator is born on an island but never learns to swim. Castillo’s adeptness at bestowing names is also evident in poem titles that pique the reader’s curiosity; some include I Was a Cold War Baby, This is No Love Story, The Words You Stole From Me, and The Dead Man Serves Coffee.
Eating Moors and Christians is an excavation of the past, one that captures a sense of loss experienced by many in the Cuban exile community. However, the collection speaks to anyone who has been separated from loved ones or who feels displaced. The poems grapple with a nagging yet familiar issue hotly debated by many Cubans and immigrants who have left their country of origin: whether one can ever truly return home. “This is where I come from, a place that exists in photographs I never owned,” says the poet. As family historian, Castillo chronicles the lives of relatives on and off the island, as well as her own, both before and after the revolution “When we were no longer voices / in open rooms with connecting doors, / when we were words on onion-skinned paper.”
Castillo does return to Cuba as an adult who sometimes identifies as an “other” or a “tourist,” unsettling monikers. Stark in their honesty, Castillo’s poems confront harsh realities and conflicting emotions such as a type of survivor’s guilt for emigrating. In fact, little is swept under the rug in these courageous poems. The first two lines in the book’s opening piece, El Bayú, declare “Mi Abuela Juana, la colchonera, took their money, assigned cubicles, fuck boxes, prostitutes to military men—no fantasy here . . . .” And though the word “nostalgia” occasionally surfaces several times in Eating Moors and Christians, the poet does not dress her verse in sentimentality.
Capped by a comprehensive glossary defining Spanish terms used throughout, Castillo’s engaging collection hits the mark for poetry lovers and for those who want to learn more about Cuba. Author Chantel Acevedo sums up the psychological tensions at play in Eating Moors and Christians when she asserts “The poems are a lyrical excursion through a place that feels at once forbidden and familiar, reflecting the torn feelings of many Cubans, both los de aqui and los de allá.”
Vampires linger in the corner of childhood,
like caped crows on telephone lines, connecting
1940s buildings to the courtyard
in front of my Abuela Juana’s apartment,
where, as children, my sisters and I played,
insulated from traffic La Pequeña Habana,
SW 8th Street, by the past, white-stucco
buildings with screen doors and the elderly
who faced death in the sun, away
from the island of their youth.
OBITUARY: Colonel Fermin Cowley, the
architect of Las Pacuas Sangriente
(December 24, 1956), for whom Batista
wept, Comandante de el Ejercito, who
hunted revolutionaries en la costa norte
de Oriente, left their bodies in repartos
named Las Delicias on Noche Buena,
was gunned down (bullet to the chest)
outside a hardware shop en Holguin.
Mumúta moved from Oriente into Fermin Cowley’s house at the end of Calle 158, La Habana, after the triumph of the Cuban Revolution and became peluquera de barrio en La Lisa, where news spread que Mumúta peina, and she was creative too. In a time of escaseses, she knew how to use beer to stiffen hair, how to brush it around the large, pink curlers, how heat made it stick together, enabling her to create volume, how when there was no beer, she could use sugar and water, applying the sticky substance that ran down her black fingers to tease and shape the lives of her vecinas into bucles o moños and how if she ground perrubia into a powder, mixed in alcohol, poured her invento into the government-issued mosquito sprayer, pumped it into a thin mist, como bendición, over the heads of the women who came to her, she could hold their lives in place.
for Tía Estela
Blood puddles on the Spanish-white floor
like a secret no one talks about,
though everyone feeds it, like imagination,
with hushed conversation translating into fear,
into memories I am told were never real,
though rooms roared like the morning lion
that hid in the closets of the upstairs apartment
you rented to a woman who couldn’t understand
why dawn found her undergarments scattered
on the steps of her life,
a display of familiarity or intimacy,
and patterned echoes yawned like voices trapped
between the clavicles of the past
where opaque breaths,
calling us to maids quarters long sealed,
sounded like the wind between the caves
of the underworld we thought would swallow us
into darkness we opened looking for sounds,
for hands folding into knocks,
for mouths moving into vowels, words,
for someone invisible who woke you
to midnight weight pressing upon you
with the invisible thrust of unfamiliar desire
until you could feel the invisible moving inside you
and a hot breath, never your own, equaling pain,
dividing fear into stories that kept us looking
for what we never found.
About the Poet: Sandra Castillo was born in Havana, Cuba, and came to the United States on the Johnson administration's Freedom Flights. In 2002 she received the White Pine Press award for her collection My Father Sings to My Embarrassment, selected by poet Cornelius Eady who described Castillo as a "poet who can make Cuban and Cuban-American history link arms and dance."
About the Guest Contributor:
Rita Maria Martinez is the author of The Jane and Bertha in Me (Aldrich Press), a poetry collection based on the classic novel Jane Eyre. Visit Martinez's web site to learn more about her writing.