Wednesday, August 23, 2006



The Poet Slave of Cuba (A Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano) by Margarita Engle
(Henry Holt Publishers, 2006)

Cuba, oh, Cuba, when they call thee fair!
And rich and beautiful, the Queen of isles!
Star of the West, and ocean’s gem most rare!
Oh, say to them who mock thee with such wiles
Take of these flowers, and view these lifeless spoils
That wait the worm; beyond the hues beneath
The pale cold cheek, and seek for living smiles,
Where beauty lies not in the arms of death,
And bondage taints not with its poisoned breath.
To Cuba by Juan Francisco Manzano, Translated by Dr RR Madden

The Poet Slave of Cuba made my heart weep in every sense of the cliché. Capturing the true and horrible sense of enslavement, Margarita Engle has created a masterpiece. Adversity and heartache pulsate through this collection that ends with a beginning. Illustrations by Sean Qualls stand mournful sentinels over poems rich in their raw honesty. The work is truly staggering in the enormity of its task and Engle’s sensational success. Google The Poet Slave of Cuba and you will be rewarded with an astonishing array of reviews and articles all enthusing the haunting verse of Engle’s biography.

When my owner catches
               a whiff
               of the fragrance
               of words
               engraved in the flesh
               of succulent geranium leaves
               or the perfumed petals of alelí flowers
               then she frowns because she knows
               that I dream
               with my feathers
               my wings

Engle’s describes an environment and concept foreign to most of her readers. She revels in this by using dramatic language to tell her story, while maintaining a faithful account of Juan Francisco Manzano’s life. There is ample opportunity to exaggerate, but she resists the temptation. The history of Juan Francisco Manzano is one typical of slavery. What makes it stand out is his legacy of verse and Engle handles this with subtle mastery.

Margarita Engle’s is a powerful voice. Her characters are sharply drawn and while there is sometimes a fine line between female and male voice, especially when Don Nicolás and Toribio are speaking, the female characters are sharply defined.

When I leave the country houses, city houses, palaces
               when I leave without him, ho, how he screams!
               Everyone laughs
               he’s inconsolable
               how amusing, they say,
               the child actually thinks he belongs to you–
               in that other way
               of belonging
--Doña Beatriz

The differences in his mistresses’ voices are a good example of Engle’s characterisation. The elegant and elderly Doña Beatriz is arrogantly patronizing. The repressed and frustrated La Marquesa de Prado Ameno is cruelly insane.

Some people can never be satisfied.
The poet-boy, for instance.
Nothing is ever enough for him.
I have to tell the overseers to teach
               the same lessons
               over and over
               locking his ankles in the stocks
               tying him to a cross like Jesus.
Or tying him to a ladder laid out on the ground
               face down, mouth down
               so he cannot speak
               except to count his own lashes out loud.
And even then, when he loses count
               as they always do when they pass out
               from shameful weakness
Even then, when the overseer makes him start over
               counting again from number one
               until he finally reaches number nine
And even when this is done nine days in a row
               still he bleeds and weeps,
               trying to show me
               that he has won
               he has triumphed once again
               he has proven that he can still
               make me sad.
Evil child.
--La Marquesa de Prado Ameno

However, we are encouraged to feel a sense of pity for these characters through the sensitivity of Juan.

I watch
as they arch their eyebrows
and flutter their open silk fans
each fan the graceful shape
of a single wing
even a free bird is helpless
with just one wing

The women in this tyrannously male-dominated society are slaves as well. They are unable to exercise their minds, to fulfil their potential or realise ambition. They are as enslaved in their position as the slaves they own. The ability of Engle’s to skilfully achieve this level of realism in her biography is a great credit to her storytelling capabilities. Interestingly it is the women that play centre stage in this biography. The men are seen as marginal figures despite the apparent power with which they rule their empires.

Don Juan rules El Molino
               his plantation
               on this island of sugar
               and many other sweet illusions

Don Juan is a shadowy figure. He never appears in the book but as a third party. Vague references are made to him and we receive a hazy picture. La Marques is a similarly undefined character. But while Don Juan appears an active Master, La Marques appears weak and despised by his wife. The only males given a voice are the Overseer, Don Nicolás, Toribio and Juan. The Overseer and Toribio are strong workingmen, while Don Nicholas and Juan are more artistic and dreamy. It is the women that dominate Juan’s life. Don Nicolás offers him respite, Toribio teaches him his trade, but the women fight for and against him. Juan’s life is one of uncertainty, of being pushed and pulled in all directions at once.

Is it true that King David in ancient Israel
really wrote such sad-happy, doubtful-hopeful
back-and-forth maybe-someday
these-are-promises, absolutely-definitely

Engle’s weaves an illusionary scene. Juan’s freedom is an illusion, his dreams are illusions, La Marquesa de Prado Ameno’s cruelty was inspired by delusions and the Doña Beatriz pretended Juan was her own child. This sense of unreality continues with references to rooster feathers, bones and magic that weave a voodoo spell around the reader. Curses wrap themselves around the Spanish masters and a hint of spirituality pervades the text. An almost fairytale otherworldliness with the rich scents and lush description conjure Juan as a 19th Scheherazade telling 1001 stories to maintain his sanity.

Engle’s Cuban-American ancestry is largely responsible for the power behind her imagery and description, and she has produced a remarkable book. Every verse feels touched with personal devotion and her need to get across the beauty and history of what she writes is overwhelming. Obviously the legacy of storytelling has been passed down to her through her Cuban ancestors’. Although it is aimed at older children, I personally feel it is going to find a more receptive audience among adults. If you buy a copy, treasure it and learn from it. This book is more a work of art than any others I have read lately.


Fionna Doney Simmonds is the Poetry Editor for ezine and reviews regularly for other ezines and magazines. Passionately commited to the written word she is doing all she can to restore Poetry to its rightful place as Queen of literature.


Post a Comment

<< Home