I love writing that infuses me with wonder. Fresh images, yes, startling metaphors, but please, language that moves in a brand new way. I want to wonder at the word and the world: I want “miracles [that] are treated as ordinary fact.”
Christina Olivares writes wonderful poems. They're luminous. They're odd, but still graceful. Most of her signature work is characterized by careful structural fragmentation, with phrases and words floating in space. Although the poem posted here isn't written in that style, every phrase of this poem still feels singular, isolated in its own way even while it continues the narrative. I haven't totally figured out how Olivares does this, which is partly why her work is so marvelous, and why I want to read it again and again.
The poem below was previously published in Tidal Basin Review, Spring 2012.
I. Sea Wall
The sea wall is the dividing line between Cuba and what is not Cuba. We gather, from all over the city, curl up on the wide ledge. Every night. Tonight the moon is full of sun and rising into the dark sky. My hands are full of sugared papitas. Closing in on the edge of shore, a boat whistles close. The guards stand on guard, peer over. A girl who likes girls slips her tongue against my earlobe while I dream about my lover. She reminds me of rain—husky vivid wind. But the night is so clear that instead of strings of sweet popcorn or kisses I put my hands out and gather the stars. I hear them, glass dreams beating on an old wind. It reminds me of something outside of my mind’s reach. The sea is a body that holds all of us. Hidden in her mouths, a wild singing.
II. Tin wall
They warn me he’ll throw bottles, cut me with a machete. Say he’s mal de nervios, fundido, loco. Ways of saying crazy. The colonial mansion he lives in has two bright holes the size of elephants, one a missing door, one a missing window. Each has propped against it a large rusted sheet of tin, stolen from some abandoned construction site, a signal of protection, but air and light and thieves slip in anyway. The neighbors say that he sold the iron on the indows, sold the doors, sold the glass, sold the appliances, sold the flooring my great grandfather had so diligently laid, sold the light fixtures, even sold the bathtubs.
Later, he whispers to me, the communists said once, we can heal you if you work for us. You are going crazy because you have not submitted to the triumph of the revolution. There is one working door: hinge, padlock, knob: I know how these things go: you may not enter around the tin sheath. What pretends to be a wall must actually be treated like a wall, so I knock on the door. He answers, he’s been spying from the inside since he heard me talk to the neighbor. I show him pictures of the family through a slat in the door. He is my grandfather’s brother, he recognizes the faces in the pictures. He folds them carefully, like identification papers, inside a worn plastic bag that doubles as his wallet. I enter. The house is empty except for what’s decayed and what’s growing. He stacks empty plastic bottles by the door. He hides his machete inside the stove with no mouth. He writes a letter to my father that ends with, olvidate todo. He folds it carefully and slips it between my fingers, like this.
His mind is a dismantled house. Before, he was a nuclear physicist. People have theories. When he smiles, all his teeth are missing. My touch goes through his eyes, threads along the rapid pulse of him.
Mess of flies and stink of offering in the cramped backyard, animals for sacrifice in cages. In the babalawos’ room, blue-blessed walls, sharp hunger of meat frying, beads and knives and bones and feathers and books. There are eight of us. A corner is stained in a long thin red streak, floor to ceiling.
There is a baby girl, scrubbed clean, her head is too heavy for her neck, she is Sunday-polite in her lace jumper, her lace booties, her hair taut and oiled into three even braids. She is sick, so sick that when people pass they become quiet, so sick the jumpy stray wanders inside to lay beneath the chair where her grandmother sits. Her grandmother lifts my hand to join with hers and the little one, and we rock her together and wait in the heat as if for execution.
The next day, after ceremony, she is healed, there is no trace, there was no medicine, it would have been a miracle, but miracles are treated as ordinary fact in this house. At some point they mashed coconut and put it against our heads. And we stood in circles of sunlight, quietly. Somebody wept and it pulled strings in our bodies like an old quiet thing. Hidden in our mouths, a wild singing, like this.
Christina Olivares is a poet and educator living in New York City. She earned an MFA from Brooklyn College in Poetry and a BA from Amherst College in Interdisciplinary Studies (Education). She is the recipient of a 2012 Vermont Studio Center Artists Grant, a 2010 Jerome Foundation Travel and Study Grant for Emerging Writers to Cuba, and 2008-2009 Teachers and Writers Collaborative Fellowship. She is a 2012 Best of the Net and a 2008 Pushcart Prize nominee. Her poems are published in Vinyl Poetry, PALABRA, Tidal Basin Review, The Acentos Literary Review, No, Dear, and The Brooklyn Review.