Grandfathers’ machetes, begging palms, Cohibas, fast-running gravel, timeworn seawalls, struggling honeybees & Viñales’ feathered valley.
My Father and Fidel
He said they were Cuban—and they were
by way of Canada, business trips to Toronto
slipped over the border in socks and underwear.
Some saved for the bosses, the rest infused
his shirts, the drapes and shag carpet.
Near the end, in assisted living, he tamped
the hot nubs, Honduran knockoffs
in a corncob pipe for that last dib of good.
My father would screw Customs again
to stand where I stand today, Partagás Cigar Factory,
totalmente a mano en la Habana—in the lobby
a banner of Fidel stroking a fine Cohiba.
Take the damn shot, my father would say,
though photographs are forbidden
on the upper floors where cutters and rollers
separate broad leaves, amber to high yellow,
slice in quick semaphores, tobacco splayed
on their laps like the balsa fan I dare not leave
in the tour van. It’s the soil, they say, Viñales’
feathered valley—and under the table
a cutter signals the five he’s allowed
each day to sell or inhale in the plaza.
Take it, my father would say, though likely
dregs, just as Fidel took his best shot
and lit the tired old world—
that first dib of good,
Remember, we are all Americans.
—Octavio, guide, El Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón
M y first night in Havana, I venture out,
a single woman at sunset. The Malecón,
the city’s front porch—fishermen, lovers,
walkers with dogs and not, raggle-taggle
at ocean’s timbre. Street musicians tune
by the timeworn seawall, five-mile stretch
above the steely gray cousin to the Atlantic
of home. Blonde, WASP, Yuma in Cubanese,
never gringa or Yankee, I breeze past
begging palms, eyes ahead, just as
on my downtown streets in Tennessee.
A young man head on, well-dressed surfer boy:
A few pennies, lady. Just a few pennies.
You are my sister.
You are my mother.
You are my grandmother.
God bless America.
I want to be the rope that cinches
our distance, linger until sinking sun
on this windy esplanade, our breath
one with the rough waters. I want to be
his abuelita, linked in common striving
and desire. To speak the unspeakable
despite different languages—ghosts
of grief and solitude, groundless fear
pooling our own porches, painted
haint blue to dispel bad spirits.
Triumph of the Revolution
Four times she says it, her art museum
tour spiel, the triumph of the revolution,
and so it was—electricity
and plumbing, healthcare and education
brought to Cuba, Batista’s slavery
overthrown by Fidel’s strong-
armed Papa, another sparring Hemingway,
pinning history to the mat. Yet rain
after rain, women in the Viñales Valley
shovel fast-running gravel from rutted roads.
Salt and neglect ruin old Havana’s
tiered balconies, her crumbling
Quinceañera. I am only a Yuma
strolling these picture postcards:
Colonial streets and courtyards,
a day snorkeling jewel waters. I’m no one
to question the price and poundage
of triumph—except my own
small revolutions—marriage in elegant decay,
my father’s ghost carried into the cigar factory,
both of us striking out,
taking it all in. We breathe the fine aromas,
nod to rollers whose grandfathers’ machetes
We dare anyone, even Castro,
to stand in our way.
Blue upon blue of my own Great Smokies,
last swim in Varadero’s opal waters, nearly
waveless, at least farther out, bobbing
with Canadians, Austrians, the Dutch,
an easy suspension on Cuba’s glassy coast.
I’m out early, before leaving the Matanzas
Province, before the heat and simmer.
I’m traveling while my legs and spine
are upright, while my pilgrim heart still
yearns for time out of time, to be imprinted
with paraíso. I’m traveling before my own
elegant decay, the stuccoed Plaza de la Catedral
I so admired washed to bone by sun and salt,
a slow death more stunning than perfection.
Swimming done, I come in at the wrong point,
the hieroglyphed outcrop of stone, unable
to shift in the force of surf. The lifeguard
sees my distress, pulls me from the rocks,
my hip and foot already colors of the Cuban
flag. Even under turquoise skies, floating
turns to slippage and stumble, as much
the sought horizon as a thousand blues.
These revolutions tell me I’m alive,
in the miles flown here, this buoyant shore.
A honeybee struggles in the sand.
Before I can lift it on a limpet shell,
it’s swept out and out.
Linda Parsons coordinates WordStream, WDVX-FM’s weekly reading series, with Stellasue Lee and is the reviews editor at Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel. Her poetry has appeared in The Georgia Review, Iowa Review, Prairie Schooner, Southern Poetry Review, The Chattahoochee Review, Baltimore Review, Shenandoah and Ted Kooser’s syndicated column, “American Life in Poetry,” among many others. Candescent is her fifth poetry collection (Iris Press, 2019). Parsons is the copy editor for Chapter 16, the literary website of Humanities Tennessee, and writes social-justice plays for Flying Anvil Theatre in Knoxville. The first three poems in this collection qualified as a finalist in Nowhere’s Fall 2019 Travel Writing Contest; “Elegant Decay” was first published in American Diversity Report, April 15, 2020.
Lead image: Daniel Seßler