by Chris Campanioni
On Exile and Excess
The Island Kingdom
(Hanging Loose Press, 2015)
The history of Cuba is a history of exile, from the eradication of the indigenous neo-Taíno and Guanahatabey population in the 1500s to the forced departure of nonconformists by the Castro government in the second half of the 20th century. “To be Cuban,” José Lezama Lima once said, “is to already feel foreign.” But to be Cuban is also to be manifold, as José Martí proclaimed in his celebrated poem “Yo soy un hombre sincere:” “I come from everywhere, and I am going toward everywhere.” To be Cuban is to be inherently a synthesis; a body comprised of various parts. And so Cuba’s rich literary history is filled with writers like Guillermo Cabreba Infante, Severo Sarduy, and Nicolás Guillén, linguists for which language is a banquet, a feast of words where everything goes through the mouth—“se la comió!”—and comes out in an assay before it converges back upon itself, each part re-formed and refashioned, elongated and expanded to create a utopia that has no location but the location of the text: the possibility of excess and an excess of possibilities.
Pablo Medina’s eighth book of poems, The Island Kingdom (Hanging Loose Press, 2015) continues this tradition of Cuban wordplay and displacement: the doubling of a word, character, scene, story, sound. The reaction to exile is excess, and Medina’s collection is in many ways an attempt to rewrite the origins of stories ranging from Ancient Greek to Biblical. Medina’s fixation on the past is not surprising. “American identity,” the Cuban-born critic Roberto González Echevarría asserted, “is an absence, a deficiency from which emerges a culture that always seems to be wrought in the zero of the beginning.” An origin requires both the discovery and recovery of the past, a desire to remember and retrieve. But an origin is also always multiple, contradictory, and open-ended; there is no solitary truth in the birth of anyone or anything except that its birth is the product of various forces—explosion meets expansion, phallus meets vulva in coitus.
By choosing to re-frame the past, Medina is also making a statement about the veracity—and variables—of the present. Medina doesn’t just acknowledge the contradictions embedded within memory’s prism, he celebrates it. “A face looks at me and frowns,” he writes in “On Innocence.” “Grow up, it says, grow down in the ground.” In “The Hinterland,” the poem that might serve as Medina’s ars poetica, he declares: “There is no god but I and I am / my own prophet. Not arrogance / but dread. Truth is a sphere. / It contracts under the midday sun.”
The Island Kingdom contains three sections: “Island History,” “The Babylon Poems,” and “The Elementaries,” all of which are haunted by paradise, lost and found, remembered or wholly imagined. Nostalgia, as well as the love and betrayal inherent in nostalgia, propels these poems into a realm previously explored by the Cuban-born Italian writer Italo Calvino in his Invisible Cities. In all of Medina’s iterations of his island, of his many different islands, alternating moments of absence and desire accompany a narrative that reads as equal parts travelogue, philosophical discussion, and anecdote. Medina equates presence with memory, by presenting several moments as montage, as in “The River Saint,” he shapes a current of disparate images, including “headless dolls, two-legged stools, torn dresses, beach balls, melon rinds, the bones of cattle and pigs,” and, of course, “the conundrums” that make the river indefinable.
In “The Helmet of Dawn” and “Dead Angel,” Medina relates two versions of the same scene: “I flew into the sun and fell” and “Early in the soup of things the angel dropped to the waves and sank to where her wings flapped against the sands of hope.” The first-person point of view is immediately juxtaposed with its close third-person cousin to broaden the reader’s gaze but also to submerge it. Medina’s declaration four pages earlier: “Truth is a joke, it makes people sneer. Depth has nothing to do with it” is itself a joke, realized in the way Medina, like so many other Cuban writers, pervert language to create what he himself calls “the nothing-that-is.” Perhaps the clearest example of this is in “Santa Habana” which celebrates the Malecón esplanade, a five-mile stretch along the coast in which Medina rumbas in the line: “ven Habana, vein Habana, vain Habana.”
Earlier, during descriptions of his grandfather’s cologne (“Agua de Lila”), Medina’s speaker requires elaboration and digression, alternative pathways and circuitous routes. Again, the motive is to expand the body, the narrative we navigate to get there. “The drops that fall from the tallest / branches of the lilac bush / I call rain, but I could call them / lamp or truck or pantaloons. / / I say hortensia and mean hydrangea, / narciso and mean daffodil. / What I mean is a flower the rain has fed.”
Much has been written about Walt Whitman’s influence on Medina, and while “Saint Walt” indeed celebrates Whitman’s “brash American inflection,” still another American poet comes to mind while reading The Island Kingdom: Reinaldo Arenas, who was born in Santiago in 1943 and fled Cuba in 1980 for Miami, and eventually, New York City. Arenas’s poetry was more visceral, bodily, and haunting than his prose, and his celebrated poem, “My Lover the Sea” which begins: “I am that child with the round, dirty face who on every corner bothers you with his ‘can you spare a quarter?’” is received by Medina’s “I am the old man who listens, broken and breathless in a foreign land.” For both Arenas and Medina, the foreign land is the setting that always returns because return is impossible. The Northeast, particularly North Jersey, is the landscape that Medina so often populates in his island kingdom, ranging from Hackensack to Union City’s Bergenline Avenue, a spot of land that once was home to the second-largest population of Cuban-Americans in the United States.
“He thought it would be easy this falling in place in New Jersey,” Medina writes in “The Blue-Faced Man.” Mottled marshes, winter’s wrath, the rhetoric of factories, half-lit motels, the howling wind, and the cost of ambulances are all cited in “City of Morphine” but the most troubling aspect of Medina’s passage to this proto-paradise is still located in language and its often jarring train of thought; a recall without response: “Their tongues are twisted but their horns are straight. I don’t remember learning English.”
In our closing glimpses of The Island Kingdom, in Medina’s ninth and final verse of “The Elementaries,” the tone changes from elegy to elasticity, the ability to retrieve and recover: “I surrender, you surrender[…]we seek what we seek.” For immigrants and exiles and children and old men, in waiting for hope and excavating loss, Medina has found the utopic landscape indigenous to poetry.
CHRIS CAMPANIONI is a first-generation Cuban- and Polish-American. He has worked as a journalist, model, and actor, and he teaches literature and creative writing at Baruch College and Pace University, and new form journalism at John Jay. He was awarded the Academy of American Poets Prize in 2013 for his collection, In Conversation, and his novel, Going Down, was selected as Best First Book for the 2014 International Latino Book Awards. He is also the author of Once in a Lifetime (Berkeley Press) and Tourist Trap (Black Rose), a novel.