President Obama is visiting Cuba. To mark the occasion I am posting a poem from my first collection of poetry, Subterranean Radio Songs (2005). I wrote this poem during and after a stay in Havana. You could call it a non-fiction poem.
Romeo y Julieta
in this post-Soviet bloc, present-Americano blockade
of a Special Period
in the twilight of a Habana Vieja teeming
with Habaneros toting handlines
is no leisure activity.
It is economic necessity.
I swim a near dark as close as communal bath water.
Dodge the lines of jiniterismo visible by the whites
of their smiles.
(No, novia. Gracias, I say;
I don’t want to be your pony.)
Moskovitchs grind, bicycles glide
past—accompany a cluster of musicians
wheezing Buena Vista Social Club tunes
to tempt the tourists.
(Lo siento, amigo, I shrug smile;
I don’t wish to salsa your hermana.)
A crowd gathers.
Police down arms to hammer a horseshoe of humidity
around a whippet of a man, body bowed
like one of those fibreglass poles sportsmen wield
in the Gulf Stream. Drinking mojitos,
thinking themselves Ernest.
The crowd contracts,
confirms that Communism is a centipede.
into a collective, many-legged desire
for consumer goods—computers, cellulars,
wide screen TVs, air conditioners, flash cars,
Before my arrival
my Mexican familiaris intimated all Castro had to offer
was contraband tobacco
and Cuban fellatio.
More question than information, as I recall.
But I contended I desired only baseball.
Saw myself behind the batter’s cage
at Estadio Latinamericano
sipping espresso from a paper thimble,
listening to the bleacher calls.
The eternal search for the elusive
Strike two. Ball three.
The count is full.
The crowd aroused.
The pitch waist high
Begging to be hit.
I came to Cuba carting a cardboard suitcase
and a straw hat.
I am highly flammable,
but buy a carton of Romeo y Julieta.
My passport has expired,
but I possess greenbacks.
I think myself alone,
but have a suede-headed chaperone:
My kid sister.
Together, we have ridden the Yucatan
in second-class bus carriages.
Both of us in remission
from births, deaths
Habana Vieja is our last stop in the Americas.
South of Cuba is suburbia—
mortgages, marriage to my West Indies,
a long suffering Baptist bride,
and children I am yet to name.
Call them Nina, Pinta, Santa Maria.
Call me Columbus. Better yet, Cortez.
The promise of capitalism thrashes about
in Bahia de la Habana,
fights for freedom,
threatens to baptise the fisherman.
But the fish cannot outlast the centipede.
As each fisherman is bent to breaking
he is relieved by fresh hands
until, rotation by rotation,
the prize is reeled in
left to drown
on the warm concrete
in the late evening
of Castro’s Cuba.
with a torso as thick
as a man’s thigh.