This poem, with its many images and musicality, touches on several wonderful themes. It reminds us of how everything starts from the tiniest and simplest beginnings; that even the most seemingly commonplace thing has a past, a history; how the journey from past to present to future is an ongoing, ever-flowing occurrence, even if we are sitting absolutely still; and, finally, how, in the end, our roots are always part of who or what we are today even if the connections aren’t always visible or obvious.
Let’s start with a few words about the poet, Victor Hernández Cruz. A Puerto Rican by birth, he grew up in the US after emigrating with his family at the age of five. While in New York City, after learning English, he started writing poems in high school. He was the first Hispanic poet to have a collection published by a big name like Random House. In the 70s, he lived in California, teaching as well as working to bring more visibility to multicultural poetry in the US through various means – reading and performing his works across the US, contributing to the Nuyorican Movement, co-founding the East Harlem Gut Theatre in New York and the Before Columbus Foundation, editing Umbra Magazine, and more. He has won several awards and fellowships through his long career, notably, fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.
Cruz’ poems have always been filled with multicultural influences. He is very aware of how the constant flow of immigration has always transformed cultures. In various interviews, he has cited the many cultures that have influenced his own homeland’s culture and his poetry – Spanish, American, Indian, Islamic, Moorish, English. He is also a sensualist – writing poetry that is filled with cinematic, colorful images and rhythms. In an interview with ‘turnrow’, the University of Louisiana’s literary journal, he talked about his influences and his approach to writing, including the following:
I am a writer with a Caribbean Spanish linguistic soul that uses the English language, appropriates the English and submits it to my flavors and my longings.
I’m a writer of constant geographic changes, going back and forth like a pendulum between place of origin and place where I grew up and trying to make a language out of it.
We’ re thinking in Spanish rather than in Anglo-Saxon language. I have felt in the Spanish language an intense relationship with texture and color, an intense sensual, sexual, double-entendre. In Spain, cultivated writers utilize the popular sayings of peoples, what might be known as proverbs or refrains, as if the culture always comes from the bottom up, rather than the top down. I think also in Latino and Mediterranean cultures there’s a sense of outdoorness, that sense of Caribbean outdoorness, being in contact with people walking the streets….
… my relationship to music, to Caribbean rhythms, to jazz, to Latin Jazz….
my aesthetic experience, my experience of reality—it’s a sort of a Cubist experience, a fragmentation putting things out of context—our Caribbean reality is all out of context—it’s all there—but the thing is, portions of it are in New York, or in New Orleans. Culture and geography and language become a Cubist painting.
And, on reading his various poems, this one in particular, that last reference to Cubism makes a lot of sense because that is exactly what he does here – taking images or ideas apart into fragments, then reassembling them from multiple perspectives to give us the greater, larger context. But, he does this with such care, so that each fragment remains connected to another – whether in the past or in the future. And, the resulting larger context always gives us plenty of room for our own interpretations and our own viewpoints.
Cruz starts the poem with a particular image of physical objects – palm trees and mangoes. Both of these references, of course, place us immediately in the Tropics, which we can safely assume to be his homeland, Puerto Rico. [By the way, isn’t it nice to think of such tropical symbols in the dead of winter? I deliberately selected this poem over the many snow-related ones that are out there. Having spent 10 years living in the Midwest, I know that the last thing one wants, when huddled indoors to escape the mountains of snow piling up on our doorsteps, is more reminders of snow.]
He then connects the beginnings, from beneath the ground, of those eternal symbols of the Tropics – those palm trees and mangoes – to “the eyes of Indian women”. The reference, here, is to the aboriginal Indian people who have been in Puerto Rico from the earliest times – well before Columbus, or the Spanish and American colonizations. Why those women particularly? Likely because they constitute today’s working classes in Puerto Rico and, as such, are usually the ones to plant the tiny seeds that eventually grow into fruit and trees. By connecting the origins of fruit and trees to the eyes of the one who planted them, Cruz alludes to what is often referred to as the “faith of the farmer” – that the sowing of seeds will eventually yield life and growth, despite the many possibilities of destruction. We will return to this thought of yielding life when we get to the last few lines.
The next bit is interesting. He takes us back to the times when wood, not cement, was used to build things in that region of the world. And, the visual of “Panama hats are seen upon skeletons / walking the plazas” is a reference to the Spanish colonization that began after Columbus’ second voyage. The Spaniards and other Europeans, through their many voyages and travels around Central and South America, had found the straw Ecuadorian hats very useful for tropical climates and adopted them as head-gear. So, with these few descriptive lines, Cruz takes us as far back as the 17th or 18th centuries. Don’t you just love how, with just a few carefully-chosen word images, we can go back in time so beautifully?
Then, Cruz takes us even further back – to Columbus’ voyages to the New World. With the 3 evocative lines of “I see Columbus’s three boats / going backwards on the sea / getting smaller”, we travel back 2 or 3 more centuries. Here, he is referring to the second voyage in 1493, when Columbus returned, with a fleet of 17 ships and 1200 or so men, to the New World, including Puerto Rico. This time, the purpose was not just to colonize for exploitation but to colonize for settlement. Cruz lingers on this image of Columbus’ voyage by showing the ships crossing the Atlantic, back to their ports of origin in Spain. [Note: This historical voyage and the deeply-lasting socio-cultural, political, economic and racial identity changes it brought about in the small island chain of Puerto Rico is something Cruz has explored in several poems.]
In the final third of the poem, Cruz focuses on those 1200+ Spanish sailors, who included priests, farmers and soldiers – men who would eventually settle in the New World. He alludes to their earlier lives – the towns, homes, pasts, even taking them back to adolescence, childhood and infancy. Till, finally, they are nothing but the passing, meaningful glances in the eyes of their parents. And, even before such glances could be exchanged, there was, likely, some intimate communal act, like the eating of bread that must have been bought in a busy plaza. And, before such a meal could occur, there must have been a marriage ceremony, signified by the ringing of church bells.
And, those last 2 words – “in reverberation” – aren’t just referring to the ringing sound at the time, but, how, the vibration of those bells all those centuries ago resulted in much larger events leading to the present day. Cruz is using a rather popular fictional trope – the butterfly effect in chaos theory. This is defined as “the sensitive dependence on initial conditions” in which a small change in one place (i.e. a butterfly flapping its wings) can result in large differences in a later state (i.e. a hurricane that occurs several weeks later).
Now, I had mentioned earlier that we would return to the opening lines. And, the reason is to see how Cruz has connected both the opening and the ending of this poem with “beginning” or “birth”. In the opening lines, we have the palm trees and mangoes of the present day and how they came into being through the sowing of seeds by Indian women. And, in the closing lines, we have the origins of the Spanish colonists – from the ringing of church bells that led to the taste of bread and then the glances exchanged by their parents.
I find it wonderful that he has connected the past and the present together like this. He’s suggesting that even the everyday objects and experiences in today’s world owe their origins to other distant and forgotten origins. To me, this kind of correlation and causality is life-affirming because it says that even the smallest and simplest things that we do or experience today can have significant, unimaginable and consequential future results (good or bad, intended or otherwise). This exploration of the origins of things and experiences exists in a lot of his writing. As he said in the previously-mentioned ‘turnrow’ interview:
I think that, in being a writer, you’re always curious of roots and origins, and of family, of histories of people. I definitely felt I had to fill in some kind of gap, that I wanted to see the people who knew my mother and father, who knew my grandparents. I recognize the fragrance of something, but I don’t know the word. What was that fruit? What was that insect and what’s its name? I could recognize what it is to live on the island but I didn’t know its name.
So, with this poem, Cruz is reminding us, too, to be curious of roots and origins; to not forget the past and histories and how all of that, ultimately, shapes our future; and, finally, to accept that the migratory journeys from our past to the present and, eventually, the future, are necessary for our evolution, even if they may be difficult and perilous, as they were for both the colonizers and the colonized those hundreds of years ago.
El Poema de lo Reverso
In which everything goes backwards
in time and motion
Palm trees shrink back into the ground
Mangos become seeds
and reappear in the eyes of Indian
The years go back
cement becomes wood
Panama hats are seen upon skeletons
walking the plazas
Of once again wooden benches
The past starts to happen again
I see Columbus’s three boats
going backwards on the sea
Crossing the Atlantic back to the
ports of Spain Cadiz Dos Palos Huelva
Where the sailors disembark
and go back to their towns
To their homes
They become adolescents again
become children infants
they re-enter the wombs of their mothers
till they become glances
Clutching a pound of bread
through a busy plaza
that becomes the taste
of the sound of church bells
– Victor Hernández Cruz, from ‘Maraca: New and Selected Poems‘ 1966-2000 (Coffee House Press, 2001)
— A live poetry reading (quite funny too)
— Deep Dish TV program, Writers Uncensored (with Joy Harjo and Philip Levine)