Throughout our lives, most of us visit many new places — whether for vacation, work or to start a new chapter in life. Yet, there are likely only one or two such visits that are so entirely unexpected and different from our everyday reality, or, indeed, anything we are capable of imagining, that the first time of being there becomes an important and memorable milestone. All other such first visits or arrivals are held up to that benchmark event from then on. It doesn’t even have to be a visit to a new place, really. It could just be a first or new experience that overwhelms us so entirely that it remains etched in our minds forever — to be relived again and again with all its vivid intensity of images and emotions.
Today’s prose poem is about just such a first-time experience that takes over the speaker’s mind and senses entirely. About how, what is banal and commonplace for others, is a deep shock to the speaker and evokes several unexpected emotional and intellectual responses. In the end, the poem is less about the celebration and joy of discovering a new place on a first visit than it is about understanding how such visits can make us see things in unreal and fantastical ways and, very possibly, unground us completely if we’re not paying close attention. To me, this is the emotional skeleton of the poem – that we can either ride along with the adrenaline-fueled, yet complacent, wave of astonishment and enjoyment of a new place or we can look closer, stay on our feet, and see past the glitz and glamor of the new world to what really matters.
Before we get started, let me share a few personal thoughts about the poem overall. There are so many individual threads woven together here that, even after several re-readings, I find them somewhat tangled and not expressed entirely satisfactorily. I don’t know if this is just the way the poem is intended to be or whether something has been lost in translation. Yet, the themes it explores are worthwhile and the beautiful imagery and metaphors offer themselves to several interpretations.
Now, for some background about the poet as it will help set the context of the poem. Reina María Rodríguez is an award-winning Cuban poet and considered to be among the finest contemporary Cuban writers. She was born in Cuba in 1952, just seven years before Castro’s revolution. While many contemporary poets, writers, and artists have chosen to live in exile rather than in the post-revolutionary Cuba where the government has control of most media, Rodriguez has continued to live in Havana. Her rooftop home, informally known as la azotea de Reina, has served as a salon for the Cuban literary community for many years. Her works have not been widely translated, likely, as a result of being rather cut off from the global literary community. However, a few translators have, in the past decade or so, taken on the laudable effort of bringing her work to a wider, English-speaking audience.
The poem is from a selection called ‘Traveling’, of 35 prose paragraphs that were composed in the mid-80s and recently translated by Joel Brouwer and Jessica Stephenson. It is not clear whether this description of a first-time visit is from the poet’s personal experiences or whether it is imagined. This distinction, the translators have said, is not relevant because Rodríguez has described her poem’s first-person speaker as someone
who moves among places, people, situations, never experiencing them as real, but rather as elements in a script, or objects in a gallery.
The first few phrases establish the place and its location. The speaker is in a North American grocery store with, we learn shortly, her American host Phillis.
Right away, we are drawn into specific images and descriptions of food in the grocery store. A variety of fruit that looks too glossy to be real to the speaker because she has only seen that sort before in magazine photos. A small detail such as the blue sticker with the name of a faraway country, Morocco, is astonishing to her — that these inanimate objects, with no concept of time or space, should have traveled so far, even farther than she herself has traveled, to be displayed in this store. This, in itself, tells us how the act of travel and of being in a completely different place is a particularly significant and highly unusual one for the speaker. And, this entire brief perspective on these grocery store fruits is also a way for the speaker to let us know that, in her normal world, fruit is, likely, homegrown and, therefore, only available as allowed by the seasons and, since we know the poet’s background, we can assume, as the government allows.
Next, in describing the eggs and how they’re colored differently for each separate day, the speaker refers to this entire concept as “opportunity”, which, again, makes us realize that the idea of being able to eat an egg a day is not something she can take for granted in her typical world.
When faced with a reality that is unlike any she has ever known, the speaker’s response goes beyond wonder and shock to a more visceral one. In the next few phrases, she describes the effects of the adrenaline rush — dizziness, loss of breath and urge to get away. But greater than any of that, is the poignancy of her sadness and tears as a realization hits her: how her world is so far-removed and so distant from the opulence and abundance that she has just witnessed here for the first time.
It is a realization that the speaker feels she cannot articulate to her host. She thinks that it would not be understood as the host does not have the speaker’s background or life to fully understand and that only someone who has had a similar first-time experience might be able to do so. I find this an interesting denial because, of course, we, the readers, are being asked to understand the speaker’s experience by the poet. Yet, perhaps, what is being conveyed by these few lines is how, in the actual moment, it is difficult to articulate exactly what one is experiencing to those around us because all our faculties are held hostage.
The speaker goes on to describe how she feels as if she hasn’t just traveled a distance or space but also spanned a length of time. As if the travel from her world to North America is a supersonic visit from the stone age to a future that’s several hundred years ahead. And, as she thinks about the hundreds of things around her now – things she had never known or imagined about before – it makes her realize how all human beings, throughout the ages, go through their entire lives without having much knowledge at all of the worlds beyond their own.
Approximately at the mid-point of this piece, the speaker’s wonder and fear of this new world start turning into a kind of disbelief and aversion.
First, the speaker tells us that this sudden, new knowing of the hitherto-unknown, beyond-her-world and seemingly-unreal things feels oppressive to her. Her choice of the phrase, “refined propaganda” is interesting because it is a way of rejecting, I think, what her eyes are seeing, a dismissal of these beautiful, new things as exaggerated lies meant to misinform and mislead. That all of this bounty is just sitting there, waiting to be picked up and consumed in various ways, seems as unbelievable to her as political hype.
Next, she equates all the food as distant faces staring at her from cardboard boxes. Faces of things that are beginning to merge into one big amorphous and overwhelming mass for her. This seems like a bit of a contradiction of images – because a single mass cannot have several distant faces. Yet, perhaps, it is intentional and meant to indicate to us the speaker’s sense of coming unmoored from too much of a muchness.
The speaker continues to emphasize how strange it is for her to be surrounded by all that food in its many colors, shapes, varieties, and packages. It’s as if she has turned into a different person – one who has never tasted proper meat, milk, and water and has been, till now, feral and surviving on whatever she found in her meager habitation.
When her nose begins to bleed and her host suggests that it might be the cold (of the produce/meat sections in the grocery store), the speaker doesn’t agree, implying that this is yet another manifestation of her sense of “otherness” that has overtaken her entire being.
The final few lines bring the speaker and her host to the seafood section of the grocery store. These are objects that she recognizes and identifies more readily at first, moving closer to them. But, then, she touches the shells lightly. This is the first time we learn of her actually touching something in the store. And the image and thoughts that she leaves us with are revealing. She feels the fish shells to be, at first touch, pearly, real and perfect but, on closer attention, finds them to be plastic, unreal and deceiving.
This last image and perception is a pessimistic and rather sad note to end on. Yet, it is starkly honest. It feels almost necessary for the speaker to strip the gloss and varnish that has inundated her from the moment that she walked in; to let that one singular, final revelation help her get grounded and allow her to get a grasp on her experience. Of course, the “road not taken” here is the more optimistic one where the poem could have ended marveling at the beauty and bounty of this never-before-seen grocery store, especially in comparison with the relatively sparser world that the speaker has just come from. But, that would have been the easy and complacent response. It would hardly have revealed any profound truth, which is what we seek from good poetry. Don’t you think?
[EDITED TO ADD: As a funny side-note, the poem also reminded me of an old news video clip of the first time Boris Yeltsin, as the Russian President, went around an American supermarket.]
we went into a market—they call it a grocery—and you can’t imagine. fruit brilliant as magazine photos. all kinds of different oranges, grapefruits, mandarins, some tiny clementines with a blue sticker—Morocco—they’ve come so far…the eggs are painted with colors corresponding to the days of the week you’re supposed to eat them: a different color for each opportunity. i felt dizzy, the gulf between myself and this place seemed insuperable. tears welled up in my eyes, i wanted desperately to flee, to get outside so i could breathe. i wanted to explain to Phillis, the North American who had invited me, what was happening to me. i tried, but she couldn’t understand: you have to have felt it yourself: the first time. for the first time my mind had crossed over five hundred years of development at jet speed and arrived in the future, a cold future, its display cases filled with artificial snow and artificial heat. there were a thousand things i never knew existed, a panoply of brand names and gadgets for every purpose. i felt like someone from the stone age, and realized most people on the planet never know the era they’re living in, any more than they could know the quantity of living matter in this galaxy that surrounds us, or the milky complexity of the molecules in their own brains, and what’s more they don’t know that they’ll die without ever knowing. i felt terror of that gloss, of the waxed fruit, of propaganda so refined it could dilute the existence of the strange things before my eyes, other sensations: everything wanting to be used up, immediately, licked, tasted, eaten, packaged, mastered. i knew i couldn’t stand this avalanche, this brilliant swarm, for long, these rows on rows of distant faces staring out at me from cardboard boxes. i’d seen nothing singular in the place, no unique thing i could separate out from the amorphous mass of texture and sensation. i began to move closer, imagining i walked with those who have never eaten meat or tasted cow’s milk, who have never nursed except from the teat of a goat. those who have had only wildflowers to chew when the winter hunger comes. i approached closer still, imagining i walked with the salty ones, who collect their water from the public pipe. my nose began to bleed and Phillis said it was the cold; i knew that wasn’t the problem. we were near the seafood display, i moved closer. fish have always aroused in me both horror and desire. i moved closer, like a lost child feeling her way through space toward something of hers that’s hidden. i brushed the shells with my fingertips, they were smooth and delicate, but obviously artificial, made to be used once and thrown away. at first touch they might seem real, pearly, perfect, but they’re actually plastic, and they’ve never even seen any sea.