Elena’s world was divided into four parts. To the east were the mountains where a revolutionary war was raging. To the south spread a salt-encrusted marsh, thick with the refuse of the past. To the west under an arrogant sun that never set was the world of the capital, the urban splendor of art and poetry and politics. To the north, beyond the hills and plains, was the desert of the sea and, a day’s boat ride away, the American dreamscape of concrete and hope.
When Elena looked to the east, she saw columns of black smoke and flashes of multicolored lights, thunderous and beautiful. Toward those lights the young men of the town went on horseback, by bicycle, and on foot. Once, early in the morning, she’d seen a tall, lanky boy on a unicycle with an old hunting rifle slung across his shoulder. On another occasion she watched a group of schoolboys stepping briskly along, singing revolutionary anthems. Most, however, passed by the truckload. They went to prove their valor before bullets and bombs, join the ruckus, feed the fires of rebellion. Those who returned came back without legs or arms. Many were missing an eye or blinded altogether, or horribly disfigured, or riddled with shrapnel scars, or bearing deep psychic wounds that never healed. A large number were never heard from again. That’s what happened to her two brothers, Eugenio and Fermín, who went to fight in the revolt with great enthusiasm, screaming out, “¡Viva fulano!” and “¡Viva mengano!,” carrying rusted weapons they’d found behind sacks of potatoes in the larder of the ancestral family home. The town soon emptied of able young men, and the only ones to be seen on the streets were the disabled, the cross-eyed, the transvestites, the dim-witted, and the cowards, who made believe they were dim-witted so no one would blame them for not fighting.
Twelve months after her two brothers marched off, a man came to the house dressed in a light beige suit. He had a funerary look in his eyes and a stern, thin mustache across his upper lip and brought with him two small boxes containing the remains of the two brothers. He expressed his condolences to the family and added that Eugenio and Fermín had died heroically in service of the cause. Elena’s mother, Cándida, crossed herself; Elena’s father, Fermín José, stared at the man and asked how, and the man repeated, “Heroically, in service of the cause.” “What cause?” Fermín José asked, and the man answered, “The fight against oppression.” “Oppression,” Fermín José said. They’d never felt oppressed except by the summer heat and the autumn rains. The man stayed for coffee and then went away. Cándida murmured a prayer and Fermín José returned to the back of the house, where the sun never shined and where, when he wasn’t at work distilling the milky firewater that he sold at five pesos a bottle to the broken veterans, he played a chess game with himself that had started the day his two sons went off to war.
At the age of seventeen, soon after the man’s departure, Elena took to writing verses. They were simple poems at first, filled with flowers and trees and Pipo the pig and Cantaclaro the rooster and a benevolent God and ecstatic angels, all the things her mother loved and Elena thought she loved as well. Then in one poem Elena recited to her mother, a cat devoured a frog, and in another a god forced his disciples to eat his son’s flesh and drink his blood. Cándida went to Fermín José and said, “The plague of death has come down from the mountains and infected our daughter.”
Without looking up from the complex geometries of the chess game, Fermín José responded, “That girl has been infected with something more terminal than death.”
“And what is that?” Cándida asked.
“Poetry,” Fermín José said, moving a black rook and checking himself.
“I’ll not have any of that awfulness in the house,” Cándida said.
In response to her mother’s reaction, Elena, who was not rebellious so much as determined, went to the town plaza and recited her poems to the veterans, who huddled in a group at the far end drinking her father’s firewater. The war survivors eyed her lustily as she spoke and whispered dirty things among themselves. When she was done, they clapped enthusiastically, no matter that they didn’t understand a word she was saying. For them it was enough that she stood before them like an apparition from the life they might have led had they never gone to war, never been wounded, never taken up the vile Piedra Negra firewater that turned them into bumbling fools who moaned with need and masturbated behind the bushes of the plaza because no woman, except now Elena with her poems, would have anything to do with their broken bodies and drowning souls.
Elena was grateful for the audience and tried to write poems that might make them tolerate their condition, but she found she couldn’t control her writing. It burst out of her in spasms of language, as if a voice came to her that needed to be fed and freed and heard. Once the voice awoke, oracular and familiar at once, all she could do to silence it (and she had to silence it, loud as it was) was to put what it said down on paper and speak the words out loud in the form of something called poetry because she didn’t know what else to call it. She broke up the lines and stopped counting syllables. The voice didn’t come to her in such an orderly way but in fits and starts, at times jagged like broken glass, other times soothing as honey. Any pattern she tried to impose on it seemed fruitless.
Elena’s mother spent her time in the kitchen, cooking cornmeal and okra, her favorite dish, or sitting in her rocking chair and speaking to herself about the golden days of her youth, when the war was just a dream and all you heard from the mountains was a faint series of pops like firecrackers make. Fermín José was involved in his chess, announcing his moves in the coded language of the game, or else engaged in the alchemies that produced his coveted firewater. Elena’s best friend, Begonia Guzmán, the daughter of the town dentist and self-designated poet laureate, preferred to play Parcheesi or do embroidery in the company of her mother and her aunts, rather than attempt to decipher the convolutions of Elena’s new poetry. “Your poems make me want to throttle my dog,” Begonia would say. “They make me want to run to the marsh and smear myself with mud.”
After the revolt became a revolution and the revolution triumphed, a troupe of itinerant poets came to town. They arrived in a caravan of American cars painted red and yellow, followed by a school bus with megaphones on the roof. The poets, fifteen or twenty of them, were dressed in blue jeans and paisley vests. The men wore long hair tied in ponytails and some of the women had shaved their heads. From their ears dangled long silver earrings and around their necks hung layers of bead necklaces and studded leather chokers. They all seemed in a constant state of agitation, like hyperactive rodents, and gathered in the plaza in front of the old church, which had been slowly crumbling since the last priest abandoned the parish and escaped with a local woman to the United States. The poets played guitars and recited poems in praise of the new people’s government, skipping around one another and the audience of drunk veterans and doing exotic dances that made some of the townspeople cringe with indignation. The poets challenged one another to impromptu poetry matches, bursting with raucous laughter or wild lamentations and generally disturbing the languorous provincial habits of the town.
The troupe was led by Daniel Arcilla, the great poet of the time, whose work was translated into twenty-three languages and whose extraordinary poetic gifts were matched only by his personality—magnetic, combative, and arrogant. His poetry was memorized by children and recited at school assemblies. Lovers blurted out lines to each other in moments of passion, and orators laced their speeches with his words. He was the Bard, a force of nature, a national treasure. His poems were hard as weapons and soft as feathers. When he stepped out of the school bus, he broke out into a spontaneous ode to Piedra Negra, praising its streets, its fragrant flowers and women, the courage of its men who’d fought fiercely in war, and the healthful qualities of its firewater. The poem made the veterans weep with love for their town and pine for their lost limbs. Dr. Guzmán the dentist, who fancied himself the town’s best poet, abandoned his patients to their toothaches; the whores of the bordello urged their clients to hurry up and finish so they too could listen to the poets and catch the attention of Daniel Arcilla, who, rumor had it, was as good with his penis as he was with his pen. Even the mayor, a dour and circumspect man, closed the schools and declared a civic holiday, allowing schoolchildren and municipal employees time off to participate in the festivities.
The revelry went on for days. There were poetry readings in front of the ruins of the old police station, workshops led by several members of the troupe in the dental offices of Dr. Guzmán, and daily lectures on the luminous history of island poetry in the sitting room of the bordello. On the third day flyers appeared all over Piedra Negra announcing a national poetry contest to be judged by the Bard himself. Daniel Arcilla stayed inside the bus during the day and came out in the late afternoon as the sunlight turned the walls of the houses the color of whiskey. Tall and massive with graying hair, he spoke in a baritone voice that could make metal tremble and rose petals vibrate sympathetically. Arcilla’s poetry, though never vulgar, was rife with allusions to sex, and his recitals had a disturbing effect on the women of the town. Tormented by erotic fantasies the likes of which they had never experienced, they neglected their wifely duties. Almost overnight Piedra Negra became a town of slatterns. Meals went uncooked, houses unswept, and laundry unwashed. After a week, a group of men led by a now repentant mayor met in secret and began to plot ways of ridding themselves of the poets. One suggested lacing the poets’ food with asafetida so that they would suffer severe intestinal distress. Another, an ingenious cobbler, suggested sending Doña Juana María Arce de la Masa, one of the grand dames of the town, to recite one of her endless diatribes on the virtues of sexual abstinence. One man, an old cantankerous Spaniard, suggested (only half in jest) castrating the male poets, declaring that they were all a bunch of maricones anyway. In the end nothing came of the meeting, and the men went home to wait for their wives to abandon their foolishness. Poetry was a plague, and as such, there was nothing to do but wait for it to run its course.
To Elena it seemed as if the town had been invaded by creatures from another planet. She was drawn to the poets and their free ways and their ability to turn small things—a pot of flowers, a mud puddle, a lizard sunning itself atop a banana leaf, a mole on a young girl’s cheek—into something like a treasure. She liked how they dressed and how free they were with their affections, walking arm in arm or sitting on park benches with legs on one another’s laps. She listened to their declamations from a distance, standing on the far edge of the square, sensing that she had found her calling and met her tribe. When she saw one of the flyers announcing the poetry contest, she went home and began preparing her manuscript, working and reworking the poems day and night until she grew exhausted and her face acquired the look of a lemur. She then tied the poems together with a red ribbon and waited for the right moment to hand them to Daniel Arcilla. On the seventh day, as the poets readied to leave the town, the Bard appeared for the last time on the steps of the bus. Resplendent in a newly starched white guayabera, wearing dark glasses and smoking a perfectly rolled cigar, he was the embodiment of creole masculinity.
Elena, thin and dark and furtive, walked slowly toward Daniel Arcilla holding the sheaf of poems before her. He blew a thick puff of smoke upward and looked down at her.
“And what is this?” he asked, smiling like a shark.
“Poems for the contest,” she said.
“How charming, for the contest,” he said, taking the manuscript from her and passing it behind him to his assistant, a woman in glasses who seemed troubled and overworked. “And how is it we haven’t met before?” he added.
Nervous as she was, Elena hesitated, moved her head slowly from side to side, and she was about to turn away without responding when the voice came from deep inside her, bursting past her timidity: “Because an army of ants is crawling over the fried eggs my mother made for lunch and no one has eaten. Because there is a gulf of deep water between truth and misery. Because the rooster has died and the hens are alive clucking for love, and the deep trough of the valley is filling with young men and all the battles of the world have gotten together to conspire against sleep. Because there is a white sheet hanging from the clothesline by the banana trees, and the sun is going down and a lone egret is flying slowly across the reddening sky.”
Daniel Arcilla strained to maintain his smile. He brought the cigar to his mouth, blew out more smoke, and nodded. He took Elena’s poems back from his assistant and went inside the bus.
Excerpted from The Cuban Comedy. Used with permission of Unnamed Press. Copyright © 2019 by Pablo Medina.