Laia Sales Merino reviews Huracán María anthology

Loretta Collins Klobah and Maria Grau Perejoan translated and edited The Sea Needs No Ornament / El Mar No Necesita Ornamento published by Peepal Tree Press (2020)

Cover artwork Fuerza y Maña‘, appearing here via courtesy of the artist, Damaris Cruz, to whom we are very grateful.

In the introduction, the editors mention that they began assembling El Mar No Necesita Ornamento ‘just a few weeks before Hurricane Irma and Hurricane María ravaged the Caribbean and left an apocalyptic landscape in Puerto Rico and many of our sister islands.’ The project was based in Puerto Rico, a colonial territory of the US, and it was created within the context of Huracán María and the violence that followed, including the shameful response by the US government and the shameful official death toll from the Government of Puerto Rico. With no water or electricity for months, they managed to keep working on the anthology in places like coffee shops, a renovated prison and a parking lot with WIFI. They finished the anthology during the massive protests that followed Rosselló’s chat reveal, causing his resignation. It is within this radically charged context that the poems of the anthology came to speak to each other. The editors kept committed to the transformative potential of the project and to the transnational communication and ‘mayor solidaridad entre las escritoras y sus lectoras y lectores, que han estado separadas debido a la geografía y las barreras lingüísticas, pero han sido afectadas por historias globales compartidas y urgentes problemáticas actuales parecidas’ (greater solidarity between the women writers and their readers, who have been separated due to geography and linguistic barriers, but who have been affected by shared global histories and similar current urgent problems) that the project promotes. From their translations flows the potential of multilingual, transnational organising within the Caribbean, as well as within the Global South, in the fight for global justice.

‘Fuerza y maña’ is the title of the cover painting by the artist Damaris Cruz. The models for the painting were her friend and actress María La Cotto and Charlie, María’s son. The painting was created for the event Fem Force in Puerto Rico, which fits the energy of the anthology since the great majority of the people that collaborated in the project, even the people individual poems are dedicated to or written after, identify as women or as non-binary. Considering the machismo that breathed through many of the previous anthologies that I could access of Caribbean poetry both in Spanish and in English, this anthology feels like a groundbreaking, por-fin change. In the introduction it is mentioned how women played a vital role in the intensely creative street protests and community-based relief efforts after Huracán María; that creativity and coming together, that fuerza y maña, is beating throughout this project, where women are playing a vital role in shaping the future of Caribbean poetry and making it inhabitable by all Caribbean peoples.

La Cotto is wearing both a rosario and a yellow and green bracelet reminiscent of the idé de Orula in la santería, illustrating the ubiquity of religious practice in the Caribbean as well as its syncretism. Yaissa Jiménez’s ‘Puerto de la Muerte’ referrs to the Sansoucí port in Santo Domingo, where there is to this day a mausoleum monument in tribute to Cristóbal Colón (there is a sea-front monument in his honour ten streets away from where I’m writing this in Barcelona too). The poem brings forth a prophecy:

de las lágrimas de Yemayá                        a horrifying spell will be born
nacerá un hechizo aterrador.                     from Yemayá’s tears.
Del fondo de la mar                                   From the bottom of the sea,
saldrán flotando los cuerpos,                    corpses will float up.
todas las hijas de la luna                           All the daughters of the moon
volverán a reclamar justicia                      will come back to demand justice.
                                                                                   

From ‘Puerto de la Muerte’ by Yaissa Jiménez
(Translations by Loretta Collins Klobah y Maria Grau Perejoan)

Through the spiritual force of Yemayá, a future can be conceived where the sea visibilises history and the dead are able to demand justice. The lines float then towards the present and the poem does effectively what the ‘sea of dead bodies’ is prophesised to do, announcing that ‘la inquisición no ha terminado’ (the inquisition hasn’t ended), pulling the colonial history of the region from the sea for everyone to witness, particularly the tourists: ‘que se espanten, que vomiten, | que se les encoja el alma’. (so that they panic and vomit, their souls shrinking). The poem becomes the container of Yemayá’s tears, and ‘the horrifying spell’ is born through its lines.

La Cotto holding her child resonates with the poems in the anthology that center on Caribbean children. Tanya Shirley’s ‘Sweet Sweet Jamaica’ shatters any expectations of a celebratory poem with its opening lines: ‘We cannot find our little girls | we cannot find our little boys’. The poem wields the structure and rhethorical devices of a children’s song so that its content plays macabrely in the reader’s mind: ‘coming up on shore in plastic bags | burning in safe houses | hanging from burglar bars’. The form of the poem forces the reader to deal with its content viscerally, while at the same time commenting on the normalisation of violence. The popular nursery rhyme ‘What Are Little Boys Made Of?’ is rewritten so that it fits the speakers’ realities; ‘all that’s nice’ becomes ‘army knives’. The realities of abuse, disappearence and murder of the children are inserted into the nursery rhyme container, piercing it until it is discarded with the last three lines: ‘and then we grow quiet | like dust on the tombstones | of little bones’. The absurdity of a nursery rhyme, when the speakers’ can’t find their children, and of the notion of ‘Sweet Sweet Jamaica’, when the government is not doing enough to protect their children, is enacted in the poem. After its double-edged rhythm, reminiscent of Nicole Cecilia Delgado’s lines ‘la palabra sicario tiene demasiada melodía’ (the word assassin is too melodic), the poem ends with la muerte, with what’s left of the children and of the speakers’ voices.

In her next poem, a mother whose son survives an homophobic beating by security guards becomes ‘the merchant of feathers II’. She ‘paints his wounds with gentian violet’ and stirs ‘soft words | into the cornmeal porridge’ she brings to his bed. Both queer/cuir Caribbean realities and traumatic family dynamics are portrayed with acuteness in the anthology. The poets stir words into all aspects of Caribbean realities. In Shivanee Ramlochan’s ‘The Red Thread Cycle’, a survivor of rape speaks to herself, through a set of instructions on how to shape-shift her words in order for them to be possible and legal in Trinidad: ‘Don’t say forced anal entry. | Say you learned that some flowers bloom and die | at night’. Another act of shape-shifting takes place in Jacqueline Bishop’s ‘Snakes’, where a mother allows the abusing of her daughter by her grandfather with the excuse of ‘it happened to me too’, in a reformulation of the Me Too movement where the ‘me too’ allows the continuation of sexual abuse through an it-has-always-happened logic, es lo que hay. The ‘snakes’ of the title become sharply visible at the end of the poem:

until that day at the zoo when I saw them, a family, 
curled around each other, saw the venomous tongues that darted
and flickered, the evil intent in their glowing red eyes.

It is the action of her family shape-shifting into their truth, of poesía, that allows the speaker to name what they did to her, and to realise that for them her body was family property.

‘Barber, I can say a true thing or I can say nothing’, affirms the speaker of Safiya Sinclair’s ‘Good Hair’. The poetic subjects of the anthology speak their truths unapologetically and, for a lot of people, offensively. They find el morbo in language use—‘Cuando me vuelva loca voy a gritar mancha de plátano, cuello de botella, blúmer de señora, mano de golpes, molleja’ (When I go crazy, I’m going to shout plantain stain, bottleneck traffic, lady’s britches, ass-kicking beat-down, gizzards and sweetbreads.)—, wonder if God will like their horniness—‘le pellizco el pezón izquierdo / ella se ríe y comienza a quitarse la ropa en el asiento delantero del Mustang / ¿a Dios le gustará la humedad entre mis piernas?’ (I pinch her left nipple / she laughs and starts to take off her clothes in the front seat of the Mustang / would God like the wetness between my legs?)—, they take pieces of well-distributed language and whirlpool them into their own stories—for instance in ‘Reader, I married him’ by Dorothea Smartt, where the repetition of Jane Eyre’s words keeps loading up meaning until they climax in the final line with a consciously political and radically charged: ’I do’.

The Sea Needs No Ornament / El Mar No Necesita Ornamentois a gigantic, groundbreaking project and the most exciting anthology of poetry I have ever read. It is maybe like a sea wave hitting your carita. After all the initial water, of that sea ‘ten times bluer than the bluest eye’ (Safiya Sinclair), is coughed out the body, te pican los ojos, tus labios saben a sal and you might smell it, maybe addicted or maybe afraid, for weeks. It might flood your dreams. It is poetic excellence. It is not santised, chewed, sin-espinas poetry. It is skilfull, unaccomodating, incredible poesía. It is a springboard for many more transnational Caribbean anthologies, collaborations and multidisciplinary projects to come, that I hope include and promote more Caribbean languages, including creoles and dialects, more Black Spanish-speaking writers, Spanish-speaking writers from the Diaspora, and publishing houses based in the Caribbean.

Laia Sales Merino is a poet from the Catalan Pyrenees currently based in Barcelona. Her work can be found in harana poetry, I’ll Show you Mine Journal and perhappened among others. IG: @lai_to_the_sound

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