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Rumba Atop the Stones

Written by Andrew S. Hughes for South Bend Tribune on no date provided

Orlando Ricardo Menes says a poet must ‘frame the poem’ during a reading so that the listener can concentrate not on deciphering its meaning but on savoring its language. ‘I think a public reading is a good way for people to hear what poetry sounds like to the actual ear, not to the mind, and to hear how poets create a spoken rhythm as opposed to the textual rhythm,’ he says. ‘I think the reading as a performance can engage people who don’t normally read poetry more effectively than just giving them a poem and telling them to read it, because most people have a tendency to read poetry as prose.’

Menes’ poetry employs language as lush and fertile as the Caribbean world of African, Cuban and West Indian cultures he writes about. Although written primarily in English, it includes passages in Spanish that reveal the poet’s heritage as a son of many cultures and countries.

A first-year faculty member in the University of Notre Dame’s creative writing program, Menes says his poems embody multiculturalism ‘in the best sense of the word.’ In his new book, Rumba Atop the Stones, due out in mid-May, he creates characters as diverse as a communist Afro-Cuban dockworker and European Jewish immigrants who work alongside black cutters on a sugar plantation and invokes the spirits of Catholic saints, Santeria orishas and Shakespeare’s Prospero.

‘They are poems that strive for a cultural fluency because they speak to the cultures themselves but also embrace the poetic self as well,’ he says. ‘In Rumba Atop the Stones, there is hardly what I would call a romantic ""I,"" the poet’s own self... I speak in other voices than my own in a historical sense.’

Menes’ Cuban-born parents immigrated to Peru, where his father owned a furniture manufacturing and retail business in Lima. Born in Lima in 1958, Menes lived there until he was 10 and a military coup toppled the Peruvian government. The new ruling power began to confiscate foreign-owned busineses, so Menes’ family moved to Miami, where his father’s mother and sisters had lived since the early 1960s. His father continued to operate his business and travel to Peru until 1971. ‘He was expelled from Peru and put on a plane and told never to come back,’ Menes says. ‘At that point, the Peruvian government finally expropriated my father’s factories, and he lost everything.’

Except for two years in Spain in the 1970s, the family continued to live in Miami. After college, Menes taught high school and community college classes and spent ‘10 years of just working.’ He won the Bacchae Press Chapbook Competition in 1994 and published his first book, Borderlands with Angels that year with Bacchae.

Menes visited Cuba for the first time in 1998 and says the country’s general state of ruin, the pervasive absence of basic goods and the sexual exploitation of Cuban women by Western tourists shocked him. ‘It was very disturbing for me to see a place that was so markedly in contrast with what my parents remembered,’ he says. ‘Like many children of exiles who had never been to Cuba, Cuba existed in my imagination, and many of the poems in the book are of a Cuba that exists in the imagination.’ He says he prefers his imagined Cuba to the one he visited 90 miles south of Florida. ‘The real Cuba is a destroyed Cuba,’ Menes says.

He does not support the Communist Revolution - ‘whatever gains [Cuba’s poor achieved] in education or in health, I don’t think can be accepted in light of the political oppression’ - and says the revolution will die when Castro dies. He says many people misunderstood the United States trade embargo against Cuba and think there are no consumer goods available there. He says government-run stores in Cuba stock consumer goods made in countries such as Korea and Mexico. He says lifting the embargo wouldn’t improve the Cuban people’s lives unless they had the means to purchase American goods. ‘Cubans just don’t have the dollars to buy them,’ he says. ‘Cubans earn the equivalent of $20 a month. Twenty dollars a month can’t buy consumer goods.’

Although Menes’ parents had left Cuba before the revolution, millions of other Cubans have fled since Castro’s ascension to power in 1959. Menes says that unlike other Cuban-American poets, he does not focus only on displacement and exile in his poetry’s treatment of Cuba. ‘I also explore Cuba as a place in its own right as a place with its own cultural makeup, its own history its own political trajectory’ he says. ‘Many Cuban-American poets focus just on the exile experience and in a way neglect the homeland itself. My newer poems focus on both, the displacement and the homeland.’
In Rumba Atop the Stones, Menes says he uses Afro-Cuban mythologies to define Cuba as a New World culture in which different cultures mix together to form a new reality. ‘I think, unlike some writers who would perceive the interaction among cultures as a source of conflict, I saw this interaction among cultures in Cuba - the Spanish and the African - as the possibility for harmony, a harmony that does not necessarily exist in the real world but that would be possible in the imagination,’ he says.

Menes says he refers to Rumba Atop the Stones as a book about the West Indies rather than a book about Cuba. Indeed, his publisher, Peepal Tree, is a British press that specializes in West Indian literature, and he says he didn’t want to ‘feed into the misconception’ that Cuba is disconnected from the other islands in the Caribbean. ‘I think that all the islands, despite their particular history, culture, language, are all united in a way by the presence of the African diaspora,’ he says. ‘Many Cuban Americans, many Cubans in Miami of European ancestry, want to deny the African component of Cuban nationality and culture.’

By privileging the African component of Cuba’s and the Caribbean’s heritage, he says he was able to speak to people from the entire region. It also allowed him to break new ground for Cuban-American literature with its recognition of Cuba’s racial composition. ‘Unfortunately, among many Cuban Americans in Miami, it is fashionable to be negrophobic,’ Menes says. ‘I disagree with these people vehemently, and my book is in a way a response to that Cuban-American hostility toward blackness. They want to pretend that Cuba is Spain on an island, and this book is a response to that. In other words, blackness is an important component to Cubanness, whether one has black blood or doesn’t. It can be a greater cultural definition - Cuba today is over 60 or 70 percent black or mulatto.’

In addition to his own work, Menes has been an active translator of Latin-American poets, including Alfonsina Stoni and Jose Kozer. He says his work as a translator allowed him to develop ‘an eye and an ear for the density of language’ in his own work.

‘When I write in English, I not only hear American poets and English, but I also hear Latin-American poets, so that bilingual ear shapes my own ear,’ he says. ‘I don’t separate the two. The two synthesize.’

This is a review of Rumba Atop the Stones

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