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Rumba Atop the Stones

Written by Phillis and David Gershator for The Caribbean Writer, Vol. 16 on no date provided

How rich and textured these two collections are! [Also reviews Geoffrey Philp’s Xango Music.]
Cuban-American Orlando Ricardo Menes is not only a compelling poet, he’s a storyteller, telling his stories in the first person or in a charged and compressed narrative. The poet touches all bases - magic realism, humor, irony, horror, mystery, mysticism - laced with references to tropical flora, fauna, history, and the melding of African and European religious mythologies. He embraces the African Catholic syncretism of his countrymen and adds to it his own mythologies. Here’s a stanza from one of them, 'Women of Guaraguasi': 

Chola Kalunga, dancer of whirlpools, 
contralto who augurs
hurricanes - spawned in Gulf of Guinea-
miasma that envelops lovers
arousing rapture, jealous tantrums, 
Rosa Alelú prepares the Virgin
for her spring-tide fiesta, rubbing majá-
grease on voluptuous hips, 
capping ebony toes with gold thimbles (38).

The poems are powerful, often mesmerizing, the images and similes memorable: 'shores crinkle like Mary’s belly after birth,' (19) 'Lázaro strums his crutch / with leprous fingers / lamenting his infirmities,' (15) 'a zunzuncito hummingbird flies out her ear to sip balsam tears'(11).

Alongside island stories of a dockworker, an Italian diva, a Jewish refugee, the poet treats themes central to European, African, and New World history in 'Madrid, 1938' and 'Middle Passage,' a concise, intense, multi-part poem. En route to the islands:

Some jump overboard, others asphyxiate
rolling their own tongues back into the throat; 
Yemayá’s breath, salty and warm, 
blows them home like clouds of okra dust. (58)
(Yemayá, African sea goddess, still thrives in various New World incarnations.)

Menes follows in the now-established Caribbean tradition of Spanish writers such as Nicolás Guillén and Luis Palés Matos in his use of African words and themes and his homage to the history of Africa. But Menes also takes remarkable risks in his effort to connect worlds.
Both books are handsomely produced [...]. Helpful glossaries are included, in Philp’s from anhingas to zetoile, in Menes’ from Adoshem to zunzuncito.
For all their energy and wide range, both poets are controlled and in charge of their material. And both live in Florida. A coincidence? Maybe not. It seems Florida is now the cultural capital of the Caribbean.

These poets come from different islands, but they sing the songs of a shared island world, an awe-inspiring, heady mix of peoples and cultures. For Menes, Cuba is a 'Crib of Reeds':

On holy days the Kaplans and their neighbors 
share stories of Middle Passage horrors, 
Red Sea miracles. Children of Olofi 
and Elohim, Mackandal and Joshua, 
Moses and Orúnmila, Ilé-Ifé and Israel (32).

This is a review of Rumba Atop the Stones

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