Guest Review: Dan Olivas

Furia: Poems
By Orlando Ricardo Menes
Milkweed Editions, 2005
76 pp. (paperback)

Orlando Ricardo Menes brings a multicultural palette to this his third collection of poems: born to Cuban parents, raised in both Peru and Miami, with one family line traced back to China. But if one were expecting Furia (Milkweed Editions) to be a wistful, balmy paean to culture and place, one would be shocked starting with the first poem of this three-part collection. In “Ofelia (Lima, Peru, 1963)” which begins the title section of this book, the young narrator’s “Amazonian maid” brings home a surprise for dinner: “Clipping frond twines, Ofelia unwraps / brittle corn husks, old newspaper- / a long-tailed monkey appears, / gelatinous eyes, mouth agape.” The boy is confused and asks: “Will we dress / him up like Dennis the Menace?” When he learns that the monkey will be their meal, he hides. But Ofelia, undeterred, prepares the jungle feast and force feeds it to him scolding: “At your age I was shooting parrots, spearing fish.” The boy’s mother returns home and, horrified at the “Savage,” fires Ofelia who leaves the next morning, dragging “her roped suitcase across / Bridge of Sorrows, a dry riverbed, / toward Martyrs’ Alley, mud & straw slum / where women shrivel at forty-one.” No nostalgic, warmhearted memories of family life here.

And then there are the twin poems of “Sodomy” and “Bugarrones” concerning the cultural acceptance of “a man who sodomizes / other men-or boys-but doesn’t see himself as homosexual.” These are brutal poems about a brutal-and accepted-practice which leaves young boys emotionally-scarred victims with no recourse: admission of the violation would lead to ridicule. The narrator in “Sodomy” suffers nightmares many years after his attack; in his dreams, the perpetrator “would reappear / …breaking through a window, / stuffing my mouth with steal wool / as he pumped me from the rear.” This first section of the collection ends with the title poem concerning the political atrocities of the Shining Path in the Peruvian highlands during the 1980s and early 1990s: “Fifth year of Shining Path insurrection, 7,000 dead in Ayacucho, / boys and girls conscripted into Maoist cadres, some as young as twelve, / indoctrinated by torture.”

Part two of the collection is entitled “Coolie” and focuses on the author’s small but insistent Chinese bloodline. We see in “Frogs” that the narrator’s Abuela Nena (grandmother), while a source of embarrassment for the family that wishes to be more white than anything else, still maintains some of her ancient Chinese ways when a “tornado sucks hundreds / of frogs from the Everglades, / rains them on the suburbs.” While the narrator’s mother believes it is the end of the world, his Abuela Nena “bats the largest / bullfrog, later fries the peeled legs in / old lard. What doesn’t kill you makes you fat, / Abuela says, laughing like Buddha-.” This section of the collection also includes some of the gentler poems touching upon the author’s version of Chinese mythology (“Mythopoesis”), the luck of Buddha (“Charm”), and the joys of preparing and eating rice (“Arroz”). To be sure, Menes does not omit the brutal life of his Tatarabuelo (great-great-grandfather) who, as recounted in the poem “Coolie,” was sold into slavery at age eighteen and miraculously survived the voyage to Cuba as “cargo on a ship’s manifest, 600 coolies stacked / like barrels of gunpowder tea.”

In “Rain,” the third section of this collection, Menes brings into sharp focus individuals from his past. In “Palma y Jaguey,” the narrator chats with his wife’s uncle Omar and attempts to spin a metaphor from the royal palm that is “prey of a strangler fig- / … ‘Cuba will survive / communism, even if it constricts / her forty more years.'” The decidedly unpoetic Omar responds: “‘La Palma will die, / for nature doesn’t care / what we think or feel.'” And there’s the crude and destitute Tio Manolo of the eponymous poem, who at the dinner table told “lewd / stories about the ripe plantain and the avocado.” Eventually, Manolo-who escaped Castro’s Cuba just before the missile crisis-settles in Miami and makes a fortune in plumbing fixtures: “Built a palatial ranch house off Coral / Way, Sevres porcelain on every tabletop….” Menes also brings back Abuela Nena in this part of the book; we now see her die of old age: “Lying in a casket of burnished cherrywood, she wore a frilly dress, / her favorite orthopedic shoes / her face waxy & hollow, her jaw wired shut / so that she smiled mischievously.” Even in death, Abuela Nena’s view of the world seemed intact.

This collection packs an emotional wallop drawn as it is from coarse yet colorful threads of divergent cultures. But Menes, through sharp, unsparing and rich language weaves these threads to produce an unforgettable, cohesive and utterly fulfilling poetic narrative. “What doesn’t kill you makes you fat,” said Abuela Nena. Indeed.

Daniel A. Olivas is the author of four books including most recently Devil Talk: Stories (Bilingual Press, 2004), and a children’s book, Benjamin and the Word (Arte Publico Press/Piata Books, 2005), which first appeared in the Los Angeles Times’ Kids’ Reading Room.


Comments are closed.

  • Twitter

  • Category Archives

  • Monthly Archives