Aleida Rodríguez writes with great patience and a keen eye for the world’s details and rituals, from the names of flowers to the shades of paint on a canvas, and sometimes the fleeting details of dreams, as in a poem that also serves as recipe for risotto: “The key / is fluid, poured by cups and brought to boil // gently, then stirred like passions unexpressed. / More broth softens the stubborn pearls. Add wine. Test.”
Her debut collection, Garden of Exile, has been praised for the scope of the poet’s view: she creates a visual, visceral world where a “lingual bridge lowers into my backyard,” and, after much rumination, “the red-throated hummingbird . . . sweeps all my questions into the single sky.” In the words of the poet Marie Ponsot, she is “so grounded, she freely regards everything (and measures nothing).”
Born in Havana and brought to America at age nine, Rodríguez writes poems that flow resonate with exile, escape, and questions of impossible return. Still, the poet rails against those who would pigeonhole her as “only” a writer of displacement and political strife, and asks readers, “Who says that whining or raging is more legitimate than delighting or loving?” The “fascination of words” mentioned by Marilyn Hacker in her introduction to Garden of Exile and stemming from the poet’s bilingual heritage allows a collusion of the Cuban and American landscapes to embody backyards and barrios of unique beauty. Rodríguez has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the California Arts Council, has published her work in Ploughshares and The Kenyon Review, and currently lives in Los Angeles.
Poetry Center Reading:
Lexicon of Exile
Animals seem to fill their skins, trees their bark, rivers
their banks, so beautifully, that we cannot help but see in
their wildness a perfect at-homeness
—Scott Russell Sanders
There is no way I can crank a dial,
scroll back the scenery,
perch sinsontes outside my windows
instead of scrub jays and mockingbirds and linnets.
There is no way the brightly lit film
of childhood’s cerulean sky, fat with meringue clouds,
can play out its reel unbroken by the hypnotist’s snap:
You will not remember this.
There is no way I can make that Pan American plane
fly backward, halt the tanks of the Cuban revolution,
grow old in Güines, smelling the sour blend of rice and milk
fermenting in a pan by the chicken coop.
There is no way I can pull the harsh tongue
from my mouth, replace it with lambent
turquoise on a white sand palate,
the cluck of coconuts high in the arc of the palm trees.
The trees fingering their dresses outside my windows now
are live oak, mock orange, pine, eucalyptus.
Gone are the ciruelas, naranjas agrias,
the mamoncillos with their crisp green shells
concealing the pink tenderness of lips.
Earth’s language is a continuous current,
translating the voices of my early trees along the ground.
I can’t afford not to listen.
They find me islanded in Los Angeles,
surrounded by a moat filled with glare,
and deliver a lost dictionary of delight.
A lingual bridge lowers into my backyard,
where Fuju persimmon beams in late summer
and the fig’s gnarled silver limbs become conduits
for all the ants of the world; where the downy woodpecker
a greeting on the lightpost and the overripe sapotes fall
with a squishy thud; where the lemon, pointillistically studded
with fruit, glows like a celebration; where the loquat drops
yellow vowels and the scrub jays nesting in the lime
chisel them noisily with their hard black beaks
high in the branches, and the red-throated hummingbird—
mistaking me for a flower—suspends just inches from my face,
deciding whether or not to dip into the nectar of my eyes
until I blink, and it sweeps all my questions into the single sky.
From GARDEN OF EXHILE (Sarabande Books, 1999)
Para mi mamá, Paulina (1926-2000)
Cuando salgo a mi jardín,
todo lo que deseo es un mundo con sordina,
pero por ahí viene mi vecino el engreído, el que se distingue
por pronunciar las palabras mal en dos idiomas,
el que se cree demasiado inteligente para trabajar.
O cuando estoy agachada debajo la higuera buscando
el higo más prieto y dulce—de pronto aparece
mi vecina anciana,
asomada entre las ramas corales de buganvil
brindándome pedacitos de su mente
Y no es que ella no me agrade—
porque de verdad me encanta verla
tan llena de vida a los 85,
tan despejada, sus ojos brillando como las ventanas
de una casa bien cuidada, como la de ella,
la que compró en el 1947,
la que está en su propio nombre y no el de su esposo.
Pero lo que pasa es que cuando en fin dejo mi trabajo
abandonado adentro, sobre mi buró,
deseo el mundo mudo, deseo nada
más que las enrredaderas silenciosas de mi mente
hurgando lugares oscuros—sangre-dulce—
como una lengua explorando el hueco de una muela extraída.
For my mother, Paulina (1926–2000)
When I go out to my garden
all I desire is a world with the mute on,
but there comes my neighbor, the haughty one, the one
who distinguishes himself by pronouncing words wrong in two languages,
the one who thinks himself too smart to work.
Or when I’m crouched beneath the fig tree, searching
for the darkest, sweetest fig—there suddenly appears
my elderly neighbor,
peering between the coral branches of bougainvillea,
offering me bits of her mind
And it’s not that she doesn’t please me—
because in truth I love to see her
so full of life at 85,
so clearheaded, her eyes shining like the windows
of a house well cared for, like hers,
the one she bought in 1947,
the one that’s in her own name and not her husband’s.
But what happens is that when I finally leave my work
abandoned inside, on top of my desk,
I desire a wordless world, desire nothing
more than the silent vines of my mind
feeling into dark places—blood-sweet—
like a tongue exploring the hole left by a tooth that’s been extracted.
Translated from the Spanish original by Aleida Rodríguez
From THE FACE OF POETRY (University of California Press, 2005)