Friday Mar 22

BookReview Key West Nights & Other Aftershocks
by Carolina Hospital
Anhinga Press, March 2019
ISBN-13: 978-1-934695-61-6

Review by Lauren Tivey


Snapshots, like a dream,
only I can’t make out the colors.

~ Carolina Hospital

In the chamber of the mind exists the interplay of clarity and obscurity; and in art, on the page, the ongoing but typically unspoken conflict between what a person remembers and what a poet tells. Such is the nature of recall for artists, but it needn’t matter for a reader, as it’s human truth which poetry imparts. What’s particularly poignant in Carolina Hospital’s newest collection, Key West Nights & Other Aftershocks, is how she wrestles with memory. Many of the poems are threaded by a palpable, underlying anxiety over forgetting the details of childhood and homeland. Hospital, at four years old, left Cuba with her exiled parents, during a stage of development where memories are fleeting, at best. Readers feel her need to recall, to document, as this latent yet metamorphic experience so profoundly acts upon her identity, and work. As she writes in an earlier collection, The Child of Exile (Arte Público Press, 2004), “The pain comes not from nostalgia…I write because I cannot remember at all.”This lack of memory is buttressed by plenty the poet does remember, and she tells of life in her adopted home of Florida, vividly and deftly, moving readers through a tropical kaleidoscope. She also highlights feminist themes, bravely refusing to be intimidated by alarming details of bodily violence; in a way, she speaks for those who cannot speak for themselves, underscoring the difference between what one wants to remember, and what one needs to forget but must say in the aftershock of event.

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There’s a lot of memory at play in Key West Nights & Other Aftershocks, whether actual or interpretive, recent or historical, reassured or apprehensive. We want for Hospital to come to terms with the past for her own sake, for the child within to have answers—we wish this for her, as we wish it for ourselves. We intuit these memories attempting to surface within her, arriving as a “thin envelope” with “a tiny floral stamp from the land of // Cuban Oz,” as she writes in “Still Letters from Far Away.” We ask: are we at the mercy of this spontaneous resurfacing, or is it possible, with enough effort, to retrieve a dreamy, distant tale from its mythic dwelling, to restore it to a solid state?

Psychologists have studied the phenomenon of “childhood amnesia” for decades, and it’s still unknown why we don’t retain early memories. It’s generally agreed that earliest memories generate from about age three. Vague, shadowy memories from there up to age seven are not uncommon—and if we consider how our memories function with only a certain level of accuracy even as adults, it’s evident we often operate on “interpretive recall.” What matters is that we understand the essence of any particular occurrence. In the 2013 TED talk, “How your ‘working memory’ makes sense of the world,” psychologist Peter Doolittle states, “Life comes at us very quickly, and what we need to do is take that amorphous flow of experience and somehow extract meaning from it.” (Doolittle) This is what poets are constantly actualizing, and what Hospital accomplishes, as well. In the title poem, “Key West Nights,” Hospital searches the Key West cemetery for the grave of fellow Cuban poet, Juana Borrero: “I scour / tombstones again at the cemetery. / Her grave eludes me / like my family scraps.” After Hospital discovers her own relatives in the plot, she notes “Perhaps next year I will / uncover Juana / while rummaging for anything / to quiet my own impossible stirrings.” Here, Hospital creates what’s true and meaningful for her—and there’s fulfillment in her exploration. Ultimately, Hospital realizes that not all memory needs to be venerated; some needs to be expunged instead. She unsentimentally disposes of such in “Break Up Trash”:

She folded her memories,
like old t-shirts, torn and faded,
stuffed them into a dusty suitcase,
dropped them off at the Goodwill trailer nearby.

It’s ironic, but not so unnatural, that memories of a break up are cast aside casually, yet moments and images and details Hospital urgently wants to remember, such as the particulars of her father’s face, are blocked. In “Pentimento,” she imagines her father, who is “five years dead,” but when “He looks up, I don’t / recognize the face, / only a brushstroke of memory.” It’s a defining theme—pentimento being an earlier trace of a painting emerging from under another, later painting. Here’s the missing background of the poet: a smudge, a blur, something she’s trying to coax into the foreground.

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While the Cuban diaspora—with a focus on the community in Southern Florida—factors into the collection, readers can trace Hospital’s family history in the U.S. to a specific point of origin. In fact, the cover of the book features the photograph “Bahia Honda Rail Bridge,” by Carlos Medina. The railroad bridge, built in 1912, once connected the Keys, and was later converted for automobile use, then eventually abandoned—it now stands crumbling in the water, long-neglected—replaced by a newer bridge. This is a sight any road traveler to the Keys is familiar with; the skeleton of the old bridge hulking over the water, its vertebrae exposed, a remnant of yore. Yet, at the inauguration of the original bridge, Hospital’s great-grandfather, Jose Hospital, a trumpeter in the Cuban military band, arrived to play at the festivities. In her acknowledgments section, Hospital imagines him, “trumpet in hand, his Panama hat shading his face, commemorating this wooden structure, the bridge on the cover of this book.” Indeed, the bridge is a fitting metaphor: even before she was born, this straddling between worlds was happening within her lineage. There’s the bridge between old world and new, past and present, Spanish and English, cultures and identities.

This bridging intimates what all immigrants must understand, and it’s evident in the prose poem, “Fashion Alchemy,” where Hospital writes about clothing that doesn’t appeal to her, and how American suits and dresses “have nothing to do with how I imagine myself, nothing to do with the landscapes that bind me between Havana and Miami, pierced with shards of San Juan.” But there’s Cuban designer, Eddie Rodriquez, who captures her “illusive self-identity.” She continues, “An alchemist, he synthesizes my two innate selves, the exile one, with its American suitcase, and the imaginary one, with its Cuban bags.” This homage to her favorite designer ends with praise for his creations: “They seduce and energize me. Without these, I turn into a cheap copy of myself.” Fashion might be a frivolous topic in a different poet’s hands; in Hospital’s oeuvre, however, we must consider how the identifying marks of her culture are present (or not), and then we see how small things matter, how the comfort of the authentic is paramount.

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Collective memory resides in the flesh and bones of a people, with some memories more acute than others. The flight of over one million Cuban refugees in the three decades after the 1959 revolution speaks volumes, as does the desperation of those willing to board into small boats and homemade rafts, risking their lives to escape, even a generation before other emigration waves, various air and boatlifts, and the Marielitos. Political reaction by host countries was (and still is) incendiary, heartless. As has been noted of refugees in the poem “Home,” by Warsan Shire, “no one leaves home unless / home is the mouth of a shark.” (Shire) This was true of the Cuban balseros; however, in this case, a shark mouth was waiting for them, too. As Hospital writes in the stark, disheartening “Backfire”:

For the three day voyage across the Gulf
ten men have designed a yacht,
a 1940’s Chevy engine on a rusty metal basin.
The scent of soil a mile away
the boat engine belches black.
Boxed in, the vessel spins on the current.
The cutter impedes its way.
Like bull sharks
Coast Guards besiege the Cubist craft.
A bump,
the side of the tub dips.
Three men swallow the sea.
The rest,
exhausted by history,
are boarded, handcuffed,
defiled.
Another crossing awaits them,
back to a worn out narrative.

The exhaustion, defilement, and narrative live on in those old enough to remember, in those almost-old-enough to almost-remember, and in tales relayed to the young. It persists. It needs to be remembered, and it needs to be told. Hospital here is a keeper of the past, and whether that be partly imagined or embellished matters not—as she’s quoted Leonard DaVinci before: “Poetry is nearer to vital truth than history.” (Hospital) It’s a holy task, this marrying of poetry and history, to curate the stories. And the collective memory, as Hospital writes in her hybrid poem, “Flares,” will have its way, bidden or not:

Just as I’m drowsing off
   or settling into a conversation or starting dinner,
        a flare ignites my gut, shoots up my chest,
               and consumes my reason.

The glare sweats out my pores and smoke screens my thinking. The simplest utterance hurled my way triggers an altercation. I sense their eyes taking measure of my sudden shift. For a few seconds, no sound, no touch can reach me, not even myself. Seventeen years of flares, S.O.S.ings, still catch me, off guard. If not alert, I surrender to the searing burn within.

On the lucky days, though dying to tear at my clothes and plunge,
                        I can sit still and let the rising dampness
                                                                                    drown me.

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Another unforgiving theme within Hospital’s work is the brutal destruction of the body; the historic and unrelenting violence against people of color, and women; how xenophobia, racism, misogyny, and ignorance work their evil on the physical plane. It echoes what Ta-Nehisi Coates says about racism being “a visceral experience, that […] dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth.” (Coates) Hospital, like Coates, insists that we not look away, for ultimately, truth is freeing—we cannot confront the brutality without first telling the stories, and documenting the horrors.

Terrorism is the topic of “summer 2016 bells ringing.” Here, Hospital focuses on the truck attack in Nice, and the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, both of which happened during the bloody summer of 2016. Hospital writes of Nice: “a truck plows into the easy crowd / (like a tank over wildflowers) / dragging the mutilated while their breaths still linger.” Later, she turns her focus on “Orlando full of sonorous gayety, / a loner, draped in bullets, bleeds them / (like a leech on a heaving chest) / until he gets his fill.” As bells ring for the murdered, Hospital notes only “silence / ash,” and conjectures that “This is how the celestial one must speak (or it’s how we listen).” It’s a bleak sentiment, one many of us are familiar with in this new paradigm of terror in the West—the poem lingers, haunts.

Hospital places particular emphasis on violence against women, confronting readers in “Coffee Table Picture Book” with scenes of carnage in a poem that could stretch back through the centuries. The piece details shocking, sadistic inhumanity. Noting the war that “rages against women,” Hospital, the documenter, tells us about these women and girls, because we should, we must, remember them:

Nameless a thousand –
Indian brides with sparse dowries
burnt alive, beaten to death, shamed into suicide

At the Chechnyan roadside –
seven young women
shot, dumped by the curb

Latefa and her sister strolling to school,
black pants, white shirts, head scarfs,
Afghan men approaching on motorcycles
acid spray blindness

On the border between Texas and Mexico
wooden crosses rising form the arid ground,
the only backdrop, telephone lines to Juarez

Lilia Alejandra, 17, not nameless –
her toddler waiting beside abuela –
abducted after a factory shift,
body shrouded in red dirt

In Congo captivity
Honorata strapped to a tree,
untied a few hours a day, to satisfy –
sterile, like Willermine
raped by rival groups
later abandoned by husband
Eleven month ole Chaunce found
alive, her vagina mangled

Cream over the gendercaust.

The savagery is overwhelming. It’s the last word of the poem, though, that speaks to the staggering scope of the situation. Here, Hospital coins a new term: “gender” + “caust” = gender [holo]caust; the gendercaust. The realization of this term is extraordinary, for that’s exactly what’s happened throughout history, and continues now. Hospital calls it accurately, forces us to recognize that the murder, mutilation, and abuse of women and girls is a globally permissible, full-fledged slaughter of an entire gender. We should be using this term in any modern conversation of human rights, for it’s not only important that we know the stories and names of victims, but that we use precise terminology in moving forward.

As stated in “La perra, el gato, y la flor,” “Every daughter / es una furia.” We are furious, indeed. Hospital further addresses this, and the misery and low self-esteem of women in “Psalm for Sisters”:

No more

cutting                                                             despair
starving                                                           hollowness
popping                                                           sedation
breeding                                                          loneliness
vomiting                                                          famine
defecating                                                       deprivation
lambing                                                           breach

No more          marks
No more          labels
No more          trades
                                                We are whole

Here, Hospital effectively utilizes white space and formatting to visually represent her theme—the harsh physical realities of womanhood, and the resulting psychological fragmentation, as influenced by negative, outmoded systemic patterns (advertising, government, psychiatry, etc.). This theme is further accentuated by Hospital’s austere diction and stern tone, with the back-and-forth contrast in the list structure creating even more tension, while the repetition of “No more // No more // No more” beats as a tribal drum; the anger here is intense, yet artfully restrained via stylistic choices. This subject also figures in “A Poetry Novel: Branding,” wherein Hospital’s speaker more brazenly rails against the patriarchal narrative hurled at women: “You brand me // Refugeed / Raped / Discarded / Damaged // Take it back.” At various points the speaker declares, “I am whole,” “I’m still clear,” and “I’m still here.” The poem is a battle cry, full of the wrath so many women carry, a rage which has exploded at the utter garbage, the overwhelming bullshit we encounter on a daily basis. Reject that narrative, Hospital tells us, reclaim the whole.     
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Key West Nights & Other Aftershocks, while featuring heavy themes, also emphasizes the tenderness of family, a supreme delight in nature, and an enduring and radiant love. “Milagros” is a moving piece about the near-death of a sister. “On Her 60th Birthday She Drives” is an imaginative, clever riff on Adrienne Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck.” We experience Miami and the Everglades in poems like “Scenes from the Condo Front,” and “New Year’s.” Colorful, exotic birds figure prominently in “Pinked,” and “Transfiguration.” The collection ends on a charming, optimistic note of love, in the exquisite “The Way It Is.”

Overall, Hospital’s collection is a thrilling, important contribution to poetry, as well as to Cuban-American literature, and the feminist conversation. Where Hospital sometimes frets over transient memory, art well satisfies; where suffering has occurred, Hospital remembers and honors. Her book is a testament to not forgetting our own stories, with poetry acting as a bridge between trauma and collective healing.


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LaurenTivey Lauren Tivey is a Pushcart nominated poet of three chapbooks, most recently The Breakdown Atlas & Other Poems. Her work has appeared inThe Coachella Review, Split Lip Magazine, and Third Wednesday, among dozens of other publications. She teaches English and Creative Writing at Flagler College, in St. Augustine, Florida.