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City of a Hundred Fires by Richard Blanco

Richard Blanco‘s City of a Hundred Fires is a collection published by the University of Pittsburgh Press about the Cuban-American experience, which won the 1997 Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize.  (You can check out one of his poems in the 40th Virtual Poetry Circle and my take on a reading he did at the local Writer’s Center in 2009.)  The collection is broken down into two sections and each poem contains not only English, but also Spanish phrases, which readers may or may not know offhand.  Readers who are bilingual will have little trouble, though those who have a working knowledge of Spanish or don’t will be able to gather what Blanco is getting at from context clues.  Poems are either in traditional short narrative lines or in longer, more paragraph-like lines, but each tells a story, reveals a memory, and explores a bit of the Cuban-American experience.

“Crayons for Elena” on page 13 is one of the most poignant poems in the collection as it uses the box of 64 crayons to illustrate the differences in skin tones and cultures of the people the narrator encounters and the colors that represent elements from the narrator’s own culture, including pinatas and mangoes.  “. . . All these we wore down to/stubs, peeling the paper coating further and further, peeling and sharpening/until eventually we removed the color’s name.  This is for leaving the box in/the back seat of my father’s new copper Malibu, the melted collage, the butter/”  It seems that though these differences confuse the narrator and cause discomfort, eventually, these differences are forgotten and life moves beyond those variations and instead absorbs the similarities, “melting them into a collage.”

Blanco continues to straddle the Cuban culture — kept alive in family traditions such as Quinces balls — and his new home in American culture.  In a way, his traditional family culture seems foreign to the narrator as he assimilates to American traditions of turkey at Thanksgiving and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.  Unlike the older relatives talked about in the poems, the narrator does not kid himself that he will be returning to Cuba after the revolution; he knows that the dream of returning to the old country is just that — a dream.

At times, however, the narrator does experience moments of nostalgia, in which he remembers family events or moments.  There are other moments in which the voids left by an American culture that does not feel exactly like home are filled with reminders of a culture left behind whether those voids are filled with sake by a Japanese immigrant or by dark rum with lemon for a Cuban-immigrant.

Unlike in part one where the narrator delves into familial memories and the confusion of bridging two cultures, in the second part, the narrator has become more observant of how his home culture is mutilated and warped by the American idea of capitalism to create a caricature of Cuban life and culture, like in “El Jagua Resort” (page 43):  “where Canadians and Italians step out/drunk congas from megaphone instructions –/side-to-side, kick-then-kick, hand-to-hip;/caught in spells of tabaco, dark rum,/brown sugar, and the young mulatas/”  In a way, the little Havana created in America by the narrator’s parents’ generation is fading and being replaced, but the second part also illustrates more historical details of Cuba, the revolution, and other events.

For a slim volume of poems at 74 pages, City of a Hundred Fires by Richard Blanco will knock you on your butt with its passion, anger, and disbelief.  But it also will drag you to your feet as it clings to hope and harmony.  Overall, Blanco has crafted a diverse collection of poems on the Cuban-American experience that delves below the surface struggles of bias and loneliness to the internal struggle of one narrator and how he copes with those struggles and more.

This is my 6th book for the Fearless Poetry Exploration Reading Challenge.

 

 

This is my 12th book for the 2011 New Authors Reading Challenge.

 

 

***This is a part of the National Poetry Month 2011 Blog Tour.

 

  • I’m going to have to borrow this from you. It sounds fantastic, especially the poem about the crayons.
    Anna´s last blog post ..Review- A Jane Austen Education by William Deresiewicz

    • I really loved this collection.

  • Beth Hoffman

    My goodness … your last paragraph totally sold me! I’m going to purchase this collection right away.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the review. I hope you enjoy the collection. I really loved it…one of the best already this year.