Volume 24, Number 1

Postcards to Whitman from Cuba

In the elevator of the Peters building at Fresno State,
A young man in a wheelchair wears a shirt of Che Guevara circled in red,
Crossed out,
The slash like blood across his face.
I want to ask him about it, wish I was wearing my own Che shirt,
As though it might spark a rational conversation.
I wonder if he is Cuban,
If he is against la Revolución or just communism.
Is he against the man or the symbol?
Does he even know what it means?

Dear Walt,
Did you know at state functions, Fidel Castro had your poetry read,
And your songs have inspired many a communist?
You and your poetry inspired José Martí,
Perhaps even brought about his poetry during the Ten Years’ War,
Enflamed him and other young Cubans to fight for independence from Spain.
They won it after your death, and his, long after he met you in New York.
Did they translate his adoration of you before you died?
I wonder if, much later, your songs inspired two young men to take Cuba from a dictator,
Only to become a different kind of tyrant.
I doubt you meant them to become what they defeated,
But you also expected Cuba would be one of the fifty states.

I have been there, Walt, to see what Cuba means after la Revolución
With my own eyes.
I have photographs in my mind,
Beauty and sensation impossible to capture on any film,
And I return there sometimes in sleep or daydreams.
I can see why you wanted Cuba’s beauty to be America’s.

Che’s grave is silent, a mausoleum.
No pictures allowed; our cameras are taken by soldiers before we enter.
Six years later, I rely on memory to see it.
I can no longer recall if the plants inside were real or silk, only that they were a vibrant green, an
ivy trailing all over.
The familiar visage, uncrossed, stares out at me, carved in metal on the wall
With the names of comrades who died in Bolivia with him,
Fighting for a utopian vision of egalitarianism,
A Latin American future free of imperialism and rampant poverty.
He told his killers they could only kill a man,
His ideals would live forever.

His face is the face of Cuba, painted on buildings and billboards everywhere,
More of a father to the nation than Castro.
Che’s name means revolution, his face freedom.
The official monument to Che stands in Santa Clara.
A carved block of white stone depicts his life and an eternal flame burns within.
His true monument is Cuba,
La Revolución that lives on, immortal as he wished,
Twisted, perhaps, but intact in the hearts of the Cuban people.

After seeing Che’s grave,
We sit in the center of a hotel built to resemble a collection of thatch huts, gather under the eaves
while it rains,
Watch hummingbirds flit in the flowered trees,
Smell the renewal of the earth,
Drink mojitos and Cuba Libres, and smoke cigars in the twilight.
Would you sit and drink and smoke with us, Walt?
Or would you go out into the rain and let it soak into your beard?

In Habana, we drive el Malecón,
Past the United States Interests Section and the José Martí Anti-Imperialist Plaza.
A dark metal statue,
Martí’s imposing figure holding a child protectively and pointing at the building.
A glimpse only, caught from our moving bus.
Our tour guide explains in detail, but it amounts to one word:

Later, the salty air rushes through the cab to blow our hair back and caress our faces,
Our cabbies drag-racing down el Malecón,
Taking us back to our hotel from Old Habana where we had dinner at El Floridita and toasted
There is joy in the race, in the free feeling of sea air.
We stick our faces close to the open windows
And laugh into the wind.

When we walk el Malecón, a woman scares off the young man trying to woo me in a mix of
Spanish, English, and Italian.
She tells us Cubans are evil, not to be trusted,
And in the next breath asks for our addresses, so she may write to us when we return to the US,
Proudly listing the countries she writes,
While I listen to the sea pound against the wall in the dark and sprinkle us with a mist of
And watch children down the way hop the wall to play on the rocks near the ocean.
I expect you would be among them, Walt.

The trees have dropped the mangos outside of Hemingway’s house,
And people gather them up to eat.
Children in school uniforms play in the jagüey trees along streets in Habana, root systems above
the ground like vines, perfect to climb and hide in.
We lie in the center of a pavilion over a koi pond in a Japanese-style garden, a circle of faces for
a photograph,
And sip guava juice in a cool pine forest with a soft blanket of pine needles under our feet in the
National Botanical Gardens.
In an urban garden the earth stains our shoes and feet red, and I long to walk barefoot between
the rows of plants,
To grind the dirt into my skin and hold Cuba forever.

At the Agrarian University, students dance and stomp in street clothes
In an open space on cracked tile to Cuban pop echoing down the hall, their bodies waving in
ways that look both natural and practiced.
They show us labs where they work on biotechnology and grow better plants through selective
Afterward we walk in a field of long grass toward the buildings.
One is crumbled and unfinished; the land is taking it back.
The Russians were building it, they tell us, and then the USSR fell.
We sit in the grass with Cuban students and play with the sensitive plants,
Touch them to make their leaves wither and fold inward, then wait for them to open again.

Our only Sunday in Habana, we go to a rumba in a painted alley, Callejón de Hamel,
A well-known place in which the music lasts all day.
A hot throng of people sweat and dance.
A little girl, a mix of African and Indian and Spanish heritage, her face wet with the sheen of
sweat and her dark curls dusty,
Walks among the tourists holding up a silver three-peso coin embossed on one side with Che’s
face, patria o muerte,
Looking to trade for an American dollar.
Young men illegally sell CDs of the music until the police come and make them stop.
The child disappears into the crowd with two quarters for her peso.

Standing on the uneven cobblestones of El Morro, I look out across the bay at the Habana
What could be an American city viewed through the morning mist on the water.
I wonder how soldiers could run in the castle without breaking an ankle or falling.
I walk through archways that seem to rise to accommodate giants
And I feel insignificant.
At another El Morro, on the other end of the island, I look over a wall at a scene that belongs on
a postcard,
A white shoreline fading one way into vibrant green, mountains jutting into a perfect blue sky
with clouds like a painting,
And the other way into an ocean so blue it looks unreal.
The Caribbean coast as viewed from El Morro in Santiago de Cuba,
On high walls so thick you can lie across them
And look over the edge to a sheer drop into dream-blue ocean that pounds against stone.

Limestone mogotes, bumps of green, rise from deep tan tobacco fields,
A scent that wafts up to the balcony of my hotel room in Las Viñales where I stand,
Leaning against the rail into the vision as you must have when you came to Cuba, though your
visit almost certainly predates this hotel.
Up close on a tobacco farm, they no longer jut into the sky,
But rise majestically, a mosaic of white and green and yellow.
The farmer shows us the tobacco dryer, a triangle-shaped shed with leaves of tobacco drying on
He hands me a leaf, and I smuggle it back with me, encase it in plastic, and every so often take it
out and smell and remember.
He shows us his car, a mint-condition 1950 Cadillac, turns on the radio, and dances with us,
While we take turns going inside to buy illegal cigars the family makes with surplus tobacco
and sells to tourists.
It is his son’s birthday, and our professor produces a roll of Lifesavers.
The boy flushes and grins with it held in his fist as we sing Happy Birthday to him.

Down the road in a building that serves as a school in daylight hours, we watch the sun set
behind a mogote through slatted windows,
The glare blinding us, bleeding against the wall
Until it sinks low enough.
Here we meet a Comité de Defensa de la Revolución, Che’s immortality in the people of the
Making sure everyone gets enough to eat, the sick are cared for, and everyone does their part.

When I describe it to my mother, she will ask, “What if someone doesn’t want to?”
I don’t understand the question.
Am I a communist, Walt?
Are you, who believed all souls equal?

We find ourselves at a tourist trap,
A cave where the guides dress like Native Americans and take us through on a boat.
Afterward we go downstream where Cubans are swimming in gentle rapids.
I sit on a rock in the middle of the stream and watch the children play,
Soak my feet in the cool clear water and let the minnows nibble my toes.
If I were to float on my back like a piece of wood, I wonder where it would take me.
Underground or over a cliff? Would it bob me along all the way to the ocean?
Perhaps you know now, Walt, part of those pent-up aching rivers.

At an old coffee plantation once run by the French, we push the wheel as slaves once did to
separate the beans from their shells
And find it too heavy for even three of us.
Our professor finds a live termite hive attached to the side of a Spanish cedar,
And breaks bits off,
Lets the termites crawl on his hands.
He tells us a termite hive operates as communism was supposed to, everyone with a purpose—
These termites are the first defense against invasion, spraying chemicals on his hands to scare
him off.
“But people aren’t termites,” someone says,
And Bob replies, “That’s the problem.”
If we stay, he tells us, the next wave of defense is flying stinging ones.
We race down the hill as though they are already after us,
Your hand in mine as we try not to slip in the eroded dirt of what was once a road.

In Habana, we meet a woman who moved from the US to Cuba after la Revolución,
The wife of a revolutionary.
The ration card she passes around reminds me of the card for collecting subscription money
when I delivered newspapers.
We sit by the hotel pool, and she tells of working for the Cuban Ministry of Agriculture,
Breakthroughs she oversaw, projects that died with the USSR, and the struggle during the
Special Period.
Farmers turned to organic, she tells us, to survive without pesticides.
The chlorine from the pool burns my eyes, and the reflection of light from the water plays across
her face.
She breaks off to tell us of coming to the US to give birth to her autistic son,
Of going through labor during the Cuban Missile Crisis, wondering if Cuba would be there when
she was ready to return.
I wonder now how she reacted to Raúl Castro’s reworking of agriculture,
If she agrees the communist system was an inefficient shackle.
I wonder how you might react to all I have experienced here, Walt, what Cuba is today.

When we visit her son at a mental hospital, a self-sufficient complex where patients grow their
own food,
He smiles when we tell him we know his mother,
Looking up from the hat he is making from the dried leaf sheath of the royal palm
That will eventually go home with a tourist.
He tells us in a thick voice, in Spanish, that Jimmy Carter shook his hand,
And he has the picture to prove it.
The woman who runs the hospital sits with us under a canopy of trees and serves us fresh juice
made from the mango trees cultivated on the grounds.
When we ask if she has visited the US she recounts being a passenger on a hijacked plane,
Of wanting to get back home to her patients in Cuba,
As you must have wanted to return to the hospitals where your soldiers were dying.

Camagüey is a maze of a city built to confuse pirates, to separate them so they could be cut down.
It is my birthday, and I am happy to just be in Cuba,
But the hotel surprises me by making a huge cake with icing made from real sugar, with a gritty
texture, so much sweeter than I could make it here.
They serve it with strawberry ice cream and a bottle of champagne.
A Haitian group invites us to their rehearsal at an art gallery.
Afterwards they sing Happy Birthday to me in four languages,
And we walk back to the hotel in the cool night air, the stars winking at us.
In the bar, you hand me a cigar, Walt.

On the way to Bayamo, the bus runs over a rock placed in the road to warn motorists of
upcoming roadwork,
And we stop for repairs in Las Tunas, a sleepy town, where we see no bar or tourist attractions.
We are disappointed by the lack of alcohol—
After learning all proceeds of sales to tourists went to restoring historical buildings, we
vowed to drink enough to restore an entire building on our own,
And we view this as a missed opportunity.
We sit on a concrete porch in the shade and play Euchre for hours, ignored by the locals.
We are appeased in Bayamo, for the original city was burned to the ground in the Ten Years’
And what little remains of the original is covered in a ten-minute walking tour.
There is nothing to do in Bayamo but drink.

We walk the streets of Santiago de Cuba, slipping into little shops littering the area, spending
the last of our money on artwork and souvenirs and gifts.
Last night we took an illegal cab from downtown to our hotel, the driver whipping through side
Taking us the way real cabs never would, through the gritty parts of the city.
We went to the hotel across the street, the expensive one, with a bar on the top floor,
And saw teenage Cuban girls dressed in skimpy outfits, making money with their bodies from
the tourists
Outside our hotel, a woman without teeth shows us she has lost a flip-flop and begs for
The next time we see her, she has found it.
We go to a beach generally used by locals only, a beach with tiny stones instead of sand, and we
play in the water and get sunburns.
There is a heat in the city that was absent from Habana, less tempered by the Caribbean bay than
Habana Bay on the Atlantic,
But the air still has moisture that makes our hair curl and frizz.

We sit around the hotel pool and drink eight bottles of rum with our professors.
Bob continues stories that started in Bayamo and ended when we were too drunk to hear them,
he too drunk to tell them,
About the jobs he has held, his Boston accent, and the places he’s traveled.
None of us know in four years, scattered across the world, we will drink or smoke a toast in his
When cancer takes him,
And I will remember him standing among the fragrant cedars and ghostly pines and shadowy
mahogany trees,
Invading a termite nest with a look of boyish glee.
Tonight we don’t know that future, but we drink rum and smoke cigars as though it is our last
night on earth,
Because it is our last night in Cuba.

It was in Habana, at the Agrarian University, where we banded together as a community,
We American students abroad.
At the guest house, they served us traditional lunches
Of beans and rice and plantains and other delicious foods, with fresh fruit juice—pineapple,
guava, passion fruit.
You would have enjoyed it, Walt.
We shared our plates, no one going hungry, eating from each other’s like siblings, except even
siblings don’t do that anymore,
Relaxing afterward during the heat of the day, catching the little lizards that came to sun
themselves on the brick and releasing them again.
We did this at all the hotels thereafter, leaving nothing to throw away.

When we arrive back in Miami after the trip, Denny’s is a strange experience.
Three groups of us, seated around the restaurant,
Calling back and forth between the tables,
“Hey, do you want my fries?”
“Anyone interested in my tomato?”
“You going to eat that?”
The waitress looks at us like we are crazy, until we tell her we just flew back from Cuba.
“I’m from there,” she tells us. “I understand.”
But I don’t know if she does,
This joy in being together, in sharing what we have to make everyone happy, of being nourished
by this sense of community we’ve never felt before,
Gathered around our own chowder-kettle,
Or if she just understands a different kind of hunger.

You should have been with us that night.
We would have shared with complete strangers,
Would have asked you, Walt, to sit with us and partake of our communal pot.
There was plenty for everyone,
Too much for just us.

Do you whisper hasta la victoria siempre in the night?
Is this the soft-breath’d Cuba you saw and wanted as a state?
Are these your reasons?
Is it the same Cuba that appears in my dreams, these snapshots of scent and sensation,
This feeling of belonging,
These memories that float to the surface and sear the mind with longing?
Do you wake from these dreams with tears on your cheeks, too?
And feel the pull of the magic of the island,
Though we can never go back?

—Emily Jo Scalzo