Wendy Guerra’s immersive poetry of exile.
Wendy Guerra writes of exile and of home in such a way that the two concepts become one and the same. Native to Cuba, where she achieved prominence as an actress and television personality, Guerra — who apparently still maintains an apartment in Havana — is now based in Miami. Written in Spanish, three of her books have been published in Cuba, yet much of her work is deemed too controversial by officials there not because of its political content, but rather due to its unflinching and overt sexuality.
Thus, it should surprise no one that most of her work has instead been published abroad, including her latest collection, Delicates, which appeared in Spain as Ropas Interiors (2009). Its original title may be understood as “Underwear,” but translators Nancy Naomi Carlson and Esperanza Hope Snyder chose the more evocative Delicates for the English-language edition. Writes Guerra in the collection’s title poem, “Delicates”:
“We mark our territory like animals in heat
our panties saturated with sand and a sidereal isolating odor
Remains of the sex we had yesterday left behind in bathrooms
rose water and wax drippings from vanilla-scented candles
Broken tears in the profane lace of dawn”
What a gift this volume is — the first of Guerra’s collections to appear in English — a labor of love from Carlson and Snyder 13 years in the making. Sensuous and passionate, the poems in Delicates sing the praises of bodily pleasure and push against the constraints imposed on the human spirit, whether by autocratic governments or puritanical social mores.
In “Breaking Crystal Dragonflies,” Guerra describes an invasive search of her luggage by Cuban Border Security agents at the airport:
“They dig their hands into my delicates as if touching my sex they violate my
word silence it
As if breaking dragonflies they inspect my garments turn my past upside down...
Wings flapping this broken dragonfly this unkempt Cuban woman
attempts to put her island in the world the broken endless trip
in the bottomless suitcase.”
Make no mistake: Guerra cannot despise her homeland. She sees Cuba as a place of promise despite its faults. In this, her yearning mirrors the human condition, for no matter where we call home, true love of country is an aspiration, not a command. Writing often from exile, she marries tropical and arctic images, as in “Inuit Promise”: “For you I will leave the snow / and ski on the sand.” Elsewhere, in her poem “Snow in Havana,” she writes:
“Havana dawns slightly cooler than my eyes
A snow toy for the devious girl
who goes to school disguised as the devil”
“Only in loss does one find what was hoped for,” Guerra writes later in the poem, and concludes:
“A port is an exit to the world ...
A new labyrinth that I learn and forget
If I now attempt to die under the snow
Havana saves me from the void.”
The sense of estrangement with which the author wrestles is not confined to places. Relationships, too, are fraught with attraction and abandonment, desire and despair. At times, Guerra seems resigned to this complexity, yet here, too, she holds out hope, as in this passage from “Salt”: “This bitter distance can turn sweet / if it’s spilled out backwards on the tablecloth and everything begins again.” And she writes in “Kaos Is Written with a ‘K’”:
“In the snow there’s a nest
in the nest there’s an egg
in the egg there’s a bird in the bird a worm
in the worm a needle in the needle I leave you the sky”
Haunting images drift up from every page of this collection in which Carlson and Snyder have captured the music of Guerra’s words and worlds — her delicates, if you will. This is a book that will not rest easily on the shelf; it does not deserve to gather dust. Instead, leave Delicates on your bedside table to pick up time and time again. Allow its words to caress you in your dreams.
W. Luther Jett’s poetry has been published in numerous journals and several anthologies. He is the author of five poetry chapbooks: Not Quite: Poems Written in Search of My Father (Finishing Line Press, 2015), Our Situation (Prolific Press, 2018), Everyone Disappears (Finishing Line Press, 2020), Little Wars (Kelsay Books, 2021), and Watchman, What of the Night? (CW Books, 2022). A full-length collection, Flying to America, is scheduled for release in spring 2024 from Broadstone Press.