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Maragarita Engle

The Old Cars of Cuba

The salvaged cars of Havana
sound like old-fashioned percolators
brewing coffee over rickety gas stoves.

The music of each car is rhythmic,
an experiment in percussion,
the engine held in place
by ropes of faith.

Fins and hood ornaments are polished,
photos of classic cars craved by tourists,
the vehicles rented as illicit taxis, without license,
just the magic of inventive mechanics
and bartered fuel.

Some of the cars are dismantled,
the seats hitched to swaybacked Rosinantes.
American half-cars from the '50s gliding
along deserted highways,
the drumsong of percolation replaced
by the hoofbeats of weary horses
and the whoosh of wheel breath

as if the cars lived in a fairy tale
where shiny creatures of polished metal
could be brought to life.


During the weeks before Carnival
no one wears the masks
that will soon allow rich and poor
to mimic each other's vanities.

The paper masks of the poor hang like bright flowers
from branches of trees in weedy green yards.

The masks of the rich are still waiting in shops
where they are crafted from doeskin, silk, porcelain, jewels...

When Carnival arrives, paper and silk look the same,
the sheen of flowers and jewels made equal
by lanterns and starlight.

While dancing outdoors, all are anonymous.
The streets and the sky do not care.


The poet was found guilty
of incorrect thinking.

His punishment was manual labor,
pulling weeds from flowerbeds
in a park, overlooking the ocean.

The poet watched children play in the park.
He watched wild birds nesting.

Each weed he pulled
made the flowers seem to sigh with relief.

The soil was time made tangible,
stone crushed by water and wind.

Time was love.
Love was an ocean.

The poet built a raft of weeds.
He escaped on waves made of words.

©2006 by Maragarita Engle

Margarita Engle is a botanist, and the Cuban-American author of several books about the island, most recently The Poet Slave of Cuba, a Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano (Henry Holt & Co., 2006). Short works appear in a wide variety of anthologies and journals, including Slow Trains, Atlanta Review, Bilingual Review, California Quarterly, Caribbean Writer, Hawai'i Pacific Review, Nimrod, and Poetry Salzburg. Awards include a Cintas Fellowship, a San Diego Book Award, and a 2005 Willow Review Poetry Award. Her poetry was also a semi-finalist selection for the 2006 Nimrod Hardman/Pablo Neruda Poetry Prize. Margarita lives in California, where she enjoys hiking and helping her husband with his volunteer work for a wilderness search-and-rescue dog training program.

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