Poems by Loretta Collins Klobah


 Image courtesy of Joselin Ramos. Shared via a Creative Commons license.



Yerba Mala

Late, already after-hours, too late for a guided tour,
we drive la Porta del Sol at sunset, turn in-land at Isabela,
and follow Google maps to the Palacette de los Moreau.

We have already made the stop in el Barrio Guanábana
at the Valley of Coloso of Aguada to photograph the rusty hull,
the abandoned steam-punk cathedral, the scavenged shipwreck,
the high-ceiling A-frame hanger, crane towers, and smokestacks
of the oxidized carcass of Coloso sugar distillery and refinery,
the last island sugar “Central” to shut up shop a dozen years ago.

The metallic pipes, small chambers and vats attached to the outer wall
of the refinery, drip-painted in bleeding, corroded lines of red-orange,
brown, olive, orange-aqua, dusty-oil, and rusted-zinc,
looked like a gothic pipe organ with baritones and bugles.
A bored guard had written Coloso with plastic Coca-Cola bottles
stuck through the diamonds of the chain-link fence— bulbs of sunlight.

One wall mural celebrated the obreros of Aguada, but did not depict,
cane-cutters and families ravaged by Coloso, the sun, anemia, uncinariasis,
hunger, the company store, or absentee barons of  US sugar monopolies.
My daughter asked the lone guard if we could enter to see the hall
of rusted-out roller-crushers and giant iron gears, conveyers and tanks.

After a decade of pirates breaking the gates to pilfer brass and copper fittings,
lug away heavy souvenirs, the new guard had orders to protect the ‘heritage site,’
which may one day be El Museo de la Caña, a sugar cane museum.

My teen has read  El Jíbaro, La Carreta, and Mintz’ Taso: trabajador de la caña;
travelled to Yabucoa to record her own interviews with agricultural workers,
elders who told her about their lives growing up, laboring in ganados,
tobacco, coffee and cane. She is fifteen. I am her chauffeur and Virgil,
seeking our island’s  infernal past.  We saw a sign, “Se Levanta un Coloso,”
which heralded the building of a new Colossus in Aguada, a modernized central,
and the island’s imminent return to the cane fields, 20,000 cuerdas to be cultivated
to provide molasses for rum, Bacardi and Don Q, and to make bio-fuels.
Our island is going back to the cane fields, constructing three centrales.

When we seek ruined centrales or even the smokestacks of the earlier mills,
we come first upon the small clusters of homes, where some of the workers lived,
arranged in cul-de-sacs, rows or around yards with a mango and breadfruit tree.
By-passed by new roads, out of our daily sight, they seem so out-in-nowhere,
but even though the centrales or older brick mills have an empty and derelict
hauntedness about them now, the workers’ homes and shacks are always occupied.

We are late now for the Palacette de los Moreau because we followed
the wrong rural road in Moca, stopping to sing to a large field of cows.
On Facebook, a jazz ensemble played to a field of cows. My daughter
wanted to see if the Moca cows would gather to her, too, trotting to us
to hear her singing, “No volverán jamás felices días de amor. Mi pobre
corazón a consolar, a consolar. Quisiera en mis brazos repetirte te quiero, te quiero.”
She, in the co-pilot seat, is happy in her newly-won fandom of curious cows.

The road from Moca to the Palacette is not inhabited, but it passes land still
marked from a few hundred years of plantations, first of coffee and then of cane.
Nearly all deforested, scraped bare, as if a silk-screen frame had been used
to paint delineated patches of agricultural plots onto the soil, the land holds
some horses, but no cafetales nor cañavernales. I read the landscape
as if it has been lifted from Enrique Laguerre’s novel, La Llamarada,
the flat, low-grass sabana, una llanura de gran extensión,
with its oteros verdes, the occasional isolated, forested hills or rocks.

We pass no one. No electrical lines. Fields extend past the horizon,
plots hedged with shade trees and plants, aceitillos, robles, ausubos.
I think about Don Juan Antonio Borrás, fictional boss of Santa Rosa,
riding out on horse back, sitting in the shack of cutter Ventura Rondón,
who fell sick in the cane, was carried in a hammock to his home, and would die—
how Don Juan looked at Rondón’s wife and assortment of  hungry children,
cursing his promiscuous excesses and, in general, all melancholy
‘jíbaros, negros adustos, mulatos fornidos under his command.

In vacant landscape, I see the cane fields— where there is no one at all now,
I see the cane workers torching fields in rebellion, las huelgas of the 30’s.
I imagine, too, the older uses of this land, how enslaved Africans
working in the cafetales of Hacienda Irueña must have looked across
the wide, cultivated fields to those distant oteros verdes, clumps of forests,
calculating how many footsteps necessary through exposed land to reach cover.

We are driving to a replica manor house, a renovated French château,
El Castillo Labadie, that no one has lived in since it was reconstructed in 1993.
We intend to photograph the new yellow mansion with its odd French towers,
locomotora #3, Whitcomb de la Ponce y Guyama Railroad, a small train engine,
from the sugar transport days, decoratively placed in front of the mansion,
and Laguerre’s grave, strewn with Lily Roble flowers, to show we were here.

The land passed from the Pellot family, to their groundskeeper, to his wife,
Cornelia—outside daughter of one of the Pellots and an ex-enslaved African woman.
Cornelia made, in her widowhood, the first unfinished attempts to build the grand château.
Where did she go? An administrator of the US sugar companies completed the palace,
which housed employees of the Central until it was abandoned, burned and vandalized.

Looking as antique-new as buildings in Disney, rechristened La Palacete de los Moreau,
after the fictional family that inhabits it in Laguerre’s novel, the new house is a fiction
created by the pueblo of Moca in honor of Laguerre who worked through layers
of his local history to write his hometown into our collective consciousness,
Moca, a small, remote, rural checkerboard of land, where players played out
the shift from colonial Haciendas and slavery under the Spaniards
to new colonial capitalist sugar regimes of the US and the misery of cane workers.

The cleared-off land is both blank slate and fragmented mélange
of fact and fiction. I ponder my daughter’s grasp of it all.
The sun is starting to go down, and I am aware
of how lonely this drive is, with us alone out here on the un-lit road.

Then, over a rise in the road, flying towards us—  a teen boy in bright green,
flying with his knees out, akimbo, on a little, buzzing moped.
A frog! He looks just like a frog, in bright green clothes, a messenger
bag strap crossing his chest. He comes from nowhere and is gone so fast
in the rearview mirror, it is almost like he is a mirage. We are not alone.

We arrive, and my daughter jumps out to snap a photo of Laguerre’s grave.
A car is parked in the circle drive in front of the closed mansion.
The trunk lid is open, and a man is bent over the trunk.
A teen on a motorbike holds out an open messenger’s bag to him.
The man is filling the bag with plastic packets.
I get it. Coño. I understand the frog-boy.

I calculate the footsteps necessary for my daughter
to return to the car, and the distance of that isolated drive back to Moca.
I wave her over, and she runs, already equally weirded-out.
Las entregadas, deliveries to be made by delivery boys of the cañavernal.
A perfect desolate spot for transactions after dark, who comes out here?

In La Llamarada, Don Juan Antonio Borrás, fictional don of the neighborhood,
and Segundo Marte, his opponent and leader of cane worker revolts,
called sugar cane “la yerba mala,” the bad weed. I don’t know
if the men here now are dealing in bad weed, good weed, or stronger stuff.
I don’t know if they are armed.
I blaze through the fields to Moca, lights, people.

Oh, my daughter, survivor of school-related family field trips,
mi pobre corazón a consolar, a consolar—  our island
is returning to the sugar cane fields, a la yerba mala,
en nuestra Puerto Rico donde todo se vende.




The Salvation of Don Ramón Power

Campeche’s brush stokes the waves of paint troughing on his palette,
peaks of squall blue, gale-heavy teal, inky black wash, dull white.
He has painted a storming sea, sans merci, a ghost horizon of water hills
hammering at each other, the black sky wailing, darker than the sea,
wind dragging hard, slant-wise down from storm eye to portside,
where La Esperanza lists, careening ahull into the high trenches.
The artist gives us only its stern, an ornate gallery of curling leaf and stone
brightwork adornings, the agitated, red-weld flag of the Spanish frigate,
which lies broadside to a wooden lifeboat also heeling into a water trough,
against a wave cresting higher than its bow. Twelve seamen lurch
with oars in hand to keep a yard’s distance from the frigate’s hull.
The cockswain shouts, and two sailors bend to the water to take hold of a boy
who bobs in his blue suit in the roiling water close to the frigate’s keel.
From the chiaroscuro of the storm and red-skinned sailors, the boy’s face
is the painting’s only source of light. Now Campeche raises brush to sketch cold blue
shadows on that pale, lit face— commissioned artist memorializing a divine
rescue of Don Ramón Power, who as a child sailing from Puerto Rico
to Cantabria to be schooled, fell overboard and was miraculously saved
by the grace of Nuestra Señora de Belén, so that he could later lead a naval defense
of Santo Domingo against the French and champion Puerto Rico in Spanish courts of Cádiz.
Campeche has not elected to paint the Virgin, or even used a dry hog’s hair brush
to scumble in yellow, crepuscular shafts of sunlight through cloud gaps.
There is no sign of divine intervention. Our boy does not look to the ship at his back,
nor to the sky, nor even to the sailors, who now have locked onto his arms.
Rather, he turns to look backwards, over his shoulder at Campeche, his blue eyes
gazing directly into those of his creator, neither grateful nor pleading.
One boy at the mercy of the sea— Campeche could dip a paintbrush, like an oar,
into the water to pull the boy out, but he does not. The artist was once a boy
who learned to paint from his father, a born-here enslaved African, freed to paint,
make furniture, and goldsmith. He learned religion from his mother, who immigrated
to Puerto Rico from the Canary islands, and the church fathers, who would later
commission his work until he was known throughout the late 18th Century Americas
as a great painter and furniture maker. He painted commissioned portraits
of the family members of the Spanish Irishman Joaquín Power y Morgan,
who came to Puerto Rico with the Companía de Asiento de Negros,
to regulate the slave trade, and his wife doña María Josefa Giralt y Santaella.
Campeche painted doña María Josefa, a fine lady upon a fine mane-braided horse,
children, and saints, to hang in the Power mansion in Viejo San Juan
or the church chapels of Nuestra Señora de Belén. He painted their son,
Admiral Ramón Power y Giralt, military statesman, member of Spain’s Comisión
del Comercio de Negros, who, before he died of yellow fever and black vomit,
in poverty and without divine intercession or redemption from Nuestra Señora,
would write a letter home to his mother in 1812, urging her to manumit immediately
all enslaved laborers of la Hacienda Josefa Giralt de Power de Puerto Nuevo.
Of Henri Christophe’s coronation in Haiti, the painting does not hint,
nor does it portend what happened in San Juan on el Día de los Tres Reyes,
when Josefa imprudently read aloud her son’s letter in front of Jacinto and Fermin.
Campeche died too early to paint these scenes. At this moment, though,
he cleans pigment stains from his fingers with turpentine cloth.
He looks at the face of the child, that blond boy who looks
for salvation with solemn, thoughtful, hopeless eyes.
The salt water is rough, cold, pelting against him.
The sailors grip him by the arms. Campeche admires his dread storm
on that small canvas— el mar afuera, el mar adentro. He smiles.




Loretta Collins Klobah is a Full Professor of Caribbean Literature and creative writing at the University of Puerto Rico in San Juan. She has published or has poetry forthcoming in several journals, including The Caribbean Writer, Bim, Poui, Caribbean Beat, The New Yorker, TriQuaterly Review, Black Warrior Review, The Antioch Review, Quarterly West, Cimarron Review, and The Missouri Review. Her debut poetry collection, The Twelve-Foot Neon Woman (Leeds, Peepal Tree Press, 2011), received the 2012 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature in the category of poetry (Trinidad and Tobago). It was also one of five books short-listed for the 2012 Felix Dennis Prize for the Best First Collection, offered by Forward Arts Foundation in the UK. She has received a Pushcart Prize and the Earl Lyons Award from the American Academy of Poets. She was one of eight poets to be published in the anthology New Caribbean Poetry (Carcanet Press, 2007), edited by Kei Miller.

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