Our Poetry-Filled Yuletide Cheer isn’t over yet here at Gathering Books. We kick off the second week of Nonfiction Monday 2012 with another novel-in-verse by award-winning writer Margarita Engle. Today’s Nonfiction Monday is hosted by Mary Ann Scheuer at Great Kid Books. The Poet Slave of Cuba is a lyrical biography of Juan Francisco Manzano, a man born into slavery and known to remain in servitude until he was forty years old. Having said that, I think it is very fitting to share an excerpt from Manzano’s actual poem entitled “My Thirty Years” (“Mis treinta años”). This was among the poetry excerpts featured at the back of Margarita’s book.
When I look back at the distance I’ve run
from the cradle to the present day,
I tremble and greet my fortune
more with terror than polite attention.
I marvel at the struggle I’ve managed
to endure against such drastic luck,
if it can even be called luck, this persistent
unhappiness of one so poorly born… (p. 181)
In her Historical Note, Margarita writes, “The life of Juan Francisco Manzano haunted me for years before I finally realized that to do justice to the Poet Slave’s story, I needed to write it in verse. Juan often said that he had hoped to write a novel about his life. He never had the chance…” As a result of this realization, Margarita creates a hauntingly beautiful albeit powerful novel-in-verse about the deathly grips of slavery and the healing power of poetry.
A Boy Robbed of His Childhood. The novel begins with Juan describing how his mind paints pictures of words, telling various stories of hope and sorrow. In doing so, he had unknowingly chosen his side in a struggle for freedom that he wasn’t fully aware of at the time. At least that’s how I see it.
My first owner was sweet to me
I was her pet, a new kind of poodle
my pretty mother chosen
to be her personal handmaid
(Juan, p. 4)
With slavery, everything is smoke and mirrors. It is slick. It disguises itself with tricky bargains, petty favors, and sweet illusions—a term that Juan used to describe the town of El Molino, Don Juan’s “island of sugar.” Juan hasn’t felt the severity of his misfortune because he spent his early years with Doña Beatriz de Jústiz. He was her slave, yes, but he was treated more like a pet. (I don’t know which one is worse.)
She takes me with her wherever she goes
I become the companion of my owner, noble ghost
no, not a companion, remember?
a poodle, her pet
with my curly dark hair
and small child’s brown skin
for the theater
So I bark
I learn to whine and howl
I’m known as the smart one who never
I can listen
(Juan, pp. 7-8)
Comedian Bill Cosby once said, “The essence of childhood, of course, is play, which my friends and I did endlessly on streets that we reluctantly shared with traffic.” Juan was deprived of that opportunity. There was no room for play in his life. There were no children to play with, either. Even if there were, he, a slave, would not be permitted to interact with them. He had “duties” as a slave. He did as he was told, mostly to perform like a wind-up doll at his mistress’s parties. Slavery is brimming with selfish acts. It takes everything and leaves you with nothing.
False Hopes and Hollow Promises. Margarita’s novel shows how slave-masters like to play God. Money buys everything, even a slave’s life—his freedom. Juan’s parents were promised freedom at the cost of three hundred pesos. Everyone considered this as a generous act by Doña Beatriz. This freedom, however, came with a bargain. Poor Juan, who was fondly referred to by his mistress as “the child of her old age,” must remain with her until her death. When Doña Beatriz died, Juan, who thought he could finally claim his freedom, was sent away to the loathsome La Marquesa de Prado Ameno where he remained a slave.
free, not free
this Marquesa de Prado Ameno
she is vile,
they say she’s a madwoman, crazy, cruel.
(Toribio, p. 37)
Even though Toribio de Castro was not Juan’s biological father, he still felt sympathy for the poor boy. Juan was, after all, the only son of his beloved Maria del Pilar. Just how vile is Juan’s new mistress?
Here I am
by one more annoying
his memorized poems
always sneaking peeks
at my books.
Every time I catch him reading
under a table
or behind a door
I lock him down in the cellar
with the charcoal
to darken his thoughts
and his skin.
(La Marquesa, pp. 40-41)
To say that La Marquesa hated Juan is an understatement. She is a woman driven by pride, greed, envy, and bitterness. She is, to me, a tangible representation of slavery. If Death were to pay La Marquesa a visit, he would flinch at the mere sight of her. She is worse than the villainous mistresses that I’ve seen in Philippine telenovelas (soap operas).
Some people can never be satisfied.
The poet-boy, for instance,
nothing is ever enough for him.
I have to tell the overseers to teach
the same lessons
over and over
locking his ankles in the stocks
tying him to a cross like Jesus.
Or tying him to a ladder laid out on the ground
face down, mouth down
so he cannot speak
except to count his own lashes out loud
(La Marquesa, p. 56)
Juan’s harrowing tale is comprised mostly of his experiences in the hands of La Marquesa. In fact, three-fourths of the book tells of Juan’s misfortune. Reading it made me feel like a firsthand witness to the cruelty of La Marquesa. This is why, in my Poetry Friday contribution, I mentioned that Joel M. Toledo’s poem called We Have Such Solid Measures for Pain is very fitting in describing the life of the Poet Slave of Cuba.
Juan’s story is so heartbreaking that I can’t even decide which excerpts to include just so I can illustrate how painful life had been for him. I do believe, however, that Margarita’s powerful verses beautifully captured slavery in Cuba at the time. It’s ironic to see slavery and beautiful in one sentence, don’t you think?
For It Is the Mother Who Always Grieves. While it is true that Margarita’s poetry evoked the voice of the Poet Slave of Cuba, I also realized, as I reread some parts of the book, that Margarita also gave voice to Maria del Pilar, Juan’s biological mother. With the seemingly endless alternating verses of Juan and La Marquesa, one would think that they are the only ones that make up the story. It is Maria del Pilar’s story as much as it is Juan’s, for it is the mother who grieves for her son’s pain and suffering.
Italian actress Sophia Loren writes in her book, Women and Beauty, “When you are a mother, you are never really alone in your thoughts. A mother always has to think twice, once for herself and once for her child.” It is very humbling to note that Margarita understood the need to give a voice to Maria del Pilar—a woman, a mother such as herself.
Imagine the shock, the excitement
the anger, pure rage
Leave my son behind, how?
He is not hers, I won’t let her have him
why does she insist
that he is the child of her old age?
Life is not logical, nothing makes sense
how can this be, one child a slave
—my child, my only child—
while the others, unborn,
are already proclaimed free?
(Maria del Pilar, p. 22)
What could be more painful than seeing her son be claimed to be the son by another? What could be more painful than hearing her son call her mistress ‘Mama?’ What could be more painful than knowing that she is free but she must leave her son behind? Maria del Pilar had endured being Doña Beatriz’s personal maid, but to be repaid in such a way was a slap in her face.
Even when Juan was sent to La Marquesa’s house, Maria del Pilar didn’t stop thinking of him. Words spread in town like fire, so she was somehow aware of what was happening. But did she falter?
A broken nose from the beatings.
No more golden beak.
A silenced voice.
Or so they imagine.
I know it’s not true.
I can hear him singing.
That music of words.
The fluttering wings.
(Maria del Pilar, p. 44)
I don’t have children but, as a daughter, I know that a mother’s love is the sweetest. So unconditional that it would follow the child to the grave if it had to. Throughout the verses spoken by Maria del Pilar, readers will see a glimmer of hope, that one day her son would be free and they would be reunited. Sometimes, hope can only take us so far.
The first blow
of the whip
on the flesh
of my son
Teeth and fists
shrieking and kicking
I punch, I attack!
Now we are here together
in our dungeon
(Maria del Pilar, pp. 72-73)
Words Are Powerful Weapons. I am a lover of words. I believe that words, like prayers (which consist of words), have the power to move mountains. What started out as a monotonous task became the stronghold for Juan in his latter struggles. At the beginning of the book, he mentioned the calming power of words. He said that reading the poetry of free men let him know that he was not alone. Poetry sets his heart on fire. The verses he memorized throughout the time he served his first mistress helped him bear the sorrow, the pain, the suffering.
It was not only Juan who was deeply affected by words. Even La Marquesa herself was struck by the sad verses that Juan whispered. The sadness that she felt must have been so overwhelming that, because she didn’t like what it was doing to her, she ended up punishing Juan. Also, it can be surmised that La Marquesa was furious at the idea that a slave—a child, even—could be so literate, so well-versed. Something about a slave knowing so many things wasn’t right for her. Like any narrow-minded slave-masters, La Marquesa thought that physical torture would break Juan’s soul and put an end to his whisperings.
And even when this is done nine days in a row
still he bleeds and weeps,
trying to show me
that he has won
he has triumphed once again
he has proven that he can still
make me sad.
(La Marquesa, pp. 56-57)
Various Voices in Verses With Beautiful Sketches. Margarita’s The Poet Slave of Cuba is lyrical biography at its finest. This is my first venture into an actual novel-in-verse and I loved it. Cliches are fitting at this point: ‘less is more,’ ‘simplicity is beauty,’ and ‘simplicity is the end of the design.’ One would think that because the story of Juan was told in verses it loses the essence of an actual narrative. I think that novels-in-verse are not different from traditional narrative. A slight difference in form, perhaps. Other than that, both still manage to tell a story. The beauty of Margarita’s novel comes from the fact that, even if it was told in alternating points of view, it has fluidity.
Margarita’s verses are complemented by Sean Qualls’s beautiful art. I wished that I had the colored version of the book, if ever there was one. The artwork in the book reflects the dark days of slavery in Cuba. The black and white sketches speak of the pain and suffering that Juan felt and experienced at the time. I visited Sean Qualls’s blog and there I found his other books. I suddenly felt the urge to look them up in our library catalog. Stunningly beautiful artworks!
Awards Received by The Poet Slave of Cuba.
- Pura Belpre Award
- Americas Award
- International Reading Association Children’s Book Award
- International Reading Association Teachers’ Choice
- ALA Best Books for Young Adults
- NCTE Notable Children’s Books in the Language Arts
- For a complete list of awards, visit this website.
Resources for The Poet Slave of Cuba. Here are two helpful links that provide academic resources for The Poet Slave of Cuba: one is by Macmillan, and the other is by Eureka!. Both offer a list of questions that teachers can use for the discussion of the book. Interestingly, there is no image of the real Juan Francisco Manzano that is available in the Internet. His original works are also hard to find. However, this website shows a sample of his work.
Endnotes. The Poet Slave of Cuba has been noted to be disturbing and violent for children. Amazon recommends the book for children aged 10 years and up. Yes the book is powerful but adults can read it with their children and help them understand slavery and the struggle for freedom. The Poet Slave of Cuba is a tour-de-force, and it is unlike any YA literature I’ve read last year. A must-read.
About the Author
Margarita Engle is a Cuban American poet, novelist, and journalist whose work has been published in many countries. She is the author of young adult nonfiction books and novels in verse includingThe Surrender Tree, a Newbery Honor Book, The Poet Slave of Cuba,Hurricane Dancers, The Firefly Letters, and Tropical Secrets. She was very young when she began writing poetry. According to her, her deep attachment to Cuba stems from childhood visits, and return visits as an adult. She lives in California with her husband and children. To know more about her, click on this interview by Macmillan.
About the Artist
Sean Qualls has created art for magazines, newspapers, advertisements and children’s books. His work is a mixed media combination of painting, drawing, and collage. Aside from The Poet Slave of Cuba, he also illustrated Before John was a Jazz Giant, which received the Coretta Scott King Honor award and The Baby on the Way (FSG), a New York Times Notable Book, among others. He lives with his wife and son in Brooklyn, New York. If you wish to know more about Sean Qualls, you may visit this interview by 7 Imp.
The Poet Slave of Cuba
Reading Level: Ages 10 and up
Hardcover: 192 pages
Publisher: Henry Holt and Co. (April 2006)
Book borrowed from the Chula Vista Public Library.