BAUMGAERTNER: FINDING CUBA
so much of what is prized these days, is important.
It is so because it's
artful. It gives us truths which are undeniable.
It gives us the longing,
restlessness we all experience, yes, but the poems
are limned in
as well. And because they attempt,
time and time again, to
for what she knows they can't finally, fully
attain and so give, they
emblems for the hope we all carry too.
poem, "The Pulley," is an oft-anthologized little number wherein God
(with whom we do not know) how He plans to gift humans with "the
riches, which dispersed lie / Contract into a span." And so He
But since He is God, He knows, too, that with the coming fall, His
won't be enough. So Herbert, an Anglican clergyman, has him
the poem with the following stanza:
Yet let him keep the rest,
But keep them with repining restlessness:
Let him be rich and weary, that at least,
If goodness lead him not, yet weariness
May toss him to my breast.
In large part the above
serve as a kind of thematic statement for Jill Peláez
Cuba. Everything in our lives bears the mark of our longing
spiritual wholeness, but we do not find completion in this world,
in dreams, nor in memory, photographs, stories of any ethnic exodus,
sex, poetry, or nature. It's simply not to be got. But in
working out of the divine economy as registered in Herbert's poem, we
find that each failed attempt is turned to the good as we are led
back to the One who IS wholeness. And though that necessary
can be resolved finally when, like Dante, we experience the beatific
in heaven, Baumgaertner's poetry serves the important function of
us how we live as we wait and struggle toward that end.
always been true that to get the news from American poetry, one has to
go to the smaller presses. Think of heroic Bill Williams banging
those keys in his attic after four heart attacks, one side of his body
paralyzed to be of much help. Think of Blake and Whitman,
Joyce. The larger corporate presses have always sacrificed vision
for fine polish and a herd mentality ÷ and we shouldn't expect
from them because they have to make a buck. But small presses can
afford to be more Quixotic because nobody there really expects to
on their earnings. And so these smaller presses can push the
In the best cases, such pushing results in news. And we DO get
here. It's "Good News," yes, but because Baumgaertner is such a
poet, she moves us beyond what many might expect from religious
There are no easy answers here, no either/or's because the poet has
where most of the Christian poems are, to Paul's "fear and trembling,"
that is, to the place where we all haltingly work out our
We are able to see life, not as we would like it to be, but as we
on most days, live it.
poetry, unlike so much of what is prized these days, is
It is so because it's bald and artful. It gives us truths which
undeniable. It gives us the longing, the restlessness we all
yes, but the poems are limned in resurrection humor as well. And
because they attempt, time and time again, to reach for what she knows
they can't finally, fully attain and so give, they become emblems for
hope we all carry too. Something in us keeps us going forward,
time, trying to become who we know we are meant to be. We can
complete ourselves, but the life that is in us keeps us pressing after
uses the first third of her book to examine her own personal need to
the missing part of her past: Cuba. An immigrant herself, she
displaced, incomplete, and so seeks to remedy the situation. But
if that were all she were up to, the poetry would not be especially new
in the "news" department. Minorities of an increasingly doubtful
stripe have been doing this pretty often lately (some without the help
of Bill Moyers), and the results are usually self-absorbed, hackneyed
But Baumgaertner takes the search motif much farther here, and uses the
nationality issue to make a larger statement about the human
And though we get beautiful glimpses of Cuba, that largely lost
none of them are enough to give her what she needs: wholeness.
this is all of us, whatever our search or current distraction. We
all seek it in some way, but it simply is not forthcoming on the
some readers off, especially if they are Christian, but it
Yes, God is absolute and does not change, but we are not Him.
the great mystics, after all, spent most of their time in the mundane,
in doing laundry or weaving baskets. They filled up their time by
doing what they did in God's sight; and if we, like them, do it well
perhaps we too can contribute to the furthering of the kingdom.
so nice about poetry is that it refuses either of the easy outs: it
not go for the "keep the high" Christianity of t.v. evangelists, nor
it reduce itself to wandering through the trackless waste with a God
never ever reveals Himself. Baumgaertner seeks Him in the moment;
she sees what matters there, and hopes on, walking her walk. This
is real Christian poetry. It never "faiths it," eyes closed to
present as it holds to past revelations. No. She walks in
present, meditates on what's there.
in the section is titled "Uprooted," and in it the first thing one
is the layering on of prepositional phrases. This is important,
we shall see with Adam and Eve when they come up, because women here
comprehend the world by means of relationships: thus the
They are acute and see quickly while the male is more dazed, dazzled by
beauty, visuals. He is more ruled by perception. But as we
shall see as well in the later sections, the male and the female are
because they are both human. Each can see something of things
the other's perspective. But here, right at the start, the
The artists painting Cuba from memory
or from photographs, from family stories
of the exodus, from dreams, know
their bloodlines are not clear. The work
is mongrel, neither Cuban nor American.
Artists, as we shall see
as we go
through the book, are intent on delivering relationships, beauty.
Their work is hope in the form of artifact, because we need the
But the work too is a measure of the incompleteness in each one of
No artist can be purely Cuban, or purely anything else. Christ,
Augustine says, and only Christ, fills the hole we feel. But no
I know walks around feeling the splendor of His presence each
More often, we are like the artists, the poems, the dreamers, the
the photographs. We feel His absence at least as much as we feel
His presence. And because of our response to our situation, our
grows. But, I hasten to add, that joyful sense of presence cannot
be kept altogether out, either. It's part of the package.
the source of the amazement the speaker shares as she delivers the
strikingly earthy Cuban imagery:
Parrots settle in the sour orange, fifty
at a time. They are netted and eaten
like pigeons, cooked with onion, garlic, bay
leaves, lemons. She remembers her father
discarding the diminutive bones of squab
on newspapers spread flat in the middle
of the kitchen table.
* * * *
. . . the greatest curiosity÷
children of ten or twelve dressed in stovepipe hats
and swallow-tail coats, in long dresses
with low necks, saunter arm in arm
through the broad paths. Most children
of the island, one parent tells her delicately,
know relations of the sexes.
["Cuba, 1905: What She Found and Why She Stayed"]
In this section the poet
to fill in some family blanks, and the attempts are evocative,
But she knows it cannot be done. All the characters, however, do
not or cannot share her insights. They can't seem to incorporate
that fact in a seamless view of the human condition. And so they
suffer, more than, perhaps, they need to. There's her grandma who
becomes a Ziegfeld girl, who left her family, children, to get away
the machismo confines of the island; there's her father, the silent
man who never speaks in the poems; and there are all of the people of
Cuban diaspora, who have to try and find a life that works in a strange
country. And finally there is the poet, too, who ends the last
of the section, "Peláez Relinked," with the following:
It is this familar set of syllables:
as sheer as lawn,
I raise it, fragile page,
like a white flag.
Everyone in the section
and lost, and so what could be next? Well for Baumgaertner, a
the move is not hard to guess. One must reach for a wider context
to make sense of things; in this book, that's Christianity. And
we get the second section of the book, entitled "Leaving Eden."
title gives the poet away here, but nothing is lost. A
grounding can help us make sense of our pain, but it will not relieve
whole of it. It will not provide a consistent distracting
buzz. We are fallen creatures. We cannot go back, or
if you want to talk the beatific vision. And it's from these
that the poems proceed.
does here is to see our lives through the lens of the Real, capital
This makes sense of our loss. But as in the first poem of this
"Genesis," she does more than just that. This poem beautifully
the great joy and intimacy available within the parameters of who we,
are. In the poem Adam is created and then names what he
The language is worth the price of admission here:
And Adam rises from the mud,
whole, moving his feet slowly
through the clay, as it sucks and
pulls him back, not yet ready to
give him up. His legs move
like shears cutting leather . . ..
"Sucks" and "shears" are
And through them Baumgaertner allows us to participate in the joy she
in creating, naming. This quality is emphasized when she has Adam
name things. He names many creatures, including "lynx, otter,
/ mistle thrush, marmoset." Wonderful choices, and she just
going: "Fairy / shrimp, lark, tamarin, sturgeon," and later "skunk,
/ pigeon, ibex, wallaby." There is a great, almost infantile
joy in saying and in feeling one's mouth muscles bend as we repeat
wonderfully odd words. Freudians would call this an oral
no doubt, but I would choose to see it in a more positive light.
It's a gift, a kind of holy laughter. And there is much
humor of a different kind in the poem as well ÷ a gift she might
from one of her mentors, Flannery O'Connor. It's the humor
share as the characters interact. A good example of this is when
Eve responds to Adam by coming up with verbs which could be nouns as
she takes things one level higher. Her words include "punt /
fleece, speckle," and then later, "dice, pepper, twine."
It's a lovely one-upsmanship in that they're feeling each other
Adam responds by getting latinate: "rationale, antecedent,
It's a humor that spells resurrection because it embodies such a large yes
to life. And the humor is picked up in another way too.
earlier in the poem, was so slow in coming to ask questions about
but not Eve:
Eve knows she has been there always,
kindling his mind, teasing the hairs
on his arm.
Whatever the metaphorical
implication of her knowledge, it is wrong in the literal sense.
was just created. Here Baumgaertner seems to have a little fun at
her own sex's expense. Eve is precise, present, but on a very
level, she is wrong. I found that delightful. And this
expression comes to a climax (almost) in the final image. After
us how man sees through a lens of beauty and woman through one of
our poet ends the poem:
seek hers. She raises his palm and with
her finger spells her love inside it.
He moves close for her interpretation.
stuff. The intimacy, the inversion with the phallic image.
It's all very tender and affirming. Of course, the fall happens,
and the results are still with us today. And Baumgaertner does a
nice job getting that across by juxtaposing the Adam and Eve characters
with present day situations. They both try to relocate that joy
wholeness and sense of discovery, but they either cannot find it at all
or they cannot maintain it. And so they suffer. "Aubade"
with the woman speaker absently recording, "She will become as tangible
/ as peaches crushed in ice." It's a deeply impersonal,
image. She sees herself, after the man has gone, as less than
We become things for each other, and despite the interruption by
Sanctus," the problems continue. The husband in one poem, in
ends up looking by the wife when he sees her, because he doesn't want
This is not lost on the woman. We are not enough for each other,
whatever the good times. She, the Eve of the poems, longs for
like a cicada, seventeen years underground. But when does it come?
especially psychiatrists, can't help when it comes to what's bothering
her, portable altars set up in airports can't seem to help
But she does finally find a kind of resolution. In the last poem
of the section entitled "Ave and Benedicta," the airport liturgical
is redeemed and the call she's felt previously to become a receptive
Mary-like person is reintroduced in a stronger fashion. The poem
ends with the persona looking at a triptych:
She is rapt with love, she says yes to all creation,
knowing the image does not come
without the word.
She bears the word.
If Christian poets do not
word, how can they claim the Word has power in their lives? This
is the thematic center of the book. The poet reaffirms the place
of art and witness, and she reaffirms that central witness of Him whose
sandals we are not fit to unloose.
Baumgaertner can get "Under the Skin"; that is, she can look at her
perhaps more clearly now. She's done what she could with
both in a cultural/geographical and a religious sense. Things
remained difficult, but that is no surprise to her, nor to us.
IS a human condition after all. She is generous with men for the
most part in this section. They are as wounded as the
And she keeps her resurrection humor alive while driving her messages
In some poems she can't tell if she's the person listening, if she's in
her body or out of it. And this is good because it helps her to
her full humanity in the poems. As The Firesign Theatre once put
it: "We're all bozos on this bus." Male or female, it doesn't
"Under the Skin," begins with "What I Knew, Age 3." It's a fine
reminds me of a line I sometimes use with my students: "Poetry's the
occupation where you can't know much, but get to make a big deal out of
it." And so it is here. The girl is precocious, but she
it all wrong: "I could / remember the darkness / that was before I was
. . .." It goes on: "I also knew . . . that if I stared hard
without blinking / while mother cooked dinner my father / would appear
at the corner and walk / up the steps." The humor here is that
partly right in that we order a good deal of our worlds through memory,
perception, poetry, but she's wrong when it comes to her cause and
conclusions. (O'Connor would be delighted.) The poet in
section remembers: the second grade, her sister's delegging of a
but none of the past is of much help and none of it reflects the
of the time being considered ÷ only God is objective enough for
Nothing on earth brings a sustained wholeness, completion,
Nothing this side of the beatific vision will.
growth as a woman is also marvelously examined in this last section as
well, and in some detail. There is much pathos as we see the
girl learn something of what it means to be female from an older woman
named Florence. It's just one of the many nice touches in this
beautiful poems which examine both her lot as a woman in general and
individual responses to gender issues. These are valuable poems,
in part because Jill Peláez Baumgaertner does not lose her
perspective while speaking with a feminist voice. She's very fair
in that she makes distinctions between difficulties which are
and ones which are the result of male injustice. She doesn't give
us propaganda here, just good poetry.
with males are real, palpable, and should not be avoided. (That
wouldn't help pre-born women in China or dowry-less women in
Nor would it help the women each of us work and live with.) The
parties here are male artists (though I suppose all unjust men could
as artists since all people construct something of what they call
Degas, King David, and Pygmalion all abuse women in the three powerful
poems which close the book. These are first-rate poems, and
should be applauded for having the courage to end the book with
I say this because too often Christians can act like there are no real
problems once they have found their way into the fold, no endemic ones,
no institutionalized one. But the poet here ends as fiercely as
has begun, refusing to fall into stereotypes, either those perpetrated
by non-Christians or those spread by Christians ÷ who sometimes
public relations and truth. (Jesus doesn't need the
Yes, Jill Peláez Baumgaertner has given us the news here.
Dig in. Turn the page. You'll enjoy the experience.
Cuba. Valparaiso, Indiana: Chimney Hill Press, 2001.
© by David Craig