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The Gospel of Wildflowers and Weeds

By Orlando Ricardo Menes

Sea-borne winds whirl into cochineal skies, unravel a garland
of sweetsop clouds, roar into ramshackle hills
that breed the anopheles & the pearl-eyed boa, thrashing a
     clutch
of royal palms, tall, slender & wind-whittled […]

In his sixth full-length collection, The Gospel of Wildflowers and Weeds, Orlando Ricardo Menes limns the fervent, sensuous textures of a childhood in Peru, his background as a Cuban American, and works by painters like Carlos Enríquez and writers like Federico García Lorca. Despite the speaker’s insistence that faith is “fraudulent” without “the rootedness of religion,” the poet’s Catholic upbringing continues to infiltrate his consciousness, as is evident in his energetically imagined poems to patron saints, like a funny one about “St. Apollonia, Patroness of Dentists”: “On Judgment Day the righteous will rise from their graves with milk / teeth immune to caries […].” 

Menes’s evocations of Caribbean landscapes emulate the “tropical baroque” of his parents’ native land, Cuba, while striving to characterize what the poem “Tower of Babel” calls “the tidal waves of history,” “the quicksands of diaspora.” Because his method is an aggregation of ornate details pitched high in tone and style, Menes’s poems sometimes have nowhere higher to crescendo to, concluding with statements that feel anticlimactic and unexceptional, like “this gift of light lifting the fog of humanness” or “& know at last, at last the love of the man called God.” But breaking what Menes calls “the curse of wholeness” is a quality of the visionary poets he mentions, who fracture and regenerate sense into the numinous. In “Hear Me, Hart Crane,” the dislocation of Crane’s Cuban sojourn, where he wrote much of The Bridge, finds a delicate parallel in Menes’s early struggles writing about the tropics from snowy Chicago:

The snow pebbles scattered to papaya beads,
And the trestles of icicles swung like garlands
Of Bougainvillea against tall royal palms
I lathed from the blizzard-blighted poles.
And in the cold wind or in those lake flurries
I’d hear our ruiseñor trill her cascabel song.

Reviewed By David Woo
Publisher University of New Mexico Press
Pages 96
Date August 15, 2022
Price $18.95