In The Rivers Are Inside Our Homes, Cuban American poet Victoria María Castells explores how we can salvage our notion of paradise in an overspent Eden. In thwarted homes located in Havana and Miami, Rapunzel and her prince, persecuted nymphs, Morgause, and Bluebeard’s wife speak to us directly, all in need of returning to safety. Confronting machismo, illness, heartbreak, and isolation, the poems depict how women are at the mercy of men, either husband or oligarch. Yet all generations of Cubans are bombarded with this need to return or to leave, to have both, to have neither. Victoria wrote the following piece for the Notre Dame Press blog.
When writing The Rivers Are In Our Homes over a sequence of years, the subject of my own heritage—both my parents are from Havana—would unfold itself over again, always revealing a new angle to examine in my poetry. It has always been interesting to me that Cuba, a relatively small island nation, is a place that has almost everyone has an opinion about, or at least some emotional investment. If only in the imagination or as a symbol, it holds strong meaning, enough so that years after his death, Castro was still coming up in the 2020 Democratic presidential debates. For exiles, there is the yearning to take back, unwind time, then for many Cubans, the desire to leave, and for non-Cubans, to go visit, observe a seemingly paradisical object in statis. It’s a place that does not inspire neutrality.
This is part of what led me to writing historical poems, centered with Cuba as a place of fantasy and desire from the very start of its colonial upbringing. Havana itself functioned as a seaport, a strategically critical place for the Spanish to harbor their ships and take the empire’s appropriated gold back to Madrid. As historians have noted, from the city’s inception its purpose was to interact with the European world. It can be very easy to only focus on the Revolution in 1959 and the erstwhile Cuba of that age. Yet it increasingly interested me to look into older wartime events like Francis Drake’s failed attacks on Havana and San Juan, and thus Queen Elizabeth’s Caribbean ambitions. Another example is the strange anecdote of Napoleon Bonaparte’s great-nephew Napoleon III leaving a warship named after a Southern general in Havana Harbor as part of a doomed plan to ally France with the Confederate South. Either in history or in individual memory, the story is often one of possession.
When writing these poems, I began to connect the historical threads to my grandmothers leaving Cuba with the children who would eventually become my parents. To bring in fairy tales and myth with men as the archetypal oppressor, an unending threat, the tradition of the deficient husband. To examine exile and also to push back and subvert it, given the tragic legacy of the island’s eradicated indigenous past, as if Cuba could ever satisfy this unending desire to find ourselves in this already stolen place. There is a ringing of paradise around Cuba’s name, one that makes me want to dig deeper into this connection, though ultimately the message I see is one of pain, the kind that comes with a longing over what cannot be taken or made new again.