What better way to observe Columbus Day than to refuse to honor conquest? To that end, Orlando Ricardo Menes’s double sonnet “Zafra” is a fitting poem to bring to the anti-party. Menes, born in Lima, Peru to Cuban parents and currently a professor of English at the University of Notre Dame, takes on the milieu of Cuba’s exploitative sugar trade in his poem. “Zafra”—a word that refers to the harvest of sugar in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean—is set at a very specific historical moment: in 1919, when the sugar beet plantations in Belgium and France had been destroyed during World War I, and the resulting sugar shortage drove cane prices higher than they’d ever been: to a whopping $22.51 a pound. After the Spanish-American War, U.S. companies, tempted by high profits, little competition, and cheap labor, stepped up production. The Hershey Chocolate Corporation even built its own railroad from its sugar mill near the province of Matanzas to Casablanca, a port city across the bay from Havana. The passing of Prohibition in 1919 increased demand for sugar even more. By the end of 1920, however, overproduction had depressed prices to $5.51 a pound.
The boom and bust cycle of the sugar trade forms the backdrop to Menes’s poem, but the action features a one-legged photographer shooting bridal portraits. In the first sonnet, the narrator describes the plump daughters of plantation owners’ daughters in their silk sashes and calfskin boots, whose “gaunt fathers would plow granite to pay / Dowries, trousseaus, sacristy fees.” The second sonnet features other brides: the twelve-year-olds destined to marry the cane-workers themselves, girls with “moth-eaten fans,” who use coal dust and marrow grease for makeup. The last word belongs to Grandma Cuca, described as a “gelder, cane-cutter, roughrider,” who takes in the jaundiced scene with a deprecating eye.
Menes has crafted an atypical rhyme scheme for the sonnets—seven rhymed couplets per poem—but those slender units allow for a certain density of image and statement achieved through the ironic yoking of the rhyme words: “cane” and “ratsbane,” “carrion” and “gowns,” or “mare” and “snare.” This is history rewritten from oblique viewpoints, which shows how the fortunes of sugar affect all lives from the humble to the dominant.
Province of Matanzas, Cuba, 1919
Season of sugar harvests, saint’s day sweethearts:
One-legged François trundles on a donkey cart
Across the rutted roads of mill towns to shoot
Plump brides in starched flax, silk sashes, calfskin boots,
Whose gaunt fathers would plow granite to pay
Dowries, trousseaus, sacristy fees. Night and day
Steam trains freight hogshead molasses, crates of rum,
Sugar gems, at first dirty and blotched, then spun
First water for traders in London, Vienna, Brussels.
Though Europe’s in ruins, sharecroppers shuffle
To maracas, three-string guitars, drink the green
Cane juice, the price of sugar highest it’s ever been,
Till the market steepens, saturates, succumbs
To traders’ glut and soon free-falls like Icarus.
But on this feast of St. Jude, boys romp in the cane
Fields, torching hives of weed, laying down ratsbane,
Slingshooting buzzards that linger for carrion,
While sisters betrothed at twelve fumble rumpled gowns
And primp with cascarilla, coal dust, marrow grease,
Twirl crooked parasols, furl moth-eaten fans as they wheeze
In corsets to pose on rawhide, a screen of cheesecloth.
Most girls would have flirted with the hooded box,
But Grandma Cuca—gelder, cane cutter, roughrider—
Scowls, squirms, silt of makeup cracking, who’d spur
Broncos bareback than sit sidesaddle in the sun.
Wedding bells peal, her eyes sting, throat burns. “Nun
Or whore,” she thinks, “you’re still a branded mare,”
And seethes with bone satin cinched to a snare.
“Zafra” originally appeared in the Indiana Review and is forthcoming in Orlando Ricardo Menes’s collection Fetish, winner of the Prairie Schooner Prize in Poetry, slated for publication by the University of Nebraska Press in 2013.