Poetry

Triptych Number 2: Carlos Enríquez

Orlando Ricardo Menes
Painting of wild horses running on a multi-colored landscape.
Carlos Enríquez, Landscape with Horses, 1941. © The Museum of Modern Art, New York, licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY.

I. yeguas

in conversation with Enríquez’s 1941 painting Landscape with Horses

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
as your own brushes of pig’s bristle/weasel’s hair, those round,
  flat, & bright pinceles
you wield like a bone wand, palo de brujo, priest’s asperges—
O Carib caduceus that blesses our cyclone-prone island
with embroideries of bush, weed, & sprout, filigrees of the epiphyte
& the strangler fig, veneers of mold, moss, & mildew.
Ay pintor de la tierra, how well you knew in your cassava bones &
      soursop heart
that to be pure & sovereign our island must be reborn as
      Kubanakán
when humans brewed prophecies of cohoba, hovered like
      hummingbirds
atop purple canopies, rode the hammerhead shark on a full moon.
I swim your river of green lightning that splits apart the green
      meadows
of foragers & I smell, hear, see a herd of wild horses,
lithe & skinny as the palms behind them, delicate in their stride,
unwary of any swerve of wind, some of the mares among them 
drinking from the river, this slow, dense water, molasses of mercury,
that slides down swales of cinnabar muck where I crawl
like a mudfish, roll down the riverbank, swallowing this dough
of clotted earth, & as the glowworms burst into flame
I realize these yeguas are my brethren, my blood, my very breath—
so then like Adam who named the animals I unchristen them
for all eternity, uttering just neighs & whinnies, spiting the
      saddle too,
the bit, reins, stirrups, & with savage gait I am free to run
alongside for a hundred leagues, days on end, never out of breath
or hampered in stride, stubborn on instinct, our destiny
not a dwelling or a homestead but a horizon of burnt emerald
where the angels of the hurricane tremble the cotton-silk trees.

II. manifesto

Only in those bucolic landscapes that clutter the Louvre is nature
submissive. Art emasculates wind, water, and wood. The lan-
guage of beauty is the language of conquest, and the sublime an
ornament of empire. When I walk in the sun of my island, my
skin sweats to a reptilian scaliness that is natural, uncontrived,
unlike velvet or some animal hide wrought to deceive. The tropics
engender disorder and paradoxes. The straight line does not exist
in la manigua where everything is curves and deviation, where
life’s colors mix with the shadows of death. Our rainclouds drop
grapeshot, our rivers sunder stones to chicken bones, and these
stones when swept to earth become seeds of sorcery. I paint our
nature blindfolded using just my senses of smell and touch. La
manigua dominates me, and I let her. One has to be an animal to
understand her in one’s blood, to feel her in one’s marrow, to hear
the murmurings of her seas. My brush is a machete, my canvas
the bark of strangler fig, my colors boiled from weeds, bugs, slugs.
The fine painter is an impostor, a spy, a charlatan in the eyes of the
gods of the hurricane and the yuca. The Taínos knew how to carve
stones and shells into sacred vessels. The sound of the rain was the
music of their hearts. We killed them so long ago in the mines and
the bonfires, but they endure in the trees and the lagoons. I am not
of their blood, but I hear them in my dreams. Don’t be timid, they
tell me. Be sincere as the scorpion and wise as the barracuda. Learn
from them to forge the art of our island: wild and unpredictable as
a rush of water that heaves the dry loam to quickening.

Painting of two men and a coal oven.
Carlos Enríquez, Charcoal Oven, 1937. Private collection. Courtesy Cernuda Arte, Coral Gables, FL.

III. Elegia

after Enríquez’s 1937 painting Charcoal Oven

O men of the cayman’s swamp
And the charcoal trees called marabú,
This burning mound is your tower
Of Babel on this island of brine dusks
Where the moon confuses the sun,
And the turpentine light of terebinth clouds
Will not peep through with revelation
Because the shekinah of Sinai cannot breathe
In these Antilles too green, too wet
For such a desert god without a name—
So any tropical fire must be profane
As it cooks the flesh of guiltless brush
To bruto carbón, dark as night’s marrow,
You sell to city folk who haggle you,
Bilk you, trap you with false covenants,
So you find no soul’s recompense, no sacrament
Of agape, and what is your sole reward
But threadbare pesos in a flyblown satchel,
Your backs, arms, and chests sun broiled,
Crack-prone as you cram sacos de carbón
Onto a flat-bottom boat, your brood
Of black bundles that will huddle together
On a dark night like castaways or refugees
Clamoring for water in a rainless sea.

Orlando Ricardo Menes is an NEA Fellow and the author of seven poetry collections, including The Gospel of Wildflowers & Weeds. He is a professor of English at the University of Notre Dame.
Originally published:
September 20, 2021

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