Paradise Lost: The Poetry of Bessy Reyna

Bessy Reyna first learned about the beauty of poetry as a fourth grader in Cuba, when her teacher selected her to memorize a poem and recite it to the class.

After moving with her family to Panama, she came to the U.S. in 1968, having received a scholarship from Mt. Holyoke College. She went on to earn master's and law degrees from UConn and for many years worked at the state Judicial Branch in Hartford.

She is the author of four poetry collections as well as a volume of short stories, and she has been the recipient of numerous awards and grants for her writing, support of LGBT rights, and many other activities.

In 2001 she was named Latina Citizen of the Year by the State of Connecticut Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission, and in 2012 she was one of 10 women honored by the CT Women's Hall of Fame. In 2016 the San Juan Center in Hartford honored her with a Lifetime Achievement Award for her contribution to Latino Arts in Connecticut. Recently, Bessy returned to Cuba, an enormously moving experience reflected in the first of her poems below.

– Rennie McQuilkin, CT poet laureate

What We Left Behind

Havana Vieja, you wait like an elegant hostess

yearning for the guests who sat at your dinner table.

But now, the balcony where you all gathered

to marvel at the noche Cubana

has fallen to the ground,

the beauty of your past spread on the sidewalk

like a shattered kaleidoscope.

I left you "antes de, antes de..." (before the...)

as the hotel's staff describes me.

What they mean is "before the revolution."

Somehow the date of my departure

is like a baptism cleansing me of the sin

of having abandoned you.

The bus carrying me to the city turns a corner

and I, who have been desperately searching

for something from my past, recognize a fountain,

the one with the dolphins, and shout:

"Look, I used to play here!"

Suddenly I am ten and not seventy, and I can

go back to the park whose name I have forgotten,

put on my roller skates, lock them on my shoes

and rush fast to embrace the wind.

When tía Espe took me to the airport that day in April, 1954,

I was too young to understand that the past would become

a colorless memory, the few black and white photos

my mother brought with her.

Inside the plane, I'm transformed

from Cuban citizen to a soon-to-be

homeless immigrant child.

Later on, my repressed Cuban identity

would burst out when eating my mother's

arroz con pollo or lechón asado.

Those flavors exploding in my mouth

filled my heart.

I became like a house in need of repair,

disconnected from the family left behind,

imagining the cousins I would never meet.

I asked my friend if I could borrow her grandmother,

pretend she was mine.

I had everything and had nothing,

because you were always a yearning,

a first kiss we can never forget.

I Was Born On An Island

but the sea was too far away to mean anything

except on those rare days

when we packed into Father's car

next to bags, food and clothes.

Going to the beach was a long surprising ride,

tall trees becoming smaller, green transforming

to tan then, with the last pull of an invisible cover,

the first run to endless blues

of ocean and sky kissing each other

shamelessly right before our eyes.

Tropical Lately

for Pam

"The sky looks tropical lately,"

she says casually

gazing at red and purple streaks

framed by the car window.

To my left, orange cones; I-84 narrows,

I switch lanes and slow down enough to observe

her bare shoulders,

long black hair,

sandals next to her feet.

Her sadness makes me want to conjure an offering:

have a wild orchid appear on her lap

or between her soft small breasts.

I catch a glimmer of the volcanoes

and rain forests behind her eyes,

hear waves crash against her homeless heart.

She rests her head on the car seat,

glancing at clouds that yearn

for a place to be.

"Beautiful, isn't it?

Makes you almost homesick, doesn't it?"

"Doesn't it?" I whisper.

A Cup Of Coffee

"Watch me!" I Tell Rob,

the lovely dark-haired friend

who has joined me for lunch.

"Watch me. I'll have to pretend

I don't know that the coffee is a gift from him."

We dance the tango.

Ricardo, the Argentinian man,

is so happy to see me.

It's been so long since I had lunch

at this small place

hidden on the second floor of an old building.

Rob and I sit by the window

talking about books and watching

the people below us

as they stroll on Pratt Street.

Ricardo whispers to me in a voice

with the cadence of the pampas,

¿Querés un café? Do you want a cup of coffee?

I know I shouldn't –

it would be one too-many for the day,

but I can taste the offer, the

I-want-to-give-you-something-

because-I-am-so-happy-to-see-you!

bursting behind the smile.

We dance the tango.

"Watch me," I say to Rob.

I now have to pretend

that I want to pay for the coffee

and he will refuse to take the money.

The proper behavior,

the warmth, generosity,

the nostalgia that engulfs me now!

In how many restaurants can you get free coffee

just because the owner is happy to see you?

A native language coming back

to rescue me,

transforming me,

transporting me.

At lunch, we danced the tango.

I say goodbye to Rob,

turn and give Ricardo gracias por el café

before I descend the narrow wooden stairs

that return me to

another culture, my brave new world.

Around the corner

a homeless man awaits.

"Can I have money for a cup'a coffee?" he asks.

His voice startles me.

I smile.

"Come with me and I'll buy you a coffee,"

I tell him, pointing at the

"COFFEE AND PASTRIES" sign a few feet away.

"No! Not from there," he shouts, annoyed –

"From Dunkin' Donuts!"

Of course, he does not want a cup of coffee.

I place some quarters in his extended hand

and walk away smiling,

having paid for my coffee after all.

We danced the tango.

Lunch Walk

He came bouncing down the street,

heavy body, long hair, jacket and tie.

There was an oddness about him.

Then, as he approached

I heard the sound of maracas

coming from his pockets.

Was it candy?

I pictured hundreds of multi-colored sweets

crashing against each other,

he, oblivious to the crackling rhythm.

Along Capitol Avenue

our paths crossed,

lunch break nearly over.

How can I explain

being late for work

because I was following a man

who sounded like maracas?

Bowl With Blue Lotus Flowers

When the lovely white bowl with embossed blue lotus flowers

began to slip off the kitchen counter,

I wanted to rush and catch it in mid air

like Zhang Ziyi in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

when Michelle Yeoh dropped a cup of tea

to test her reflexes, but I wasn't fast enough.

"Give you a good price for the bowl"

the Vietnamese lady told me

the week she was closing her store.

I used to go there, buy tea,

imagine the flavors of the ready-to-go lunches

she prepared and presented, works of art

wrapped in plastic like a Christo installation.

I once saw a Chinese movie where a craftsman

walked around a village offering to fix broken bowls.

The camera zoomed as his hands skillfully

connected the pieces, filled the cracks with colors,

making each bowl useful, beautiful again.

I look at the fragments of lotus flowers on my kitchen floor,

reminders of other things broken in my life:

the friendships gone, the sharp edges of betrayals.

I wish someone would come to my house,

glue them back together again.

Editor's Note: Story has been updated to correct the spelling of the poem "Tropical Lately."

All poems copyright © 2017 by Bessy Reyna

CT Poet Laureate Rennie McQuilkin selects work for CT Poets Corner by invitation.

Copyright © 2017, CT Now
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