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.
"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
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,
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.
"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.
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.