Cuba Journal, by Cornelia Hoogland
Reviewed by Carmelo Militano
Cornelia Hoogland’s fifth book of poetry, Cuba Journal is a meditation on language and how language and writing itself can shape our perceptions of gender and relationships, writing and landscape.
It begins with Hoogland misreading a sign — “No Hunting” is misread as “No Writing” — and this prompts the refection that language “has been dominated by the powerful few, the privileged, the patriarchy. Language has a long history of being exclusionary.” In other words, writing can function not only as artistic expression or as an act of communication but writing is also a political act and can be used as a political tool. Language can be part of the ongoing process of oppression of gender or class by a political system or social structure.
The second impulse behind the creation of the book is an impromptu trip to Cuba. Hoogland’s recreation of the landscape of Cuba — the ocean, fruits and flowers, the hard clear light of the Caribbean, and the way of life of the Cuban people — is clear, accessible prose, but at odds with the book’s claim that Hoogland is writing poetry.
Our perceptions of how most poetry works, in part, is based on how the words are organized on the page and how the writer uses language. Although Hoogland does use metaphors and similes, and uses punctuation here and there to create what works like prose-poetry, (a slippery concept) pages 11 to 21 for example are actually prose rather than poetry: “I’ve arrived. I step outside the hotels and there’s the ocean. I sniff the air. Gardenia? I look for the white-flowered shrub; its hard-polished leaves.” Where the poetry does exist is in her tone and her lovely evocative descriptions of swimming in the sensual ocean: “I wade into the sea and water folds over me like a bridal sheet. Unfurled and gleaming. One organic length of pleasure. The ocean folds and unfolds, over me.”
Hoogland is at her best describing using the vignette form to sketch small portraits of her passionate resourceful Cuban friends who live improvished lives despite their education. The writing here is in stark contrast to the Cuba of tourist beaches and hotels:
“Comfort isn’t in Petra’s vocabulary. She’s furious, and she doesn’t hesitate to tell you so. ‘No tiene pelos en la lengua.’ Her pissed-off ness is palpable. Outraged that she and her physician husband Tomas with his four specialties own nothing. Not a chair in this house is theirs. All is state-owned.”
Hoogland is visiting Cuba with Bob, someone who she thought, “ was my friend.” Bob proves to be the bane of her existence in Cuba along with most of the Cuban men she observes or meets. Bob’s constant advances as well as the erotic gestures of many Cuban men annoy her. She “dives into her journal” to avoid their “ rude” gestures and obliquely disapproves of their behavior “ How close to the surface it is for some men. A fuck.”
Hoogland never comments on how language or writing is involved in a man or woman interested in a life-long mate, or simple sexual gratification. We get instead this view: “That’s how it goes. I write words down. I catch the men red-handed. I should feel like the director, casting roles and doling out the good lines.” Or the reader is given this: “I haven’t been persecuted for what I write, but I’m female and therefore part of the population that inserts itself into a language that has been dominated by the powerful few, the privileged, the patriarchy.” Heavy-handed, yes, and words that do little to shed light on how men and women behave erotically and why. The book does suggest it will explore this interesting social ground and its interplay with language. Alas, it doesn’t.
Instead, Hoogland is interested in how writing includes and excludes, enforces and helps create social roles and that the writers she admired somehow ‘swam’ against the social current. It’s an image that conveys the struggle well: “But instead I think of my literary foremothers who swan deep into foreign text. All that churned-up, wide-open water, and they like white caps making everyone angry. One stroke at a time, one breath, one self-bestowed permission, and then the next.”
Hoogland sees that roles women created for themselves in the past and today in Cuba can be powerful. She asks, “Where have they been all our lives, the crones, the mouthy broads, the bitches? The seventeen year-old daughters, the sluts, the young girls tottering on pink platforms, las abuelas … The back-talking sisters, the poets, las mulatas, the bitter wives, mothers-in-law.” She answers her question by saying “They’re working the text, teaching it to fall fluid over their backs, to buoy them up.”
Desire is not always trustworthy in the book: “My daughter tells me ‘white female tourists everywhere are easy. Easy marks. And don’t the men in every country know it,’ she says.” Or, “In Mexico the men whisper bonita in Danielle’s ear as she walks by. In Seoul bearing gifts, they usher her to dinner on the 39th floor.” It’s only near the middle of the book we see a more relaxed attitude about sexuality, and a more organic one. Julie suddenly reappears (we last heard from her at the beginning of the book) and shows Hoogland a gully. Hoogland sees the gully and realizes “It’s a woman, this birth-place” and that by stepping into the warm muddy earth she is “stepping into herself.”
The writing here again is prose as is the rest of the book. It’s something of a puzzle why the publisher and author labeled it poetry, although one could argue the reported conversations and essay like comments are subtly expressed and require a poetic leap to fully understand. It may have simply given Hoagland the breathing room to sometimes be more expressive, but the two modes don’t always sit comfortably together. And for a book that aims at entering into a discussion about language, writing, and what’s acceptable, I expected more on the impact of the Cuban Revolution on writers or what people write about in Cuba. The books real strength lies not so much in its ability to be philosophical or poetic but in its keen detailed eye on landscape and Hoogland’s ability to convey in short prose vignettes the passion and resourcefulness of the Cuban people.