The Tug of Havana

By Jamie Bernstein

The crumble the make-do
The gummed defunct wires
That lattice the weeping plaster
The grime-bathed marble
Still cool to the touch
In the murky entrance halls of someone’s
Once grand residence
Long state-possessed

As if a roving populace had settled
Into somone else’s ancient ruins
Hunkering down
To the scrounge and the wheedle
The creep of the queue toward
The meager handout
Breviary of daily devices
To conjure a dollar
From the fingertips of tourists

In the scarred doorways the elders
Bask in the radiance
Of a city starved and febrile
Doddering Pontiacs
Pocked colonnades
Cracked boulevards unmarred
By global logos
Time-stunned apothecaries
Their gleaming glass cabinets
Empty of remedies
Trees take root on collapsed balconies
Where rags are hung a hundredth time to dry
In the warm slutty Caribbean breath
That will soul-kiss any regime
Visitors marvel
Snapping the sun-drenched paucities
Not very proud of themselves
Not very sober

Now school’s out
A regatta of red neckerchiefs
Unspooling down the street
Girls braided all tidy
The older ones in languid twos and threes
Out of their chaste white blouses
Out of their mustard yellow skirts
The sweet-shorn boys flip marbles
At the curbstone
See their tender foreheads
The shell-nook behind their ears
No trace of the macho hysteria
That will one day grip their loins
Like a vise

And music all around
Unplanned marriage of tribal throb
And courtly Spanish prance
Bursting like jubilant tropical undergrowth
From the chocolate soil
Cracking but not expelling
The grim soviet shellac
Mambo tu quieres
Mambo te voy a dar

The disheveled line waits on
For the bus the rice the repair
Thump of a conga
As the sea flings its wrath
Against the Malecón

PoetryJamie Bernstein