Have You Been Long Enough At Table by Leslie Sainz
$16.95 | Tin House | 96 pp. | September 2023 | ISBN: 9781959030119
The title from Leslie Sainz’s debut collection Have You Been Long Enough at Table comes from Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. In Hemingway’s book, the question comes as a thought from an old man directed toward a fish on his line. The old man is waiting for the fish to finish eating the bait, hoping the hook is deep inside and impossible to break loose. I won’t get into interpretations of Hemingway’s story, but I can’t help but consider the significance of Sainz’s use of this line for her title: being that 95% of fiction books between 1950 and 2018 were published by white people—and one can easily imagine a similar statistic for poetry—have the Hemingways of the literary world been long enough at the table and now it’s time for others to eat? Or being a debut collection, perhaps Sainz is contemplating if she’s spent enough time eating at the literary table, as if she’s asking herself, am I ready to emerge?
Reading the first lines of the opening poem titled “Ño,” Sainz continues to carry the reader with the image of Hemingway’s old man fishing, but now with balseros risking their lives for a chance at a new life: “There is no country / where the dead don’t float.” The connection between the title and these first lines is clear: Hemingway’s old man was a Cuban fighting a fish for his livelihood, and in a way battling the sea, just as the balseros in Sainz’s poem fight the sea for survival. But this time the Cubans are given a voice by a Cuban American poet, and there’s a palpable connection in Sainz’s verse that isn’t present in Hemingway’s attempts to write broken English for the thoughts of the fisherman. Sainz juxtaposes death with beauty later in the poem: “The orchids are lovely / this time of year / and the women, writing.” Here Sainz enters the poem herself, placing an image of women writing, and in a way breaking the fourth wall. In other words, she is not the white man observing the Cuban fisherman, she is the daughter of Cuban exiles writing about Cuban exiles. As the poem comes to an end, Sainz switches from “I” to “us,” making the reader aware of the speaker’s position; Sainz is writing about her land and her people: “What covers the land / and is the land— / much in us still.”
When I taught Intro to Creative Writing, one of the first things I told my students was that poems are not riddles built for you to solve. Poems, like paintings, sometimes have very clear images—a boat, a hospital, a pig—and other times they carry emotion through things like rhythm and, dare I say, magic. This balance between the concrete and the mystical is how a poet can keep a reader grounded in a particular realm while also providing the freedom to interpret and participate. Sainz’s approach to the lyric poem often dazzles with the aforementioned “magic,” providing imaginative leaps that reach beyond the need for absolute resolution, shown particularly well in the poem “Sierra del Escambray:” The sun behind the clouds twitches like a goat tail. I have a dream about helicopters, about symmetry—heads not unlike mine split down the middle as if for sharing In these three stanzas alone, Sainz takes the reader from the sun and clouds to helicopters, and then moves toward an image of violence. I can imagine the speaker looking up at the sky, daydreaming and perhaps forgetting for a moment about human horrors. Then a helicopter disrupts this temporary bliss; a loud war machine cutting through an otherwise peaceful meditation depicted through nature images. The line “about symmetry—heads” is not yet corrupted by violence but seems to suggest a duality. This is a poetic representation of the psychology of Carl Jung, that nothing good can exist without a corresponding evil. The symmetry here is depicted in the literal splitting of a human head, which can be seen as a metaphor for the duality of humanity: half primal nature, half logic and reason; half subconscious daydreamer, half conscious observer; half peace, half war; and so on. Many of Sainz’s poems dance on the page. The rhythm and musicality of poems such as “Operation Good Times” plays a significant role in the strength of what is not said directly: It would/could reflect poorly on the regime if this were to get out If this were to get out the way the poor would get Out on the regime could you reflect on getting out No epigraph is needed to provide context on what an uninformed reader can infer to be a horrible military operation. Sainz’s use of repetition allows the reader’s imagination to snowball as the poem moves down the page. By rearranging the words continually, Sainz is able to create a parallel between the military secrets getting out and Cuban exiles getting out. If a reader were to have prior knowledge of this military operation (or if they were to do a quick Google search like I did), they would know that Operation Good Times, along with other military operations during that time, revolved around the American government fabricating photos, events, and documents that would make Fidel Castro look like a gluttonous, careless leader. One of the events suggested by U.S. government agencies during this time was to sink a boatload of Cuban refugees headed to Florida and blame it on Castro. Although Sainz wrote this poem in a way that created emotional resonance without these horrific details, knowing this and knowing that Sainz must have also known this when writing the poem adds another layer of depth to this piece. Amidst the war images and political tension, Sainz incorporates mythology and tenderness, often displayed in her sonnets. This tenderness comes with a kind of multi-generational awareness of womanhood, which is wonderfully depicted in the poem “Sonnet for Shango:” The woman who raised the woman who raised me was a mistress. She met her lover at the tops of trees, screamed so loud her tongue shoveled the sky. I don’t ask for as much. In these opening lines of the poem, the reader starts with intimate details of the speaker’s ancestors and is quickly brought to a present tense, first person perspective by the third line. So much can be explored with what is being said about love and sexuality, as well as the connection between the current generation and their ancestors, but I am particularly captivated by the use of nature imagery. The “mistress” in the poem is making love “at the tops of trees” and “her tongue shoveled the sky.” These earthy images in this context make the sexual acts feel natural and timeless, connecting the present to the past. Form complements content as unrequited love appears, a traditional theme of sonnets. It is not clear whether the speaker is completely grounded in mythology, as suggested by the title, or if the speaker is a kind of lyric hybrid of the personal and mythology. Again, Sainz gives the reader just enough to fuel the imagination, allowing readers to fill in their own narrative conclusions and make their own connections.
Brent Ameneyro is the author of the chapbook Puebla (Ghost City Press, 2023) and the collection A Face Out of Clay (The Center for Literary Publishing, 2024). He is the 2022–2023 Letras Latinas Poetry Coalition Fellow at the University of Notre Dame’s Institute for Latino Studies. He currently serves as the Poetry Editor at The Los Angeles Review.