Café Nostalgia

Cuban-born poet Virgil Suárez serves up rich poems about the immigrant experience and our own search for home.

Virgil Suárez has always listened to the voices in his head. Fortunately, these aren't the voices of madness; instead, they're the ghostly murmurs of his childhood in Cuba.

These murmurs recall his uncle, who every morning squirted lemon juice in his eyes, because he claimed it strengthened his sight. Or Suárez's aunt, whose pacemaker picked up baseball games in English, tormenting her. Or his cousin, a balsero, who dreamed and talked incessantly of building an ark to escape Castro's Cuba.

Indeed, how could Suárez ever neglect the sad, beautiful and haunting voices of his past?

"I'll never escape them," admits Suárez, during a recent phone interview. "They're my burden and my blessing. I find that by thinking about some aspect of growing up in Cuba, I can always tap into other voices, voices I've come to depend on over the years. In 'telling' something, my own voice then comes through--it's a dependable voice that I hear always. It begins talking in my head, something I remember about, say, my childhood, something an uncle did, or once told me."

"Dependability" and "ravenousness" are the words many would use to characterize Suárez's inspiration. Born in 1962 in Cuba, he and his parents moved to the states in 1974, settling in Los Angeles at first, then moving to Miami. He graduated from California State University at Long Beach before pursuing his master's in creative writing at Louisiana State University, where he studied with a slew of well-regarded writers: Jim Bennett, Moira Crone, Rodger Kamenetz and Andrei Codrescu (founder of the literary journal Exquisite Corpse).

"All my teachers possessed great energy," says Suárez. "Some had more than others, but they all shone in their own way. Codrescu is one of the most energizing teachers I know. He sits down and burns through a few hours of class. He has a knack for making time fly. It's the "Blitzkrieg" technique, as I've come to know it. Don't wait for the student to slow down, keep hitting him/her with possibilities, with ideas, with the kind of craziness they are going to have a hard time unreeling from."

These days, Suárez derives as much pleasure from teaching as he does writing.

"I always like to think that after I am done with my students during a class, they will drive home in a cloud of images, thoughts, ideas about their own work. I want to make sure I always inspire my students to do what I do at the end of the day: Go home and write--empty myself on the page."

Lately, Suárez has been emptying himself in prolific quantities and across genres. He debuted as a novelist in 1991 with The Cutter (Ballantine), the story of a Cuban sugarcane worker who makes plans to flee to America. Three more novels and a short-story collection followed, but Suárez grew tired of fiction and made the switch to poetry in 1998 with the book You Come Singing (Tia Chucha Press). Since then, he's published an astounding seven books of poetry, with three coming out in the last two years alone.

"It looks like I suddenly caught fire with all of these poems, but it's just not the case," he says. "I'd been working on these books as an undergrad in Long Beach back in the late '80s. And I've been publishing poems in literary journals for years. But it's only recently I managed to get my poems organized into publishable manuscripts."

It's hard to pick a favorite book by Suárez, but Palm Crows (University of Arizona Press) is, in many ways. The distillation of the best aspects of his style and substance. Shadowed by want and loss and hardship, it's a book that's lush, earthy, efflorescing. Suárez's language is rich, his address direct and incantatory. "Song to the Cucuyo" begins: "caught them at sundown in the tall grass/by the plantain plants by the porch/of our house in Havana, put several in clear marmalade jars, brought them inside the house, as pets, for the night." Again and again, his poems present such sumptuous description: "There on the nightstand, in the dark, they flashed their incendiary illuminations,/flashes of fluorescence, like faint lights/of a distant tarmac to signal the passing of fears." This is the realm of memory and metaphor, in which the landscape of a Havana childhood prophesizes the Cuban diaspora. Everything--food, fauna, animal life is transformed by Suárez's powerful imagination into a symbol of the uncertainty and sadness of immigrant exile in Florida.

Suárez is a professor of creative writing at Florida State University, so it's not surprising that his work draws also on the verdant scenery of the small town of Tallahassee. The tender and evocative "Carp," for instance, begins with the narrator's weakened father in contrast with a vigorous display of nature: "We sat in the crisp/day by a solitary pine's quiet stillness:/witnessed turtles kick up mud in underwater clouds, tug our wormed hooks, and I realized then how frail and thin my father had become." What endures after reading Palm Crows are the moments when the poet uses the physical world to repair and sustain bonds, both within the family and the Cuban-American community.

The book is divided in three sections, titled "Animalia," "Cancionero/Songs," and "Duende." These sections seem to be in reverse chronology, at least insofar as narratives emerge within them. Indeed, the last poem in the book--"Adios, Adios, Adios"--brings us to the very origins of the immigrant experience, where, under a pall of crows, "the flapping of wings mark the pace" of those leaving their homes to forge new ones.

This image describes well the attitude of Suárez's work: his is not a poetry of grace or benediction, but one of withstanding--its strengths are endurance and imagination.

"(Palm Crows) is a collection that's very close to my heart," says Suárez. "It's a sad book, of course, but it's sprinkled with moments of heightened joy and ecstasy, which makes it bearable and easier to read in one sitting. Unlike Banyan (Louisiana State University Press, 2001), a book about my father, which was much more difficult--and painful--to complete."

But Palm Crows lends itself more readily to readings in which the audience may be unfamiliar with the Cuban-American experience; it's the book Suárez will most likely draw from when he reads next Thursday, April 3, at 7:30 p.m. inside the Center for Creative Photography on the UA campus.

"Palm Crows is an emotional, intuitive collection, unlike some of my more cerebral works, in which Caliban from Shakespeare's The Tempest is a recurring figure, meeting up with literary and historical figures like the Marquis de Sade and J. Edgar Hoover and Pablo Neruda," he says. "With Palm Crows, the reader doesn't need to keep pace with all the namedropping."

Indeed, Palm Crows is a rich, imaginative stew that leaves one anticipating Suárez's next project. Will it be another poetry collection? A new novel? Screenplay?

"I go wherever the muse leads me," he says, laughing. "I know better than to force myself to sit down and bang out something that's premeditated. I need time to let things gather and grow inside."