Fuse #8

Friday, July 21, 2006

Review of the Day: The Poet Slave of Cuba

Good Poetry Friday to you all. Not so much with the cheery is today's title. It's good but.... oogy.

The verse novel is a tricky fickle thing. Though no one to the best of my knowledge has ever put down the rules that govern the creation of a verse novel, there are always a couple unwritten understandings. No verse novel should tell its tale through poetry when it would make more sense to tell it through prose. Also, just breaking up a bunch of sentences into lines doesn’t mean you’re writing poetry or anything. The ideal verse novel is one where it makes sense to write a story through poetry AND just happens to have an ear for beautiful language. Such is the case with Margaraita’s, “The Poet Slave of Cuba”. In the book it says that, “The life of Juan Francisco Manzano haunted her for years before she finally realized that to do justice to the Poet Slave’s story, she needed to write it in verse”. The result is an achingly beautiful and horrific story that deserves to be read by teens everywhere.

Born a slave in Cuba in 1797, Juan Francisco Manzano grew up the toast of his owner Dona Beatriz. His ability to memorize speeches, plays, and words of all sorts made him a kind of sought over pet to the Spanish aristocracy. Though she promised to grant him his freedom when she died and she allowed both his parents to buy their freedom, Juan Francisco remained a slave after Dona Beatriz’s death and was handed over to the dangerously psychotic Marquesa de Prado Ameno. The Marquesa resents Juan from the moment he is put into her possession and every attempt he makes at reading or writing is put down with shocking violence. A biography told in poems, this book shows the worst of slavery's cruelties and the sheer will it takes to not only survive under such conditions but escape.

The text in the book alternates between different points of view on almost every page. In a sense, the villains have just as much of a say as the heroes. Juan, for his part, sometimes will have three pages in a row of thoughts, each with its own separate poem. Alongside this format are illustrations by Sean Qualls. Qualls has a style that usually doesn’t do much for me. In this case, however, he’s the perfect complement to Engle’s tale. The white aristocracy with their blank eyes and sharp pointed teeth are positively horrific. These images magnify the storyline. Here, for example, are two ladders that lead suggestively against a wall. Now a shiny coin. Now a butterfly. They are rough unfinished drawings that show far better Juan's situation than any polished colored print could ever convey.

At first I was a little perturbed that for all the book’s poetry and loveliness, I couldn’t find any actual poetry by the real Juan Francisco Manzano. Then I reached the end of the title and in the back found that author Margarita Engle not only offers us a biography of the true Juan Francisco, but reprints his bibliographic details as well.

Now, there is a debate surrounding this book. It is not a debate that questions whether the story is told well or whether or not Engle gets her point across to the reader. It’s more a question of audience. Though published by Henry Holt, Inc’s young reader division, and not a specific teen imprint, there is little doubt in my mind that this is not exactly kiddie fare. It’s repeatedly violent, often to extremes. There is more bloodshed, torture, screams, and pain in this book than you’ll find in most children’s literature. To put it plainly, this is the “Beloved”, of kiddie lit. Which, when you think about it, doesn’t make it very kid-friendly at all. Teens, on the other hand, will find much to appreciate here. Juan Francisco spends much of this book as a teen, after all. His thoughts and actions are not those of a young boy, but rather a man trapped in an untenable situation. As such, I'd steer this book clear of the shorter set and aim towards kids with some maturity.

You read about the main character’s pain, and to some extent a kind of apathy has to take place or the story’s too difficult to bear. As a reader, you actually find yourself wondering how a person could live under such grueling conditions without a hope of a reprieve and still want to live. And there is a moment in the book when someone says that good always triumphs over evil. That it is amazing that the devil even tries. Words like these and phrases of this sort have been turning about in my brain ever since I put, “The Poet Slave of Cuba” down. Engle’s text has a kind of staying power that wordsmiths everywhere should envy. Envy and admire.

I guess I should point out that while, “The Poet Slave of Cuba” is well-written, smart, and beautiful, it is not a pleasant book to read. Teens who pick up this book should be informed right off the bat as to what the book consists of. Just the same, it’s definitely one of the more honest treatises on slavery I’ve ever had the chance to read. Engle does a magnificent job with her subject. She does the man’s memory proud.


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