NEA Literature Fellowships

Virgil Suárez

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(2001 - Poetry)

In The House of White Light

When my grandmother left the house
                  to live with my aunts, my grandfather,

who spent so much time in the sugar
                          cane fields, returned daily to the emptiness

of the clapboard house he built
                  with his own hands, and he sat in the dark

to eat beans he cooked right in the can.
                          There in the half-light he thought of all he'd lost,

including family, country, land, sometimes
                  he slept upright on that same chair,

only stirred awake by the restlessness
                          of his horse. One night during a lightning

storm, my grandfather stripped naked
                  and walked out into the fields around

the house saying "que me parta un rayo,"
                          may lightning strike me, and he stood

with his arms out, the hard rain pelted
                  his face, and then the lightning fell

about him, and he danced and cradled
                          lightning bolts in his arms, but they

kept falling, these flashes of white light,
                  and he ran back inside and brought out

an armful of large mason jars my grandmother
                          used for pickling, and he filled them

with fractal light. Like babies, he carried
                  the jars inside and set them all about the house,

and the house filled with the immense
                          blinding light that swallowed everything

including the memories of how each nail
                  sunk into the wood, the water level rose

in the well, the loss of this country,
                          the family who refused to accept him now,

that in this perpetual waking, the world
                  belonged to those who believed in the power

of electricity, those moments zapped
                          of anguish, isolation, this clean and pure

act of snatching lightning out of heavy air,
                  plucking lightning like flowers from a hillside.

Real Audio"In The House of White Light" read by the author

Virgil Suárez is the only son of a pattern-cutter and piecemeal seamstress working the sweatshops and factories in the United States. He was born in Havana, Cuba in 1962 and raised in the US since 1974. Suarez holds an MFA in Creative Writing (1987) from Louisiana State University and is currently full professor of creative writing at Florida State University in Tallahassee.

Suarez is the author of several novels, including Latin Jazz (William Morrow/Simon & Schuster), The Cutter (Ballantine), Havana Thursdays and Going Under (Arte Publico Press; a collection of short fiction, Welcome to the Oasis (Arte Publico Press); three new poetry collections in the last two years, You Come Singing (Tia Chucha Press/Northwestern University), Garabato Poems (Wings Press), and In the Republic of Longing (Arizona State University/Bilingual Review Press); as well as most recently a selection of prose and poetry titled Spared Angola: Memories of a Cuban-American Childhood. His poetry has appeared in numerous literary journals, including Ploughshares, Prairie Schooner, The Kenyon Review, TriQuarterly, Colorado Review, The Massachusetts Review, and Tampa Review; his book reviews appear regularly in The Los Angeles Times and The Miami Herald, among others; and he has edited several best-selling anthologies of Latino/a literature, including Iguana Dreams: New Latino Fiction (Harper Collins), Paper Dance: 55 Latino Poets (Persea Books), and Little Havana Blues (Arte Publico Press). He lives with his wife and daughters in Florida, dividing his time between Tallahassee and Miami.

Author's Statement

This year's aid given to me in the form of an NEA fellowship is a godsend. Of course, it is an honor too, and one of which I am extremely proud. The support will afford me some time off from teaching so that I can finish this book I so dearly love.

All the work to be written for this collection will have been influenced by Shakespeare's The Tempest and the character of Caliban. Also a direct influence on this volume are Retamar's Caliban and Benitez-Rojo's The Repeating Island. This collection should be considered a sequence of memory poems about growing up Cuban and Cuban-American after the Cuban Revolution of 1959. Most of the poems written for this volume will address the powerful issues of identity and longing for a home place, family, friendship. Simply put, Caliban Ponders Chaos will be a testament to the nature of immigration and the search for an individual's sense of place. It is a sequence of poems unified mainly by the sense of loss and rootlessness as Cuba becomes not only a historical landscape, but imaginary and mythic as well.

This gift of support from the NEA and my fellow poets in the country has also given me much inspiration to continue the work. It validates the daily work, which is, as any writer or poet knows, solitary and time-consuming. I am convinced that this book will appeal to a large variety of people, from the readers browsing at a bookstore to scholars and academics teaching ethnic/cultural studies, creative writing teachers and students, lovers of poetry everywhere, and in particular people interested in so much of Cuban diaspora and exile.

Thank you NEA!