Book Review

Cecilia Rodríguez Milanés, Everyday Chica, Long Leaf Press, 2010

by Lucia Cherciu

Cecilia Rodríguez Milanés’s chapbook Everyday Chica impresses through enthusiasm, energy, and an unrestrained, proud, Cuban-American voice. Organized in three sections, the chapbook offers a cohesive, well-articulated structure focused on one theme, celebrating her roots and recognizing her struggle as a Cuban-American woman growing up in Jersey. The poet’s voice triumphs in its unbridled exhilaration, syncopated rhythm, and overflowing sense of music and dance.

The structure of the chapbook follows a clear arc, from the first section, “Back When,” in which the poet records her experience growing up in Jersey as a Cuban-American teenager. Each poem in this section starts with the process of rediscovering her identity:

            Back when I was an exile
                        stripped from my comfortable concrete
                        rusted fire escapes and
                        rotting garbage. (4)

Rodríguez Milanés explores the music, sounds, and rhythm of a way of life as they define her poetic identity. In “Back When I Was a Disco Queen,” she remembers,

                        I boogie-oogie-oogied
                                    got down and
                                     hustled with the best of them
                                                the helmet heads at the Limelight
                                                cubaniche guys at the 747 lounge
                                                slick honey-dripping tipos from Big Daddy’s
                                                plasticos populating the Mutiny
                                                            and Honey for the Bears. (6)

The details of the neighborhood, the street, and the bodega help to create the rhythm and vivacious beat of her formative years.

The form of the poem mirrors the fervor and energy of her themes. The long verse, the dropped line, and the dance on the page of the long sentences based on parallelism, lists, and repetition serve to punctuate a rhythm appropriate for performance poetry and spoken word. The spacing on the page and the skillful manipulation of the line length orchestrate a perfect musical arrangement for the development of Rodríguez Milanés’s themes.

The section “The Old Country” embraces the legacy of things past, from the last generation’s poverty that defines the color of one’s teeth, to the triumph of fatherhood in “Cultivation.” The father’s portrait is created through a celebration of trees and their secrets: “He searched nursery after nursery for just the right mango, / his fruta preferida, and decided upon a tasty Hayden / almost as big as the giant aguacate” (18).  He is skilled in the art of grafting, and his visitors leave not just with gifts of fruit, but also “hijitos—in the form of cuttings or ramitos— / small branches for grafting” (19).  When he downsizes to a condo, “Soon enough renegade papayas and plátanos started sprouting / around the lake perimeter and next to the buildings” (20). 

The focal point of the chapbook is “Cuban American Manifesto,” in which Rodríguez Milanés declares “I want to write a Cubaniche poem / full of rhumba, conga y chachacha / con azúcar sazón café Tabaco y salsa / a Cuban poem for those over there / a Cuban American poem for those over here” (22). The poet uses long sentences, drops punctuation, and develops her voice along the seven pages of the poem in an enumeration of contradictions, inner conflicts, nostalgia, and celebration of being Cuban American. Her poem combines the major themes of the chapbook and demonstrates Rodríguez Milanés’s voice as an authentic source of power. The accusatory tone of the poem asks for freedom: “liberate us from consumer-fascism / excess-access and Tommy Hilfiger / liberate us from unpopular public opinion” (25).

Rodríguez Milanés’s Everyday Chica includes poetry of affirmation, pride, and self- discovery. The staccato of her rhythm proclaims the importance of music, rhythm, and dance, as well as the triumph of a life lived in between worlds, celebrating one’s roots and reaching towards a fluid definition of the self. Her use of parallelism, repetition, and enumeration combines cursing words, slang, and postcolonial language in order to fuse Spanish and English, street talk, and literary theory.   

Back when I was Cuban

Back when I was Cuban
            with no language but my mother’s and father’s tongue
A Cuban baby
            without words
            only a language that murmured and sighed
            a singing, festive system of signs
My world, a world with only other speakers of this code
A Cuban baby then a Cuban toddler
            I sucked and sucked the milk of a people


Back when I was an Exile

Back when I was an exile
            stripped from my comfortable concrete
            rusted fire escapes and
            rotting garbage
I remembered the river

It was a reverse exodus
I cried at the shores of the river before
            the diaspora
I followed its polluted currents
            wondering how many
                        shopping carts
                        tires and
            waited at the bottom to pull me down

On the other side of the river, West
            the setting sun
            the avenues and runways to another place
Not south, why, never South!

When I was an exile I began my grief
            before I left
the seed of exile sprouted me
In a land of ruthless sun and
            brutalizing heat
breathing was like drinking hot water
I put on my mourning clothes, shielded my eyes,
            became white
            became blind
            an exile without the right language
            an exile without roots
            without protection from the merciless, unblinking sun.

Dr. Lucia Cherciu is a Professor of English at SUNY / Dutchess in Poughkeepsie, NY, and she received her Ph.D. in Literature and Criticism from Indiana University of Pennsylvania in 2000. Her poetry appeared in Paterson Literary Review, Connecticut Review, Cortland Review, Memoir (and), Legacies, Spillway, Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and the Environment, Off the Coast, and many other literary magazines, both in English and in Romanian. Her book of poetry Lepădarea de Limbă (The Abandonment of Language) was published in 2009 by Editura Vinea in Bucharest. Her second book, Altoiul Râsului (Grafted Laughter) was published by Editura Brumar in 2010.