Have You Been Long Enough at Table
Tin House, 2023
reviewed on Nov. 3, 2023
Taking its title from Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, Sainz’s debut opens aptly enough “at sea,” amid “[o]il drums headless / as monarchs” and with “[m]en and children going, / having gone, lungwet / across thickened water.” In other words, Table opens with a border-crossing, in this case from Cuba to the United States during the 1994 Balsero crisis, during which thousands of Cubans took to the water on precarious homemade vessels, fleeing Fidel Castro and his Communist regime.
That incident, along with the more well-known Mariel Boatlift that preceded it, serves as a kind of primal scene in Table, an origin story on which Sainz’s speaker looks back with both intimacy and estrangement, alienated as she is from a history and culture to which, in other ways, she remains inextricably bound. Indeed, a great deal of Table centers on its speaker’s positionality with respect to her past, on that ambiguous or otherwise overdetermined situation of the second-generation political exile. “What occupies me / is also running,” Sainz writes in “Sonnet for Eleguá.” “It never tires, but rather, repositions itself. / I should like to reposition myself, please. All of me this time.” In “Place / Settings,” likewise, the speaker’s relation to her Cuban heritage seems to take the form of the workshop interrogation, in which—given the current vogue for autobiography—one is exhorted at sundry cultural and economic pressure-points to limit one’s subject matter to firsthand experience. “From the other end of the table, where are you sitting in these poems?,” Sainz inquires in the pedagogical mode. “Neatly atop the cloth napkin. // From the head of the table, where are you sitting in these poems? // Underneath the placemat, wriggling.”
The experience of Cuba documented in Table, then, is inherently a mediated experience, one in which Sainz’s speaker encounters her family’s homeland as a tourist destination, political projection, and, as in the poem “Glassware,” commodified export:
Sugar appears in many American fantasies.
The convincing ’60s sugar glass made to simulate
broken windows and windshields? I will never taste it.
It doesn’t harm the actor, it harms the actor, argues
In limning its speaker’s relation to her past, Table at times indulges familiar tropes, including in its aestheticization of historical violence and its association of cultural identity with culinary practice—“I rolled my r’s like phyllo dough.”
Too, one laments in Table the continued fetishization in contemporary poetry of the documentary erasure, an ostensibly subversive form which signals nothing more radical, it seems to me, than one’s attendance in an MFA program.
Table is most compelling, though, when most immersed in historical materialism, when Sainz eschews lyricism in favor of a richly textured, lived-in social and political universe. Sometimes this materialism takes the form of retrospective witness, as when Sainz writes that her “mother is / the height of six / stacked corpses when / she is smuggled / onto a Pan Am flight to Jamaica.” Often, Sainz elevates brilliantly from material history to historical argument, as in the consecutive poems “Nature & Nurture, Miami, FL” and “Binge / Fugue,” meditations on the embodied effects and after-effects of exile. “For years, you bucketed your bathwater,” Sainz writes in the former:
your dishwater:; they called you a petulant
child then used the buckets to flush the toilets bloated with shit and piss.
The assumption behind most questions: you do want to live, don’t you?
Heat humiliates; the lack of A/C is neon.
You are unmoved to learn that most parents do not successfully transmit
their political values onto their children.
In the subsequent poem, Sainz returns to the notion of the unbounded body: “Have you ever overflowed? Haven’t you?”
Calling back to the collection’s opening ambit, Table addresses anew here the porousness of borders both personal and geopolitical, temporal and spatial. Sainz’s debut is an agile and dexterously ambivalent navigation of these borders, bringing to life in material ways the displacement of the immigrant daughter and the endurance—as memory, as culture—of that always elusive native country: the past.