Tower of Babel
Praise be to God for confounding our tongues and scattering us into exile
like chaff in a stray wind or the fig seeds dropped by a green iguacaon on a hogplum.
Confusion is sweetest chirimoya on a dry tongue.
Hymns of disorder bring bountiful harvests in times of drought,
And perhaps only cross-eyes can see in chaos serene mandalas.
I shout from the top of my Babel’s tower sown as a kapok tree—
Blessed are the dialects, the patois, the argots, and the pidgins;
the half-breed word-hoards and the mongrel grammars; the geechees,
the calós, and the ghost words; those hallowed languages gone dead
or worse extinct because of genocide or conquest or just time’s erosion,
yet how we must mourn each one in our bones, hearts, spleens;
then join hands by the sea at dawn to chant their names in flames
of gumbo-limbo, O so many to remember: Elmolo, Mawa, Ba-Shu,
Koibal, Guanche, Calusa, Wichita, and the Taíno of my own island—
Kubanakán—whose words linger past the cyclones of our sadness
like flotsam chromosomes or castaway fossils of such beautiful amber
as barbacoa, canoa, fotuto, hamaca, iguana, malanga, tabaco, yuca.
With these words I make machines of memory in flesh and marrow.
With these words I glide and cleave the tidal waves of history.
With these words I take root in the quicksands of diaspora.
Copyright © 2021 by Orlando Ricardo Menes. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on November 2, 2021, by the Academy of American Poets.
“‘Tower of Babel’ belongs to my forthcoming collection, The Gospel of Wildflowers & Weeds, my journey through the fantastic, the marvelous, and the beautiful for faith and divine grace. This collection delves into the sacred within a baroque, magical-realist poetics that immerses itself in the flora and fauna of the Caribbean, as well as in the region’s complex interplay of African, Judeo-Christian, and Taíno (Arawak) cultures. Sadly, this third culture exists only in fragments of memory owing to the extinction of the native populations as a consequence of the Spanish conquest. We must not only grieve this profound loss but also acknowledge this as a crime against humanity, no matter how long ago.”
—Orlando Ricardo Menes