March 27, 2020
Olga Karman was born in Havana, Cuba and lived there until she was twenty years and two months old. Her teenage years coincided with Fidel Castro’s armed struggle and eventual rise to power. “How exciting it was listening to Radio Rebelde every night over our short wave radio. I was in the crowd welcoming Fidel to Havana in 1959, but I was so emocionada when Fidel passed by on a tank that I forgot to pitch the flowers I had brought for el màximo lider.”
Karman left Cuba in 1960 and lived in North Stonington, an isolated part of Connecticut very distant from vibrant Havana, from her uncle’s farm where she’d gathered mangoes and guavas to feed the pigs. To save herself from the emptiness of North Stonington and the torment of a miserable marriage, she resumed her college education at nearby Connecticut College for Women. As a part-time commuter with a nine-month-old daughter, she was “an oddity” in 1963. When she graduated in 1966 with letters of acceptance from Princeton and Harvard, the news hit the local paper. “It made no sense to my neighbor Judy. ‘Funny,’ she said over the phone, ‘you don’t look that smart.'” Karman received her Ph.D. in 1976.
Karman moved to Buffalo from Boston in 1976 where her first poem was published in The Buffalo News. “Knowing it was coming, I jogged to the 7-11 in my pajamas very early that Sunday morning, grabbed the paper, opened it to the poetry page and proclaimed out loud to the 4 or 5 men who had dragged themselves there, although they were not completely sober yet: ‘My poem is here!’ I read it for them and, in return, they did not allow me to pay for the paper. They were my first and last paying public.”
Karman is the author of two chapbooks, a memoir, Scatter My Ashes Over Havana, and some short stories. “I give readings all over the place. My jig is almost up. My twin and I will turn 80 this September. Stay tuned for our fiesta con mùsica cubana in California.
A Cuban Spends an Evening with a Real American
The tall, thin man in the checkered wool shirt
is the son of a son of a Pilgrim
a Mayflower man.
Notice the tapered fingers.
His black-and-tan Setters run
in ferns and moss, laurel and fir.
Ideal Setters in an ideal
New Hampshire pine forest.
All is old in this Winnipeasaukee house.
Everyone is well-rooted in Tidewater past
and Connecticut rectories. The thin cups
are from the mission years in China.
The sun sets, evening opens.
We bring the basket
to the round oak table
and begin to match
our pick of mushrooms
to the glossy illustrations
in the Audubon Field Guide.
He names the Yellow Chanterelles,
The Old Man of the Woods,
the Yellow Amanita (“don’t touch that one!”)
— one mushroom per page, pristine, exotic.
I’m learning a new world and a new word.
After dinner, he shows me
family photos of refined ladies
and towering gentlemen, laughing girls
almost tipping an Indian canoe,
a small black dog from a vanished breed.
I can see my island far away,
flying trees, exposed roots
and fallen birds’ nests
in a September hurricane
that has left almost nothing standing.
of mortar and pestle
on strong cumin seed
(I am bringing you lunch)
Sweet song of red currant,
cinnamon bark for fragrance
(Your dogs will run to my hands)
Aroma of turmeric from China or India
(Damp fieldstones the path)
Tomatoes: pulp, juice, and seeds
(From the porch the finches will sing)
The sharpness of scallions
(The house will be dark.
In the rooms,
the spirits of leaves
remembrance of rain.)
Smell, I will say, the cumin.
Let the grains slip through your hand,
prayer beads, bits of sand.
We will taste. We will quicken
the beams in your house.
The floorboards and sills
Will come level and plumb.
Starched white uniform
scented with violet water
hairnet in place
Bibì watches over us
from the wicker chair
she tucks in the sand
under the almond trees.
8 o´clock, the ocean pastel blue
Bobby and I press
our molds into the sand.
Bobby made a starfish!”
and then Bobby pulls on her hem,
“Bibì, Olguita made an octopus, mirà!”
She buries her soles deeper
into the cool sand and sings us
a lullaby I will hum into old age
Tengo una muñeca vestida de azul
con zapatos blancos y medias de tul.
I have a doll all dressed in blue
with white shoes on and socks of tulle