My birthplace, you wrote, strangest, saddest city thou canst see.
Why such gloom? Because we have no rain, thus tearless,
no sun at all in winter? Murky skies lift our spirits.
The cold ocean mist, garúa, that mildews convent walls
is our faith’s patina. Those crosses all adroop serve us well
to hang scapulars big as flags. When buzzards roost
on rooftops, we see Dominicans, tonsured and aquiline,
wings clasped in penance. We sing doxologies to virgins,
prowl the shore in case martyrs’ bones wash up. You
call us idol mongers, tawdry in prayer, lazy with scripture,
our churches more plentiful than billiard tables. If Mother Spain
is a great whale stranded on the shores of Europe, are we
its grotesque calf, unsuckled, left to dry in the neap tides
of superstition? We are Latins, not yeoman yanquis.
Those plain churches in your cherished Chesapeake Bay
are mere hovels to us. We prefer overwrought facades,
garish bell towers, rituals rich with condiment. Gilded altars
rouse our faith, candles titillate, incense makes us
so giddy we can crawl on cobbles as if plush pillows.
—Orlando Menes (St. Joseph County)
This poem originally appeared in Heresies (University of New Mexico Press, 2015)
Orlando Ricardo Menes was born in Lima, Perú, to Cuban parents but has lived most of his life in the U.S. A professor of English at the University of Notre Dame, he is the author of five poetry collections, most recently Heresies (University of New Mexico Press, 2015) and Fetish, winner of the 2012 Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry. In 2009 he received a Literature Fellowship from the NEA.
Poetry Prompt: Your Birthplace
Write a poem that explores the place where you were born. Consider what makes it unique: its history, geography, climate, architecture, art, religion, sports, etc. You might ask yourself what this city, small town, or county looks like to an outsider as opposed to those who live there. How are you connected to this place in a way you never realized before?
Indiana Humanities is celebrating National Poetry Month by sharing a poem and prompt every day in April. Indiana Poet Laureate Shari Wagner selected these poems and wrote the prompts.