“Abanico Habanero”

para mi madre                                                         

Click here to listen to Peg Boyers read this poem.

No you said, with a snap of the wrist, not the first. There was never a first fan.

A tug at the tattered folds reveals an Asian cliché:
watery pond, mountains, misty trees,
generic reeds brushing up in the wind.
A strip of painted muslin binds twenty skinny sticks
carved of scentless sandalwood.
At the base, an ivory ring.

And hanging from the ring like
a graduate’s tassel, a dozen silk strands, 
shabby yellow remnant of the wagging tail
that once tickled me as it pumped for breeze.

You correct me from your hospital bed,
a frail bird propped by pillows. Stuck
in the nest, past magnificence,
memory doing the final work of living.
We always had fans, the way we always had shoes.
From China.
Never from Cuba.

My first fan, the one I remember, was long 
as my arm and definitely Cuban,
a grown-up feminine defense
against tropical heat, flapped
with flamenco severity to conceal
or reveal
a coquette smile.

Now its stand-in fits in my hand like a toy.
Banal landscape bleeding through its verso,
lines of the past too faint to read.

I assist you gingerly, lift you to your regimen,
fold and unfold you in your sick bed.
Your bones crack like twigs,  refuse
to bend with the burden of skin, an armature
tired of the form it supports. It bucks its protest,
snapping your vertebrae to register its point. One, then two
breaks, then the pelvis for good measure.

I want to yield to its force, help you make the final break.
But the half-hearted heart beats its wing-beat answer
not yetnot yet—
like your brother Lelén zipping back from his first heart attack
shouting to Caballero, the undertaker, waving
from his funeral parlor: ¡Todavía  no!

Your spine winds to its base,
brittle as a snake’s molting,
support gone; only the carapace remains. That
and the ambivalent will.
Still, you heal.

Havana fan,
abanico Habanero,
Old flirt, old worn out glamour puss,
old peacock’s tail,
ancient ornament, you turn to dust in my hand.