‘Cuba, 1962’ is about the accidental death of Juanita, the wife of a sugarcane farmer. Born Florence Anthony, Ai was an American poet noted for her dramatic monologues. Her poems give voice to the marginalized and the oppressed. In this poem, she drives into the history of Cuba during the Cold War. Though this piece is not about the Cuban Missile Crisis, it records the socio-political scene of the country. The poor condition of the common people, especially sugarcane farmers, is portrayed in this poem.
‘Cuba, 1962’ by Ai describes how a wife (Juanita) of a sugarcane farmer accidentally died on a morning of 1962.
Ai presents a speaker who represents the Cuban working class. He is a poor farmer depending on the cultivation of sugarcane. His family invested in the work from the early morning. One such morning, he wakes up and notices a rooster on the windowsill, mistaking it for the sun. After waking up, he finds the dead body of his wife, Juanita lying face down near the sugarcane field. He picks her body and carries it on the wagon used for transporting the crops. After doing so, he thinks her wife’s grief could sweeten the production.
You can read the full poem here.
When the rooster jumps up on the windowsill
and spreads his red-gold wings,
I get the machete and walk among the cane,
until I see her, lying face-down in the dirt.
Ai’s poem ‘Cuba, 1962’ is written in the historical context of the Cuban Missile Crisis, also known as the October Crisis of 1962. This crisis was an open confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union. Their encounter is often considered the nearer the Cold War came to a full-scale nuke war.
Though Ai does not feel like talking much about the activities during the superpower. Rather, she thinks more about those who had no direct relationship with the motifs of the powerful men. In this poem, she presents one such speaker who toils day and night for sustenance and maintaining his family.
The speaker wakes up one morning and notices a rooster. It jumps on the windowsill, spreading its “red-gold” wings. He mistakes the rooster for the sun. His mental condition is weak due to his poverty. He calls for his wife Juanita, who probably has gone out for work.
He is sure of the fact that she is outside, chopping the cane at ground level. Then he gets ready and takes his machete to join his wife. After going out, he gets shocked to discover her dead body lying in the dirt.
Juanita, dead in the morning like this.
I raise the machete—
If you eat too much of it, you want more,
you can never get enough.
In the second stanza of ‘Cuba, 1962,’ Ai describes the reaction of the speaker. The way he reacts after seeing Juanita’s dead body seems absurd and bleak. It shows readers the condition he is going through. Death is not shocking anymore, even the death of his own wife. It has become a day-to-day event, occurring now and then.
He raises his machete and cuts her feet off the trap. Then he lifts her body and carries it to the wagon. It is the same wagon he uses for selling the canes to the local village.
After placing the body on the wagon, he thinks that his wife’s blood would sweeten his production more. It is because of the fact that grief has a universal appeal. During the time of the Cold War, every family was going through such traumatic events. Death was frequent. Losing one’s loved ones untimely was not alien to the Cuban poor residents.
Others can taste how he feels or his wife felt before dying. It may sweeten their candies and cakes. In the end, the speaker concludes by saying that living in too much grief has an intoxicating effect on the mind. Everything gets over it or learns to live with it.
Ai’s ‘Cuba, 1962’ is a free-verse lyric poem that is written from the perspective of a first-person speaker. The speaker of this piece is a Cuban sugarcane farmer whose wife’s death is the central motif of the poem. There are a total of two stanzas. The first one has ten, and the second one has eleven lines. There is no specific rhyme scheme or meter in the poem. Besides, Ai writes the poem in a manner that lacks rhythm. The sound scheme aptly portrays the mental state of the speaker.
Ai makes use of the following literary devices in ‘Cuba, 1962’.
- Enjambment: It occurs in a number of instances in the text. Ai uses this device to connect the lines internally.
- Imagery: In the first lines, the poet uses visual imagery of a rooster spreading its wings. She also uses organic imagery in order to convey the internal feelings of the speaker.
- Metaphor: In the second stanza, the taste of the wife’s body is compared to the sweet taste of sugarcane. Here, the poet uses metaphor to compare “grief” to sweetness.
- Irony: The last two lines contain this device. These lines show the universality of the emotion of grief and suffering.
Ai’s poem ‘Cuba, 1962’ is about the death of a poor farmer’s wife, Juanita, who lived during the Cold War era in Cuba. In this piece, Ai captures the reaction of the farmer after seeing his wife’s dead body.
This poem was first published in 1999 in Ai’s best-known poetry collection, Vice: New and Selected Poems. She won the National Book Award for Poetry for this collection in 1999.
The first symbol that readers come across is that of a rooster, having red-gold wings. It symbolizes the approaching death of the speaker’s wife, Juanita. In the second stanza, Ai uses the “sugarcane” as a symbol of the mutual pain and grief of the Cuban farmers.
The following list contains a number of poems that similarly tap on the themes present in Ai’s ‘Cuba, 1962’.
- ‘My Voice’ by Rafael Campo — This poem speaks about national identity, focusing mainly on the poet’s Cuban heritage.
- ‘The Wife’s Tale’ by Seamus Heaney — This piece depicts farmland and the tasks of a wife.
- ‘The Fisherman Mourned by His Wife’ by Patrick Fernando — This poem is about a fisherman and his wife mourning his passing.
You can also read about these incredible poems about death.