“The tongueless republic / unable to lick its wounds / does not sleep,” writes Leslie Sainz in her debut poetry collection, Have You Been Long Enough At Table, out this month from Tin House. Daughter of Cuban immigrants, Sainz spends most of her time in this book examining the ceaseless pull of two cultures, but she is not a passive entity in this constant oscillation. As politics, family, and sexuality swirl around her, her speakers actively and sometimes violently confront their fears and desires, in a variety of poetic forms which leave the reader alternately stunned and astounded. With perfect diction, Sainz is the master of the well-placed adjective, and she moves confidently from poem to poem, painting a picture of a young woman caught between two cultures, but sure of herself nonetheless; a strong and pure voice that reverberates throughout this masterful new book.
Read in one or two sittings, this debut is almost overwhelming in its precision. Sainz is a chameleon, with different poetic forms cropping up on almost every page; she does not commit to any particular one but rather slips easily between configurations like a magician. And there does seem to be something magic about this collection—as it moves between Spanish and English, there is a sense that things are not what they seem, and that Sainz may be stretching or manipulating the truth, or simply that she has been lied to by someone more powerful than she. Whatever the truth may be, this power imbalance permeates the collection, shifting and shaking its foundation as Sainz’ speaker tries desperately to hold onto some semblance of control. “Young women are a series of images. We are regimes,” she says in “A Story of Love and Faith/La Milagrosa.” This tangibility of form, juxtaposed with politics, will recur and merge throughout the collection.
The body appears in almost every poem, paired with Sainz’s succinct adjective placement. It is not always her body; in “Sonnet With Ogun,” she says:
At the dinner table, I forgive science for no longer
recognizing the shape of my father’s spine.
Later, when I clean the kitchen, I drop a knife on the floor
again and again just as an excuse to touch it.
The body as a safe house reveals itself in many of these poems, but often, there is also the body as a weapon. Like in the preceding passage, Sainz’s speakers’ familial ties run deep—so deep that the body becomes undeniable. The relentless pressure to touch, and even to touch a weapon, becomes unavoidable in these poems. Sainz is reaching out of the page to touch us.
In “Remedios,” the final poem of the collection, Sainz starts:
When G-d was a boy the dirt was dark red
and the myths of women, explicit.
Just enough of the world had been distributed
to know what was possible—what you didn’t,
This possibility, or perhaps the lack of possibility, is intrinsic to the collection. Even the title, which is taken from a Hemingway novel, The Old Man and the Sea, represents a sense of lack; the table which feels out of reach for Sainz’s speaker. The imaginary table, which Sainz is trying to move towards, will potentially give her speaker some kind of legitimacy—as an immigrant daughter, as a Cuban American, as a woman—all complex identities which are clearly something her speaker struggles with throughout the book. This perceived legitimacy will be familiar to many Latinx people and perhaps other immigrant groups as well; the feelings of needing to assimilate to survive while still trying to hold onto some aspect of one’s culture feel unfortunate, too familiar, and viscerally real.
In writing this collection, Sainz is reclaiming her own identity, that of a Cuban woman, on her own terms. The so-called “myths of woman,” that Sainz mentions in her final poem are precisely what she is chafing against; and the poem ends with an outcry, “come back, come back to us,” which feels distinctly familial and emotionally fraught; the poem is dedicated “Para Mamacita.” It is also one of the few told completely in a plural pronoun, “we,”perhaps to reference the speaker’s brother, who appears elsewhere in the collection. Sainz’s speaker clearly is trying to rewrite a history, real or imagined, which begins and ends with her parents, and this final poem is an excellent example of this attempt.
Sainz’s book is lyrically innovative, politically complex, and simply a pleasure to read. Although the title implies lack, questioning if the subject (reader, speaker, poet) has literally spent long enough in the poetic space, the collection is anything but; there is so much here to discover, and upon multiple reads, readers will be delighted to find new tricks hiding in the dense, sparse lines of these poems. Sainz is a remarkably restrained poet—she never says too much, yet manages to hit each note sharply and clearly, allowing us to enjoy each and every line. There are more and more surprises and shocks with each new poem and page. Sainz has much to give, and I am certain that this book will be the start of a long and impressive career.