I read Enchanted Air by Margarita Engle, expecting to read a good memoir about two cultures and two wings one grows as a result of hailing from mixed origins. What instead happened is difficult to describe in words for it was not a reading, it was a feeling. A transformative one.
It is a children’s book. Each chapter is a small poem that stands in and of itself, but also ties into the whole narrative. There were so many places in the book when I found myself stopping to savor a poem, reading it again, and swirling the feelings it evoked in my mind. Later, I found myself passionately explaining it in far less elegant terms to the husband and children, scurrying to get the book, and fumbling through the pages to find the right poem.
For instance when she writes of ‘The Dancing Plants of Cuba’, she captures the essence of an island:
In California, all the trees and shrubs
standstill, but on the island, coconut palms
and angel’s trumpet flowers,
love to move around,
Maybe I will be a scientist someday
studying the dancing plants of Cuba.
How can one not love the child then who is later to task by her teacher for inventing dancing plants, as plants are supposed to stay still aren’t they?
Her father’s family escaped from Ukraine, from a communist regime, not knowing whether those left behind survived or not. Her mother immigrated from Cuba.
Two sets of words.
Her paternal grandparents’ recollections are therefore muted, brief and vague. How starkly, concisely, she sums up the human condition for survival? When she asks her Ukrainian-Jewish-American grandma about her childhood, she gets nothing more than ice-skating on a frozen pond.
Her maternal grandmother, on the other hand, regales her with richly detailed family stories, of many island ancestors, living their lives out on tropical farms.
In the poem, Kinship, she sums it up:
Apparently, the length
of a grown-up’s
growing up story
by the difference
This memoir is rich with details of her family, and her own dreamy self.
She takes us along with her on her journey of growing up, and how her personality rows with ‘The Geography of Libraries’.
Spoken stories are no longer enough
To fill my hunger
I crave a constant supply
Of written ones too.
As she grows, the mistrust between USA and Cuba, grows too. Their family is suspect simply for holding a Cuban passport, a part of her heritage cut off by souring diplomatic relations and the Bay of Pigs invasion. She first writes about the state of reality in the poem, Communications.
Abuelita writes letters in code,
inventing poetic metaphors,
to prevent the island’s censors
from understanding her words.
When she says Tio Dario
is working hard in the garden,
Mom somehow knows that it means
he’s been arrested and sent to a prison or forced labor camp.
In Secret Languages we learn
Right wing or left wing tyrants always
try to control communication
The books ends with the poem, Hope.
It is no wonder that the book has won a string of awards. Looking at the history of the world, its themes are timeless too.