The Poet Slave of Cuba, a biography of Juan Francisco Manzano by Margarita Engle

CIMG6788Juan Francisco Manzano was born into the household of a wealthy slave-owner in Cuba in 1797.

We know details about the early years of his life thanks to a collection of his autobiographical notes being smuggled out of Cuba to England, where they were published by abolitionists who hoped to raise support for their cause.

He spent most of his childhood close to a woman who insisted he call her Mama, despite the presence of his own mother Maria del Pilar.

 

Imagine

how he must feel in that other home

CIMG6789where he learns the words

of verses, plays, sermons, sonnets

now he’s a parrot, not a poodle

he listens, listens, listens

repeats every sound he hears

from every book in his godmother’s library

Though he wasn’t formally educated, he had a gift for language and poetry and despite the severe punishments he endured for continuing to express joy and suffering through his words.

The other day he recited words so completely new

that I understood the verse

was his own

not borrowed, memorised,

begged from the godmother’s books

Soaring

he said

Spirit

he whispered

CIMG6790Imprisoned

he murmured

and then he went on

I only caught a  few fragments

of his rhyme of delight,

something about a golden beak

something about singing

and wishes

and hope

The woman who kept him initially allowed his mother and any unborn children to buy their freedom and promised Juan freedom on her death. It was a promise rescinded by those still living after the woman’s death, though his mother continued to try to purchase his freedom without result.

Don’t cry, my other mother, the real one, whispers

this is the end

of your sadness

now you are free!

But I am not

it’s a trick

one swift trip

to the house

of my godparents

and then to La Marquesa

instead of the long-promised

freedom.

The Marquesa is a bitter, cruel woman who even when inflicting the most grotesque punishment on Juan, still finds reason to blame him for her own suffering.

Some people can never be satisfied.

The poet-boy for instance.

Nothing is ever enough for him.

marquesaI have to tell the overseers to teach

the same lessons

over and over

locking his ankles in the stocks

tying him to the cross like Jesus.

Or tying him to a ladder laid out on the ground

face down, mouth down

so he cannot speak

except to count his own lashes out loud.

And even when this is done nine days in a row

still he bleeds and weeps,

trying to show me

that he has won

he has triumphed once again

he has proven that he can still

make me sad.

Evil child.

To find out what happens, read this wonderful story of poems, a beautiful collection and tribute to a life of an exceptional poet.

Juan Francisco Manzano didn’t stop producing spontaneous poems until very late in his life, after being arrested for trying to stir up a slave rebellion through his poetry and spending a year in prison. That experience silenced his voice forever.

His work is astonishing, bold, thought-provoking, intelligent and lengthy. Once you begin reading it you can’t stop and I can see why both his work and his story haunted Margarita Engle for so long. That she has been able to condense his experience and thoughts into this humble volume is a gift to readers young and old.

To read the English translation of some of Juan Francisco’s original work, click on this link or the image below:

Poems by a Slave in the Island of Cuba, Recently Liberated;
Translated from the Spanish, by R. R. Madden, M.D.
With the History of the Early Life of the Negro Poet, Written by Himself

Manzano

Margarita Engle is a Cuban-American poet who has published a number of books for young readers in free verse and prose poetry. She chooses interesting subjects that make me want to read everything she has written, they are an introduction to explore further the subjects she introduces. The titles alone are seductive.

The artwork in all her books is fantastic, this work illustrated beautifully by Sean Qualls.

I have read and reviewed The Wild Book, based on the life of the author’s grandmother who struggled with dyslexia, and she has other tempting titles such as:

The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom

The Firefly Letters: A Suffragette’s Journey to Cuba

The Lightning Dreamer: Cuba’s Greatest Abolitionist

Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba

Hurricane Dancers: The First Caribbean Pirate Shipwreck

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10 thoughts on “The Poet Slave of Cuba, a biography of Juan Francisco Manzano by Margarita Engle

    • Well I came across Margarita Engle by chance when she published The Wild Book a couple of years ago and this year I am trying to read more from around the world and remembered she had some interesting titles and I’d like to read more prose poetry, so The Poet Slave it is! I like the sound of the suffragette title and a few others as well 🙂

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  1. The excerpts are beautiful and your review poignant. What a remarkable find. I definitely want to read this. Thank you for providing the artwork. It’s a piece we don’t usually get to see in reviews.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Steph, Margarita Engle has some wonderful books and always seems to collaborate with the most exquisite artists and illustrators, the poetry is great and the pictures are just brilliant. I wanted to show a little of the reading experience, so great for getting young people reading, and great for people like me too!

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  2. Wonderful review, Claire. I loved all the poems you have quoted and the story told in the book. I would like to read it. Adding it to my ‘TBR’ list. Margarita Engle seems to be a wonderful writer. Thanks also for linking to the poems of Juan Francisco Manzano. I will check it out after a while and read some of his poems.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Vishy, I could easily read all of Margarita Engle’s books, not just because of the beautiful poetry, but the wonderful subjects she chooses. I hope you find something to your liking and have a read of her work too. The original poems are quite something and it is so sad that he was so punished for expressing his thoughts. But at the same time it is great that he did find an appreciative local audience and that people outside Cuba were shining a light for him.

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    • I think you’d really enjoy the poetry Celestine, both Margarita Engle’s and Juan Franciso Manzano’s, his work was so observant and expressive, I’m not surprised he pulled such big audiences to listen to him as an adult.

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