Tuesday, November 4, 2008

The Poet Slave of Cuba

I was not sure what to expect when I began reading The Poet Slave of Cuba by Margarita Engle. What I read was a book that broke my heart through the beauty of Engle’s words and the strength of Juan Francisco Manzano’s spirit.

In school I read very little poetry and for that reason I have always seen this genre of writing as out of my grasp. I never considered that I would like or even understand poetry. I think that many students today are the same way. In my experiences in school there was very little poetry introduced, and what was meant nothing to me. What I have come to realize is that you do not have be taught everything about poetry to read and understand it. You just have to be exposed to poetry that means something–poetry you can identify with. This book would have made me love poetry when I was in school and I think it can do the same for many students.

If Juan’s story had been told in a normal biography I don’t think I would have responded to it like I did. Of course it would still be a sad and terrible story, but through her poetry Engle put feelings into it that would have been absent from straightforward writing. The way she used different people to tell about Juan’s life really gave a lot of perspective. It showed how Juan’s mother, María del Pilar, felt about her life and what her son had to endure. The words of Doña Beatriz showed how she thought Juan was simply a “poodle,” a toy to be played with and thrown away when no longer needed for entertainment. It even showed how La Marquesa de Prado Ameno felt that Juan should have been grateful for everything she gave him and how he should never have been sad because it would have made her sad. The poetry showed the selfish and terrible woman that she was.

The parts of the book that showed the torture Juan endured by his master were very graphic and terrifying. They were graphic because Engle used terrifying words, but because she put Juan’s feelings into these scenes. Not only could you imagine what he was physically feeling, you really knew as the reader how he felt emotionally. Which was just as hard to bear as what was being done to him. Although, the scenes were graphic, I would bring this into the classroom. I would use it in a high school classroom to not only tell Juan’s story, but also to show how Engle told it though lyrical verse. I would use it show what we can do with our words when we know how to use them.

I would not merely use this in conjunction with a history lesson (although that would also be ideal). I would use this alone in a reading or an English classroom. I might even use it when studying biographies to show students that there is more than one way to write any story. I would want to bring The Poet Slave of Cuba into the classroom to show students how beautiful poetry can be and how beautiful and tragic Juan Francisco Manzano’s life was.


Rene Saldana, Jr. said...

Heather: I'm liking the red sash-looking background to the blog. And cool about the counter. That's going to work for you when you want to show folks some serious traffic on your blog. And I like your admission that you'd likely not read poetry as a middle schooler b/c you just didn't get it. And go figure, a book like this one can make the biggest difference.