These days, I swell with small victories:
I sliced my finger while cutting tomatoes, though not to the bone.
I stopped naming the onions. I cry a little less.
From “Sacrificial Meal”
Have You Been Long Enough at the Table is a fraught and complex collection that puts debut author Leslie Sainz’s prowess on full display, quickly asserting Sainz as an essential voice in Latinx poetics. Sainz, the daughter of Cuban exiles, fixates on her experience living in diaspora and the inevitable sense of unbelonging in an increasingly xenophobic America. This is a book befitting the many accolades Sainz has earned in her brief career, one that far exceeds expectations for a full-length debut. Sainz moves fluidly between form and free verse, exemplifying her broad technical skill and understanding of the page as a site of resistance.
At the center of Have You Been Long Enough at the Table is the insistence that readers confront their proximity to the events Sainz memorializes and interrogate their place within systems of oppression. This theme manifests most explicitly in “Place / Settings,” a poem arranged as a series of questions and responses. Sainz makes use of parallelism, framing each question with a clause that orients the reader, followed by the repeated phrase, “where are you sitting in these poems?” The first two questions situate the speaker at the table, while the final three break the speaker into parts:
From “my mind which does not know, where are you sitting in these poems?”
To the right of the knife.
From my heart which cannot know, where are you sitting in these poems?
In the tabletop glue joints.
From my gut which needs to know, where are you sitting in these poems?
I have fastened them around me like bibs.
While the poem is just ten lines, it offers a multilayered rebuke of privilege and occupation. The title invites readers to associate each of the questions with “place” and each of the responses with “settings,” a brilliant linguistic play which simultaneously critiques settler culture and implies a system with programmed “settings” that reinforce oppression. The final three questions further signal the body as a site of political turmoil, while the final three responses foreground state-sanctioned violence to maintain power.
Early in the collection, “Bodied, or Day 1 of 9” presents a narrative in which a child is trapped at the bottom of a well. At the outset of the poem, the child’s father delivers rations along with the news that “Alligator Man is dead.” As the hours pass, the child explains, “When I was younger, I thought only the ocean could make things/disappear: a raft, a family. I now suspect everything takes orders/from somewhere.” The child’s mother comes at nightfall and tells the child that rescue will take more time. In response, the speaker tells us, “I lie down in the black water and think about history. My blood/so patient. My back so wet there’s a name for it.” The narrative re-imagines the type of story that might make headlines in America, attempts to rescue a child from a well, from the perspective of a child that is clearly othered by society. Sainz creates an effective counter-public space in which readers must contend with the literal and metaphorical trappings of anti-immigrant systems and the ways in which they affect children specifically.
Sonnets feature prominently throughout the collection, many of them invoking an orisha from Yoruba mythos. The first of these, “Sonnet for Eleguá,” invokes the Orisha associated with roads and paths. The poem concludes with the speaker imploring, “I should like to reposition myself, please. All of me this time.” This prayer, closing out the first poem of the first section, acts as a catalyst for the collection as a whole. Sainz continually resituates the diasporic experience as the default lens, forcing readers to assume perspectives routinely erased or delegitimized in American society.
In the final poem of the collection, “Remedios,” the speaker seems to wonder if repurposing trauma is truly healing. “Eventually, we cried so often were forced/to invent salvation,” the speaker explains. “We’d fill the largest bucket/we could find with the coldest water.” The poem goes on to describe gathering behind a crying woman, then tipping the bucket over her. “What was left/no longer resembled crying, but we chanted/come back, come back to us, anyway,” the poem concludes. Sainz leaves readers with an image which questions the practice of repurposing pain, hinting that while it may mask grief, it does not always call us back from darkness.
Have You Been Long Enough at the Table is essential reading for anyone concerned with Latinx poetics and the diasporic experience, but it will resonate just as powerfully for those who turn to poetry as a space of introspection and healing. Sainz is a remarkable poet who is sure to become one of the most talked about authors of our generation.