Of Exile and Determination: On Leslie Sainz’s “Have You Been Long Enough at Table”

Emily Collins reviews Leslie Sainz’s “Have You Been Long Enough at Table.”

Of Exile and Determination: On Leslie Sainz’s “Have You Been Long Enough at Table”

Have You Been Long Enough at Table by Leslie Sainz. Tin House. 96 pages.

THE EPIGRAPH OF poet Leslie Sainz’s debut collection, Have You Been Long Enough at Table (2023)—“El vino, de plátano; y si sale agrio, ¡es nuestro vino!” which translates as “Wine, of banana; and if it comes out bitter, it’s our wine!”—comes from José Martí’s seminal essay “Nuestra América,” in which he warns Latin American nations of losing their people and history to encroaching tyranny. The honorable Latin American state, he writes later in “Nuestra América,” “can no longer be a nation of fluttering leaves, spending our lives in the air, our treetop crowned in flowers […] caressed by the caprices of sunlight or thrashed and felled by tempests.” Civilization is an urban culture driven by European post-Enlightenment philosophy. The “natural man” or mestizo is like a “tiger” at risk of losing and becoming prey. The United States is not a friendly neighbor but a “gian[t] in seven-league boots” akin to the fairy-tale villains rooted in traditions Martí implores his readers to reject. Martí calls on Latin American youth to forgo US cultural values and awaken to the ideals of the Americas. “Trenches of ideas are worth more than trenches of stone,” he writes, a notion no doubt directed at Cubans who, at the time of this essay’s 1891 publication, sought independence from their own European colonizer.

In conversation with the poetic and apostolic warnings Martí put forth, Have You Been Long Enough at Table introduces a daughter of Cuban exiles who wrestles with home, assimilation, family, and violence in a slender collection of poems that examines the searing realities of displacement. These poems bear witness to personal and historical tragedies, each one further complicated by life in the United States. An immigrant student reflects on the trauma of exile while conjugating the English verb “to be.” Daughters practice Santería, an Afro-Cuban folk religion, to grapple with their maternal lineage and individual relevance (or lack thereof) on Earth. A child repeatedly witnesses her Cuban parents surrender to “the savior / mother calls US!”

Have You Been Long Enough at Table argues for full participation in neither the ideas of Europe nor of the Americas but rather for a better (and bitter) understanding of the complex lives shaped by such worlds. It’s an homage to immigrant daughters and their distinct grief, the notion that what has impacted the homelands and its people is passed down, fills one to the brim, remains. The speakers of these poems, no strangers to personal ruptures and betrayals, ask of their relatives and selves, “Have you fed on so many ideals, witnessed and lost so much, that you are willing to lose yourself too?”

Throughout the collection, the table is a central place that, regardless of the presence of food or company, illuminates desire and lack. It’s also where one witnesses authentic human life unfold, not unlike the cosmic nucleus that tables tend to represent in Joy Harjo’s poetry. In Harjo’s poem “Perhaps the World Ends Here,” the table is the circle of life or human experience in motion. The speaker declares, “The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live,” and continues with descriptions of losses and reunions explored or discussed at the kitchen table. While Harjo’s table functions as a sanctuary for families throughout time, Sainz’s table is symbolic of intergenerational trauma, of cycles yet to be broken. The table is a revelation of loss and change, notably of immigrant families who have had to forgo the past. In the poem “Glassware,” the speaker must, in part, become a new person, with unrivaled determination:

Over dinner, a man, melting, sells American pillows
through the television. The napkins are of a thick paper.
The dishware, all rounded, the color of most bandages.
I am impressed by my convincing father and loyal mother.
Their face veins make clear they are not lying to themselves,
not themselves. Faithfully, I am a large shard
made of their smaller shards. If you were to
turn my ears inside out: hot skin, sleep, only trust your family.

Sainz may be less interested in a young woman’s survival tactics than in how self-determination harms and rebuilds the self. The collection’s title comes from a critical moment in Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea (1952) when the strange old fisherman is paradoxically caught by a heavy fish. A shared sense of determination carries both across deepening waters. As the marlin pulls Santiago’s boat northwest, the old man leans toward the water and seethes, “Eat it so that the point of the hook goes into your heart and kills you […] Come up easy and let me put the harpoon into you. All right. Are you ready? Have you been long enough at table?” The marlin, a symbol of grace and hardship for the unlucky fisherman, charges forward despite the proximity of death or failure. With form and unflinching care, Sainz investigates what has pierced a young woman’s heart and failed to destroy it.

In the collection’s opening poem, Sainz writes,

There is no country
where the dead don’t float.
Men and children going,
having gone,       lungwet
across thickened water.
Be it the body to know
what’s missing. To call
back the colors.

The poem’s first two lines emphasize the harsh realities of exile throughout history, particularly the fourth wave of Cuban immigration during Fidel Castro’s reign. The poem is dedicated to “los balseros,” the name given to the thousands of Cubans who emigrated to neighboring states via makeshift rafts. By 1994, the decline of the Soviet Union had decimated Cuba’s economy, igniting another exodus for those who saw no future in their homeland. According to historian Ada Ferrer, the Coast Guard in just one month “rescued thirty-seven thousand people. Many others—between 25 and 50 percent of the migrants—were not rescued at all and perished.” Sainz honors the exiled, rescued and deceased, through a striking implementation of formal fissures and blank space on the page. The caesura in the poem’s fourth line only deepens the tragedy, emphasizing the absence between the word “gone” and the depiction of physical drowning. Men and children are gone but have not disappeared; their bodies now float on water that is “thickened.” The enjambment, “Be it the body to know / what’s missing,” invites a pause where we might expect urgency, illustrating flight and surrender, the body’s inability to forget, much less forgive. The line also speaks to the collection’s poignant core: it is the daughter who will know what’s missing, who will call back the self and move forward anyway. Self-determination rises from the poem’s layers.

While Sainz doesn’t veer too far from tradition in poetic form, she does repurpose its familiar intent. The sonnet, in Sainz’s hands, is not an expression of romantic love but of vigorous spiritual hunger. Rather than a lover’s gaze or a caress satisfying the speaker’s desire, each sonnet in Have You Been Long Enough at Table is dedicated to a traditional Santería “orisha,” or spirit. Though Sainz honors the sonnet’s required 14-line structure, each line moves more toward the constancy of feelings than toward a final culminating revelation. Perhaps because these sonnets are born of spiritual need, they function more like prayer. The daughter knows what she is missing: what the women before her once possessed, then were forced to forgo.

The first sonnet is dedicated to Eleguá, the orisha of caminos. Also known as the guardian of crossroads, Eleguá’s permission must be granted before Santería practitioners may proceed with rituals or ceremonies. In this sonnet-as-ceremony, the speaker is at the crossroads of home and exile. She speaks of home and its passing in sentient lines and shapes. The speaker references a former neighbor boy who, perhaps in his own ritual for Eleguá, hurls a pigeon against a market wall. “It made sounds like the latch / rattle of an icebox,” the speaker says, “and the stain never came out.” The concept of this stain—a symbol of home, ritual, and loss—appears in different forms throughout the collection. It appears in family living rooms and at kitchen tables, where a daughter must reconcile familial violence and her parents’ newfound loyalty to the United States. In those instances, what’s missing is not the stain but the recognition of its presence.

Assimilation demands a parent’s resolve, a reality that doesn’t always compute with inquisitive children. The third section of the collection opens with a poem titled “Self-Determination Theory.” Here, the speaker, long traveled since “Sonnet for Eleguá,” continues to witness the impacts of exile and assimilation on the family. The speaker says of her parent’s relationship to the United States, “[M]y father watches US / grope my mother, / and though he is a jealous man, / he says nothing / because he, too, / accepts no other touch.” The speaker weeps for her parents, perhaps for how far they’ve strayed from Martí’s original ideas. In the sonnet for Eleguá, however, the speaker knows she is at the crossroads of home and exile, and thus she needs Eleguá, an important figure of home, in order to press on, to gain the strength of the women before her. The speaker confides in Eleguá:

[…] Lately, by the window, where I count the women
with thicker, blacker hair, study the way it tightens around
their shoulders like bulls ascending. What occupies me
is also running. It never tires, but rather, repositions itself.
I should like to reposition myself, please. All of me this time.

She compares her identity to an outline that can reposition itself, a nuanced image of outsiderness and loss. She also turns to the inherent strength of the women around her, and longs for such strength to materialize within herself. As with each of Sainz’s sonnets, the speaker’s contact with Eleguá and the other orishas illuminates her unspoken vulnerabilities as a woman in a new land.

But to limit these poems to their explorations of exile, assimilation, and ideology would be to ignore their brilliant mesh of specificity and abstraction, formal rigor and depth of feeling. In an interview in Black Warrior Review, Sainz praises poetry’s inimitability:

I think poetry’s inherent ambiguity is what makes it so special. Even the quietest of poems still ask the reader to participate in its world. […] Flexibility of meaning allows for surprise, and that’s crucial to my personal enjoyment. There are exceptions, of course, but other mediums can feel “solvable,” by comparison.

It’s this “flexibility of meaning,” the poems’ seamless combination of syntactical ambiguity and hyperspecificity, that makes Have You Been Long Enough at Table such a deep pleasure. That we’re never given direct answers can only be experienced as an act of love and trust on the part of the poet, an artist unafraid to hold space for multitudes of meaning. In the poem “Ars Poetica,” the speaker herself acknowledges that this generosity is what the art of poetry offers her:

You skewer
all the present moments

with a fork. They squirm
spectacularly, like second languages.

A fate—
can you stomach it?

Anyway, you eat it. You eat it anyway.

What exactly do these present moments entail, and why are they skewered rather than embraced? The fourth line alludes to exile and assimilation, but it is ultimately the freedom to interpret that makes this poem so delightful. Nothing is directly answered or tied up in a silky bow. Here, Sainz abides by one of the arguments Horace makes in his work of the same title published circa 19 BCE—that a poet, spiritual or not, optimistic or not, should never rely on the deus ex machina to float down and set things right. A poem’s ambiguity, in service of life and its hardship, does not warrant solvability. Similarly, rather than expecting an explanation, the speaker in Leslie Sainz’s striking collection feasts on her own questions about fate. What is at the daughter’s table may not always be clear or kind or even satisfying. But it is hers.


Emily Collins is a writer and editor based in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

LARB Contributor

Emily Collins is a writer and editor based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Poetry Northwest, Chicago Review of Books, Florida Review, New Orleans Review, and other venues. She holds an MFA in fiction from the University of Montana and is the winner of the 2023 Montana Prize for Fiction. For more, visit www.emilycollinswriter.com.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!