i brushed the shells with my fingertips, they were smooth and delicate, but obviously artificial, made to be used once and thrown away. at first touch they might seem real, pearly, perfect, but they’re actually plastic, and they’ve never even seen any sea.
So ends Reina Maria Rodriguez’s poem “First Time” (linked here and in the video above). Rodriguez, a Cuban poet born in the ashes of revolution, writes colloquial, philosophical works. “First Time” melds these two aspects with beauty and precision. In it, Rodriguez writes from the perspective of someone not from the United States who visits an American grocery store with a friend.
The setting is a deceptively simple one. The narrator begins by expressing awe at clementines that traveled all the way from Morocco and eggs painted different colors for each day of the week, “a different color for each opportunity.” But the narrator’s delight quickly morphs into a less serene emotion. She is struck by the artificial nature of everything surrounding her, the gross consumption put on display for everything to be “licked, tasted, eaten, packaged, mastered.”
The narrator recognizes that her friend cannot understand what it is like to have grown up in a place without access to this type of excess. For the narrator, the food invokes both “horror and desire”; the surrounding food and fish is miraculous because it offers security, but it is repugnant because it separates her further from the natural world, and as she says, the fish and shells have “never seen any sea.” Those fish and shells are like the people who wander the supermarket but cannot remember, cannot even imagine the places from which the food came.
Rodriguez is a wonderful poet, and if you have a chance, you should definitely peruse some of her work. She is a writer whose pieces are always a pleasure to read aloud.