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” (in the video above and the full text below). 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.
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First Time by Reina Maria Rodriguez
we went into a market—they call it a grocery—and you can’t imagine. fruit brilliant as magazine photos. all kinds of different oranges, grapefruits, mandarins, some tiny clementines with a blue sticker—Morocco—they’ve come so far…the eggs are painted with colors corresponding to the days of the week you’re supposed to eat them: a different color for each opportunity. i felt dizzy, the gulf between myself and this place seemed insuperable. tears welled up in my eyes, i wanted desperately to flee, to get outside so i could breathe. i wanted to explain to Phillis, the North American who had invited me, what was happening to me. i tried, but she couldn’t understand: you have to have felt it yourself: the first time. for the first time my mind had crossed over five hundred years of development at jet speed and arrived in the future, a cold future, its display cases filled with artificial snow and artificial heat. there were a thousand things i never knew existed, a panoply of brand names and gadgets for every purpose. i felt like someone from the stone age, and realized most people on the planet never know the era they’re living in, any more than they could know the quantity of living matter in this galaxy that surrounds us, or the milky complexity of the molecules in their own brains, and what’s more they don’t know that they’ll die without ever knowing. i felt terror of that gloss, of the waxed fruit, of propaganda so refined it could dilute the existence of the strange things before my eyes, other sensations: everything wanting to be used up, immediately, licked, tasted, eaten, packaged, mastered. i knew i couldn’t stand this avalanche, this brilliant swarm, for long, these rows on rows of distant faces staring out at me from cardboard boxes. i’d seen nothing singular in the place, no unique thing i could separate out from the amorphous mass of texture and sensation. i began to move closer, imagining i walked with those who have never eaten meat or tasted cow’s milk, who have never nursed except from the teat of a goat. those who have had only wildflowers to chew when the winter hunger comes. i approached closer still, imagining i walked with the salty ones, who collect their water from the public pipe. my nose began to bleed and Phillis said it was the cold; i knew that wasn’t the problem. we were near the seafood display, i moved closer. fish have always aroused in me both horror and desire. i moved closer, like a lost child feeling her way through space toward something of hers that’s hidden. 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.
Source: Poetry (June 2011)
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Originally posted August 21, 2016