Mother Tongue | Sara Burnett

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Sara Burnett's poems have appeared in Barrow Street, Poet Lore, The Cortland Review, and elsewhere. She holds a MFA in poetry from the University of Maryland and a MA in English Literature from the University of Vermont. She is a recipient of Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference work-study scholarships to support her writing. She lives in Silver Spring, MD with her husband and daughter and blogs on writing, art, and parenting at



Two Parties
- Havana, 1959

Here is a birthday party;
my tía, 15, stands behind her cake,
family flanked at her sides
as she holds the knife steady,
making a precise incision
like a surgeon into her patient
splayed on a glass table
with miniature white roses
and palm fronds as if the table
were an altar, and the cake,
a sacrificial offering;
my abuela and cousins beside
smile for what seems a likely
eternity or as long as it takes
a camera in those days to flash,
and Tío Pablo wears sunglasses
next to abuelo, who cracks a grin
like a ripped orange skin.
The party is dull; everyone
in business suits, the women
with short jackets, spotted, striped
or tweed, cinched with bows
across their ample chests or fringed
with ridiculously large lapels,
and the men wear dark suits
as if attending a church funeral.
Maybe it’s the warm sepia tones
and heavy shadows saturating
this photograph that make
it somber or maybe it’s the austere
formality here that draws attention
to the affair it almost was­—
where there would’ve been silk
dresses and plush furs, sparkled
baubles and clinks of ice cubes
in tumblers emptied of their drinks,
lifting drifts of cigar smoke,
and a five-piece band playing sets
of salsa, merengue, or jazz lulling
guests late into a moonless night;
but not with a new head of state
wearing olive-green army fatigues,
his trademark square cap,
saying tenemos gran planes
to a cheering crowd, who earlier
chanted paredón! “to the wall!”
death by firing squad.
In the photograph, this party
never starts or finishes;
everyone dreams of the other one
that never happened.
When Tía blew her candles out
in the bleak day’s light, no one saw—
they drew in breath, then clapped.