I had to plan an opening activity for a poetry unit I was teaching for an NYU class, and my education professor vehemently vetoed my idea of starting with having students try to define poetry based on whatever previous ideas they had. Her argument was that creating a definition would be too limiting and would thus build too narrow and understanding of the genre in students’ minds from the beginning. But I didn’t want students to actually arrive at a definition or actually define anything; I wanted them to try. My argument was that often only through the process of attempting to define something do we really learn how indefinable something is. I wanted students to learn for themselves, through the act of attempting to define the genre and experiencing precisely just how tough it is to define something so vast, that poetry contains too much to fit under one neat label. My professor didn’t buy it, and I ended up opening the unit with a bilingual poem that I read aloud in various voices.
But there’s no one to veto me now.
Costa Rica is leathered campesinos, bony dogs chained to fence posts, and chipped machetes. It is quiet and polite and doesn’t shout on the bus, like Spaniards and New Yorkers showing off their new Beats headphones. It is giant black crickets with red and orange wings who look like plastic wind up toys, and brilliant flowers that must have come off the set of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
It is gringos saying “whole-lah” and indigenous mothers and sisters carrying babies in slings. It is driving on whichever side of the road has fewer potholes. It is the wife who runs out of her house and sets a green shopping bag on the steps of the bus and the husband who runs out of his office 3 stops later to pick up his dinner. It is ants and mud. It is family scrapbooks punctuated with photos of men holding up the Fer de Lances they’ve killed. It is Dr. Seuss trees and Alice in Wonderland bugs.
Costa Rica smells like Bactex soap, grinding motorcycle engines chugging up the mountain, and cilantro growing along the fenceline. Costa Rica sounds like squeaking bats, trilling cicadas, rain on the tin roof. Costa Rica feels like barbed wire dividing cattle pastures and damp cotton. Costa Rica tastes like Imperial beer, sour oranges, queso de Turrialba, and good coffee.
Coffee is the savior of the country, the plague of the nation, a good way to go broke quick, the fastest way to get rich. Coffee is the big guy stepping on the little guy; it is the little guy remaining independent and content. It is cooperative and based in community; it is isolating. Coffee is families of 15 and 3 high school diplomas between them; coffee is technical agriscience and cultivated hybrids. Coffee is nitrogen-consuming, bird environment-providing, soil-stabilizing. Coffee is green plastic laundry baskets tied around the waist, it is international cupping competitions, it is such a chemically complex compound that it cannot be replicated artificially
Coffee is sown, transplanted, sprayed, pruned, gathered, weighed, sorted, stripped, fermented, washed, dried, stored, toasted, ground, vacuum-sealed, labeled, branded, shipped, sold, brewed, smelled, savored.
El café es la siembra, el amácigo, la tomiza, la cosecha, la medida, grados A-D, la cáscara, la fermentación, la guardiola, el pátio, el almacen, el tueste, el molido, la marca, el mercadeo, la exportación, la liquidación, colar, oler, amar y beber.
Coffee is Gerardo, who ripped up half his coffee when the price dropped and planted sugar. Coffee is José, who stole land from a dead gringo to plant trees. Coffee is Geraldo, who loves his farm so much he works on Sundays. Coffee is Elias, who didn’t sleep for 2 years to implement the world’s first long term comparative coffee growing practices study. Coffee is Marcel, who, after Elias’ lecture today at the University of Costa Rica about the role sustainable coffee practices through agroforestry can play in land revitalization in the face of climate change, came up to him and said, “really, I’m truly excited by what you have to say. Honestly, I could have listened all day. My brother is just starting in coffee, and I want him to start right.”
Coffee is identity, heritage, legislation, history, future, hectares, dollars, colones, international image. Coffee is second only to petroleum in world markets. I don’t know what it is, but it keeps me up at night. Coffee has absolutely no nutritional, and yet we can’t live without it.