Study Guide

The Latin Deli: An Ars Poetica

The Latin Deli: An Ars Poetica Summary

We're introduced to a speaker who we know—thanks to a clue from the title—is describing a Latin deli. We're told about the cash register, the kinds of food for sale, and finally the lady behind the counter. She's not pretty, nor does she seem to be of any particular age. She's selling "canned memories," though, so we guess that her store is pretty special.

In fact, she attracts a host of customers—Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Mexicans—each talking to her about one topic or another. It turns out that they enjoy speaking to her in Spanish. She's a friendly and familiar face. Her store is also stocked with items that remind these folks of home, which is why they're willing to pay more for them at her store. As the poem ends, we realize that this is more than a shopping trip for these people. It's a way for them to connect to a lost homeland.

Clearly, those pricey plantains are worth it.

  • Stanza 1

    Lines 1-6

    Presiding over a formica counter,
    plastic Mother and Child magnetized
    to the top of an ancient register,
    the heady mix of smells from the open bins
    of dried codfish, the green plantains
    hanging in stalks like votive offerings,

    • According to the title, we're in a Latin deli, which is great because we could really go for a snack right about now. You can check out more about this setting in… "Setting."
    • The title also lets us know that we're in for an "Ars Poetica." That sounds slightly painful, but don't worry. Check out "What's Up With the Title?" to find out just what in the Wide World of Sports an ars poetica even is.
    • Once you've done that, it's time to dive in—after we put on our thinking berets of course. Yes, we wear a thinking beret. Don't judge us because we're fashionable.
    • It looks like our speaker is starting out with some general description.
    • First up: we have someone "presiding" over this place, like a judge or a store owner. This word choice lets us know that, whoever it may be, this person's doing more than just hanging out for a paycheck. They have some real importance.
    • At the same time, we get some contract with what they're actually watching over: a formica counter. This isn't any fancy marble affair with cloth napkins. Formica counters are pretty common and not terribly expensive, though they can look shiny and cool if you take care of them.
    • So, already we have someone of importance in a pretty common setting of a deli.
    • We also have a plastic, magnetized "Mother and Child" on the cash register. This is probably not just any mother or any child, though. We're guessing that this is Mary and Jesus. Since this is a Latin deli, whose customers are more likely than not followers of the Catholic faith, this is probably a religious decoration—kind of like this, only plastic.
    • That the cash register is "ancient" tells us more about the un-fancy-ness of our deli.
    • So, what's for sale? We have open bins of… dried codfish, which give off a "heady" [strong] mix of smells" (4). We bet they do.
    • Clearly, this place isn't one of those mega box stores, where miles and miles of packaged goods sit under sterile halogen light. This is an intimate store, a kind of throwback to the way older markets were run—before the Wal-Marts of the world took over.
    • We also have plantains on offer. These are like bananas, but they're found primarily in Africa and the Caribbean.
    • Thanks to a simile, these plantains are likened to "votive offerings," which is another nod to the Catholic faith. Votives are essentially symbolic offerings to God made by worshippers. Today, they most commonly take the form of candles.
    • We get the feeling that there's more to this deli than just a few groceries.

    Lines 7-9

    she is the Patroness of Exiles,
    a woman of no-age who was never pretty,
    who spends her days selling canned memories

    • We're told about a "she" in line 7. To connect the dots, we need to go all the way back to line 1.
    • Remember that person who was "presiding"? Well, it turns out that this person is a woman.
    • She's not just any woman, though. She is: "the Patroness of Exiles." That is one rockin' job title. So… what does that mean?
    • Well, a "patron" is somebody who gives support (financial, emotional, spiritual, etc.) to somebody else. A "Patroness of Exiles," then, is a woman who supports… exiles, or folks who have been—for one reason or another—separated from their homeland.
    • We learn a bit more about this woman: she's not really what you'd call a "looker." Despite the fact that she's not exactly "pretty," it seems like she's ageless.
    • It's almost like she's always been there for these exiles, some authoritative character who watches over this deli and lends support to people who are far from home.
    • She's also got "canned memories" for sale—mmm, memories. Our speaker is using figurative language here to describe how this store connects the exiles to their homelands.
    • The food our patroness sells is more than just stuff to put on a dinner plate. It connects the people to a comforting sense of home.
    • When's the last time you got that by biting into a Twinkie?

    Lines 10-17

    while listening to the Puerto Ricans complain
    that it would be cheaper to fly to San Juan
    than to buy a pound of Bustelo coffee here,
    and to Cubans perfecting their speech
    of a "glorious return" to Havana--where no one
    has been allowed to die and nothing to change until then;
    to Mexicans who pass through, talking lyrically
    of
    dólares to be made in El Norte—

    • Our patroness does more than just sell food, though. She listens.
    • She listens to the Puerto Ricans moan about the price of the Cuban coffee she sells. She listens to the Cubans fantasize about going back to Cuba's capital city of Havana, which will be exactly the same as when they left it. She also listens to the Mexicans talk beautifully ("lyrically") about the money they make "up north" ("El Norte"), in the United States.
    • In short, our store owner's clients are from across the Latino-American spectrum. They all have their own hopes and dreams, and they all end up shopping at the same deli.
    • (Side note: We don't know if she's the actual owner or not, here, but she definitely seems to be running the place.)
    • Before we leave this stanza, we should talk form for a second.
    • Do you notice any rhyme? How about any repeated rhythm? Yeah, neither did we.
    • This poem is written in a style called free verse. For more on the ins and outs of why and how that might be, check out "Form and Meter."
  • Stanza 2

    Lines 18-23

    all wanting the comfort
    of spoken Spanish, to gaze upon the family portrait
    of her plain wide face, her ample bosom
    resting on her plump arms, her look of maternal interest
    as they speak to her and each other
    of their dreams and their disillusions--

    • This second stanza picks up from the first one, continuing the thought that was interrupted at the end of line 17. That technique is known as enjambment.
    • We're also told that these customers—the Puerto Ricans, Cubans, and Mexicans—get a kind of comfort by talking to the shop owner. They get to speak Spanish, their first language, and take in the sight of this patroness.
    • She looks like… well, like family. Figuratively speaking, she looks like someone who might appear in their family portrait.
    • She's also "well-rounded" in build, which seems to suggest that she's a nourished, and nourishing, figure.
    • Finally, she has an interested, motherly ("maternal") look on her face while they talk. Clearly, she's someone these people feel comfortable talking to, both about the good stuff in their lives ("dreams") and the bad ("disillusions").
    • She's a bit like Dr. Phil, just without the TV show… or the bad moustache… or, you know, the terrible advice. Okay, so maybe she's nothing like Dr. Phil.

    Lines 25-28

    how she smiles understanding,
    when they walk down the narrow aisles of her store
    reading the labels of packages aloud, as if
    they were the names of lost lovers;
    Suspiros,
    Merengues, the stale candy of everyone's childhood.

    • This store owner really gets her clients, gang. She talks to them and she understands them when they read out her package labels.
    • Now, what kind of shopper reads the labels out loud? We'd probably take our cart down another aisle if we saw someone doing that at our local grocery.
    • Here, though, the owner understands that the labels—like the food they cover—are reminders of her client's homes.
    • They utter words like "Suspiros,/ Merengues" (both words for meringues) out loud, because doing so connects them with the language, taste, and memory of their past.
    • In another figurative description, these treats—even if they are stale—are from "everyone's" childhood. Everyone who shops here can remember munching on them when they were little, and so everyone is transported back to that happy time when they see these goodies in this deli.
    • Mmm—memories. We feel that way when we eat Cap'n Crunch cereal. What foods take you back, Shmoopers?
  • Stanza 3

    Lines 29-35

    She spends her days
    slicing
    jamón y queso and wrapping it in wax paper
    tied with string: plain ham and cheese
    that would cost less at the A&P, but it would not satisfy
    the hunger of the fragile old man lost in the folds
    of his winter coat, who brings her lists of items
    that he reads to her like poetry, or the others,

    • At the beginning of this third and final stanza, we get… more food. That checks out. We are in a deli, after all.
    • Our store owner has a particular way that she sells ham and cheese, wrapping them together in wax paper and tying the package with a string.
    • Sure, it costs more to buy it this way than it would at the generic A&P grocery (RIP A&P).
    • You know what, though? It's totes worth it.
    • Just ask that old guy, shrunken by age and sporting an oversized winter coat. He's after the real deal.
    • That explains why, in a touching simile, his treats his grocery list like poetry. Every word on the list is important to him, just as every word counts in a poem.
    • And it looks like he's not the only one to whom this matters. Let's read on…

    Lines 36-38

    whose needs she must divine, conjuring up products
    from places that now exist only in their hearts--
    closed ports she must trade with.

    • In the poem's final lines, we read about other clients "whose needs she must divine." In other words, our store owner has to figure out ("divine") what these clients of hers want.
    • What they're after, it seems, are products from their past, reminders of their homeland.
    • Sadly, those places "now exist only in their hearts." In other words, these people are shopping for a connection to the memories of their past, of the places from whence they came.
    • You can't package that at a discount.
    • These people, referred to earlier as "exiles," have hearts that—in the poem's final metaphor—are closed ports.
    • In other words, the places they remember as "home" no longer exist. Time has moved on, people have changed, and situations have evolved.
    • At the same time, these same people are desperate to experience what they remember as "home" by coming to this store.
    • It's up to our store owner, then, to give them that experience, to "trade" with them, by stocking her shelves with the things that will give them those memories.
    • In this way, she's not running a deli. She's the proud owner of a time machine, one that takes people back to a place that they've lost and are now trying to reclaim.
    • Yeah, we'd say "Patroness of Exiles" is a pretty apt job title to put on her business card.