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.
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?
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."