Island Verses: A Cuban Poetry Primer

Ilan Stavans

In Cuba, poetry is in the air one breathes. It is in the music, in the humor, in the political debates, in the desire to be fully in the present and in the recognition that history is implacable. There is a poetry within, written by the islanders, and a poetry without, delivered by those in the island-outside-the-island. Needless to say, the two complement each other.

At the heart is still José Martí, claimed as an icon on both sides of the divide. Martí’s “Dos Patrias” (Two Homelands) foreshadowed, as Spain was receding in its role of imperial power in the Caribbean and the United States was take its stead, the fracture at the heart of Cuba in the 20th-century: “I have two homelands: Cuba and the night.”

The selection included here showcases the symphonic nature of the nation’s poetry. Nicolás Guillén sings about “Negritud,” blackness, whereas Heberto Padilla, who the Fidel Castro regime used in an embarrassing mock trail, sings through the voice of other victims. José Lezama Lima is a master of the baroque style and Dulce María Loynáz delivers calibrated, cerebral verses. José Kozer looks into language as a way to explore his Jewishness whereas Nancy Morejón explores the echoes of slavery.

Poetry is the metronome of the Cuban soul.

—Ilan Stavans

• • •

Below is a selection of poems from Ilan’s enumerated luminaries, all included in the compendium he edited, The FSG Book of Twentieth-Century Latin American Poetry.

José Martí (1853-1895)
Two Homelands, translated by Ilan Stavans

    I have two homelands: Cuba and the night.
Or are they one and the same? No sooner
does his majesty, the sun, retire, than Cuba, with long veils,
and a carnation in hand, silent,
like a sad widow, appears before me.
I know that bleeding carnation
Trembling in her hand! It’s empty,
my chest is destroyed and empty,
where the heart once was. It’s time
to begin dying. The night is right
to say good-bye. The light is bothersome
and the word is human. The universe
speaks better than man.
                                         Like a flag
inviting us to battle, the candle’s
red flame flickers. I open the windows
overwhelmed inside. Mute, plucking
the carnation’s leaves, like a cloud
darkening the sky, Cuba, a widow, passes by . . .


Nicolás Guillén (1902-1989)
Big Lipped Nigga, translated by Achy Obejas

Why you get so mad
when they call you big-lipped nigga,
when ya mouth’s divine,
negro bembón?

Big-lipped as you iz,
you got everythin;
you live off grace,
you got everythin.

An still you bitch,
negro bembón;
in the thick of everythin,
negro bembón,
stiff white drill suit,
negro bembón;
two-toned shoes,
negro bembón.

Big-lipped as you iz,
you got everythin;
you live off grace,
you got everythin.


Dulce María Loynáz (1902-1997)
The Mirror, translated by Ilan Stavans

The mirror hanging on the wall,
where I sometimes see myself in passing . . .
is a dead pond brought
into the house.
Corpse of a pond is the mirror:
Still, rigid water containing
in itself remnants of color,
of the sun, of shadow—movable
edges of the horizon burning, passing by
in circles, returning, never
burning up—vague
reminiscence that coalesced in the glass
and cannot return to the distant
land from where the pond was torn up,
still white
of moon and jasmine, still trembling
of rain and birds, its waters . . .
This is water tamed by death:
It’s a ghost
of a living water that shone one day,
free in the world, lukewarm, suntanned …
Open to the happy wind that
made her dance . . . ! The water doesn’t dance
anymore; it will not reflect
the suns of each day. It is barely reached
by the withered ray filtered through
the window.
In what cold did they freeze you for so long,
vertical pond, no longer spilling
your stream over the carpet, no longer
emptying your remote landscapes
in the living room and your spectral
light? Gray, crystallized water,
my mirror, where I saw myself
so distant
sometimes, where I feared being kept
inside forever . . . Detached
from myself, lost in the mud
of ash made of limbering stars . . .


José Lezama Lima (1910-1976)
Portrait of José Cemí, translated by Gregory Rabassa

No combat did he unleash, as panting
was the custom set between his breath
and the breeze or tempest.
His name was also Thelema Semi,
his will can seek a body
in the shade, the shadow of a tree
and the tree that is at the gates of hell.
He was faithful to Orpheus and Proserpina.
He revered his friends, the melody,
both the one that is hidden and the one that shakes
the summer leaves.
Art went with him every day,
nature bestows her calm, her fever.
Calming as the night,
the fever made him quench his thirst
in sunken Hirers,
for he sought a river, not a path.
Time to come to happiness was given him,
he could hear Pascal:
rivers are walking paths.
So that everything he believed in fever
he later understood in calm.
Within what he believes, he is where he knows,
between a column of air and the sacrificial stone.


Heberto Padilla (1932-2004)
Anne Frank, translated by Alastair Reid and Andrew Hurley

In front of Cologne Cathedral
—divided by two black columns—
once more the children
are taking up their songs.

I have watched them playing:
mostly, I have noticed,
they jump from one song to the next,
from one tune
to another.

And today I was given the photo
of your thin fading face,
child, now arrived in your high Hebrew heaven.
And how odd
that I am now sitting on this bench
(a few steps from the Rhine)
watching the water go by,
for I had long thought
that blood would have flowed . . .


José Kozer (b.1940)
Naïf, translated by Mark Weiss

A crab, I move sideways.

Aside and then some, with enormous effort, I am an arthritic unicorn, it’s the seventieth birthday of the virgin holding the mirror.

The middle ear I inherited from the mute dog of the island of Cuba; it’s 12:10, the world is mapped out, map of the map of God (he has
taken his time), it’s a free hand he gave us (a mischievous God): to invest in Creation’s beings under the rubric of omission, reducing them, naming them, calling the crow crow and the calf beetle: God, mischievous, certainly.

Everything has its solution (for example): older (wearing a hat), for exercise I propose to myself to walk the kilometer that leads in a straight line from home to the grocery store where as a rule I stock my larder: it’s 12:10, I point my index finger skyward and command the sun to stop, in the distance peasants become suddenly statues (bronze, manure, or marble): I take the first step, strangely—and perhaps it’s this will keep me going—I set forth at the first chord of the Beethoven septet (opus 20) (third movement, Tempo di Menuetto), I concentrate on the view, point to point, constituting beyond all aporia the direct line to the store: wanderings, disquisitions, the thread that leads that led away from me a bowline; the Arab-Israeli conflict; my mother’s health; prostate problems; volutes; the innocent climb to heaven on a spiral staircase.

Dizzy (my true condition) within me the hound and the unicorn squabble, the festive ant rushes to the river where it spies a crab
that’s been crushed with a stone (it will want to make sure, as it should); the function of stone, ant, hand, crab (and the river’s
swampy water as well): how to evade these problems? Simple: don’t guess. Knowing to banish bad thoughts at each instant, when it says dung heap imagine a spinning top, when we enter the church it reminds us that to die we must (whatever) with a slap scare off the theological fly, the fetid fly of the boneyards: raise up the panpipes. Returning to our daily sunset walk we stop (hand on the doorknob) on the threshold, closing our eyes (so as to enter, blind) (see, it’s about a game; maybe a mental exercise or the various tests left to make real the access to the illuminative way) we discover ourselves (in the dark) a praying mantis before a Book of Hours.


Nancy Morejón (b.1944)
Analysis of Melancholy, translated by Kathleen Weaver

Hours passing
                         like a breeze.
Shadows of a living world,
passing like a breeze,
they bring me to speak with you.

Disjointed, brief,
tinged the color of rage,
hours come to me
and you also,
expressing yourself,
honoring me with them.

Stepping into a river. Skipping
over puddles. Jumping
over a wall. Reading
the day’s news. Discovering
rain. Walking under the leaves
of the silk-cotton tree. Singing
in the afternoon.

with its erotic pulse: quiet and pure melancholy.


The FSG Book of 20th Century Latin American Poetry
Barnes and Noble


Ilan Stavans is the Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College. His books, including Art and Anger, Spanglish, On Borrowed Words, The Poetry of Pablo Neruda, and Becoming Americans, have been translated into a dozen languages.

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