Hoes


Photos:  Francis Sanchez

I went shopping in search of a hoe.

Perhaps it was suddenly suggested to me by the partisan propaganda which always lays a guilt trip on the will of the majority — yeah, the runaway slaves who can’t be allowed to govern themselves — while the saving ideas inevitably fall from above, from that select club of the intransitive neurons.

Perhaps proving the burden of remorse like that state of deep coma that socialist agriculture crosses being only the fault of those who are closest to the earth, those below — as the great novelist Mariano Azuela would say — in this social pyramid where the bureaucracy gives orders.

At best I was beating my conscience, living as I had always lived in the midst of an extraordinarily fertile savannah, for not having ceded to the State my part in this social contract — not of work, but of simulation — that is summarized by a useful and popular saying in Cuba, symptom of the post-classical era or of eternal bankruptcy: “We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us.”

I definitely had never employed many hours of my life even in that metaphysical wage relation, comparable to the poetry by which the “beautiful pretense” marks the count of Salinas.  I could repent suddenly for not have participated either in many voluntary working days under the precepts of Che Guevara, in search of the New Man throwing to the ground all the molds, those “Red Sundays” in which the united proletariat dispersed the fossil fuel and marched from the city to the field to get the harvest from the scrubland using the happy method of the gods Orpheus and Bacchus together: singing, dancing and drumming with agricultural instruments.

The truth is that, one morning, desiring to see what kind of means of production, specifically hoes, the governmental apparatus had put within reach of the people to make more realistic the new act of contrition to which it called the masses, after labeling them as stupid masses, whose support cost two eyes from the face: you get sick of vagrancy, indiscipline, unproductivity, and finally, being like “pigeons” with beaks always open. . . I went through the stores to see what hoe we had within reach of our wallet for ridicule our yearning for leisure.

I walked through the city with the suspicion that my search would be in vain.  But, by luck, I had been mistaken.  In the last establishment on my list, a little hardware store, I finally located the service of sale of hoes to the people, or better, to be exact: the sale of one hoe.  There it waited, alone, abandoned. With the digits of the price it was enough to explain to me its marginal status among the merchandise, because it could barely be seen placed in a corner.  It cost $22.45!  Without doubt that seemed more like the number that identifies the photo of an assassin behind bars. With reason my hoe had its head down.

As is logical, I deduced that the exposed sample in the pillory of the ridiculous prices did not gather all the responsibility, it would be treated only as a sample, representing the shame of many more tools of its kind that would wait neatly inside of boxes for the return of the collective faith in agricultural work.  But that clerk caught me in my error.  There existed no more in the warehouse.  This was the only one, or maybe, a Platonic archetype and, at the same time, its concrete manifestations: the Hoe. I wanted to make myself the discovering fool, apparently upset, if the scarcity was due to high demand, and the sharp clerk got me from my disguise with a crafty smile, telling me the price in case I had not seen it: “$22.45!”  We laughed together.

No one remembered when it had arrived there, even if it was in the way among the other products, like a dead animal that would not decay, nobody claimed it but neither did the administration send it to the other world.  Obviously, neither did I make a sign of paying for its rescue, because I was dissuaded by that prohibitive figure, the equivalent of more than an average monthly salary.

Hereinafter I inevitably became accustomed to visiting it each time I passed nearby, to see how it was doing.  One day I asked if the price was an exclusive karma or if the ones that came later would cost the same.  Of course, still no employee of that establishment could know it, first one had to begin to come out of there.  One afternoon I found that they had reduced the sentence from $22.45 to $14.20.  I had the slight impression that curiosity ended up acting on its destiny.

Some days and weeks have passed, the Hoe is still hanging there. Some other time I will come closer to the counter to look at it from top to bottom.

The documentary images of the great Agrarian Reform show the happy faces of those farmers with almost no teeth, almost with no speech, that raised for the first time, thanks to the Revolution (1959), a property title to the land they worked.  Nevertheless, in those rural pictures of multitudes that shook awake the memory of Robin Hood, there is missing a figure just as good-natured.  If the epic camera man could repeat a portrait of the same group through the years, registering the morphological changes, we would see him come out of anonymity and overshadow, each time more, the poor people who apparently disappear behind his embrace, growing fat and at the same time polishing their manners, meanwhile decking himself out with the highest technology of the bureaucracy itself, including demagoguery.  He is the most favored figured with the great share, because since then it would grow indefinitely at the cost of its advantages as a legal person: the State.  The Commander-in-Chief already said it then: “If they question us, what are the earthly limits of the State?  We answer them:  They extend from the Punta de Maisi to the Cabo de San Antonio, and they embrace the lands included between the north and south coasts of our island.”

In the end, one must ask oneself:  Will there not be something working in a twisted way under the very same earth?  Will there be a curse that the Utopia will return to the ideal of the primitive community as far as making the excess production rain the same over everyone, not catching, just sprouting on this coral island? In a country where the need for progress always encouraged the cultivation of the noble crust, after consummating the seizure of the map on the part of the supreme will to uphold the common good, supposedly, above all every individual interest, increasing the literacy rates, education levels and hygiene, with the result that everywhere this same social control rises to the surface in the form of a chronic ruin.

At the same time it slowed and frustrated the access of natural people, that is, of flesh and bone, the control over the means of production — with this, so individual and difficult to collectivize: a real hoe, handy, truly serviceable — and its direct benefits, the omnipresent State channeled the maximum instruments of its institutions in stimulating, rewarding, socializing other types of “hoes.” We ourselves found in a very illustrative dictionary, Popular Cuban Speech Today1 , that “hoe” is an adjective and common substantive with the meaning “sycophant” and many synonyms: asskisser, minion, bootlicker, brownnoser, groveler, flunky, doormat. There are “multiple intellectual servants” making  “the protective ring of power and carrying out its orders”2 , weapons of pleasure for the autocracy, with an effect much more illusory and indigestible, parasitic, sterilizing in the long run.

These other “tools”, belonging to the sector better “read and written,” they give to themselves by the ton at every crossroad of a society whose roads all lead to State ownership and, through it, to a centralized bureaucracy. They satisfy only the high demand for luster in the social superstructure, while the economic base continues being the unpromised wasteland.

1 Argelio Santiesteban: El habla popular cubana de hoy, Ed. de Ciencias Sociales, La Habana, 1985, p. 243.

2 Ángel Rama: La ciudad letrada, Ed. Arca, Montevideo, 1998, p. 32.

Translated by mlk

March 31 2011

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Huge Hell Whether it Works or Not (For the Poetry of the ’90s)

Photo: Francis Sánchez

[In this part of an unedited interview, which I don’t know when it will be published, I respond to the question: "Ciego de Ávila: Love or scorn?"]

I have tried to invent the province lovingly, although for that I had to give a primary form to that love without obligation until it was more or less justified physically. You know what I mean: it was given to me to work on magazines, research, anthologies, events, etc. Anyway, I was wasting my time, “plowing the sea” as we say. I knew that eventually the community where I had lived would not forgive me, and so it has been — fortunately, I must say.

Reality and abstraction merge dramatically in provincial life, love and scorn depend on knowing how to distinguish and connect them. In a highly centralized society, all imaginative communication hangs on a few strange threads, and this is experienced with more tension at the lower levels of the social order, as in the small political boundaries. The pressure that, with regards to my fantasies, exerted by the corner I inhabit it Cuba, my residence in the absence of water surrounded by water on all sides*, definitively results, for me, in a candid inferno. At times I explain it to myself as a liquidation and generational auction.

As much as the redefining of historical stages may seem trivial to me, I am one of those young people — tempering here classifications such as poet, writer or intellectual — who burst on the scene at the beginning of the ’90s, with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the so-called “Special Period.” I understand my way through this historic turning point that continues up to today, this dismantling of large belief systems, which helps me to explain my particular agonizing relationship with my environment.

We go out into the street — similarly some of us take up poetry — to earn a living by tooth and nail, expecting freedom and giving it to ourselves. Iconoclasts, we trample on the fears of many of the people we’ve grown up around. We defend our right not to be State employees and not to fall prey to the famous and feared Law of Dangerousness.

Most of us have given up our studies halfway through, or at least when any hope in the logical scale of social advancement through the bureaucratic system collapses. We are the laborers in clandestine businesses and the black market, ignorant of the Revolutionary modesty and ethics that calls on us to die of hunger before letting ourselves be corrupted by the supposed vices of capitalism. Then, we even define ourselves as poets when some official comes by asking how we’re different from the lumpen.

We ruined meetings, accusing the bureaucrats of the presidency, we questioned, we spoke up, we played the classic opportunistic chess poorly because we captured pieces in all directions, we didn’t have the grace to get in good with the boss. We asked, of course, that the Hermanos Saíz Association cut itself off from the other political organizations and become independent. We had nothing and aspired to much less. We flat out refused to be domesticated. We had to reject the first time someone edited and approved a poem we were going to recite in an activity the following day, for the first time we told the “secret” agent who always presided over the Literary Workshop to shut up.

We went to church and tried to carry the Virgin on a procession when it was frowned upon and prohibited. Our poems spoke freely of religious beliefs, suicide fantasies, different sexual preferences, or the sublime desire to emigrate; we severed ourselves from the tyrannical deadly placenta, killing the mother and burning the city. We quoted each other and shared the experiences of the exiles, making direct comparisons with the cursed readings and tragic events of Stalinism.

We had to stop using, in essays and criticisms, classifications such as “Revolutionary literature” that had been commonplace until then, and mandatory tests to pass to the next level. Unthinkably, a recognized group shame came over us with the introduction to the anthology Usted es la culpable (You are Guilty), in 1985, where we almost asked forgiveness for living.

Following the takeover, by the powers-that-be, of colloquial discourse after the Triumph of the Revolution, no generation had been so free. At our side, many of the authors of the decade immediately before, those of the great axiological bankruptcy, and especially those who had not swelled the diaspora, suffering the ravages of the ideological uproar: self-censorship, delusions of persecution, deep remorse, psychological scars, as a consequence of the forced learning when the control of artistic activity was still staged, a shock treatment undertaken directly by police dressed as peasants.

The churches overflowed and every Sunday, Mass-as-catharsis brought a collective prayer for those who threw themselves into the sea on a raft. We walked the country from house to house listening to banned radio or the cassettes of so many musicians targeted on the blacklist. Nobody lowered his voice while standing in line to echo jokes and anonymous parodies of poems and songs. There was a euphoria paradoxically coinciding with the consciousness of hitting bottom. Our psychic freedom was so spontaneous and vital that we felt ourselves above reality, noting our own detachment and spiritual independence, ignoring the fact that the macrosocial circumstances would remain the same as those suffered by other generations in the hard gray years.

Perhaps we trusted that sooner or later history would have to catch up with us and put itself in tune with our inner world and everything out there would be removed. What happened afterwards? Of course we didn’t change life. We just spent our youth and there was another turn of the screw they gave — and continue giving — others.

I hardly know if I distinguish good from within an experience so tight that it leaves me short of breath, but when I look around I notice that the generation of the ’80s that didn’t emigrate, for the most part they have adapted better, continued the evolutionary heritage of the coloquialists, the Generation of the ’50s, skilled in reaching the power on high and touching its intimate and popular fiber.

Just as there is a “historic” generation that toppled the Batista tyranny and took the baton for life, there is a poetic generation that, within the aesthetic ideals of the process acquired, early on, the same equivalence as the supposed opponents of the old bourgeois sensibility which has been accruing the benefits of power from this extra prestige, not for its abilities in literary recycling and contamination, which has been great over the years thanks to the porous and open nature of the predominant collectivist discourse, but because they distinguished themselves by making the “sacrifice” and occupying the political responsibilities, the positions, the institutions, as so well described by Virgilio Lopez Lemus in his book Palabras de trasfondo (Background Words).

Then the deviations of the young who, at the end of the ’80s answered their parents, reclaimed space, perhaps these were only the sins of transition. Even many of those wizened poets of the triumphalist and opportunistic discourse, against those whom they fought, simply adapted new coordinates, expanding the range, deceiving the thematic present, adding a seasoning of drops of pessimism, metaphysicality or perplexity, and in the end looking too much like their caustic children, sharing the same balance of elite institutions, lifted into power but brought down by the same sociological reality.

I think the majority of the youth of the ’90s — well, of course, I can only speak for myself and a few that I appreciate, within the scope of my knowledge — we still have the stigma of the excesses of frustration and freedom into which we launched ourselves, because it was real, unvarnished. The little we experienced, I think we did it with our backs to the public that had followed, up to now, the spectacle of the internal struggles for the discourse of truth, of facts, to always reach someone with the best and most updated code of the great changes of Cuban history (of this resignation someone has called “boring”) when, along the way, we have seen that this history is never that new, never so distant no matter how overly sentimental or unbearable it has become at times.

We touched, and we are touching, a spiritual flame, energy that did not separate any layer of reality toward another magnetic center. And there was exactly nothing left for us to do, amid essential conditions of maladjustment, to enjoy the good life, save a demonstration of domestic, or minor, virtues, typical of the domesticated.

The truth is that we must have endurance to live in peace in a “huge” village and a “tiny” hell.

*Translator’s note: From a poem by Dulce Maria Loynaz

Translated by: Jeannina Perez and others

January 4 2011

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Salvador, a Seat Occupied in Cuban Literature

Salvador Bueno and the author of this interview

Interview of Salvador Bueno (fragment*)

I met him in 1998. That year, on October 12, he received the “José Vasconcelos” prize in a ceremony at the National Hotel in Havana. The gold medal, conferred by the Hispanic Affirmation Front (HAF) to intellectuals of the Castillian language for lifetime achievement, had already gone to figures of the likes of Jorge Luis Borges and León Felipe. He was added to the select group with no less dignity, like a venerable man of letters whose patient and helpful work had contributed to the appreciation of Cuban literature beyond our shores. Coincidentally, that day the same institution in Mexico gave, with exceptional character, the Young Talent Prize to Ileana Álvarez. In the next few years we would share various times, invited always to activities in which the HAF and its president, Mr. Fredo Arias of la Canal, continued enhancing the knowledge of Cuban literary heritage, influenced especially with its “savior” influence.

It was the next year, in Holguín, where we traveled to pay homage to the poet Lalita Curbelo, that I asked if I would be allowed to turn on a small recorder, in the middle of some chats which he adorned with his rich knowledge and anecdotes of who had been not only a researched, but also a protagonist and exceptional witness to the vicissitudes of literature and Creole society for the better part of the twentieth century. Then, the century was drawing to a close, a good excuse to ask my interlocutor for a brief overview, a review not only of those hundred years but also his own unique look.

At the start I wasn’t excited about anything more than the idea of collecting, as a curiosity, part of the treasure of these conversations, and learning something about someone who had preferred to dedicate his energies to study and the promotion of other authors and tradition, from a university chair, as well as a writer, or — though he sneered at old age, keeping very active — directing the Cuban Academy of Language. I wanted to take advantage of this situation facing a young man who asks, in a classroom, partly because he doesn’t know and partly to be provocative.

When I got home I prepared the transcript and sent it to him with this message: “Here I have made a verbatim copy of the interview I managed to record in those hectic days of our stay at the Pernik Hotel in Holguin. As I promised, I am sending it to you for your review and editing of everything you want to clarify, and then return it to me.”

But time passed and passed … and every time I phoned, he would ask for another extension. Until we met around the table again and I didn’t give him any more cracks at it: I thought perhaps he would loosen his tongue with regards to some simple themes that, looking closely, were still uncomfortable, at least as long as the people involved were living.  He asked me to let the water run under the bridge a little more. The truth is, that except for this interview I kept it to myself and since then it has remained unpublished.

When he passed on physically, Salvador Bueno (Havana, 1917-2006) closed an extensive work that he worked on until his final hour, consisting mainly of research, essays, articles and anthologies, which began in 1950 when he published Outline of Modernism in Cuba (Talleres Tipográficos de Editorial Lex, La Habana), a conference he had held at the Universidad del Aire on September 3.

Then in 1953, the National Commission for UNESCO would print A Half-Century of Cuban Literature (1902-1952). His History of Cuban Literature, adapted to the current official program in the institutes of secondary education in Cuba, appeared in 1954 with the Minerva seal and later would be reissued after the triumph of the Revolution.

Among his outstanding monographs was The Negro in the Hispanic American Novel (Ed. Letras Cubanas, La Habana, 1986), with which he had obtained, in 1978, the Candidate of Doctor of Sciences in the Literary Academy of Sciences of Hungary. The milestones of poetry also always received the benefit of his attention, from Image by the poet Milanés, a reprint of the Journal of the National Library José Martí (Havana, 1963).

In his later years, he fulfilled the responsibilities of President of the Cuban Academy of Language with the same humility that Dulce Maria Loynaz had left this institution on dying. What then was the main promoter of the collection of Cuban Classics, thanks to funding from the FAH, but with the seal of the Academy, he returned to life and put back into circulation many indispensable books, always with his prefaces and notes.

Now in the last stage of his life he received other awards that came to validate the homage of his Mexican friends. He won the International Fernando Ortiz Prize, in 2000, then on the same date the National Award for Cultural Research, and four years later, the National Social Sciences Award.

When he’d already let more than a little water run under the bridge, I think it’s necessary to deliver to others that part of his words that I picked up one day.

Francis Sanchez: Your love of literature, is it a family inheritance?

Salvador Bueno: I can’t say that in my family there was some ancestor that was dedicated to literature. Although my father was a great reader and also, according to what he told me, when he was very young he wrote some articles. I think that in the stages of Cuban life that I lived, there were those who got me interested in literature, as the necessary expression of a man, that is of the whole society.

I studied at the Havana Institute in a tumultuous era, when there was even an attack by the army and the police. I think on March 3, 1934 they threw tear gas. There is even a chronicle published by Pablo de la Torriente [Cuban writer, 1901-1936], about the terrible things that happened there, in a place where there hundreds of boys and girls.

As the police were already fired up, any gesture of rejection was sufficient motive to set them against us. In that situation we had long periods of truce, most of the time the strikers were the same students, although it was always the government that closed the classrooms.

After the fall of Machado the opened the institutes for what they called lightning courses, but then came the strike of March 1935, and they suspended classes again, and it was the same in other months. All this inclined me, as well, towards reading. In the long periods where there no student obligations I dedicated myself to reading everything that fell into my hands, not just works of pure creation, like novels, stories or poems, but also I read critical essays, histories… I read a lot, both good and bad, from contradictory positions, which I think ultimately opened a very wide spectrum for me.

FS: And in the beginning, as a man of thought, were you marked by the social aspects?

SB: That vocation was born and developed over all the years at the Institute of Havana, then in the Institute of Vibora and finally at the University, because the agitation continued throughout all these years. I entered the University in 1938, and Abel Santamaria in 1942. The situation of unrest that existed in Cuba was very big, especially among students. Among teachers of all types and kinds, they were very good for the students because not only were they very good at their material, but they also maintained a civic position that they drove us to follow. For example, there was Vincentina Antuña who conveyed his concerns to us, so this way they also directed us. I think those years of struggle were invaluable to me in that sense, because I learned from books and beyond the books.

FS: Talking about the matter of your own work, what do you think of Cuban poetry of the twentieth century compared to the nineteenth century? That upward spiral — as Lezama said — which would certainly mean the poetry of the nineteenth century, in relation to what was being written then in the rest of America, do you believe that it had continued during this last century?

SB: I think that in the first fifteen years of the century, the poetry written in Cuba was delayed relative to the rest of Hispanic America. However, from that stage of disillusion rose great powers like Regino Boti, José Manuel Pobeda, Agustín Acosta and others, And in this what, despite what the frustration of the Republic meant, they found better ways to express themselves in taking into account the situation in the country.

Pobeda, for example, demonstrates a poetry and a prose of total skepticism, but also with a great anger … There’s a poem he called “Dirty rag,” dedicated to the flag, where he tells people precisely that, that their flag is a rag. So it was afterward that the other poetry arose, between 1920 and 1930, where we also find notable authors who were reacting against their predecessors without totally separating themselves from them. They are poets like Tallet and Regino Pedroso, who on the one hand leaned greatly toward social concerns and at the some time possessed a skepticism that they were going to try to placate.

Then comes an important event, the revolution against Machado, which means a new frustration for Cubans, because when we expected that the leaders that emerged after the fall of the tyrant would improve the situation of the country, the opposite happened. The most obvious case was that of Grau San Martin, who was elected by a huge majority, and also with tremendously enthusiastic demonstrations, this Cintio Vitier  who spoke very well in the novel De peña pobre.[1]  There was joy because finally a popular president was elected, and then there was widespread frustration.

So, I think that with those relapses will there will always arise the spirit of the Cuban rebel who stands in front of those gaps and faces the same skepticism that comes from such experiences. So we have the case of Chibas who is, I would say, a reformer, but around him there is a series of guys who later will be the starting point of the generation of the century. And besides, in poetry (it seemed as if we were not already talking about poetry) there were the great teachers who were born early in the century, Nicolas Guillen in 1902, Lezama in 1910… These important figures will manage to be heard. Guillen for his particular expression, for his own communicability, which he managed, perhaps, more easily than others.

 FS: Do you think it’s an exaggeration to refer to Origins as a movement.

SB: No because without a doubt it was a movement. It had to do with Lezama, and the youngest, Eliseo, Cintio, Fina, were the ones who gave it vitality. So much so that when the Revolution came that required taking positions, and Lezama and they were left in Cuba. Although they say he tried to leave but the truth is he stayed in Cuba when his sister left. He was a man who lived very immersed in his own environment. I remember once at his house he confessed to me that he couldn’t live without the dampness that left stains you could see on the walls, although, in the end, with his asthma, it was precisely those water stains that killed him.

FS: With the Revolution, what significance did Lezama continue to have for you?

SB: I will tell you something that is certainly going to amaze you, many people no longer remember that Lezama Lima was vice president of UNEAC (Cuban Artists and Writers Union). I have a card with his signature. The UNEAC ID card had be to renewed from time to time, but I kept mine, I save it like a treasure, a UNEAC card with Lezama Lima’s signature as vice president, that is acting vice president, because when Guillen went abroad he stopped fulfilling the functions as one of the first vice presidents.

FS: When was that?

SB: UNEAC was founded in 1961 and this was in the first ten years. Also, in 1959 they offered a series of conferences on the steps of the University, they would invite there the most distinguished poets and writers, contributors included Tallet, Regino Pedroso, and also Lezama, but his contribution is almost unknown although it was published, because Ciro Bianchi included it in a boo where he brought together a lot of the works of those who were dispersed and little known. [2] The initiative of offering this conference on the steps, his contribution, his thinking, was very good. That is, some have wanted to accentuate Lezama’s withdrawn personality, or his anti-Revolutionary character, but you have to read his work carefully.

FS: In the second half of the twentieth century, we have the poetry that is already within the Revolutionary process.

SB: There’s even a debate about what has been called “First generation poetry of the Revolution,” some who had been publishing before the Revolution, as is the case with Robert Fernandez Retamar, and even those who began to publish in the first years. Then, in 1959, those Cuban Book Fairs started, and there we find a selection of poetry from the young, prepared by Retamar and Fayad Jamis [3]. You have to pay attention to what they say in the prologue, and the authors that are included there, is something fabulous. They increasingly emphasize the desire to identify with the priorities of identity, but also the desire to penetrate their own personalities, and in this way I think they they achieved the best results of this first stage of the poetry of the Revolution, that is, that which comes with full force from the young people who founded El Caimán Barbudo (The Bearded Cayman) in 1966, Luis Rogelio Nogueras, Guillermo Rodríguez Rivera, Víctor Casaus…

FS: Do you think that in this 20th century we have some intellectual that is head and shoulders above that we will be able to recognize as the most significant figure?

SB: I think without a doubt that the intellectual figure most important in this century in Cuba is Fernando Ortiz, and I think that in the new century new generations should know him completely and follow his direction. His works should be republished, and we must always insist on the fundamental messages of his work.

Notes:

* “Salvador, un sillón ocupado en las letras cubanas” (Salvado, a Chair Occupied in Cuban Letters) won the Orlando Castellanos Interview Prize in the cultural magazine Videncia (Clairvoyance), 2010. Jury: Gina Picart, David Leyva and Juventina Soler. This is only a fragment.

1 Cintio Vitier published the first part of his novel De peña pobre in México, in 1978.

2 Aludes to a text compiled by Ciro Bianchi in Imagen y posibilidad, Ed. Letras Cubanas, La Habana, 1981.

3 Refers to the selection, Poesía joven de Cuba, Ediciones del Festival del Libro Cubano, La Habana, 1959.

Translated by: J.E.L., and others.

March 17 2011

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Domestic Violence

Photo: Francis Sánchez

One day I discovered that my wife accused me of attempted murder. She based her accusation on a poem she had found among my unpublished scribbles, where I addressed the dream of a just death that could follow a liberating shot. Carrying forward the tragic event, with the right that attends every potential victim, she published a disturbing poem in the magazine La Gaceta de Cuba — as it had received a mention in the Cuban Writers and Artists Union “Julian del Casal” award — “Having Read Francis’s work ‘pedaleo.'”

Her first verse, in her own self-defense, could not be clearer and more forceful: “i have discovered that my husband kills me in a verse.”

Her writing came through like that, in small letters, as if belonging to a crushed soul, even before I was able to print my own ‘pedaleo’ poem, the cause of the problem, which only some time later would appear in my book Caja negra (Black Box) (Ed. Unión, Havanna, 2006.) One needs not to be too perceptive to understand that her feminine denunciation would cause some impact, which added to the flutter already stirred among the critics due to its piercing expressive sign—a generational, even genealogical, trait, shared with this virtual criminal?—or perhaps because the most hidden and hurt vein of her anguish had been exposed.

These days she is traveling to Havana, to the Book Fair; she is there right now—which I’m clearly using to my advantage—presenting her latest poetry book, escribir la noche (writing the night) (Ed. Letras Cubanas, Havana, 2010,) where the accusatory poem is featured. As it can be seen, for the title of the book she insists in taking out words from the oven which seem to grow in contact with the air, over which someone has rolled with a rolling-pin. I will not defend myself. I would never subject to any doubt that the dough of our love exudes all the pains and traumas that sincerely unite words. We are flesh of the same flesh. To kill and kill ourselves are edges of the same dream. Always a third shadow walks behind us.

My text was also lacking—before hers —those caps, while my desire for an “impossible shot” pointed, finally, at opening the door of the suicide, a tunnel “behind my head.” Sometimes what unites us most are precisely the abusive fears that attempt to destroy and scatter the place of a human gaze over the earth. My boredom with lived circumstances has acquired the hyperbolic shape of my own death, an intimate break-up with myself, and the terror of those tanks sent down the street in some remote China, because we had always felt them advancing. Doubtlessly, the veil of our innocence was always torn.

Bear in mind that, to her, in her verses, the savage bestiality enters and passes over us almost without warning, with the siege of daily life, with “the weariness of the province,” that colorless and odorless repression which has also fused us like broken bones. I will now limit myself to publishing, for the first time, both poems, together, in the order they were written. I give myself to this with full consciousness of my uselessness as an individual, but, at the same time, with that temerity of species that brushes its perfection in the shudder of love—for justice, for liberty, and for her, Amanda,—just as that man could have felt, he who briefly stopped a caravan of tanks that advanced—was his name ever known? Will he be remembered?—over Tienanmen Square.

(Ciego de Ávila, Cuba, February 16, 2011.)

pedaleo [pedalling]

i pedal up the street with a certain pride after stowing the moldy cries of my wife and give pause momentarily to the idea of shooting myself.  if i am free it is because I have come  to substitute air, i believe, and to hate her, and to measure from a distance the city that rots and decomposes.  through the hole left by the idea of a bullet the smaller jokes can be seen.  in between Napoleon and i, for example, only circumstances fit.

my childhood wrapped in a pavilion of perfumes is selling its body to injured soldiers of death. but this placidity comes with a punishment for the furrow left by the dream, no less eternal than the virgin’s corset or the hump of Miguel Angel sleeping on the scaffold.

it could happen–hearing this crippled mirror: one day they will judge me for my actions. i will not be an expatriate. i will not be mouth open on the cement like a bird with broken ears.

although it never bore fruit even my fatal destiny must be fulfilled like that of a flower.

what small difference is there between my two aimless legs that sour the emptiness of the city and those of the Chinaman — kicking on the gallows — when he held back the armored avalanche in the momentarily symbolic Tienanmen Square?

i coordinate movements, i drown heaven below and i watch the livid look of God, the chariot of fire or his two great empty windows through the tunnel that goes — i blow, sometimes sink my fingers, etc. — this impossible shot behind my head.

Francis Sanchez, from Caja Negra (Black Box) Ed. Union, Havana, 2006)

after the reading of Francis’s pedaleo

i’ve discovered in a verse that my husband kills me, in another he avoids killing me by pedaling his bicycle with no direction through the moldy city to the foundations. the air — he says — saved me from the shot, it also saved him from the same bullet ricocheting in his neck. he doesn’t know i read these poems with pride not because the same verse where he exorcizes silence, momentarily extracting the edge from the idea, of killing me and killing himself, but because it lets me visualize with minimum sound, truths that soothe me, stammered “between the largest and the smallest men only fitting the circumstances.” he knows that we are conquering forgetting and this is huge advantage: in this life no one will judge us by our acts.

i can survive his momentary hatred, uncertain, while i hide in the smell of my ears the gunshot wound that he didn’t give me, flowing, unstoppable, i can survive the fact that napoleon, miguel angel, the heroes without name sustained in the everyday scaffolding and not appearing i, on another scaffolding still weaker, giving foundations as strings.

i can survive the pain that only loads on their backs rusty sacks of my screams and my body intact as a white flag over his body in flames. and not my hands stopping the onslaught of tanks that threatens us the tedium of the province, the dust from their walls rotting under the inclemency of the neighbor, of the hunger and nakedness of the province and its bitter trains, always on time. and not my flaxen children born from me, from before me, giving us the true useless significance.

i can not survive the deck of oblivion, the absence of the white deer against the horizon, meandering dreams under the same purity. i can not survive the signs that abandon a spring with adolescent fear. how heavy a park broken in memory, the oaths spilling by saffron scent of the flame tree. the touch of your hands on my astonishment, on the roundness of distress. there is much to suffer to return to that perfume and find it intact in memory.

i have discovered that my husband kills me in one of his insipid pedalings around the city for not receiving in his neck the ricochet of the shot that he didn’t give me, my husband who tries one day to sit down at his side, at last alone, and to talk, and yet, when I read in his veins, the tunnels discover other forbidden worlds.

(Ileana Álvarez, in escribir la noche, Ed. Letras Cubanas, La Habana, 2010.)

Translated by Karen, t, and Sydney

February 23 2011

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The War of the Paladares (Restaurants)

(A Contribution to Travel Literature)

That the facilities for obtaining patents for small services trigger a headlong rush among Cubans you already knew. The restrictions on private enterprise, and chronic shortages, plus the deep social (and stomach!) vacuum left by  inefficient state enterprises that have monopolized the trade, was an antecedent too pitiful to not run counter to the slightest opportunity.

By the time of announcement by the government itself that the Cuban economy may be touching bottom — supposedly now — and that the State will proceed to shake off the burden through welfare cuts, massive layoffs, of course, everyone will take advantage of one or another exits from the dominant, paternalistic and possessive authority, conceding too individuals to continues their lives once they’re left in the street: to survive on their own.

It has opened the door to private enterprise, at the last moment, as these maximum security prisons leave no other choice but to open in the middle of a flood, if the water level touches the roof. Better late than never, think the beneficiaries.

Among those who take the time to think, are those who don’t know what to do, where to invest, to ask for a license for the first thing they see, like the same “business” the next door neighbor has, or a close relative, and try their luck.

They could be parkers of bicycles, or sell soft drinks and fries, if they look and see that where they can park one they can park two, and with the same ounce of flour they can make a croquette they can make two and even three, without collapsing the black market in raw materials.

There are those who fear that at any moment the possibility of getting a license will be closed down and they rush to obtain one, though the required conditions are not yet created, but just in case. The most optimistic say it’s not going to be a cyclical play like before, in the nineties, when after the critical period passed they again received fatal notices of taxes and violations, accused of being the problem and not the solution.

But that they would suddenly be in the middle of a fratricidal war, the bus passengers between Havana and Ciego de Avila could have no way of knowing, when the driver stopped to have lunch, as is apparently the custom, in the town of Jatibonico.

This town, situated almost in the middle of the long and narrow island of Cuba, has the benefit of a central highway that splits it in two, making it a mandatory transit point for people traveling across the country.

Perhaps that is why Willy Chirino chose the place to compare with cities like Paris or London in the refrain of a popular guaracha that probes the paths of Cuban nostalgia. “Tell me, tell me, tell me of Jatibonico,” sings Chirino to the sound of the maracas.

The driver announced that with the arrival in the center of Jatibonico, at that hour of the night, the opportunity had come to put the gastric juices to work, and, as a matter of safety, his full bus needed to be emptied, momentarily.

He meant the signal of a change to be welcome, because before the emergence of restaurants, or as they are known at the grassroots level: “officially approved paladares,” it was natural that travelers had to head to the middle of the hill towards a camouflaged hut among the jungle, where they secretly met your needs.

A good traveler is docile toward the man the helm, who knows by heart not only the road but also the surrounding underworld. In any case, always in these cases, the drivers have all the threads in place with local industry to deliver a safe clientele in exchange for their own rations being served them for free. Now, very different from the adventure of rural or semi-wild food, these passengers were handed over to a more stable business, legal, also in an urban landscape.

Through the windows, the square of the town chosen by the driver looked particularly promising, revitalized, by dint of lots of little lights that wanted to attract your eyes. Besides the gift of hunger, the travelers were carrying some spiritual attributes necessary to appreciate a good meal. It turns out that in this bus the delegation from Ciego de Avila was returning from participating in the International Book Fair which was held in Havana.

No more did poets, novelists and historians set foot on land seek the satisfaction of their appetites, than were shouts torn from male and female throats. Two families were locked in a quarrel accusing each other of theft. What was the item stolen?

Nothing more, nothing less than the passengers themselves, the clientele. It seems that driver had not parked in the exact one-meter strip previously agreed upon, and as there were two paladares there, one beside the other, it gave rise to the violation of a dining agreement,  disorder, insults, stones, punches and general chaos. Both paladares asserted their claims to the hungry passengers.

One poetess, I say it like this instead of “one poet”, as in recent times some women who commit verses want to be identified in this way on the literary menu, because in this manner one can better understand their state of fragility and strangeness here, in the middle of this brawl she almost fainted when she saw how a machete entered and left the face of a man. Someone called for the arrival of the police, but they did not appear. And never appeared.

Across the street, where the travelers huddled in terror, trying to save themselves and also overcome the shock of knowing that they were the obscure object of desire of two bands specializing in casseroles, a villager commented that they were cousins or relatives — in any case they carried the same surname, Montague and Capulet they were not — and that more than once they had crossed the limits of their expertise, passing to carving and literally slicing each other. What was their purpose? Would they lose their licenses? They definitely were not cut out for free enterprise? Would they find the right balance between their feelings and urgent needs?

Perhaps it was the so-called depth of the blood that caused the swollen river to collect itself and finally become calm again. By then, across the street, travelers unwittingly took refuge in a portal which constituted a third palate, not less emerging but quieter, so the group ended up going there and yielding there to a much stronger curiosity.

P.S. Some days later both paladares continue open, or at least the signs announcing their services continue to hang over the street. The following photo was taking February 24, 2011, from a moving car.

Photos: Francis Sanchez

March 6 2011

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What Confusion. What Joy. What Pain.

What confusion.

Pablo Milanes, the mythical founder of the Movement for the Nueva Trova (1972), began the second part of his nationwide tour “For Cuba” in the center of the island, only about ten minutes on a bike from my home. They premiered, even a rebuilt stage for large events on a track between insulated walls.

And off I went running, that it, pedaling, as always a little late, sure I would no longer find a space to see him sing for the first time, close up. But I was wrong.

Our beloved Pablo was sitting on a bench in front of a handful of people stuck on a platform at the end, basically on a track where law enforcement officers had been with almost nothing to do. It was a cold night, and suddenly, the loneliness was troubling. While crossing this long space to join the select audience, the distinctly melodious voice fluttered in the air, nothing could be more suggestive then the song “Days of Glory“: “The glory days were flying …”

What joy.

To enjoy his voice, so fresh in the night like the first time. An intimate concert with chronicles of the little tragedies and delights that give human beings a stature to cherish: the lost childhood, the discovery of love …

He took for his repertoire those pearls polished by generations, but they were cared for only in this moving chapter that he makes as pure and vital as the more traditional Cuban trova. No choirs of collective militancy.

Even while living in Spain, he knew and he was here to prove it as he had lately been giving his statements to the press, giving them to understand he will not shut up. So, we could enjoy humming the lyrics or the music of a love poem by Nicolas Guillen, without battalions being mobilized.

He kept in reserve this time the fuel that until recently he used in large amounts spent in meetings, rallies and other ideological pursuits. He also set aside the promotion and opportune initiatives, being an artist who for the last twenty years had not offered this type of event in his homeland, where he played a role in almost total anonymity.

Even a local weekly, two days before, reported the day and concert venue, but not the time. Insiders briefly set aside other concerns, and he would forgive us leaving behind that  apocalyptic call to sink into the sea rather than “betray the glory that was lived” (“When I Met You“), to be happy breathing for a moment on the surface.

What pain.

I discovered in the front row a friend, who was among those who looked back at the end of each song, as if in pain, to see if the audience had grown. He embraced his wife, and together they sang and cheered.

It seemed to me an image sufficiently good to justify the event, for it was not too long ago that they were not only separated but in the midst of a divorce, the burden of living with their two children and little hope of ever having their own home, he with the crippling of his honesty driven by a pittance of a salary, and an aggravating factor: he already know that this year he would become one more drop in the sea of the people who would be left unemployed.

Pablo Milanes ended up asking us to dream with “I prefer to share / before emptying my life” (“The brief space where you are not“), barely having the space necessary to introduce the musicians and thank the support team, a bow, and he left.

It all had not lasted more than an hour. My noble friend, when we shake hands, told me that more people had arrived and, finally, he was not so alone. He was referring to the troubadour.

Photos: Francis Sánchez.

January 16 2011

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On Closing

I had promised to publish two other parts of my last post, “Closed for Demolition”. Many days have gone by without my being able to do so.  I will no longer do it, because definitely what I had in mind would only add essay-type content.  The fundamental thing, the denunciation, is already done, and what remains is the testimony. I will save those texts in order to add other pages to new projects.

I am very grateful to all those who have written comments and who have offered me solidarity because, although it may seem minimal, it is a indispensable nourishment for moving ahead with life.  In some way, although at times there is a delay in my being able to know it, I have always ended up becoming aware of what they comment and write to me. But it is true that I could not publish with the necessary frequency, or safety, without harming other people who were helping me.  Thank you.

The blog “Man in the Clouds” is a marvelous chapter of my life that I do not regret. Of course, neither am I the one who is closing it–“for now”, I hear the little voice of temptation tell me–I specifically denounce my fear–not so much for me, but for my family–and the things that cause it, because no one is to blame for feeling fear. “No one. Absolutely no one,” says the magnificent writer Eliseo Alberto in the memoir “Report Against Myself.”

What will be most difficult in closing or cutting off is the need for complete freedom of expression, an inalienable right that connects hears and does not depend on any cable. So we will keep on seeing each other in this beautiful site.

The television series “The Reasons of Cuba”, which launched a new catalogue of agents infiltrated into Cuban society, with the direction the revelations took, places in evidence a new period of control or official pressure on national culture and intellectuality, as if the margin of natural life we had left for our development were not already very miserable. The supposed master act of these “agents” did not happen before or after it came out on television, but only now that they have come to achieve something with true impact, and it is this: the mixture of anger, disappointment, nausea, fear, shame, pity, remorse, etc. that can be found by following the tracks that they left among all the manipulated people–colleagues, friends, neighbors, work mates, etc.–whom they tried to provoke and attract with false projects that they made up themselves.  Revulsion is said to be a paralyzing feeling.  Now, when the coaxial cable that has arrived at the Cuban coast is about to begin to function, and at all levels they are trying to limit access to the new technologies, flagrantly violating the privacy of the mail, which is a violation of the Cuban Constitution, perhaps the punishing blow is taking shape, the censorship that we intellectuals have been waiting for since the “email crisis” of 2007.  To criminalize intellectuality and that natural attachment to freedom of expression.

Translated by S.Solá

Spanish post
April 18 2011

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