Poems: Roberto Fernández Retamar and “I want to write about Cuba but…”

I want to write about Cuba – to relive those darkened Havana bars, carefully concealing everyone from thieves and prostitutes to salseros and bottle blondes. It would be great to capture the capital’s plazas too, what with all the coffee and the doorstep cheese sandwiches and the battered old books, with the microphone-less strains of Guantanamera floating through the streets.

To return, mentally at least, to the tough green slog of the Sierra Maestra mountains, those that conceal a thousand secrets beneath their clear old sunrises. To skip again through the gun-powdered streets of Remedios at Christmas, not forgetting the cheap street food and even cheaper rum, before dancing merrily onward to Santa Clara, saluting a mind and avoiding remembering how it was lost.

Bounding, then, onto Trinidad, where the kids play baseball in the dust. I’d love to capture the tobacco fields too, that short hike from sleepy Viñales, ringed with those strange mountain crops that shadow the swooping birds and the oxen driven firmly on by hand. I’d probably have to write about Playa Pilar – Hemingway’s favourite beach, don’t you know – and maybe I’d find room for some dark eyes and wide smiles, for outright brazenry, for downright stoicism, for dreams, for survival, for home.

But I can’t or, at least, I won’t. I know that if I’m full I can hardly say I’m drained, but there are just too many colours – three on the national bird alone – too many sounds, smells, conflicts, impressions. And besides, great writers have gone before and if no-one will ever understand Cuba, at least they are close.

So here is some Cuban poetry from the deft hands of Roberto Fernández Retamar himself, well, limited to the generally accepted English versions of his work. And I’ll keep to that, to spare you the horror of being aware of the translation butchery…

From Vedado, a Cuban writes to a decidely European friend

I know you want me to tell you of the tam tam in my blood,
Of the great lustrous jungle where the parrot swoops,
screaming,
Of lightning fallen before my eyes,
And Obtala white as snow in fire
(Along with the memories I certainly have of jet trinkets in my shirt, of the cleansing rites for a twelve-year-old)
I know, dear friend, I know you need the savage sap
I can bring you, with a chunk of sun in one hand
And, in the other, the maraca only the milky dawn can finally silence.
But how can I write you with a busted airconditioner,
In this hotel room, this terrible summer day,
La Habana shining at my feet
Like a necklace, full of loud dusty automobiles,
With dozens of restaurants and bars and not a palm in sight?

(NB: Is it just me, or could that one be about Bogotá too?)

He Would Like To Be

This delicate poet
Would like to be that comandante
Who would like to be that philosopher
Who would like to be that political leader
Who keeps locked in his drawer
The verses he writes at night.

(NB: Apparently that one was a favourite of Che Guevara)

The Other
(January 1, 1959)

And so we survive –
And we owe our survival to whom?
Who was it died for me in his cell,
Took my bullet, the one
Meant for me, in his heart?
I live through whose death?
Whose bones are locked with mine?
Whose ripped out eyes
Are looking through my face?
What hand, not his hand
But not quite mine now either,
Is writing these broken words
In this unlikely land, survival
Where he is not to be found?

(Finally, this one is a bit aggressive but it is Cuba…)

Epitaph for an Invader

Your great grandfather rode through Texas,
Raping copper Mexican girls and stealing horses
Until he settled down with Mary Stonehill and set up house
With oak furniture and God Bless Our Home.
Your grandfather landed in Santiago de Cuba,
Saw the Spaniards defeated, and took home
The waft of rum and a dusky nostalgia of brown girls.
Your father, a peaceful man,
Only paid the wages of twelve youths in Guatemala.
True to your kind,
You took it upon yourself to invade Cuba in autumn, 1962.
Today you fertilise the cotton trees.

Like this? You’ll love Colombia a comedy of errors.

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7 Comments

    1. bananaskinflipflops

      No, I’m a nightmare with Hemingway, I’ve only read The Old Man And The Sea and A Moveable Feast – I think I put them off to avoid having read them if that makes sense, because then the anticipation is over. Although now I’m curious and will look out Death In The Afternoon!

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