Cuban Poetry Revisited

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  • June 25, 2008

Digging in the Poetry International archives, Anthony Vasquez revisits and responds to the poems of Roberto Fernández Retamar, originally featured in “The New Poetry of Cuba” section from Poetry International VI. Enjoy.

A Man And A Woman

Roberto Fernández Retamar

Who must there be?

A man and a woman.


If a man and a woman happen down the streets that no one else notices,

Back streets where night is about to fall and the wind is rising,

The landscape beyond both new and old, more like music than landscape;

If a man and a woman cause trees to spring up in their step,

And walls to burst into flame,

And make heads turn as if surprised by the sudden blast of a trumpet

Or the gaudy colors of a circus parade;

If when a man and a woman approach the neighborhood chatter falls silent,

The sidewalk rocking chairs cease their rocking, corner keychains no longer


And tired breath becomes a sigh,

It is because love so rarely passes by that to see it

Brings wonder, shock, astonishment, nostalgia

As if one heard a language perhaps once known

Which the tongue scarcely remembers

Except as whispers and the remains of whispers?

Blessèd Are the Normal

for Antonia Elriz

Roberto Fernández Retamar

Blessèd are the normal, those rare creatures

Who have no crazy mother, drunken father, delinquent child,

Nowhere house, unknown disease,

Who haven’t been burn by devouring love,

Who could live the seventeen faces of the smile and maybe more,

Filled with shoes, archangels in hats,

Satisfied, fat, handsome,

The rintintins and their followers, the ones who grease the wheels,

The winners, the endlessly desired,

Flautists followed by mice,

Vendors and their customers

Knights only slightly superhuman

Men dressed in thunder and women in lightning

The delicate, the prudent, the cunning,

The amiable, the sweet, the edible, the drinkable.

Blessed are the birds, the dung, the stones.

But let those pass who make worlds, dreams,

Illusions, symphonies, words that confuse

and construct us, those crazier than their mothers, drunker

Than their fathers more delinquent than their children

And more devoured by burning love.

May they descend to their station in hell, and be done with.

Translated by Mark Weiss

Looking through the hymnal that is Roberto Fernandez Retamar’s poetry, one gets the sense and sound of prayer. A prayer that should be chanted. But who are we really praying for? And who are “the normal” that must be blessed?

The desire to be “normal” burns deep in all of us, but when we see what is required for normalcy is to be always “satisfied, fat, handsome,” always “winners, endlessly desired,” an honest humility holds us up. While “amiable…sweet…edible…drinkable” may seem positive,” are we truly and always delicious to our friends and loved ones? And do we want to be?

To be sweet is to be simple; sugar brings pleasure because bitterness and sourness give it contrast. Tension gives resolution its beauty. If one is truly edible, placed between bland bread, or easily drank with a few cubes of ice and quickly forgotten, are we really human? I, for one, do not wish to be a pied piper, duping mice and turning a profit; I do not wish to be a “knight only slightly superhuman,” robed in mediocrity. If this beatitude is for these “rare creatures” of tastelessness, than I am not meant for their heaven.

And Retamar knows this. He follows the footsteps of Baudelaire or Rimbaud, the great “see-ers,” the poets who do not seek normalcy or heaven. We, descendants of Blake’s, are of the Devil’s party and declare it on soapboxes. The truly mad, inventive, makers of “worlds, dreams / illusions, symphonies” embrace our crazy mothers and drunken fathers. Who has not been “devoured by burning love” and who has not been instantly addicted to its toxins?

So I, like Retamar and the other Cuban poets, chant a collective hymn for more poetry, more “words that confuse / and construct us,” and the necessary redefining of Beatitudes, heaven and hell.

-Anthony Vasquez