On April 28th, one of Cuba’s outstanding women poets, among many, Fina Garcia Marruz, celebrated her 99th birthday. This writer was part of the cultural and literary circle of the Origenes magazine in the pre-revolutionary period and remained committed to the spirit and ideals of Jose Marti, making her home in Cuba after the 1959 Revolution. Along with producing many volumes of poetry, she was part of the editorial committee working on Marti’s Collected Works.
Life partner of poet and writer Cintio Vitier, she inhabited a rich and cosmopolitan cultural world. Fina Garcia Marruz has received numerous awards including the 1990 National Literature Prize, Cuba, Pablo Neruda Ibero-American Poetry Award in 2007 and the Reina Sofia Prize for Ibero-American Poetry in 2011. Additionally she has received the Federico Garcia Lorca Prize in 2011 and numerous distinctions and honours in her native Cuba.
I attempted a translation of two of her most deceptively simple poems, only to find they were not so! I was first introduced to her name and work in Josefina de Diego’s beautiful book of nostalgia and Cuban childhood, Grandfather’s Kingdom (Tarjama Press, 2012)/El Reino del Abuelo, Collection Sur, 2020.
El Joven, Fina Garcia Marruz, Cuba
Ahora que soy un dios, dame la mano. Vamos juntos. No me importa morir. Perdamos una tarde, una mañana. Toda la vida. Dialoguemos sobre cosas fútiles y bellas. Oh, abrazarlo todo locamente¡ Vamos a ver el mar, sin detenernos para nada a contemplarlo. Vamos a ver el mar, con la nuca vuelta de espalda, ignorándolo como él, cuando nos mira. Mira como tengo los bolsillos vacíos! Ahora que soy un dios, dame la mano.
The Young Man, (Trans. Kaushalya Bannerji, 2022)
Now that I am a god, give me your hand. Let’s go together. I don’t mind dying. Let’s lose an afternoon, a morning. A lifetime. Let’s talk about futile and beautiful things. Oh, hug everything madly! Let’s see the sea, without stopping at all to contemplate it. Let’s go see the sea, with the nape of the neck ignoring the sea like the sea does, when he looks at us. Look how my pockets are empty! Now that I am a god, give me your hand.
Al Despertar, Fina Garcia Marruz , Cuba
uno se vuelve
al que era
al que tiene
el nombre con que nos llaman,
uno se vuelve
al uno mismo
al uno solo
lo que olvidan
en su dulce despertar.
Upon Awakening, Trans. Kaushalya Bannerji, 2022
to what one was
to what one has
the name by which they call us.
of one's self
only one's self
what they've forgotten
in their sweet awakening.
I’ve been a bit slow on the translation front. I’ve been working on a selection of poems from Cuba’s Georgina Herrera. This writer really captivated my interest when I was studying in Cuba for my doctoral research. Her slim paperback volumes were on display at UNEAC in the Vedado and my favourite poetry bookstore in La Habana, Fayad Jamis, in old Havana. Here is a latest attempt from me!
El pájaro amarillo vuelve a la rama verde
el pájaro amarillo.
más que posado está sobre la rama verde.
Semeja un cajigal que trina y se alza desde
uno a otro sitio.
El pájaro amarillo es una flor insólita,
un sol que se estremece
y cabe entre mis manos.
Deja en mí
no sé por qué, este pájaro,
un gozo inacabable.
Suave, entonces, me llenan unas ganas grandes
de verlo así, posado siempre
sobre la tristeza de todos, como
en mi corazón y
allí en la rama verde.
Yellow Bird (Trans. Kaushalya Bannerji)
The yellow bird returns to the green branch
It has returned
the yellow bird.
Perched more than posed on the green branch
She seems a conquering Cajigal that trills and flits
from one place to another.
The yellow bird is an insolent flower,
a sun that quivers and fits between my hands.
It leaves in me,
I don’t know why, that bird,
Softly, then I’m filled with great desire
to see it again, posing always
on the sadness of everyone, just as it is now,
in my heart and
there on the green branch.
(The name Cajigal refers to a Spaniard who subdued Venezuela among other places in the early 19th century. Wikipedia says, “In 1819 he was appointed captain general of Cuba and oversaw the restoration of the Spanish Constitution of 1812 in 1820. That same year he resigned due to health problems and retired to Guanabacoa, where he died in 1823.” My friend tells me that in her family, her Spanish Cuban grandmother used the word to mean a chaotic place. Further, many speculate it may be a species of tree deriving its name from an Aboriginal, perhaps Taino, language. I have picked the Governor’s name as it seems in keeping with Herrera’s theme.
Today, I’ve chosen a child’s memory of Christmases past, not in Wales, but in Cuba. Daughter of poet Eliseo Diego, Josefina de Diego’s prose poem, El Reino del Abuelo/Grandfather’s Kingdom, is a gentle and melancholic look back at Christmas time in a house full of inquisitive children, and adults immersed in the literary and musical worlds of Cuba in the 1950s, just before the Revolution.I’ve excerpted three sections from the book which has forty five pieces.
All the people in the book are real, and so fondly described by Josefina Diego, that they are instantly recognizable. And more than anything, it is the spirit of wonder and observation that make these reminiscences glitter shyly. Set in a tropical island, a time long before pandemics made it impossible to for so many to be together. So. in this Christmas of yearning, I wish you season’s greetings and the best of New Years to come!
A little cold, a drizzle. Sweaters and jackets of brilliant colours displaced the scant clothing of summer. The blankets with our names on them, so they would not get mixed up; mine was red, those of my brothers, green. The pajamas of yellow flannel with drawings of clowns and candy canes. Christmas Eve and Christmas were coming and everything had to be done with plenty of time so everything would turn out well: choosing the best tree, the ornaments, the garlands, the star. The ornaments would break on us—some without meaning to, others we dropped after a rapid interchange of glances—they would shatter into a dust so fine it would scatter on the snow of cotton. The Christmas tree had to be tall, with lots of branches, but only mama knew its exact dimensions and in what little corner of the house it would go.
The preparation for the Nativity was more solemn. The figures, from an Italian set, could not be broken. We held our breath each time we took one of the figures from its boxes and put it, with much care on the table. The Nativity was big, bigger than the one owned by cousins Sergio and Jose Maria.
Every year, always the same—perhaps his voice more hesitant each year—papa told us how it had been, how everything had happened: The visitation of Mary, the flight to Egypt, the Shepherd’s’ tidings, the long road of the Three Kings, the manger with the Child. Each piece had its history, each moment, its mystery. The shepherds, surrounded by sheep, next to a bonfire, near a lake: an angel appears in the middle of the night and they retreat, frightened. The Three Kings bending over the Child, and Mary, smiling at them, grateful. Papa’s voice, tired, breathless, across time.
Papa’s study was set apart from the house, on top of the garage beside the henhouse. One went up by a staircase made of cement, on the side. In front there were two balconies with wooden bars and behind the study was the ravine where the train ran.
The garage was wide, with room for two cars, but half of it was filled with broken furniture, bits of games, a carpentry table that belonged to uncle Rosendo, boxes filled with the figures, the Nativity, and the Christmas tree decorations. It had its own characteristic odor and was one of the places where we preferred to play and hide.
Papa worked in his study until very late. The sound of his little typewriter could be heard at all hours, mixed up with the song of the crickets and the owls; it was yet another night sound. But he didn’t always write. One of his favorite amusements was to draw, with a fine pencil, the uniforms of the little lead soldiers that he had in his unique collection. The English armies of World War One, soldiers of the Prussian armies and of the Russian tsars He created battlefields based on real maps and completed them with mountains, rivers, bridges and tunnels, made from cardboard, wires, broken glass, paper. He also reproduced all the various moments of the Nativity in a masterpiece of ingenuity. He created different levels, with the help of books covered in special paper in multiple colours. With a spotlight illuminating all the scenes, he had the precision of a professional metalworker.
Many years later I found this perfection and fineness in his poems. And I understood why his big boy’s hands constructed the Nativity and the battlefields with so much care, so much respect. “It’s necessary to do things right”, he would say to us.
Finally it arrived, Christmas eve. On this day, grandmother Bertha asked me very early in the morning to put on a record of villancicos. Sitting in the doorway, while we could hear mama tidying the house, we would hum all the carols: Silent Night, Jingle Bells, Maria, coming and going, cooked the supper. Roast pork, rice, black beans, lettuce, tomato and radish salad, chatinos, nougat, walnuts, hazelnuts, wine and cider. The dining table was opened up in the middle and sturdy planks of wood inserted. It became a huge table, oval in shape. In the afternoon the family began to arrive: grandmother Chiffon, our cousins, uncles and aunts, friends. We were especially dressed up for the occasion, very elegantly and, we were permitted, on this night, to stay up very late, like the “grown-ups”. Upon finishing the delicious supper, we went to the living room and sat around the piano, by the Nativity and the Christmas tree. Grandmother Chiffon began to play, villancicos, zarzuelas, Cuban songs and dances. Uncle Sergio, the doctor, accompanied her in his beautiful tenor. On Christmas Eve, grandmother Chiffon and our cousins, Cuchi and Chelita slept over. Grandmother slept with us so we wouldn’t make any noise and frighten away Santa Claus. And when we awakened, there was the tree, — dreamt of and desired all year long— surrounded by toys, the games of the adults, our happiness. There was no morning more beautiful than Christmas. And there still isn’t. Isn’t that right, grandmas?
The above extracts are from a dual language edition translated by me and authored by Josefina de Diego, Havana, Cuba. El Reino del Abuelo/Grandfather’s Kingdom, Tarjama Books, Kolkata , India, 2012.
I’ve decided to focus on 2 poems today, They are short and remind me in some ways of the poems of Langston Hughes. Their author is woman who I had the pleasure of hearing once, a member of UNEAC(National Union of Artists and Writers, Cuba), and an inspiration herself, to a younger generation of Afro-Cuban women poets. Below, Wikipedia gives a succinct account of her career as a writer:
Georgina Herrera was born in Jovellanos, the capital of Matanzas Province, Cuba. She began writing when she was nine years old, and when she was 16 her first poems were published, in such Havana periodicals as El País and Diario de la Tarde. As Miriam DeCosta-Willis has noted, “Many of her later poems capture the pain and loneliness of her growing-up years”, during which she endured poverty, an absent father and the death of her mother when she was 14.
Aged 20, Herrera moved to Havana in 1956, and worked as a domestic; it was in the homes of her wealthy employers that she met writers, who encouraged her to publish. Early in the Cuban Revolution she became involved with the “Novación Literaria” movement, and began working as a scriptwriter at the Cuban Institute for Radio and Television.
Wikipedia, Georgina Herrera
I’ve only read a couple of short poetry books by Georgina Herrera both in Spanish, and thought I would share 2 verses that I especially like. Her fame beyond Cuba has been limited until this century, when interest in Cuban Black culture and history has burgeoned in terms of literature, arts, and social sciences. If you are interested in more of her work you might check out the following bilingual collection below. In these current pieces, the English translations are my own.
A bi-lingual Spanish/English collection of Herrera’s work, entitled Always Rebellious/Cimarroneando: Selected Poems (published by Cubanabooks, a US-based non-profit company specialising in Cuban women’s literature), won the 2016 International Latino Book Award for Best Bilingual Poetry Book. Herrera has said of the collection, whose title references maroons, Africans who escaped from enslavement in the Americas: “The inspiration for the book was my life experiences, it is a definition of me.”
Las Aguas Van Cogiendo Su Nivel
Mis orishas y mis negras viejas
que en un rincon les pongan alimentos
ni agua para la sed.
Lo que les quema la garganta
son ganas de justicia
los he puesto a viajar
no en estos barcuchos, atenazados por traficantes.
El viaje ahora es al reves.
Puse alas a mis palabras
y en las palabras estan ellos.
Water Finds its Own Level (Trans. Kaushalya Bannerji)
My orishas and my old black women
a nook where they are given food
and water for thirst.
What burns their throats
are desires for justice.
Seeing them like this,
I set them travelling
No, not on those big boats, in the grips of traffickers.
The journey now, is the reverse.
I have put wings on my words
And in my words, they are.
GRANDE ES EL TIEMPO
Grande es el tiempo a transitar
como un camino
si de las penas partes, yendo
hacia la dicha.
Y llegas y te instalas, pero
no permaneces, vuelves, irremediable,
al primer sitio, cual si fuera
el de tu origen, donde
algo perdiste y buscas incansable
no sabes qué.
Georgina Herrera, de Grande es el tiempo, La Habana, UNEAC, 1989
Great is the Time (Trans. Kaushalya Bannerji)
Great is the time
We walk as though on a road
of sorrowing parts, going
And you arrive and you stay, but
you don’t belong, you return, incurable,
to the first site, as if it were
that place of your origin,
where you lost something and you look tirelessly
but don’t know
Just this past week, Cuba had its Saint day, as La Virgen de la Caridad de Cobre, her patron saint, was celebrated in Santiago de Cuba on September 8th. On the 12, Yoruba deity, Oshun, the syncretic counterpart of Cachita (Caridad), daughter and goddess of rivers, love, femaleness, guile, and beauty, is celebrated. One of her symbols is the sunflower, and among other things, she loves honey!
Below I’ve translated 2 poems musicalized by 2 of Cuba’s most renowned trovadors. Pablo Milanes’ exquisite rendering of Nicolas Guillen’s poem is part of a series of poems by Guillen that he musicalized.The second piece, by Pedro Luis Ferrer, is part of the soundtrack to “Before Night Falls”, the cinematic tribute to Reinaldo Arenas’ book of the same name. Can’t say I am a big Arenas fan even though I am a fellow queer (and have experienced homophobic and racialized violence in Cuba). But the soundtrack picked by Julian Schnabel is pretty amazing. And this song resonates whenever times are hard, which they seem to be lately!
Key Words, Nicolas Guillen, Cuba (Translated Kaushalya Bannerji, 2020)
Make of your life a bell that resonates or a furrow— in which flowers the luminous tree of the idea. Raise your voice over the voice without name of all others, and make visible the man, along with the poet.
Fill your spirit with flame, see the peaking of the summit, and if the knotty support of your walking stick discovers some obstacle to your will— spread your daring wings before the daring-filled obstacle!
Palabras Fundamentales, Nicolas Guillen ,
Haz que tu vida sea campana que repique o surco en que florezca y fructifique el árbol luminoso de la idea. Alza tu voz sobre la voz sin nombre de todos los demás, y haz que se vea junto al poeta, el hombre.
Llena todo tu espíritu de lumbre; busca el empinamiento de la cumbre, y si el sostén nudoso de tu báculo encuentra algún obstáculo a tu intento, ¡sacude el ala del atrevimiento ante el atrevimiento del obstáculo!
Mariposa, Pedro Luis Ferrer
Mariposa, me retoza la canción junto a la boca y tu imagen me provoca florar en ti, mariposa. Un lamento me reposa como un mar de juramento: en tu figura yo encuentro la existencia de las flores porque perfecta en amores te siento como un lamento.
Mariposa, cual llorosa canción que en ti se hace calma, vienes calmándome el alma con tu volar, mariposa. La libertad de una rosa es vivir en la verdad. Bien sé que hay felicidad en cada flor que te posas: me lo dijeron las rosas, eres tú su libertad.
Tu paz me llena, no hay pena que pueda acabar contigo: el amor es un amigo que trae paz y que te llena. Por mi aliento, cada vena que por el cuerpo presiento es como un sol que no intento apagarlo con tristeza porque pierde la belleza del amor y del aliento.
Soy tu amigo, soy testigo de cómo sin daño vives: eres la paz, tú persigues al que te mata al amigo. En tu dulzura me abrigo y entrego mi mente pura: así la vida me dura eternamente la vida y no hay una sola herida que no te tenga dulzura.
Ay, mariposa, contigo el mundo se posa en la verdad del amor: sé que en el mundo hay dolor, pero no es dolor el mundo.
Butterfly, Pedro Luis Ferrer (Translated, Kaushalya Bannerji, 2020)
Butterfly, you frolic song against my mouth. Your image arouses
my flowering in you, butterfly. A lament rests me like a sea of vows: in your figure I encounter the existence of flowers because perfect in love I feel you like a lament.
Butterfly, how a tearful song is calmed by you; you arrive, calming my soul with your flight, butterfly. The freedom of a rose is to live in truth. I well know that there is happiness in each flower on which you alight; the roses tell me you are their freedom
Your peace fills me, there is no sorrow that can finish you off. Love is a friend that bring peace and fills you. By my breath, each vein which I feel in my body is like a sun that I don’t try to put out with sadness because then I would lose the beauty of love and breath.
I am your friend, I am witness of how you live without destruction; You are peace, you pursue he who has killed your friend. I surrender my pure mind and thus endure life eternally. There is not one wound that doesn’t bring you sweetness.
Oh, butterfly with you the world alights in the truth of love. I know in the world there is sorrow but sorrow alone is not the world.
This is a seven part poem I have been working on since my work, studies, and travels have taken me to South America and Cuba. I have long been fascinated and moved by the strength of peoples who manage to hold on to their cosmologies in the face of terrible odds such as kidnapping, enslavement, auction blocks, trade-sanctioned rape, forced labour, soul-searing racism, and unimaginable poverty, and social and political exclusion, even state-sanctioned annihilation.
As a woman of colour, the racisms I have witnessed and experienced throughout my time in Peru, Colombia, Chile, Cuba and Mexico have raised huge questions about the role of anti-racism in “progressive” sectors of development and education, culture, and, even political parties, in those countries. While these issues need to be hashed out in terms of policies, financing, and social restructuring as a whole–especially in those countries where colonized peoples of colour are a majority in certain under-remunerated occupations such as manual and domestic service, agricultural labour, entertainment, and the informal sector– the role of culture in accompanying such changes is essential.
As a citizen of colour in the Americas, I have chosen to seek inspiration and meaning in the beliefs and cosmologies of those of us bound together by European colonization, rather than those of dominant hegemonic religions. As the child of a colonized migrant, I belong in the Americas, as do those who have belonged here before me, and who belonged, before the words “African” and “Indian” had any meaning. The absurdity of this world turned upside down, where the poor fight each other tooth and claw for a pittance for survival, cannot destroy the connection between the gods of Santeria and those of the Quechua and Aymara peoples, especially in countries like Peru, where indigenous and afro-descended communities are integral to the country’s development and self-image, although the apartheid between European Peruvians and indigenous Peruvians is deeply entrenched and the official story of Peru may not highlight their presence except as beasts of burden or unruly mobs needing to be subdued.
That is why this following piece takes as its title the Quechua (Kichwa) word, “pachacutec” meaning “Earth Shaker” or the “world turned upside down.” I was struck by this word as it resonated with not only the the social disparagement of the indigenous people I witnessed in the Andean nations, but also the facile commodification of black religion as entertainment. An entertainment, I might add, that was almost wholly consumed by white tourists both national and international. I saw this wherever Afro music was played, whether in Cuba at the Callejon de Hamel or watching Peru Negro perform in reified contexts with velvet seats and expensive tickets. This is contrasted in the way that such religions are actually practised outside the gaze of the tourist or the anthropologist, where the deities may be termed in Arundhoti Ray’s words, the “gods of small things”, accompanying as they do the risks of everyday life under unequal social circumstances. In using the word Pachacutec I signal the “upside-downiness” of this late-capitalist world where we float through the sky and bury our crimes against humanity– for surely, colonial subjugations are just that– in the blood-stained earth from which huge profits are made at all our expense.
(Quechua word meaning Earth Shaker/World Turned Upside Down)