from 'The Girl's Story' (Other Letters to Milena)

Reina María Rodríguez

Artwork by Kazunari Negishi

We had rented a house to spend a few days at the beach (it was the first time we'd spend a few days at the beach together).  But my daughter – then five years old – told me she didn't want to go to the ocean because she was afraid of finding something in the algae:  a leg, an arm, a heart, something torn off or mutilated.  I thought a lot about this "watermark" on the ocean.  And about swimmers, and the fragile wall where we sat with our backs to the smell of undertow.  The city is what we see, and that which is submerged is double-sided, like the reflection's transparency.  Water that defines the other shore is always moving, deep inside, behind and below.  We don't look at this ocean, but it reappears at the end of every street.  It reappears and conceals itself to demand that we see it.  I thought about algae twining through the smoky remains of a landscape, and I felt the demands from that ocean, its oceanquake.  Since then, I haven't gone back to look any more.



I

My dear daughter, I came back.  I didn't go, maybe, I'm not going.  Some fame, some money, some people I love were waiting for me in Vienna.  So you really didn't go to Vienna?  You didn't go to Vienna?  you didn't go to Vienna? – Kafka asks Milena.  But those airports, with people you can't ask about anything.  If you ask, are you going to Vienna?, they reply Oslo, or whatever other place.  Everyone feels persecuted and shakes you off (including me).  I'm fleeing past the old Rivoli, now only a façade.  The worst part is that here I'm a stranger too.  To see this destruction and think you can easily escape is a fallacy.  My airplane will plow through the sky (that looks like a terrible metaphor to me).  Me here, detained between losing it all and going back.  This constant horror between bleeding out and the void.  What word can replace this anguish, my poor imaginary persecuted by my routines for myself?  I'm not Simone Weil, the Jewish mystic who ate the same ration of bread as the people in concentration camps to maintain her faith.  Milena, when I'm in this transit, I know the worst of the abysses:  I'm not there, but I'm not here either.  (Because I fled from consciousness of myself a long time ago and now, I'm left divided between two tunnels.)  That galloping schizophrenia; that duality, to be something resembling you, and its representation; the force that pushes me to be . . . "a remainder" and another woman, who permits me to believe myself a "self."  Daughter, the thing destroyed is not outside, but inside the human brain; the more effort it makes, the more the brain can live out its myth as if that were truth, and it cannot understand.  There is only diaspora . . .  I hear your voice in my ear, your small warm hand between my fingers – "don't go," you tell me.  What can I do for you?  I remember that Fellini film where the intellectual murders his two children for fear of leaving them; the fear of scandal, of living out this representation with no reply . . .

I don't get to Vienna – I don't get anywhere.  I'm a being of transit, of trajectories, processes, not of finality.  I get into a car with so many other people that I have no air to breathe  . . .  I spend two hours talking to a stranger in a park near the Capitol . . .   Night goes on falling over me, and between its shadows, the moon – like a wild animal making its way home – moves out from behind fear and illuminates me:  illuminates my illusion of being lost in the nothingness of my impoverished imaginary; it can't change, can't conceive of a more modern angle on the pain . . .

Havana, February 1994



III

Sky bathing houses in yellow at sunset; flaming ball of sun against the sea and those doves, who complain as they move in circles against my body.  They come and go.  I sit down to see how you've grown – the wall already hits below your belly button – and you look as though you were taken from a story, from a grassland green and arid as its desolation.  Your hair that turns golden in the evening, over your back (a lovely blend you are!).  Blue denim skirt and Asiatic eyes.  I love you in beauty I imagined and was not.  Knowing that I won't be here later, passing my hand over the place where another detail of the painting has grown.  Now we're playing theater (if I were little again like you, we'd run together, parallel to the train, over something else that runs along and gets away).  You cross your legs, throw your hair back, and observe:  the sky is still so blue and paralyzed, there, that it can't be touched or understood.  Then I open Sylvia Plath's book and look for "Stings" – a poem that irritates me and stirs my blood.

I've come to discover again that I have no language for delivering the circle, the one reality drew around me.  I struggle and make the circle tighter.  I open the structure between a noun and its fabula (squeezing myself more tightly).  We drop off to sleep when shadows fall ...

"Through the window open to the landscape, the pines, the sun that has set, the mountains, the village and above all a vision of Vienna . . ." (Kafka).  Your life devours mine.  The sun sinks even further and I surrender, reduced again to the species that provokes no other form of ending, or resurrection.  We toss tiny balls of our only loaf of bread to Diotima, Daedalus, little Elias Canetti – they live like humans, in a world where humans emulate their animal perfectly.  Cats lack only a smile!  How can we transcend this infinite blue above our heads?  I'd like to leap off with you, before they knock on the door and the planet I created collapses back into another illusion . . .

I return from dream with luggage that traveled to Vienna by itself; it has a different smell.  Quivering under my skirt from the dusty dreaming uniform (now there's no milk, there's nothing).  I try to create a sad performance about my re-encounter with the luggage, with faith – what does the object become without its place, without my possession of it?  I feel horror at being so alone among objects.  (My winter clothes are inside that Prussian-blue suitcase; maybe they'll never see that snow again.)  I submerge into my trembling again and sip at a scalding broth of fish heads.  Exploitation of all this horror – it can't be a life!  The landscape outside, hot and arid, eats away at me on the inside too, and I assemble a discourse (another justification), worth nothing either.  A priest passes by in his black cassock, causing me to lift my gaze.  There he is, as obsolete as am I, and I go back to thinking about you.  Oh, my daughter, how weak and miserable this is!  I'm not in Livry, not at the queen's court strolling through sweet gardens; instead we're two princesses – like them – escaped from a story, the ones punished by a bad fairy, in a garden that all dried up.

Rooftop, 5 April 1994



V

As you run around the statue, touching it, asking me if there's anyone inside – with your square-toed sneakers and dark blue pack on your back – trying to reach some bird on the branch of a tree with a single blue flower, I've seen you years before, and years after, with a sensation of being nowhere at all – you're trying to pick up the fruit, which will fall from that singular flower onto the bird's beak.  So when I'm no longer around, and maybe you'll have captured your inconclusive bird, you may read this letter as if I were there with you, on the sweet April morning that will always belong to us.  I don't know what this park is called, "nor could I lose you in that distant park" (Kafka), in the night when the silhouette blurs, the woman I once was, while he caressed me.  (Today I noticed that the statue in the white fountain has the form of a woman pulled from water by two men.  One in front, one in back, an allegory.)  On different benches I traced a line over the real and now, with the breeze that blows in from Cojímar and reawakens more than my memories, what came later, I understand that the border generated a certain mediocrity for me, so I could endure having so much moisture on my lips.  There are also salt, bread, and water, as in the wooden jar I set down on the center of the table.   And I baptize you on this April morning with blue flowers (Novalis) fallen from another small tree, for when you start running around again, hunting birds.  When I go, I know I'll end up inside the statue again.  It's only in these moments of lost awareness, absolutely outside time, that I can feel life, like a wet plant plastering itself to your nose.  Tactile, fresh against my tongue.  This is my obsession:  not being able to overtake this sensation, or erase any idea prior to the spasm of being here, now, confronting my human limitation.  Sometimes you get annoyed and I turn emotional, to show you that I'm human, your own flesh.

I don't know what myth gave rise to these statues embracing in their perfect triangle.  Look for another piece of chalk to draw the lines of a more modern myth over the happy triangle; to know you believe that something will not blur – at least, on this corner, between the lions and the sea – where today we play at escaping ruination for a second.  That second in which we've survived the whole scenario (technology, dollars, power) satisfies me in its eternity.  Yellow crawlers (extended buses) go by with three hundred people knocking each other over to get somewhere.  I adore trajectories, not the endpoint.  If you point me toward a final objective, I lose the crossing in the shock of non-arrival, anywhere but at the thing I've found – something unique and unattainable.  Take your innocence and breathe life into stripes of colored chalk; drawings that would have been in caves long ago, and now are here with us, at the base of the tree, at the center of the white fountain, this morning, when I decide to make myself resemble the statue and see you in profile one more time, through the yellow and green leaves of other trees that will always be the same.  When you finish drawing and stand up, I will have finished my letter too . . . and she – with the sulfurous odor of crematories still on her skin – will from this chalk drawing we've made receive the power necessary to overcome fear, and to save her, and to save us from horror.  I know it's not enough for us to be happy for one moment in order for her to hold out, but we'll give it a try.  That which is imperishable is not a particular kind of metaphysics, nor a belief that sustains us within some system of faith, but the attainment of myself, of you, of her, inside us . . .  The probable trajectory of the flower – perhaps already red – along the bird's beak, when you might come back at night to be, once more, the woman he caressed.

(park next to the Prado)

1 April 1994



VIII

Dear Elis Milena, it wasn't only that the intensity of light and space shrank and dwindled, as if it had drained off toward the narrowest section of the tunnel, or better said, the funnel.  I began to give of myself and dwindle.  During the first fifteen days, time dilated – it seemed that lengthy years must have passed – and to so many desirous ears, the fabula substituted for all capacity to act.  I was dropping weight, getting rid of shoes, soaps, until I had nothing left to give away or recount . . . And "the journey" become a region in color, a mental space I kept trying to possess while simultaneously surrendering impossible things.  The anguish came with little details of survival – the way urgency is rustic – and the dynamics of my freedom shrank to a minimum.  As if the return were occurring in a different time, with a different velocity.  Everyone oppresses the space you have for memories; they observe it, then destroy it.

I had crossed over with the attitude that they wouldn't take it away from me.  I could clearly see the waste from futile events, as we misused pleasure.  Those commentaries, the gestures, the catastrophic piracy and even nastiness granted through inertia and disillusionment.  The greatest disaster wasn't merely economic, but psychological.

My friends (the most intelligent ones) had wagered their lives under observation through a vulgar microscope, where they made minimal evolutions in their capacity to survive.  The degree of schizophrenia (here – and also there – on the other side of the tunnel, it was quite contagious).  Everyone got there late when parts were handed out; we walked onto the set naked.  And inside me an awareness of horror grew, the vertigo from their rhetoric.  There where nothing was left to maintain, like in Beckett's "Lessness" or "The Lost Ones"; there, where the zones of possibility were getting blocked or cut off before any birth -- or victory – in place of reason they substituted certain logics for getting through the short term at all costs; the easiest route was escape, an "I dunno," indifference.  Impossible too to exit the fold.  They neuter you, the majority that breathes by stretching its nose into your breath.  They drown you, the ones who try to save you by mounting the back of your neck, in that mass of amorphous invalids desperate to arrive at the other shore in a cloud of sulfuric gases.  Then, sordid traces of personality and ego appear, strengthened in the fight to get a place that doesn't exist for them.

At that point I had to adapt and accept the paranoia surrounding me as if it were something normal, though acquired in circumstances of not being normal, like other subterfuges that drained my energy.  I hadn't only lost the center, but the vision – the one that used to allow me to find relations from a certain distance with intervals of deep understanding, the flame.

The speed with which we assemble images, they're hyper-realist and destroy erotics through reality.  I came to understand that the problem of departing (I refer to any type of departure or search) is not constituted, or measured, through an elemental comparison – the what are we?, what have we done with our existence.  It's understanding that a cerebration has been produced for which there is no aesthetic place.  That there is still no aesthetic which, like a profound filiation, of friendship or love, could relate the thing conceived to its immediate materialization.  That lack of coordination extends the feeling of relativity and guilt, confusing us more.

Now I'm indifferent to the pain that provokes my understanding.  I allow for it, coldly and so impersonally that it strips me – not of the actions on which I no longer count for myself, everything happens – but of an absurd passion for its materialization in the here and now.  So what can I do?  Like a failed actor, I try to establish spaces for my gestures without constricting them, without making them conditional, keeping them alive for their small (incomplete) form of intensity.  I place the carousel of my discontinuous selves into a verbal form of allowance, to get out of a structure that forces me to subsidize them, make them dependent.  So there, a bit more free – apparently indifferent to the reason that takes possession of them (and in spite of my continual guilt complex)— loving them, without trying to make them understand me.

I know I've written you this letter in regions of language you won't understand.  But I think that like those blind men from the elephant fable, when you put your hand onto the writing, thawing it, you'll feel the unique emotion from the writing inside which I tried to simplify this agony, tried to say:  what has happened here!  what has happened here?

Wherever one lives on this planet it's ridiculous to try to escape.  I refer only to figures that make up certain more subtle forms of logic, which deconstruct man through concrete actions against his body, or his soul.  I'm speaking, Elis, about the fissure through which – what Milena sensed in the camp during forced labor, the smell of burnt flesh from the crematories – they're inside me too, and you, and they're lying in wait for us.

The figures of this hellish geometry, with virulent blisters, whose pain has already metastasized:  they'll give compensation later in language.

I know this delirium I'm telling you about, one with which you can't yet reckon, isn't for you.  And I don't know if you'll be able to forgive me for this lapse, consciously laying out a drawing.  I've tried to go back to the scribble, to contemplation, but sometimes, accumulated things can't be dismantled.  I've assembled and dismantled so many things!  that I don't know.  They're like blows from premature aging, out of which one tries to synthesize (or quantify) results.  For what?  One never knows or clearly suspects.  They're those pinnacles or twists in the landscape that block language and make it difficult for you, sometimes, to be completely inside of me; for one to be wherever one in particular ought to be, completely inside the whole.

The buildings keep falling down and from the other side of the facades, the whole has revealed to me, with greater force, the reach of my unreality and the fissure of the symbolic.  We have to unmake our reality under the influence of other scenes and a different syntax.  Maybe we have to remake them with the simplest thing . . . with what remained.



IX

Light in Madrid is more the color of lead, cloudy, cast over sandy plazas where horses kick.  The sidewalks are wider, and the pigeons descend from all angles, taking off at the slightest contact.  The subway stop at Arguelles-Lavapies reminds me of one in Caracas, the Palo Verde at Propatria.  You're in Europe and America at the same time.  The streets aren't indifferent, or strange.  There's something familiar about the intimate humor brought to things.  I thought about you on the Calle de Alcalá and the Gran Vía.  I wanted to bring you back a blanket, but they were too expensive.  I moved from plaza to plaza, from the morning's cold to warmth.  I tried to get into a church early in the morning but they open strangely late.  I saw the Boteros at Retiro Park and touched them.  I touched their bombastic asses, their deformed forms.  Four days walking up and down through the plazas, sculptures, museums, taverns, awoke in me an erotic awareness of the city, where the object, human or otherwise, was not essential for locating that sensation, since I rotated through it, got in through the pipes, the buildings, under the paving stones, inside my little flowery bed in the cheap hotel, through the department store mirrors, through the trendy cork-soled shoes, the colorful fabric, my darling!  I'd like so much to bring you here!  And I remembered your Spanish dances at home on the roof, your Tani.  Your little-girl face and its promise of a maja.  The photo of the little girl I once was, in the suit with red ovals, and a child's silver rings.  Grenadine castanets tiny enough to be hidden inside hands.  A sound poised yet constant.  An illusion of being, like the Virgen de la Macarena, a replica of the virgin in the painting.

I saw a film, The piano, and remembered you.  A woman who lost her voice travels with her daughter (your exact age) to get married.  The film takes place in the nineteenth century.  She carries the sound of the piano (without playing it) in her mind, when she touches the wooden countertops, trees, entrails with her knuckles, until she manages to make her music present in all places.  The husband – because of her infidelity, having a gift that brings her close not only to the piano, but to another man – cuts off her fingers with an axe.

"Well then it's the end" – Kafka says to Milena – and it's almost impossible to describe how one prepares them for salvation . . ."

Upon return from that ill-fated trip, she tries to drown herself in the ocean with her piano, then leaves the ocean floor to accept reality, her average state, her mediocrity:  a metal finger, a school where she'll teach classes to young ladies and learn how to speak – like all the others – without music.

To be accepted, one must make peace with a certain mediocrity.  (I did it too, my daughter.)  I've run my metal finger over many absurd, undeserved things.

I know you still dream of "your magic wand."  You've always told me your secret is your wand, for resolving impossible parts of reality.  Someday, I'm sure, you'll have one.

The protagonist resembles me – through a mirror's unpleasant reflection – and the girl you.  I left the theater without my composure.  I cried.  The only thing I wanted was to go back and hug you.

We land safely . . .

In the airport the lines and the bitterness start.  The heat and low-hanging lights, from a city so beloved that it can't be lost or conquered.  When I shouted up from the street so you'd all come to help with the suitcases, everyone looked so fragile!  As if space and light had shrunk, and your bodies too, in that short time.  And I felt my vision contract again, as if I had been transported to a pueblo from a postcard of another era.

I was here again, with you – from where I try, alternating the impossible relativity of verbal tempos – to tell you all about my trip.  You had cried many times.  I never forgot you (fear of forgetting makes me return quickly and regain my constancy).  But above all I realized that the moment is not given through the tangents we may provoke, or use, to cut back distance and fear.  Let the moment happen without our intervention.  The moment is an intimate decision of accumulated matter.  It arrives and it happens when it is.

The frailty of the majority consists of its assault on space, hunting it down.  Not moving anything forward, or preparing anything, or the road fills with foreign crossroads, also on the reality of the page.  The moment is an erotic capacity that exceeds intentions, gestures, interpretations, even our intuitions.  The person whom one is (and was) is conceived – as previously redacted – for her permanent scene.  Nor can one choose – him, he chooses—to place him in the situation of foreignness in which one still believes, or dreams of believing, with confidence in desiring, making, and possessing.

I hope that one day you'll understand these things and we can make the crossing together, so you can dance . . . "through the streets of Alcalá."

Havana, June 1994



X

I never figured out what kind of relationship there was between Kafka and Milena.  For many years I hadn't read his letters.  Elis Milena (my Milena); Milena (you, the concentration camp Milena, his Milena).  My daughter was born on July 3, like Kafka.  Her first name would have been Milena, through him.  But I didn't want to break with my family's long tradition, its preference for names starting with the letter E.  In the end, when I began writing the first letter at the airport, the day the plane went off to Vienna with my luggage but not me, I thought about that name as the synthesis of many happenings connecting us.  I had read a biography of Milena and kept her photograph on the bookshelf, right by my bed.  I didn't want that fate for you or her.  All the same I sensed the connection in a time when "the real" is always perverted by some dream of power.  Then I went looking for other letters.  I read the ones from Madame de Sevigne to her daughter.  I was not at court among princes, and we wouldn't talk about your next hairstyle, but there's always a court surrounding a woman even if monarchy doesn't exist here.  On that trajectory, breaking off one journey in order to undertake another one, with different proportions, I found that time for the lost girl.  She's also surprised, and from the inside of disaster, she sees the flower with the same eyes, the flower that begins to grow, even to its sorrow.  That flower is you, my tiny Elis, you who begins to grow inside disaster.

We all feel a morbid attraction to terror and at the same time, all terror consumes us in a parallel likeness, though its external manifestations may be, or seem, different.

That's what I've felt, while many people throw themselves into the sea, crazed by the flattened death in which "it doesn't matter," or in the long wait for a life they dreamed.

For that abuse of fate, I interjected the word's refuge into the construction of spaces of relation, between the mother I once was and the daughter I'll be.  If I revisit that instant, it's because it gives me the possibility of building a sketch confining the subject to a question of why.  Everything is prior and subsequent.

The day I complete the book, I arrive at its beginning.  With your birth, Milena, it comes back to life.  Nothing about this happens by chance.  We don't choose.  We just tilt the re-encounter a little more toward a particular position in space and time.

In culture there's a reversability to biological time:  the future determines the present much more than the past does.  It's true – the scientists say – that the entropy in an open system diminishes.  I know nothing of exact sciences, just intuit the system open to creation and time's mobility in multiple directions.  I look at Self-portrait with Clock, by Chagall, and take the distraction, noise and chance into account.  Your eyes are the color of a cockroach wing (another link to Kafka).  I arranged the drawings in a group.  I wanted to give you advice about something but held off.  Advise you or lie to you about what?  So I set aside everything I had compiled and gave preference instead to spelling out what was taking shape in the here and now, in my cerebration.  It appeared as far away as the eye of the cat looking at me, a genre I still can't comprehend, at which maybe I'll arrive.  The cat understands me.

There's only a form of energy badly translated by the words, then corrected by the keyboard's drive.  So first I wrote by hand in very small lettering, the better to adjust the mind's voyage to the paper, if that's not a trap as well.

But Milena is here (like Katherine, Sylvia, Simone, Virginia and so many others).  Because the incessant process of insertion is determined more by what will happen than what has already happened.  The future prevails, arranges and improves the model.  And this investment in individuality is the result not of a conscious will (nor the will of god guided in this sense) but a mixture between a program, undetermined acts, and nature.  I think too, because you exist, that the passage of time is always creative, never – in spite of superficial acts that seek to demonstrate the contrary – destructive.

While the clock in Chagall's painting rocks with its yellow pendulum on the wall (places of power are yellow, they say) and the blue girl on the orange canvas dreams that she returned from that earlier time, flying.  And in that time after her extended childhood, she ruminates on the process of growing, intention doubled, over the wrinkle in absolute time.

Ánimas Street, July 20 1994

translated from the Spanish by Kristin Dykstra



Read the original in Spanish

Read translator’s note

Reina María Rodríguez (b. Havana, 1952) is the author of numerous collections of poetry and prose, among them La gente de mi barrio (1978), Cuando una mujer no duerme (1980), Para un cordero blanco (1984); En la arena de Padua (1991), La foto del invernadero (1998), Tres maneras de tocar un elefante (2004), El libro de las clientas (2005), Catch and Release (2006), and many more.  Her 2003 mixed-genre collection Other Letters to Milena (Otras cartas a Milena) was first published in Havana by Letras Cubanas.  Rodríguez is the winner of a long series of national and international literary prizes, including two prestigious Casa de las Américas prizes for poetry in 1984 and 1998.  In 1999 she was named a Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters in France.   Rodríguez continues to live and work in Havana today, where she is known for her work on behalf of alternative literary projects and spaces.

Kristin Dykstra is currently translating poetry from Uruguay and Cuba. She held a 2012 NEA translation fellowship to translate Catch and Release by Reina María Rodríguez. Among other collections of contemporary poetry Dykstra has translated are two books by Omar Pérez, as well as three collections by Juan Carlos Flores, Ángel Escobar, and Rodríguez, all of which are forthcoming from the University of Alabama Press in 2014. She co-edits the magazine Mandorla: New Writing from the Americas/Nueva escritura de las Américas with Gabriel Bernal Granados and Roberto Tejada. Dykstra was formerly Professor of English at Illinois State University and is now Distinguished Scholar in Residence at St. Michael's College in Vermont.


In Other Letters to Milena Reina María Rodríguez battled to articulate the full experience of social transformation at a time when all that had once seemed certain was called into question.  The realities of a post-Soviet world hit the island hard in the 1990s, now known as "The Special Period."  Cuba fell into profound economic crisis, which necessitated psychological adjustments to a new, uncertain global context.  Other Letters to Milena expresses Rodríguez' struggle to create a meaningful poetic response to this new scenario, even as she senses that history is outrunning her capacity to generate a narrative or even a point of view.

The prose segment entitled "The girl's story" features a blend of letters, travel narrative, and writerly self-reflection dated to the first half of 1994, as desperation began to peak.  With it would come one of the largest waves of recent Cuban migration, with islanders leaving in homemade rafts in massive numbers by the fall.  Rodríguez, who has chosen to continue living in Cuba, was aware that many around her sought solutions in departure – and that her own children might well need to pursue their futures elsewhere.  She envisions places on and off the island, real and imagined, belonging to herself and others, as she works to capture the moment-by-moment experience of traumatic social change.

The girl of the section's title is an emblem for both Rodríguez and her daughter, Elis Milena.  This fact links the excerpt back to the title of the entire book, Other Letters to Milena.  Its most visible referent is Letters to Milena, a collection of the letters Franz Kafka wrote to his fellow writer Milena Jesenská, who survived him but eventually died in a concentration camp; Jesenská's replies to Kafka are lost.  Rodríguez turns to their letters to generate a point of view, one involving a relationship with a distant or definitively lost writer.  But the book title simultaneously refers to Elis Milena, the youngest of Rodríguez' four children, who is addressed by name in the more openly epistolary entries.  The "foreign" reach of the selection is grounded in pressing local questions.  Will the child grow up to be another ghost floating across the distances of diaspora?  Will she live on as a presence in her mother's city, shadowing the routes they once followed together?  What does it mean to be a child raised in the literally collapsing city of post-Soviet crisis . . . in a rooftop apartment where building collapses were very visible to the family?  Diaspora expands and contracts:  it is the loss of one's nation as previously understood, whether or not one leaves its physical ground; it is a sign for mortality; it is a recognition that a mother can neither guarantee her daughter's future nor recuperate her own parents' past.