Cubanology

An excerpt

Omar Pérez

Photograph by Sherman Ong

27 October,

Have arrived here; I don't count the days that separate me from, don't count the days.  Talking yesterday with Reina, a project emerged:  an introduction to Dutch writing given on three consecutive dates in November,

Winter has come with the hurricane.  Off to seek shelter soon!

Je m'meet up with Enrique Sainz at l'UNEAC.  For the magazine we plan a small dossier of Dutch material:  contemporary poetry, Nanne Timmer and her teaching experience in Leiden.  Separately:  a selection of Dylan Thomas:  15 poems.

1st of November; To my readers, the strangers.

Poems as biography of D. Thomas
Estos poemas, con todas sus crudezas, dudas y confusiones se escribieron por amor al hombre y en alabanza de Dios y yo seria un tremendo comemierda si así no fuera.(These poems, with all their crudities, doubts, and confusions, are written for the love of Man and in praise of God, and I'd be a damn' fool if they weren't.)—D.T. in the introductory note to his Collected Poems.

Poet and tightrope walker, an angel and an acrobat, sobre el despeñadero de las rocas ("on a breakneck of rocks").  From the beaches of gulls and bagpipers, where the shells "hablan siete mares" ("speak seven seas"), to the eternal cities of error, from Laugharne to New York, from the bracken-covered hill to the heroin bar.  And from there to the sky.

[. . .]

The medical metaphor, scatological, of birth and death.  Dylan was born on the 27th of October in 1914; his father Jack, a teacher in the public school, found his name in the Mabinogion, a collection of Welsh legends:  Dylan, son of the waves.  The Dutch astrologer and writer Duco van Weerle gives his reading of the poet's chart:
This is not at all the typical horoscope of the artist; but Dylan Thomas shows in his creative disposition, beyond a mere egocentric self-expression, the social application of his abilities.  With its strong constituent presence of water, he drains the sources of collective emotions and learns therefore how to tell stories in fascinating ways [. . .]   A "speakmaker" (sic), a troubadour who leads the clan's evenings, but who follows his path the next day in search of a new audience to enchant.  He enjoys the attention but does not desire to be an object of appropriation.      Scorpion with ascendant Gemini and culminating with the Moon in Aquarius, therefore:  of deep waters, of difficult personality, changeable, and simultaneously a lovable speaker and a jovial, sociable presence.
Jealous of his liberty and independence, Van Weerle adds, Dylan offers little ground or terrain on which to pigeonhole or question him.  A freethinker enamored of words.  Taken from the biography by Karel Wasch, poet of South Amsterdam.

News:  Negotiated for next week the transfer of Mariano to the Pepito Mendoza school in Cayo Hueso.  "A lovely neighborhood and with agreeable people," according to Pello the Afrokán.

Tuesday 2nd; continuing to translate Dylan.  Irving comes by with some antibiotics for my mother, Christina calls.  The sun appears at 4 in the afternoon.  A fresh sun, but the dark moves in quickly, as in Holland.  This light – is it a flaw in perception?

Thursday; the Rimbaud of Cwmdokin Drive; what the poet has to say about himself:  a maritime sketch, necessarily.

Waiting for Enrique Sainz at the door of UNEAC, the National Writers' Union, to discuss these things.  The sun comes back out, a welcome balm:  non ti allargare, the sun seems to say in the voice of Marcus Aurelius:  life is not an empire to be constructed, there's nothing to conquer.  Enrique doesn't show – typical UNEAC rhythm.

Sunday; a marine tobacco for the weekly entry:  "From Sunday to Sunday!"  This week I started to go to the dojo in Havana.  After sitting zazen, the ceremony for Patricia's death:  she dies young and beautiful.  There are no tears.

One senses the presence of the master and the harmony between "the new arrivals" and "the veterans."

On Monday it rains, rains, but still Mariano and I go out to take a walk down the Prado and Malecón.  On Tuesday, after leaving Mariano at school, I cross the Cerro neighborhood by the canal, where I eat bread and yucca and soda for breakfast on a street corner; the neighborhood's smooth dewy surface gives it the quality of a pearl.  Not very clean, not very dirty:  an equilibrium of nature and construct, country and city, mountain and alleys:  Macedonia, Florencia, Buenos Aires, Zaragoza.   Time weighing a bit heavily, I translate poems: life-breaths, as the Greeks understood them.

Walking through the streets of Cerro, Santos Suarez, Centro Habana, Las Cañas, you notice the presence of the numbers game, called charada or bolita.  Kábala, tómbola, tíbiri tábara.  Pythagoras said, life is number.  Thursday I go out walking, but only after offering my salutations in the false-gothic church on Reina Street to Jesus and his father Joseph:  I ask of the gods that they permit me to ask nothing of them (Pessoa).  The prayer that may not be a proposal but a report:  here, again, one facing the other, qu'est q'on fait maintenant?  For the moment I find the Koran on a streetside bookseller's table; after haggling:  75 pesos.

I also buy a pair of running shoes:  7.90 pesos in the national convertible currency.  The two clerks whom I ask about the value of my change make it all very mysterious; serious expressions, "I don't know, I don't know."  By contrast, another clerk – loquacious – treats me to all of the information in luxurious detail, with figures I don't know how to appreciate or staunch.  Code of silence meets logorrhea, as General Gomez said.

I cross Jesús María to visit the good Sigfredo:  he offers gingered coffee; we discuss the Greek's current situation, and that of the Vieja Trova:  Seferis, Sappho and María Teresa Vera.  Sophrosyne.

Speaking of ginger, when I get back to my neighborhood, the carpenter R. asks whether I can get him Viagra in Holland.  I explain that I'm not going back north right now.  I recommend celery, with which he's not familiar.  And the ginger?  No results, he says.  I remember a Japanese proverb noted by Santoka in his diary:  never lend your money to the man who doesn't get hard in the morning.

Since the CD and cassette player are broken, I rediscover the radio:  did you know sir that as a young man Shakespeare stole deer to feed his family?  Shakespeare:  Robin Hood.  Last night I dreamt of a deer who ate out of my hands.

On Saturday following zazen I go out with Mariano to las Cañas to visit Grandpa.  Lapsus mentis:  paying the taxi, weighed down with bags, I lose my wallet with 80 pesos and my ID card.  The lapsus mentis, which spreads into my misuse of my hands, is a short-circuit caused by an overload of thought:  while I do what I do in the here and now, I'm thinking about what I'll be doing later.  The cart gets before the ox, the milk jug breaks the pitcher, Elsa the Intelligent loses her mind:  first things first.  Principle underlying all magic.

Donc, working on the "Dutch Studies"; the relation between Cuba and Holland across time-spaces:  Piet Heijn and Joris Ivens, the letters to Theo Van Gogh (translated from the French by Francisco de Oráa with a prologue by Fayad Jamis), De Kooning's Havana nocturne, Capablanca and Max Eeuwe, Anne Frank and the Dutch buses that drive around Cuba with their signs made in Rotterdam, Delft, Nassausingel or just Geen Dienst: out of service.

As for the rest, notable dialogue with Grandpa Lázaro about the dichotomy between Oggun and Shangó, Sarabanda and Siete Rayos.

Monday 7th,

      I must not sing songs in class
      I must not sing songs in class
      I must not sing songs in class
      I must not sing songs in class
      I must not sing songs in class
      I must not sing songs in class
      I must not sing songs in class
      I must not sing songs in class
      I must not sing songs in class
      I must not sing songs in class
      I must not sing songs in class
      I must not sing songs in class
      I must not sing songs in class

Mariano's homework-punishment from school.

Tuesday 8,

Among the advantages o'listening to the radio:  Rítmicas, by Amadeo Roldán.  Dylan translation:  I went translating along from one line to the next, enjoy the word ocean, riding a motorcycle of Ariel 14-pt font.  Metallica:  and nothing else matters, never care for what they know.  The Paris Opera paying homage to Nicolás Guillén:  Concha María, supermulatta.  Metaforiki:  relocation.  In the end I go out on the balcony:  no one waits for me there, only a star.

Wednesday 9,

I just wanted to drink a beer.  Exhaustion with this tropicapitalism, an old prostitute who returns to the land where years ago she might have been a celebrated hetaera, and must start again from zero. Capitalism, old whore, how you resist death, how you adopt cute and silky masks.  A single hour of streets in the city center, money exchange office, music store with the monotonous rash of folkloric music, San Bernardo salsa, dive bar stretched to casbah supermarket where the waitress doesn't know which beer is the best:  "I don't drink!"  As if a virgin in a brothel were telling a client, "I don't know, I don't fornicate."  A beer and you learn that in the desert there are still virgins:  desert, paradise of the clown and prophet, drink before the storefronts of the merchants, nomads and sedentary fugitives flood the Mediterranean plain.  Take it easy, rebetika, l'ethics eclectic and celtic, polyphyletic litany, leaving Aristotle in the dust with his poetics.  The China tea rose, the Cretan pipe, Oggún's rumba, but first the implements.

Friday 11,

First day d'school for Mariano in Cayo Hueso.  I go back to The Odyssey; translation of prose by Luis Segala y Estalella; or to the Koran, in the English version by N.J. Dawod.  Translator in a translated world, I translate Dutch poets for Unión magazine, a day of breathing deeply.
I'm going to speak to you, o guest, with great sincerity. My mother/ affirms that I am that one's son, and I know nothing else; and no one ever/ learned his lineage on his own          Telemachus.  The Odyssey.  Canto 1.214

Sunday sunrise, Cubanology, What is the drug that the verse contains?  Incontinence, insomnia:  navigation in unexpected waters; eddies, sandbars, breakwaters.  The poet acts as pilot, but purely for drifting.

Mariano gets through his first week in the new school – and gets his first scolding.  According to the teacher "he's enjoying himself too much."  I say nothing:  how can you enjoy yourself too much?  The "Romance of the Naughty Girl" by Raúl Ferrer should be posted at the doorways to the schools like a Lutheran manifesto.  And his nephew's musical rendition sung to start the day.

I organize my living like a martial arts show:  exercises, long walks, races, meditations, koans (with salesclerks and in markets), readings for the devout:  the Koran and the Odyssey; industrial arts, sweeping, collecting pieces of driftwood, a humble servant.  Today, for example, I recover six tarred pieces at the coast:  tree trunk, board, plank, strip, beam, and tie.  As Robinson noticed:  all things exist on the island; the hard part is carrying them around.  Wheelbarrow.  Sometimes buying the thing.  Market.  Charles III:  consumes as if the world were going to end.  Maybe it's true; apocalypses at three to the kilo, four confused layers of so much crap:  little plastic Christmas trees, fake Chinese porcelain, and very few tools.

Last night we watched Cinderella Man, the story of James Braddock, Irish gladiator:  Russell Crowe in the perennial role of the hopeless centurion, stevedore and duende, derelict exemplar, hope of the poor d'esprit:  heavyweight with beautiful mind.    Greek in the Irish sea the ageless voice:  Proletariat of all the nations:  off to your labor!  Get into the ring, onto the dock, out there in the art world.

Today I re-encountered Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.  I read the history of Geronimo, "the last Apache chief," again.  On November 3 1883, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that "every American Indian is, by birth, alien and dependent." Based on this logic, we're all American Indians.

Last Friday a small bird got into the house; apparently a songbird escaped from its cubicle.  It doesn't know what to do with freedom; I think it finally went back to its apartment.  Havana prepares for its next birthday:  486, and there's a storm of habaneras on the radio and an irradiation of stormy habaneras on the streets.  There are rumbas that are boleros.

Sunday 20,

5 a.m. the moon like a coin, perhaps a drachma.  Angel of circumference:  an imagined fact based on real histories.

Monday 21,

German class on television.  University for Everyone.

Germans from the North and from the East, Elba, Weser Rhein, North Sea:  five tribes.

Translation of the Bible to the Gothic.  Song of Hildebrand and Song of the Nibelung.  8th Century

Invention of the press:  Gutenberg & Lutero:  Everybody's Bible. S. XVI.

90 million speak German as a first language:  Germany, Austria, Switzerland, northern Italy, Luxembourg, Lichtenstein, etc.

Germans in Cuba: anti-Fascists in the 40s.  Humboldt Circle of Democrats, 1946; addressed by Heinrich Mann and Leon Feutzschwanger.

6 themes:  family, housing, food and drink, school, free time and work.

Proverbs and songs.

Havana's German House, 1862; The German Beneficent Society, 1819.
"There is no Frenchman without vino, nor German without casino"          José Martí, 1884.

Auf Wiedersehen.

*



History of Western Philosophy, by Russell.  What better place to encounter Bergson?  For though Bergson may pass as a serious savior, his study is pure comedy and there's nothing wrong with that.  Not for nothing was it one of Borges' favorite texts.  Nor is it an accident that Bergson would appear there in sandwich form between Marx and William James, two of the founders of our psychology, or named in the ancient mode, ideology.  Russell notes that the attempt to classify French philosophy is improbable, since it cuts across all the recognized divisions.  This first aspect of disobedient resistance to classification should have called l'attention of Deshimaru; nothing less than the Bergsonian hope of placing l'intuition before the intellect in the fundamental attempt at comprehension; the intellect is characterized by a natural inability to understand life.  Russell himself describes, with typical irony, the intellect as a carving knife that slices a chicken imagining that it was always already divided into parts.  Not bad, Russell!

If duration is the true substance of reality, and if duration expresses itself above all in memory, at the intersection of mind and matter, then memory has, according to Bergson, a quality that is penetrating, vertical.  Yang.  This recalls the practice of certain Amazonian Indians, described by Strauss in Tristes Tropiques, of memorizing long directories of elements (for example, a shopping list) because the exercise of memory is equivalent to the conservation of virility.  Is writing then – and more specifically the writing of diaries – absolute yin?  An exercise of femininity, Penelope's chore.  Let's go one further:  things and states are merely visions, taken up by our mind, of becoming.  There are no things, there are only actions.  The void is to phenomena as phenomena are to the voice.  Only instinct, Bergson says, is knowledge at a distance.  And this Pauline substance of the things to come is to the intelligence as sight is to touch, a companion meaning.  Faith, Dr. Ku; outside it rains, the result of some cold front or movement of the atmospheric spirit.  We are free when our acts grow out of the totality of our person, though in truth this moment of activity is rare.  What is the identification, according to Bergson, between person and ego, between being and personality?  For the time being, his tools of definition are poetic:  like the perfume of deep jungle, Deshimaru used to say.  Russell confesses that the number of similes for life to be found in his works exceeds the number in any poet known to me.  The comparison, a favorite metaphor for Martí.  This does not concede, however, too much value to Bergson as a philosophe in Russell's eyes, but probably it does in the eyes of Deshimaru, for whom l'action without any object other than l'action itself contains heightened value.

*



A place remembered lives on
Its spirit gone.        – Mariano's rhyme.

Wednesday,

I dream about master Stéphane.  Tall shadow, kind eagle; Havana future, chaotic and happy.  Mass zazen, sitting open to face the sea; the people come and go, Stéphane shows them the posture, they follow their path.

Pauline is here, and the children of the future.  An air of Maitreya.

Total and informal, l'education.

Saturday 26,

"Is L'abana yours now?" Pierre asked in an email.  I'm still timid and cautious.  To every lunatic his karma; the cycle d'discussions "Dutch Studies" has been initiated now at the Torre de Letras, thanks to Reina M.  The translations for Unión, completed.  The house quiet.  The weather is favorable; here they say it's wintry.  As Eddy Martin said on TV last night, good for playing ball.

Tuesday 29.  Daybreak,

Mrs. Fina García Marruz telephones in the morning just to offer, she says, "a patriotic greeting in the style of Martí."  Perhaps the reason this day has an intimate, insurgent pulse; it's also because I complete my reading of The diary of a mambí, by Piedra Martel, at midday. Wd be excessive to comment on the etymology of the term mambí, or to recall that of the name Martel.  Piedra and martillo:  stone and hammer:  Oggun mambi mambi.

In the afternoon I go to pick up my son at school and he says, while passing the statue of Maceo, that in his imagination Panchito Gómez Toro fought at the Moncada Barracks.  "In my imagination," he emphasizes.  How could anyone refute that?  He asks me to buy him a juicebox because his head aches; he clarifies that it's not a headache like older people get, nor did it result from getting hit on the head.  This is about a juicebox, the pain that a juicebox can create inside one's head, as one thinks about that juicebox while we're leaving school.  Out in the fresh sea air he forgets the juice.

Thanks to Mariano, I've reconciled myself to ballet.  A few nights ago a friend of his mother's invites him to a performance of Swan Lake.  They sit up in the box seats.  They sneak me in too, and I slip from balcony to balcony, from the president's box where the great Alicia herself will sit dressed in red, to other lofty but less honored places.  This thing has its virtues.  Mariano watches the two-and-a-half hour function without an instant of boredom and dances his way out.  He says not that he will become a ballet dancer, but that he already is.  And that he wanted to be one before.  "Before, when?" I ask, thinking of his age – seven.  "When I was three."  "And why didn't you tell me then?" "Because I still didn't know how to talk very well."  Reasoning.  The performance was magnificent – which I state out of pure ignorance, since I know nothing about ballet and don't care to learn, but having moved from one location to another throughout the theater with no ticket or invitation, I've observed the subject to my satisfaction:  dance, theater and audience.  Even the dancers who, between curtains, strip off their slippers and, resembling shadows from Degas, watch their colleagues as they dance; curled up, the dancers take on the absolutely informal air of statues composed with thread.

*



Having seen the word in a TV movie, Mariano asks me what poise means.  We look it up in a pocket dictionary:  elegance, equilibrium.  I think this was why we went to the ballet.

*



Mortal decisions:  all decisions are mortal.  Divine, too:  deicisions.  Thus the veneration of Odysseus, "fecund with schemes," whom I may have judged too lightly while reading the ninth canto with his narration to Alcinous – where good and evil become confused.  Past, present and future are flexible too.

translated from the Spanish by Kristin Dykstra



Read the original in Spanish

Read translator’s note

Omar Pérez (b. 1964) grew up in Havana, Cuba.  He earned a degree in English Language and Literature from the University of Havana. Pérez is the author of the collections  Algo de lo Sagrado, Oíste hablar del gato de pelea?, Canciones y letanías, Lingua Franca, and Crítica de la Razón Puta, for which he won the Nicolás Guillén Prize for Poetry.  A book of essays, La perseverancia de un hombre oscuro, earned him Cuba's National Critics' Prize for that genre in 2000.  He is also a literary translator with numerous publications.  Currently Pérez serves a percussionist for dance-theater performances.

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.


Cubanology is a book of days.  Omar Pérez began writing this journal while living in Amsterdam from May 2002 to October 2005.  A romantic relationship transformed his short professional visit into a longer stay.

This excerpt from Cubanology appears near the end of his journal, when Pérez moved back to Havana.  It shows his reintegration into island life through daily activities and the identities to which they give form.  Some are professional:  as a translator and creative writer, Pérez deals with Havana's Torre de Letras (offering literary events) and its organizer, poet Reina María Rodríguez.  He interacts with Cuba's Union of Writers and Artists, or UNEAC.  Then there are other roles:  father to his son Mariano, carpenter, Zen practitioner.   We might describe him as "a member of the citizenry" when he describes specifics such as "University for Everyone," a TV show run by the government.

Reintegration may be a banal process, but for a "translator in a translated world" it is a complex and mythical state of becoming. . . even if Odysseus and Telemachus appear only briefly in notes.

A challenge for my translation involved deciding when not to use English.  As he readjusts to his homeland, Pérez embraces the uncontainable multilingualism he experienced abroad.  Too much translation would domesticate it.  So would inserting explanations or using italics more consistently to mark other languages as "foreign."  Pérez often lets go of those boundaries in Cubanology.

Andrew Schelling observes, "The journal as a regular writing practice shifts the focus of writing from that old Occidental head trip 'who are you' – to 'when' and 'where' are you."  He adds, "Attention relocates on an out-there world:  history, geopolitical observations, bioregional specifics like flora & fauna & weather currents, other peoples' customs, foreign vocabularies, and the indelible impact of capital on the twenty-first century."



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