José Lezama Lima: Selections

Ernesto Livon-Grosman, editor; University of California Press, 2005

Norman Weinstein

Take #1: Abstract:

This volume, part of the invaluable six volumes of the “Poets for the Millennium” series edited by Pierre Joris and Jerome Rothenberg to appear thus far, offers the first glimpse in English translation of the poetry of a giant in modern Cuban literature, José Lezama Lima. Among the seven translators are the poet Nathaniel Tarn, and Suzanne Jill Levine, known for her translations of major Latin American novelists. For readers without the extraordinary fluency in Spanish to follow Lezama Lima’s writing, and who might only know him through the translation of his novel Paradiso, these thirty poems, followed by an interview with the author and a laudatory essay by Julio Cortázar, make for a stunning introduction. Editor Livon-Grosman appears to have been an astute editor in terms of his selections of the poet. However, his lengthy and turgidly written introduction to the volume isolates Lezama Lima’s poetic achievement from parallel expressions in Cuban music, dance, folklore, and architecture. Skip the introduction and dive directly into Lezama Lima’s whirlpool.

Take # 2: Diving Into the Maelstrom:

What does it mean to characterize Lezama Lima’s style as “neo-baroque,” since he’s Cuban we need to evoke his literary father, priestly Luis de Góngora, Spanish father of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry about 375 years prior to Silliman & Sons (& Daughters), and several centuries before Mallarme, Góngora, whose poetry is characterized in a 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica article as “a tortuous elaboration of style (estilo culto),” embodying “affected Latinisms, unnatural transpositions, strained metaphors, and frequent obscurity,” now what’s curious about this is Góngora wasn’t so obscure that his contemporaries weren’t aware of the satiric thrust of his sonnets, Góngora reserving his most scathing, scolding poems for his poetic rival Francisco de Quevedo, but what does all this have to do with Lezama Lima, well, it does because Lezama Lima, like Lorca before him, sees his poetry as uniquely post-Góngorian chant, that Iberian trobar clus, where the political, erotic, and spiritual realms resplendently collide, sacred and secular cultural symbols also, and where “unnatural transpositions, strained metaphors” (to prosaic 1911 eyes and ears) dominate, and another, less obscure term for Góngora’s poetry than the troubadour’s trobar clus is the arabesque, that masterpiece of artful indirection, all curves and swerves, out of that Spanish-Moorish synthesis, that makes Spanish surrealism not Breton in a toreador’s cape taunting a bull with a chorus of “Hello, Dali,” it’s a baroque style of swerve and curve saturating Cuban dance and music, especially the polyrhythmic Cuban jam session, the descarga, and evident in the architecture of old Havana, the iron balcony filigrees, that in the confluence of Spanish and African streams Cuban literature has never, thankfully, resolved, comes this spiraling arabesque where metaphors baroquely ascend through the accumulation of unlikely rubble a la a Gaudi’s castle, all this deep image convulsion, graceful stutter in the service of concealing homosexuality, blunting satiric barbs, from political thugs parading as chic-as-Che literary editors demanding party line palaver, and one way to hide is through mirroring the rhythms and imagistic twists of folktales, whose characters follow no straight paths, the motifs of phantasmagoric Latin American oral literature the original wellspring of the “magic realism” fiction of the twentieth century, which means as much as the surfaces of Lezama Lima’s poems look like sashays into Valery’s “Paradise of Language,” I read them in alignment with that original “Language” poet Góngora, replete with the baroque, subversive, folk detours that “immobile traveler,” as Lezama Lima anointed himself, needed to make because these detours cultivate a surreal capaciousness of imagination, compensating for the fact that Lezama Lima rarely left his domicile, house-arrested, tho Lezama Lima did make two trips out of Cuba, one to Mexico, another to Jamaica, but look for evidence of travel in “To Reach Montego Bay,” one of the most haunting poems in this collection, and you’re struck by the odd use of the infinitive in the title, the poem seems less evidence of experience after having reached Jamaica than a meditation upon the act of getting there, the opening line as bald and bold as an intimate travel journey note, “(Permission to feel a slight shock),” the insecure traveler assuring himself of the rightness of his outward journey, because these poems are a baroque tapestry of detours in consciousness, yet every metaphor reflects both avoidance (of the author’s sexual identity and precarious political position) and then re-entry with greater velocity, diving deeper into a maelstrom after a brief pause, after a moment of avoidance, an asthmatic’s pause for breath, Lezama Lima’s breathlessness keeping him homebound, like an artist painting sacred arabesque calligraphy, or Picasso illustrating Góngora’s poems, the divine can’t be disclosed, but must be, so the code is a rhythm of avoidance/approach, that is bullfight, tango, rumba, iron balcony design, Lorca in Harlem then Cuba, painter Lam’s brides stripped bare by their priests even, the Hell that is Paradiso that is Paradise, the paradise of language transcending language, the poetry that is prose that is novel that is interior travelogue, that to quote again from “To Reach Montego Bay”, “The thickset bats of the Jamaican bay, ridding themselves of all reflections off the myrtle pool, penetrated the cuneiform markings on the inside of a palm tree’s trunk,” if a palm tree’s interior can be decoded, its markings lead to mysterious stabbing intuitions, a heralding of a Cuban Revolution no one has yet witnessed, here is its tour book.