Articles

Three looks

John Ashbery.
John Ashbery.

In Jasper Johns’s “Painting Bitten by a Man,” the artist has bitten a hunk out of his painting, leaving behind teeth marks. The action of the bite transforms into an image to be seen, an image that relates to nothing else on the field of gray encaustic. The bite conjures the presence of the artist at work and a flash of spleen. The gesture of the bite keeps receding back into its intrinsic muteness, suggesting the frustration of a desire to communicate verbally. At the same time, the plain speech of the title stands in stark contrast to the enigmatic bite mark; the temptations of legibility and illegibility animate one another. In a sketchbook, Johns writes, “‘Looking’ is and is not ‘eating’ and ‘being eaten.’”[1] Looking may (or may not) approximate eating, biting, marking, writing; perhaps what is also pictured here is the viewer’s gaze (sexual, temporal, avid) expiated by realization. I’ve always viewed this painting as a kind of aggrieved self-portrait because of what is pictured: the bite literalizing the self’s effort to be as real as the mark it leaves on a representational plane.

Another kind of distressed self-portrait: in 1953, Robert Rauschenberg made “Erased de Kooning Drawing.” Variously interpreted as a patricide, a collaboration, an homage, an essay on draftsmanship, a beau geste, it is also an approach to looking, a critique on a purely optical, disinterested way of viewing art. Rauschenberg is said to have begun the project by erasing his own drawings, but he found that for the final work to have any traction, he needed to start with another significant artist’s work; he sought to suppress something external to his own practice to summon something new. In erasing de Kooning’s work, he makes a strong equivalence between that famous artist’s act of drawing and his own act of erasure. This erasing-as-drawing gets at looking, or rather a kind of representation of looking, negatively. On view are just the faintest traces of crayon and ink, yet Rauschenberg once insisted, “A canvas is never empty.”[2] The almost invisible quality of the picture takes us from a purely optical moment to a mode of address; the artist captures our awareness of the conditions of our perception (active, contingent, coming upon absence) in that near-blank return “stare” of the canvas. The ghostly presence of the disappeared drawing and the telltale marks of its erasure even suggest that we are looking at representation coming to consciousness of itself.

John Ashbery’s poem “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”[3] is in one vein, a lyric consideration of looking’s strangeness. In the poem, looking is understood as temporal, corporeal, and intimately tied up in the structure of subjectivity. The poem explores how this sort of looking in self-portraiture is pictured as the very form of representation; self-portraiture vividly illustrates how immediacy and self-evidence come to lack any self-sufficiency the moment representing starts. The self-portrait shows “both” the self and the self’s gaze or cast of mind turning back on the self; it renders the seeing visible, regrouped in time and space. Looking is framed and intensified on multiple levels in this poem: Parmigianino and the mirror-portrait, Ashbery’s ekphrastic poem, the self-reflection and self-portrayal of both artists, and not least, the reader’s complicit positioning. The opening “As” of the poem casually posits the reader’s implicit self-projection into the position from which the painting (and poem) was made:

As Parmigianino did it, the right hand
Bigger than the head, thrust at the viewer
And swerving easily away, as though to protect
What it advertises.

The distortion of looking gets figured in the mirror’s reflection of head and hand; bigger than the head, the hand approaches and recedes from the viewer. The hand’s possible dramatic implications, its protective guise or its “reflex / To hide something,” get reinterpreted within the circumstances of the painter’s medium: “There is no way / To build it flat like a section of a wall: / It must join the segment of a circle.” And so the convexity returns the hand towards the body “of which it seems / So unlikely a part.” In the mirror, the hand does not make sense in terms of scale. It acts as a metaphor for both sensory data (the strange reflection of the hand in the convex surface) and the experience and interpretation of that data (all the implications of “handling”). The mirror’s distortion, whether unsystematic or expressive, paradoxically draws the hand back towards a greater materiality by indicating touch and literal paint handling. It also indexes the self-consciousness of the moment, since the hand wants to break out of the system of representation — “One would like to stick one’s hand / Out of the globe” — but it cannot really exist outside that system and still be seen.

The hand is not the only thing that wants to escape the portrait; that hand points to, or in the poem’s language, “shore[s] up” that mysterious face of the painter. And within the face appear the eyes, which, in the custom of self-portraiture, signal the self’s inwardness: “The soul establishes itself. / But how far can it swim out through the eyes / … unable to advance much farther / Than your look as it intercepts the picture.” The soul, that consciousness of individuality on the one hand, or an intimation of wholeness and boundlessness on the other, is determined by the onlooker’s attention, rather than characteristics inherent to itself. The adage of the eyes as windows to the soul, the standard instrument of interiorization, is found to be impoverished:

But there is in that gaze a combination
Of tenderness, amusement and regret, so powerful
In its restraint that one cannot look for long.
The secret is too plain. The pity of it smarts,
Makes hot tears spurt: that the soul is not a soul,
Has no secret, is small, and it fits
Its hollow perfectly: its room our moment of attention.

Instead of depth and metaphysical mystery, we are left with an image of looking. The soul “has no secret.” The understanding that a soul has of itself is a kind of seeing, but it’s the kind of seeing demonstrated in Johns or Rauschenberg’s work: seeing pictured as robbed of its self-evidence, and yet shown to have other powers.

This sort of seeing might open up other ways of contemplating what it could mean to have or be a self. This re-presented, pictured self-consciousness (as hand, as Parmigianino’s gaze) can act as supplement to an idealized, totalizing vision (the one exempt from or exterior to the circuit of representation): “This otherness, this / ‘Not-being-us’ is all there is to look at / In the mirror.” These representations, or aesthetic forms, are not transparent, but they have a different ambition, they motion towards the artist’s desires and dreams:

The forms retain a strong measure of ideal beauty
As they forage in secret on our idea of distortion.
Why be unhappy with this arrangement, since
Dreams prolong us as they are absorbed?
Something like living occurs, a movement
Out of the dream into its codification.

The codification of form (“second-hand knowledge” he calls it later in the poem) is necessary to look back on the dreaming; the movement between dreams and forms is characterized as living itself. This sort of looking, involving loss and diffusion, replaces soul with all its force and enigma.

I like to read Ashbery’s poems alongside the work of Johns and Rauschenberg in part due to the ways in which all three artists investigate the literal aspects of their medium’s processes and enlist them to deploy a generative self-reflexiveness in their works. I’m interested in how the artists’ skepticisms become a sustaining part of picturing at all. The nature of self-reflexiveness, and its attendant characteristics of skepticism, irony, wit, coolness of tone, are, in their works, both conserved and yet more than inclusive of the forces often taken as their foils: ardor, advocacy, confession, material lushness. For Ashbery, the example of painting and painterly experimentation acts as an expansive and apposite setting for contemporary language to explore self, representation, interiority, legibility, agency. Casting self-consciousness and its abstractions in terms of representation saves them from a naïve transparency and gives the reflective topography a kind of concreteness in imaginative reach. It’s also where the seductive aspect of his (and Johns and Rauschenberg’s) self-portraits often comes into play. In the self-portrait where one confronts seeing’s strangenesses — its guises and aggressions, distortions, erasures, feints, manipulations, and second thoughts — one may more viscerally encounter the possibility that such components are constitutive of the mystery that can be created in no other way.

 


 

1. Jasper Johns, “Sketchbook Notes,” quoted in John Yau’s “The Mind and the Body of the Dreamer,” in Uncontrollable Beauty, ed. Bill Beckley with David Shapiro (New York: Allworth Press, 1998), 298.

2. Leo Steinberg, Encounters with Rauschenberg (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 10.

3. John Ashbery, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (New York: Penguin Books, 1975).

Personae, wonder, vetch: 'Crowd Conditions'

John Ashbery at the Writers House. Photo by Arielle Brousse.

“Crowd Conditions” (click here to read) appears near the end of Ashbery’s 2000 book Your Name Here. As the title indicates, this is a book centrally, if playfully and earnestly, concerned with “you,” the mercurial second-person, singular and sometimes plural, pronoun. Your Name Here invites the reader to title it after her or himself, but this turns out to be a partial tease, since we are invited in, but never given full grammatical purchase. Despite the offer or exhortation, it will never be named after you, but always after you naming it after you.

Throughout Your Name Here, poems address both a general and a particular you. The particular, for instance, likes Wheatena or the cookies with a very little sugar on them. This is the you with whom the speaker has lived a life “like that of the great dead poets.” This said, the poet just as often addresses a less intimate or locatable you, a roomy, inviting, taking-every-comer you — a you that can very comfortably accommodate the reader and which often offers the reader grip and traction in difficult poems.

“You” in later Ashbery offers a flexible site of identification and sympathy. Either you are you the reader, and the fond poet addresses you and asks you to put a candle in his wreath and he’ll kiss you, or “you” provides a tender launching pad for the poet to address a lost but beloved other. With this pronominal activity in mind, “Crowd Conditions” is unusual for the book, and in fact, for Ashbery’s oeuvre more generally, since it is most convincingly read, whole cloth, as a persona poem — by this I mean that the poem invites us to read it as spoken by one specific person who is not the poet. But in its oddity, it is illustrative, even programmatic. It schematizes the tension and splay between an attention to landscape and an attention to attention itself. In a sense, the poem offers a take on the condition of the crowd of Ashbery’s later poetic output, poems torn between shaking everyone’s hand, or ducking into a waiting car.

The poem’s closure, its last word even, shows that what seemed on first read to be a free associative train is in fact a train with a destination. The seeming randomness of landscape, address, and invitation, a kind of suspended solution, crystallizes when a single persona is introduced: the president. Throughout the poem, the “we” so prominently featured becomes very possibly a “royal we,” or in this context, these days not so different, a “presidential we.”

Each stanza features a specific mood — manifest in increasingly negative reactions to the imperfections of the world. The first stanza finds the speaker cozening his listener — “Does this interest you, ma jolie?” — into being interested in the landscape. This apparently fails, since the speaker continues to cozen by suggesting that things just might have been postured differently, “perhaps” “more to your liking.” “Yet,” he continues, there are certain things that can’t be undone about the landscape, so it will pretty likely always disappoint. Most of the important things the speaker notes have been obliterated to bring us the landscape we’re left with — this could be night which makes the light show of the sky and landscape possible, or something more like the way in which focusing attention on one thing inevitably takes attention from another. Further, the speaker intuits that his interlocutor in the poem is uneasy with the sexual posture the landscape provides as a “free gift.” This is someone who might wish to “undo the sexual posture of everything.” One might speculate that the idea of a “free gift” in its redundant insistence implies a sort of overzealous posing, or sexual (and commercial) posture. In this case, a double positive might make a negative. A “free gift” may be neither free nor gift, but grift: a showy gesture eliciting return.

The second stanza, then, finds more than the speaker’s interlocutor discontent with the landscape; here, the landscape is fed up with itself. “The ocean sighs, finding the process of striking the shore / interminable and intolerable.” And as in the first stanza the speaker offered the “possibility” that things could have been different to soothe his companion, the speaker here, in the second stanza, tries again to placate his companion by offering a game of “Let’s pretend.” But just as this game gets increasingly complicated and builds a more and more elaborate world, the speaker finds that he has qualified his pretend scenario out of its usefulness — the ability to distract from reality. He starts confidently enough with “Let’s pretend it’s back when we were young / and cheap, and nobody followed us.” Then he backpedals slightly: “Well, the poodle followed us,” then heaps on a more dramatic and suggestive situation: “… men in limousines followed at a discrete distance, the back seat banked with roses.” The let’s pretend game develops until the speaker (and ostensibly his pretend companion) recall getting older and not being able to take a step “without creating crowd conditions.” Presumably, the crowd conditions called up here are crowds that require management by police or security. There are “men dressed as reporters” and “old ladies … crooning about the loss they supposed we shared with them.” The final line of this stanza suggests that the speaker is posing as a sympathetic figure, but in fact doesn’t care about those who imagine he shares a loss with them, or at least doesn’t care very much. His sympathy for the crooning old women is to say the least “imperfect.”

The final stanza, then, begins with the speaker giving up trying to put together some kind of more tolerable or convincing past, landscape, or reality: “Forget it. It all comes undone sooner or later.” In part this has to do with the crescendo of the second stanza, where the speaker sees what is expected of him and realizes he can’t fulfill it: he can’t both fill in the myriad details and individuals of a crowd and be sympathetic to them all. He can tarry in the general and experience one kind of imperfect sympathy, or get netted by specifics and feel another. Thus, at the limit of patience or caring or fellow feeling in a complicated and big world feeling itself comes undone.

As we’ve seen, “Crowd Conditions” begins eager to please and becomes increasingly exasperated by its inability to do so. The speaker starts by trying to tell a pleasing story, trying to grip his listener: “Does that interest you, ma jolie?” — but the project of pleasing others, making a world to his or her or their requirements, comes apart in his hands. At the peak of discontent in this poem, and at the peak of the inadequacy of description, or at the very limit of its interest: “The vetch goes on growing, wondering / whether it grew any more today.” This finds even the landscape’s landscaping not just discontent, but entirely unsure of its own actions, let alone dimensions. At this point of extreme alienation, we come to the final line: “Such, my friends, is life, wondered the president.”

This line grounds the movement of the poem: the scanned frontier, the poodle, the limos with their roses, the reporters in their visors and the crooning old ladies. The final word reorganizes what seemed a kind of poetic flypaper, catching what flies past, and transforms it into a train of thought that moves from possibility, “frontier,” to resignation, “such is life.” Significantly, it hitches this development to a specific persona: the president.

This location of the speaker as “the president” refigures the first two lines as less an image of the night sky than one of the snapping of jostling cameras. In fact, the “imperfect sympathies … twinkling” and the “gaga sky” both drop from some poetic height to the sidewalk of politics described from a particular point of view. What seemed a kind of unmoored Stevensian lexical flight proves instead a focalized description of a very particular kind of “crowd condition.”

That the president’s one real verb is “wonders” is curious. He shares it with the vetch. They both wonder. The phrase, “such is life” is neither a stoical stance, nor a statement of meditation; rather, it is the frayed end or vernacular cauterization of wonder. This could be a statement the president makes aloud, but it seems, with all its sighing commas, to be interior — the friends, then, phantoms. Imaginary friends. In other words, the crowd conditions of the title aren’t just snarls of interest in the exterior world; they are the way in which one person, a president, navigates the immensity of the world, an immensity which forces any sympathy to be an imperfect one.

The imperfect sympathies of the first line, those camera flashes that desire to fix the image of the president, soak through every image and speech act in the poem. The president, while offering the reader access to and an axis through the poem, finds himself ill at ease, unable to connect with “ma jolie,” and like the vetch in its unponderable immensity, not able to sympathize with those he represents. His location occasions his dislocation from the landscape just as the statement of his dislocation occasions our location within the poem. The president represents more than he can feel for. He retreats from this impasse to a position of resignation: such is life.

And Ashbery one-ups this imperfect sympathy: the president may just be talking to himself, internalizing his own “royal we,” being his own crowd of friends. The poem, which started out flirting with the pathetic fallacy, those lights twinkling their imperfect sympathies, then diving wholeheartedly into it with the sighing ocean, ends doubling back on itself in a sort of fallacious pathos.

But weirdest of all is the fact that this poem, this crowd of images and propositions and observations, does in fact crowd around a persona once it is added. The poem, when given a single persona, ALL MAKES SENSE. It is a relief — AND our relief is EXACTLY the discontent the president feels. And we were warned: early on the speaker reports that in order to have a petit suite of lights under the gaga sky “most of the important things” would have to be obliterated. We are satisfied to have the poem become a petit suite exactly to the extent that our sympathy is imperfect: we fill in the blanks, provide the timeline, perhaps even draw analogies to contemporary figures. No persona, the poem suggests, ever goes anywhere without creating the clog and jostle of crowd conditions.

On the other hand, this poet is careful not to suture his poem too snugly to its persona. Perhaps the president is just one of the crowd (of images, of possibilities) and the poet dares us to read the crowd of images always as if for the first time; put differently, resisting the magnetism of a single persona becomes central to rereading the poem.

The poem invites us to consider ourselves the occasion for “crowd conditions” — do we shake everyone’s hand? Or do we duck into our waiting car? How willing are we to maintain the tension of a landscape always threatening to explode into the impossible generality of “vetch” and simultaneously contracting to the ponderings of a single official personage? A persona, it must be said, who is characterized above all by his exasperation with the effects of our making him a persona.

 

Crowd Conditions
by John Ashbery 

Across the frontiers, imperfect sympathies are twinkling,
a petite suite of lights in the gaga sky.
Most of the important things had to be obliterated
for this to happen. Does that interest you, ma jolie?
Something else would have happened in any case,
more to your liking, perhaps. Yet we can’t undo the sexual posture
that comes with everything, a free gift.
 
Now the blades are shifting in the forest.
The ocean sighs, finding the process of striking the shore
interminable and intolerable. Let’s pretend it’s back when we were young
and cheap, and nobody followed us. Well,
that’s not entirely true: The poodle followed us
home from school sometimes. Men in limousines followed us
at a discreet distance, the back seat banked with roses.
But as we got older one couldn’t take a step
without creating crowd conditions. Men dressed like reporters
in coats and hats with visors, and yes, old ladies too,
crooning about the loss they supposed we shared with them.
 
Forget it. It all comes undone sooner or later.
The vetch goes on growing, wondering
whether it grew any more today.
Such, my friends, is life, wondered the president.
 
 
“Crowd Conditions” was first published in Your Name Here (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Copyright © 2000 by John Ashbery. All  rights reserved. Used by arrangement with Georges Borchardt Inc. for the author.

Farms

Three FARMS dotted with various punctuation and a few hanging words — the only remaining, yet distinctive, characters of three short poems by John Ashbery — fenced in (along with various photocopy noise) by musical staves. A fragment of each poem casts moonglow down on the constellated marks below, which sparsely outline the poem’s transposed typographic space. In “Farm,” Ashbery writes:

               … the geometry remains, 
A thing like nudity …

Poem scumbles whitish page, breaks through in so many little ways, creates an opening when dense opacity (huh?) gives way to oh, what’s this? — becoming immediacy: suddenly all the world is close at hand, pulsing darkly. For my least part, I take it down. This is how John’s poetry has struck me, and this is music as he has given it to me, again and again. The way a typed mark occasionally breaks paper and lets in light, as indeed happens in the FARM pieces, each poem’s notation literally imprinting the world beyond — the space and time that we occupy, unveiled by dark light of the poem.

Uptick

I made this piece after a failed attempt at choreographing a very mathematical solo using John Ashbery’s “Default Mode” as a movement map. It was tiring and the words weren’t sticking with the individual movements. I made a “seed phrase” for “They were living in America” that was repeated with different variations for each line. I didn’t get past “Does this doughnut remind you of a life preserver?”! 

I read “Uptick” and found it to be a rather chewy poem, meaning it’s terse but there’s so much there about time and sequence and viewing. After reading it about twenty times aloud in the studio with Marissa (my collaborator) I decided to make a duet that never left the floor where the dancers never touched each other. I was interested in extremes of timing and creating a certain reverberation in the air between the bodies. The piece, to me, feels like two different audio frequencies on one side of a very strange phone call.

Editing by Cory Antiel. Videography by Adam Fitzgerald.

Dispatch from Havana: Ricardo Alberto Perez

Ricardo Alberto Pérez, Reina María Rodríguez, and Ramón Hondal out on the terrace as the sun sets over Havana.

It is a Tuesday evening in January at the azotea, the home of Reina María Rodríguez, where so far two writers have stopped in for a coffee and conversation. Others might or might not come tonight; there’s another gathering in a couple of days. Reina lives a short walk away from the Capitol building in Havana, in an apartment building a few blocks from the ocean. The apartment itself comes with a literary history. Reina used to host much larger gatherings here, particularly during Cuba’s “Special Period” of economic crisis in the 1990s, when artists and writers met regularly. Nowadays she remarks that the work of hosting all those salons in her home is too much to undertake.Still, she continues to work as a literary organizer, and the azotea is still a place where smaller events happen from time to time, and where university and cultural tour groups listen to readings by local writers.

Formal or informal, an evening at the azotea generally includes established writers as well as others who are just emerging. It’s also common to find a mix of people who still live in Cuba and those who are partially or completely based abroad — a regular thing in the everyday life of the capital city in the post-Soviet era. The intensity of emigration and the growing acknowledgment of diasporic Cuban life do not erase all of the tensions around this subject in Havana, but many individual Cubans and institutions are increasingly comfortable referring to the phenomenon.

At my side today is Richard: Ricardo Alberto Pérez, whom I have met at the azotea in the past. He continues to live and work on the island.


Ricardo Alberto Pérez with Reina María Rodríguez in the living room at the azotea. Photographs by Kristin Dykstra, 10 January 2013. 

While Richard has published work in other countries, relatively little has appeared in the United States or in English, despite the fact that people here refer to him using the English version of his first name. I ask him to answer some questions for me. Where were you born? In Havana. What part of Havana? Arroyo de Naranjo, which is to the southeastern side of the city (but we have to consult two other people to confirm this point: Richard explains that geography is not his strong suit). When did you begin to write poetry? At age sixteen, and those early poems were very bad. Reina refuses to make any more coffee now, having made croquetas and the first round of coffee, so Richard disappears into the kitchen for a short time. The conversation continues nonetheless, including some dark humor about whether or not it will make one a famous poet in the US if I write here that said poet’s immediate family includes several suicides, including his mother, who made eighteen attempts before the one that took her life in the Special Period. This is, in fact, all true of Richard’s life. It leads to some remarks about Angel Escobar, the poet whose suicide from the late ’90s is still a regular point of reference here. Many of the poets from the greater Havana area had known Escobar well for years. Nearly all are careful not to overstate their friendships with him, perhaps in part because his worsening illness eventually affected his personality and ability to exchange his writing with them.

Despite the significance of these digressions I return to my questions for Richard. For years he has been a regular at the azotea events and those at the Torre de Letras, which has a very small space for workshops and readings granted by the Cuban Book Institute (Instituto Cubano del Libro) on Obispo Street in Old Havana. During my very short visit I’ve heard a great deal of debate about how official the Torre has become, what degree of officialness to attribute to it. This is a debate about where the borderline of the margin begins and whether you can really locate it or hold it in one place. Reina maintains that the Torre is the most alternative of spaces that has still been able to publish some books here and there, while allowing writers themselves to make editorial decisions rather than bureaucrats. This is not the same thing as being an independent press, since the Torre group depends on assistance from institutions in the sense that it must await access and permission for printing its work. Whatever one’s exact argument about degrees and forms of marginality, it is still certain that the Torre has a different and less central status than projects run straight out of UNEAC or Casa de las Americas, or the University of Havana. (There is general interest in the future possibility that truly independent literary presses might come to exist. Perhaps it will involve new digital options, although Reina emphasizes that the majority of Cubans can’t access that type of space, let alone do so regularly: Cuba has the lowest rate of connectivity in the hemisphere, and government regulation of email and internet access remains a central, vexing issue, alongside questions of economic limitation. Print, then, continues to be important here.) 

Like many established Havana writers, Richard has spent time outside the island, which not only gave him a broader perspective on literatures and cultures but also led to publishing projects like the anthology La Habana Medieval, his edited collection of contemporary Cuban poetry released by a Brazilian university press and available in some US libraries. Among his other books are Geanot (1993, poetry), Nietzsche dibuja a Cosima Wagner (1995, poetry), Turin sin pájaros sin reloj (1999, Brazil, bilingual edition of poetry), Trillos urbanos (which refers to a song by Caetano Veloso; 2003, poetry), Vibraciones del buey (2004, poetry), Catorce poetas brasileños (2006, translations of Brazilian poetry), Perhappenis (2007, anthology and translations featuring the work of Paulo Leminsky), Oral B (2007, which won the Nicolás Guillén prize for poetry), and Para qué el cine? (2010, a collaborative work with artist Ezequiel Suárez). Richard has another book in press as I write: Vengan a ver las palomas de Varsovia, a poetry collection. 

In addition to composing his own writing, Richard does a radio program dedicated to international poetry. And recently, he began to publish essays about Cuban artists, pieces that are more accessible to readers of English than most of his other writing to date. The art essays are being translated into English and appear online at the British site Cuba Absolutely.

When I finish adding italics to all the book titles in my list, I look up and find that everyone has disappeared. I find them clustered by the bathroom. Richard is attempting to fix the sink. No one has been able to stop this week’s especially pernicious leak, Reina says. Watching nearby is Ramón Hondal, who has recently finished writing his third book of poetry and is next in line to fix the bathroom sink. He adjusts a large plumber’s wrench.


Ramón Hondal.

Ramón’s books are not yet published, but Reina is encouraging him to move forward with them and thinks the latest one is especially good. Meanwhile, he has been amassing a collection of audio recordings of poets, including material by Escobar. I go back into the kitchen to see how the sink is coming along and find Richard with a broom: “This is going really well,” he says to me, and I realize that the sink problem has escalated and the entire floor is covered in water, which he’s sweeping out onto the roof. “We’re going to be cleaning all night!” Reina says. It will take a while for the floor to dry, so everyone goes outside as the sun sets. Richard and Ramón spar about who has done more damage to the sink. This episode might seem to be irrelevant — another digression derailing my dispatch — and yet there’s a material impact for local poetry. It is the sort of occurrence that causes Reina to reflect on why she has not returned to hosting more large-scale readings out of her home.


Problem sink at the azotea.

Life intrudes again on literature: another poet, Carlos, calls to say that his car has broken down. After literally pushing it down the street, he will have to spend the evening running around in search of parts, so he can’t make it today.

Richard’s poetry has changed in recent years. Earlier books, the ones up to Oral B, are collections of poems he conceived one at a time, individually, then organized into groups afterwards. His most recent manuscripts are evolving differently. The concept comes first, and individual texts are subsidiary to it; some have no title. These newest manuscripts can even be seen as partner projects. The content of one book engages moments of strangeness within national culture. He comments that his most recent works are most influenced by North American writing, emphasizing shorter poem lengths and a certain quality of agility he associates with English-language writing. Two of his manuscripts in progress are currently entitled Miedo a las ranas and Piñera en el balancin (he points to a rocking chair to illustrate what “Balancin” means, and emphasizes the reference to Virgilio Piñera).

We look at the title poem of the book that is just about to come out, and I write up a translation.

Come! and see the pigeons of Warsaw

Come! and see the pigeons of Warsaw.

 The pigeons of Arezzo.

 Their biological activity the counter-attack.

 Pigeons are deceptive specimens,

 an unreal music,

 a piece the virtuoso refuses to play.

 Once they consecrate the ruins, definitively,

 pigeons will become a musical staff attracting attention.

 A symbol

 over which the walls shed antiquity

 with uric acid.

 

Vengan a ver las palomas de Varsovia

Vengan a ver las palomas de Varsovia.

 Las palomas de Arezzo.

 Su actividad biológica a contragolpe.

 Las palomas son piezas engañosas,

 una música falsa,

 una obra que se niega a tocar el virtuoso.

 Al consagrarse las ruinas definitivamente

 las palomas serán un pentagrama atendible.

 Un símbolo

 donde los muros desgranan antigüedad

 ante el ácido úrico.

 

Why Warsaw? I ask Richard, taking advantage of this opportunity to ask the little questions. He smiles: he’s fascinated with post-Soviet nations, with the complexities of their relationships to the past and the present. In this respect, Eastern Europe exists in a sort of parallel space to Cuba. Why Arezzo? Personal touch. It’s where a former girlfriend lives.

When I come back to this commentary two days later, before a reading at the azotea for a literary tour group, I remember that I once translated a handful of poems from one of Richard’s earlier books, Vibraciones del buey, but never published them.

 

Regarding swine, the Chinese, and Catalans

Some Chinese brought a handful of
tattooed swine to Barcelona,
the Catalans didn’t understand the ideograms
and stared suspiciously at the swine.

The ART fair

 placed the swine in the most seductive location.

 The swine more Chinese than swine,

 more white than yellow,

 recognized themselves inside the web of seduction

 and directed ironic gazes toward the Catalans.

 The Catalans understood nothing and the swine

 less swine than ideograms

 returned to China,

 leaving an expression on the Catalans: dumbfounded, as if suspended.

 

Sobre cerdos, chinos y catalanes

Unos chinos llevaron a Barcelona

 un puñado de cerdos tatuados,

 los catalanes no entendían los ideogramas

 y miraron con malos ojos a los cerdos.

 

 La feria de EL ARTE

 puso en el lugar más seductor a los cerdos.

 Los cerdos más chinos que cerdos,

 más blancos que amarillos

 se reconocieron en la membrana de la seducción

 dedicándose a mirar con ironía a los catalanes.

 Los catalanes no comprendieron nada y los cerdos

 menos cerdos que ideogramas

 regresaron a China,

 dejando pasmada, como en vilo, la expresión de los catalanes.

 

*

Critical essay about my father’s hands

My father had hands perfect

 for applauding at the circus.

 

 The tightrope walker

 gave me less pleasure than my father’s fingers, dancing

 with folkloric passion.

 

 My father’s thumb was the high ground

 to which I climbed every day.

 

 (manufacturer of perfumes)

 

 He came back with a bandaged hand:

 the circus held no more meaning for me

 until the politicians’ speeches grew less consistent.

 

Ensayo crítico sobre las manos de mi padre

Mi padre tenía unas manos perfectas

 para aplaudir en el circo.

 

 Más que del equilibrista,

 yo gustaba de sus dedos danzando

 en una pasión folclórica.

 

 El dedón de mi padre era un terreno elevado

 donde escalaba cada día.

 

 (fabricante de perfumas)

 

 Regresó con la mano vendada:

 el circo dejó de tener sentido para mí,

 hasta el discurso de los políticos parecía menos consistente.

 

*

Oxen

Oxen are brains of moss,

in husbandry

 they climb another evolutionary step;

 the heron who shits

 on their heads

 improves the texture of the breeze,

 a different rain awaits her

at harvest’s close.

 

Los bueyes

Los bueyes son cerebros de musgo,

en la labranza

escalan otra evolución;

la garza que caga

sus cabezas

mejora la textura del aire,

otra lluvia esperará por ella

al fin de la cosecha.

 

8 and 10 January 2013, Havana