José Kozer's stylistics

Religion, the surreal, and the neobaroque

Photo of José Kozer (left) by Carlos Blackburn.

Across a long, extraordinarily prolific career, Cuban poet José Kozer (born in Havana, 1940) is remarkable for the consistency of his style. His work has been viewed as part of the Latin American neobaroque movement — a loose grouping of poets from the 1970s onwards who preferred a dense, multidimensional approach rather than the then-common plainspoken colloquial or conversational style — yet Kozer’s poetry is very much sui generis.

Even before being read, a Kozer poem proclaims itself by its scroll-like layout, and one quickly notices the disruptive syntax, the use of parentheses, the signature repetition of words, and the diversity of a vocabulary garnered from across the Spanish-speaking world, where Cubanisms, Mexicanisms, and words peculiar to Chile or Peru, jostle against the Spanish of the Siglo de Oro. The versicle layout in the form


suggests a Biblical scroll that the yad or pointer moves down and, equally, a Chinese or Japanese scroll where poetry is a visual, as well as auditory, aesthetic experience. The reader’s experience of Kozer’s poetry is also shaped by the general absence of punctuation, the sudden shifts in grammatical structure, the tendency for past tense to glide into present tense, for third-person pronouns or verb endings to suddenly become first person: in short, a series of devices that help create an experience of simultaneity and immediacy.

Often, in Kozer’s poems, there is a collapsing of sequential or historic time into a single present. In “Indicios, del inscrito” (“Traces, of the inscribed”),[1] for example, a grandfather in the hour of death reciting or tracing with his finger a prayer enters into the presence of his namesake David going down with his chariots. There is also the experience of fusion, as in the Zen-like moment of identification when the poet chewing a biscuit and the caterpillar chewing a leaf merge into each other.[2] A sense that the religious impulse speaks directly into our profound incomprehension before death is at the core of much of Kozer’s poetry. The religious dimension to his poetry (and to his stylistics) helps explain why Kozer’s poems of childhood, family, Cuba, and everyday life are so distinctive when compared with many North American poems dealing with similar subject matter. The poem does not resolve into a story, nor does it settle into the contemplation or celebration of the strangeness of language. In an interview with Jacobo Sefamí, Kozer states that calling his poetry “neobaroque” or concerned with “language” is only one way to situate it, but that calling it “religious” might be another, even more valid way:

I don’t have a problem of language, I have a religious, metaphysical, philosophical, ethical problem. Language after all is not an end in itself, it’s an instrument; it’s not autonomous, it’s a vehicle … yes, for me, what moves me is religious difficulty, the difficulty before the death of the body.[3]

A second aspect of Kozer’s manner of being neobaroque concerns the surrealist strain in his work. This has been largely underrepresented in the selections made of his poetry, especially in websites and anthologies in English, which tend to focus on his poems of family life, childhood in Cuba, and everyday married life or his Buddhist poems. The three poems presented in Jacket2 highlight this other, surrealist side of Kozer’s work. As Melanie Nicholson argues persuasively, surrealism reinvented itself in Latin America, leaving a widespread, diffuse trace, particularly from the start of the 1950s, among poets like Olga Orozco, Octavio Paz, Alejandra Pizarnik, and Marosa di Giorgio.[4] It was not the surrealism of automatic writing or of wordplay for its own sake that interested these poets — rather, they were drawn to surrealism’s “conviction that poetry is a path to knowledge,”[5] tapping into forces of eros, magic, and dream material to make poetry a place of revelation. The inclusion of oneiric material, trust in the poem as a journey that escapes one’s control, wildly disruptive images, and rapid syntactic transformations: all these surrealist traces are visible in Kozer’s poetry. 

It is interesting to think how differently surrealism was interpreted or bent as it was adopted, around the same time, in North America and in Latin America. Where New York poets and others (even in their selections and translations of French Surrealists) tended to hear a “cool,” abstract, even cerebral, poetry, in Latin America a more emotional, threatening, and visceral “magic” surrealism developed. While such poets as Ashbery, O’Hara, or Koch valued surrealism, perhaps above all, for its liberating effect, the way it gave permission for the poem to cast off the moorings of subject matter or preimposed unity, trusting the poem could “make its own days,” in Latin America the connections between surrealism and eros and thanatos predominated. (In making this contrast I’m thinking most of all of the New York poets and of the period roughly between 1945 and 1975. Charles Simic and Russell Edson, for example, with their darkly visceral surrealism, are a different story again.) In poets as diverse as Paz, Orozco, Pizarnik, and di Giorgio, there is the vision of a poetry that is neither narrowly personal nor social nor political (nor purely experimental), but arises from a level below such categories, incorporating a strong presence of nonrational elements. Traces of that emotionally charged surrealism help explain the sense of depth in Kozer’s poetry, grounding his distinctive stylistics in an underlying oneiric energy. I must stress that I use the word “surrealism” here very loosely — it is not a label Kozer would apply to himself.

Three poems from Carece de causa

José Kozer’s 1988 collection Carece de causa (“No known cause” or “It lacks a cause”) marks a significant growth in the level of complexity, strangeness, and difficulty of his poetry. Compared to earlier poems like “Te acuerdas, Sylvia,” “Gramática de papá,” or “Mi padre, que está vivo todavía”[6] (all from Este judío de números y letras [1975] or Bajo este cien [1983]), the poems gathered in Carece de causa signal a turning away from linear narrative, a dislocation of reader expectation, the simultaneity of many levels. While the earlier poems — had they been written in English — would not have looked out of place in North American poetry, in Carece de causa and his subsequent books Kozer develops a style of poetry unlike anything I know of in North America, an approach to poetry very much his own. Partly this has to do with the number of poems that lack obvious references to personal or social narrative. Partly it is a matter of how strangely compounded, inverted, and encrusted his poems become — even when they do seem to start from a clear focus, such as the illness of his father or his grandfather’s death. Often we don’t know where we are, or the apparent location of the poem’s “action” fractures to reveal layer upon layer. There is a liturgical, ritualistic dimension to the poetry, a deliberate splicing between language levels and dialects of Spanish, the inclusion of biblical and mythical presences that undermines realist expectations. Yet, at the same time, the surrounding everyday world is presented in its precise minutiae, recorded in a language that seeks to claim “the totality” of Spanish vocabulary. This combination of indeterminate location, suspended narrative, and very specific vocabulary helps give Kozer’s poetry its unique feel. Of equal importance, the poems respond to psychic, emotional, and religious pressures that shape the whole. Venezuelan poet Eugenio Montejo in his reflections on poetry suggests: 

In all the words of a poem you must be able to read their necessity, that is, one by one they should convince us that they are there because they are more necessary than other words which were not used, and, what is more complicated, that they are more valid than silence itself. (“In art it is difficult to say something which would be as good as saying nothing,” affirmed Wittgenstein.)[7

In other words, as well as surprising us, poetry ideally convinces us of its necessity. In Kozer that driving force, that necessity in the writing, most often involves the religious dimension to life, the proximity of death. 

The three poems presented here — “Retributions” (“Las retribuciones”), “Things near at hand” (“Proximidades”), and “Echoes” (“Ecos”) — share a strange oneiric quality. Although I have been labeling this quality “surrealist,” perhaps “cabalistic” would be a better description. It seems concerned with realities underlying this reality — or at least, invisibly present in it. We do not know where we are. Is this the Cuba of Kozer’s childhoood or Forest Hills, New York, where he lived at the time of writing, or perhaps somewhere in the Middle East or Eastern Europe? In “Retributions,” for example, the wicker easy chairs where the ladies and gentlemen doze suggest Cuba, but the city’s domes suggest Jerusalem. The cap and gown of the magistrates and the bonnets of the ladies suggest a genteel world, Jane Austen’s England perhaps, yet this outdoor tea party takes place in the presence of a highly ritualized butcher contemplating a cow that has been or is about to be slaughtered. Repetition heightens the ritualistic effect. The time frame is deliberately unclear. Of the poem’s twenty stanzas, seven are predominantly cast in some form of the past tense, nine in the present; elsewhere the future or the imperative takes prominence. The effect is to strip us of easy bearings, an effect increased by the general absence of punctuation. In the final stanza, for example, we could read the final lines in Spanish as “begins the reverse of shadow [of darkness?] / the apogee of the breeze among the poppies splashes the walls,” taking “the apogee of the breeze” as one more subject of “begins.” We could even go back to near the beginning of the stanza and read “the shape of the cups” as the subject of “splashes the walls.” The difficulty of tracking the subjects of verbs is one of the challenges of translating Kozer’s poetry. Yet a translation into English also opens up ambiguities not present in the Spanish. In the original, for example, it is not possible to interpret this last stanza as saying that the reverse of shadow begins the apogee of the breezes, as “se inicia” (“begins”) is intransitive. In English, without adding a lot of punctuation or overdirecting the reader, it is impossible to rule out all such “illegitimate” ambiguities, over and above the real ambiguities. 

In “Things near at hand” (“Proximidades”) and “Echoes” (“Ecos”) not only do we not know where we are, but both poems are built around strange presences that belong to some oneiric or cabalistic strata. The three old ladies in “Things near at hand” are clearly much more than old ladies — their ancientness goes much further back. They lie down to sleep under frost. Forming the flowerbeds into some ritualistic cross they lay down conditions that look very like a spell or curse. Who are their children (or should it be more specifically “sons,” another possible reading of the Spanish)? And who is the “I” of this poem? In “Echoes,” mysterious word-eating animals seem to have evolved from metal alloys by some strange alchemy and to exist alongside Orpheus. And yet in the last stanza the poet’s wife is there, naked while he wears some very specific clothing — a “dark blue woollen sweater” and “a sienna polka-dot tie.” It is these sudden, unexplained, disruptive transformations that explain why I use the word “surrealist” to characterize these poems. Moreover, what unfolds does not have the implicit narrative or concern with constructing a self, or with questioning the frailty and exposed nature of an identity, that can be found in such North American poems inflected by surrealism as Frank O’Hara’s “In memory of my feelings” or “Mayakovsky.” Kozer’s poetry does not seem interested in such narratives of the self. We are truly in the presence of a very different poetic. Everything unfolds with an impersonal authority — the “I” is not particularly a biographic “I.” Each image that moves us forward becomes a new reality: a city lying below a city, the German phrase “Ich möchte rauchen” (why German?), and the roof slates that have just now rained down. None of these images — or should we say “moments”? — is given greater importance than the others. There is no hierarchy. There is, however, a compelling dream logic to it all. Death, the exposure of being naked, creativity, and wonder — these forces assemble and reassemble a great diversity of material and of language. Admittedly Cuba is never very far — just as the Holocaust, Eastern Europe, and Jerusalem are never very far — but not as any kind of subject matter capable of being described, much less fixed, rather as resonances that continue to speak through the poems.

One of the challenges of translating Kozer’s poetry in general — and these three poems are no exception — concerns his range of both formal and highly colloquial, often regional, vocabulary and the resultant interplay of ritualistic and conversational tones. In “Echoes” (“Ecos”) the word “féferes,” for example, points simultaneously in several directions. I have translated it as “thingamies” but, as a synonym for “trastos,” it could also be taken to mean junk, useless things, or it could be used by a workman to refer to his tools, as someone might say “my gear,” “my things.” In the Dominican Republic it could mean the male sex organs, or in Cuba food for babies or farm animals — “pap” or “fodder” perhaps. In the context it seems to refer above all to a lazy way of talking, almost like saying “what’s-it’s-name,” but it also suggests something looked down on, such as leftover corn stalks used to feed horses. Of equal importance, I suspect, coming after the reference to a nasal voice, it has to my ear an almost comical sound, like someone with a slight speech defect. There is no way I can think of to match all these options. “Thingamies” is not particularly used of human or animal food, and while it captures a lazy way of speaking, it is not exactly comical. Overall, I am sure, my translations of Kozer’s poems are relatively more formal and employ a more standard English than his “total” Spanish. This is largely inevitable in translation as it would seem arbitrary and odd to fill his poems (in translation) with Cockney slang or regional words from 1950s rural Alabama, for example, apart from the problem of such regional expressions being incomprehensible to most readers. On a few occasions over the years, where Kozer uses a word heavily marked with a specifically regional status, I have worked in a couple of Australianisms. In one poem published by Shearsman I used the Australian “woop woop,”[8] meaning a remote place, and in another “feeling real crook,”[9] a tough old Aussie’s way of saying “about to die.” Apart from highlighting the shared fact of writing from inside marginal dialects of an immense world language, these small gestures hint at the commonalities of our two “island homes.” However, in the case of the three poems presented here in Jacket2, hunting for Australianisms did not seem appropriate.

1. José Kozer, Stet, trans. Mark Weiss (New York: Junction Press, 2006), 76–83.

2. José Kozer, Índole (Matanzas: Ediciones Matanzas, 2012), 9–12.

3. José Kozer, interview with Jacobo Sefamí in De la imaginación poética (São Paulo: Lumme Editor, 2013), 319–20. Excerpt translated by Peter Boyle.

4. Melanie Nicholson, Surrealism in Latin American Literature: Searching for Breton’s Ghost (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).

5. Ibid., 162.

6. “Mi padre que está vivo todavía” and “Te acuerdas, Sylvia” are also available in translation by Mark Weiss in Stet: 27 and 35.

7. Eugenio Montejo, “Fragments,” in The Trees: Selected Poems 1967–2004, trans. Peter Boyle (Cambridge: Salt, 2004), 142.

8. José Kozer, “Satori (Po Chü-I has set down)” in Tokonoma (bilingual edition), trans.  Peter Boyle (Bristol: Shearsman, 2014), 157.

9. José Kozer, “The exteriorisation of his places,” trans. Peter Boyle, Shearsman, no. 93/94 (2012): 102.