Bird, La Bruja

Soleida Ríos, Photo by Kristin Dykstra, 2013
Soleida Ríos, Photo by Kristin Dykstra, 2013

Soleida Ríos (b. 1950 in eastern Cuba) is a remarkable poet from whom comparatively little work is circulating to date in English.  There may be a further delay in terms of book projects in translation, for Ríos lost a translator when Barbara Jamison tragically passed away. 

The death of a translator is a reminder of the small, mortal scale of possibility embedded within these our “global” landscapes.  It’s also a cue to remember, with Esther Allen, that “the translation of a text often depends largely or perhaps wholly on contextual factors that have less to do with the work’s intrinsic value (whatever that might be and however you might measure it) than with encounters between individuals and the shifting cultural and political contexts within which those encounters take place.”[1]

Encounters: I myself never encountered Barbara in person, only over email.  We exchanged brief notes around my dispersed meetings with Soleida in Havana, so it was my encounters with Soleida that made for a link with Barbara. I don’t know what if anything will come of the book manuscript Barbara was completing.[2]  But thanks to Barbara I became more than an appreciator of Ríos’ writing, because she asked me to translate a poem by Soleida for an anthology.  That anthology turned phantom but I translated the poem, which led to others – then I took up a longer “discourse” that Ríos composed regarding her poetics, from which I excerpt below.


The complexity of Soleida Ríos’ experiments in writing has been nicely set out by another translator/poet whom she encountered in 2001 in Havana:  Rosa Alcalá.  After rendering three texts from El libro de los sueños (The Book of Dreams, 1999) in English Alcalá specified, “I made no distinctions between what is variously described by her publisher as prose, narrative, testimony, or poetry, seeing her work as various indescribable manifestations of a poetics unfastened to mode, genre, or category.”[3]

The following selection in my translation is taken from a piece that once again resists a singular genre description.  It represents Ríos’ mapping of her own poetic history and discourse.  Alcalá’s point about the “unfastened” nature of Ríos’ writing acquires richness in a later section of this same essay, where Ríos joins the determinedly mobile quality of her writing to the rubric of cimarronaje.  David Guss reflects, “Difficult to translate into English, particularly because the closest word we have, ‘maroon,’ is already a Spanish cognate, cimarronaje is the quality or ethos of a cimarrón, an escaped slave.”[4]  

After translating the lines of poetry with which Ríos opens this segment of her “(Fractured) Discourse,” I realized that they will offer a rare opportunity to compare two English-language renditions of material from this writer.  She took the opening lines for her “Discourse” from a longer poem, “Pájaro de La Bruja.” That complete poem appears in facing-page translation in The Whole Island: Six Decades of Cuban Poetry.[5]

Among various differences, my translation preserves the name “La Bruja” as a place name signaling the writer’s sense of origin.  La Bruja, Ríos emphasized in our conversations, is a small village in mountainous eastern Cuba.  I’m interested in the geographical imagery of the “Discourse,” which is after all a piece through which Rios is defining her own poetics.  To do so, she conjoins her most local of memories to the whole island and then the Caribbean, more broadly conceived in dialogue with Aimé Césaire and others. The translation by Mark Weiss in The Whole Island is valuable in a different way, for it lets the reader see that “La Bruja” can be understood to conjure a witch.  As this selection from the “(Fractured) Discourse” shows, Ríos links her broken places to myth and bad magic.  Poetry, one may extrapolate, lies in the pursuit of antidotes.

From “A (fractured) discourse about Cuba . . . Or, three in-determinations on this paper”[6]

 This bird was born of a machete blade.
Nothing to do with the mockingbird, blackbird
or mourning dove.
It was born of a machete blade
not a mamabird’s white egg.
Not a lark not a quetzal not an aura of longing
after the final traces fade.
It lives in song at La Bruja, its nest is there.
It sings like birds of the sea and birds of the sierra
spurs the mules . . . And in rough weather
it flies over thatched roofs, it is ruthless,
then someone has to die . . .

Impoverished peasants would die (black, white, part indigenous, Haitian, Jamaican), their women would die, their children would die . . . and their bones piled up on the ocean’s shoreline.  There they had hoped for “the accident,” the chance that a boat might carry them away, and they fell dead, and there at the coast their bodies and bones turned to dust.

Harsh Caribbean waters lapped at those bones.

To the south, insurgent Caribbean water (the fault, the Bartlett Trough:  almost 4000 meters from the ocean floor to the Turquino peak) touches coastlines by Santiago de Cuba, Guantanamo and the Sierra Maestra mountain chain.  The length of the Sierra Maestra:  an extended cemetery.  Crosses, crosses.  Simple wood, the taste and scent of salt.

I came to know the poisoned roads that crossed the Sierra to move west, from Santiago de Cuba to Cape Cross (!!).  I saw the opening of a highway that put an end to the effective existence of Cuba’s eastern zone as an accursed “island.”  What I learned badly, I taught badly (to read to write to think . . .) to children, women, and men whose imaginary I occasionally assumed.

Once there was a bird . . .  It was called the Bird from La Bruja, or “the Witch” at the river’s mouth.  A bird of ill omen.  It was responsible for drought and also for rising rivers.  Sending mules off track.  Mudslides.  Earthquakes.  They said, “From March to October, the bird did it.”  Always.  I was warned.

I spent four years pursuing the mythical bird, trying to “register” it on the page.  It is utterly responsible for my initiation into the poetic venture, conventionally understood.  I needed some kind of energy, an impulse that came to me (paradoxically!) through science.  The Cuban naturalist Nicasio Viña Valle released his finding:  after 30 years of patient and dedicated searching, he trapped a specimen of the black-headed petrel on the Sierra Maestra’s southern coast.

But . . .  the bird was born of a machete blade.

Myth doesn’t revive the blood through a poem, but through the memory of two deceased friends.  Alike:  blinded with greed, or was it hunger, each one forgotten by the other, left to the depredations of poverty, of the elements, of non-existence . . .

At the end of daybreak life, prostrate, doesn’t know how to dispose of its dreams . . .[7]

(Aimé Césaire)

 Fragmento:  De “Un discurso (roto) de Cuba . . . O tres marcas in-formes sobre el papel”

 El pájaro nació del filo de un machete.
Nada tiene que ver con el sinsonte, el choncholí
o la torcaza triste.
Nació del filo de un machete
no de la hueva blanca de una pájara vieja.
Ni alondra, ni quetzal, ni el aura ansiosa
tras las últimas huellas.
Vive en un canto de La Bruja, allí es su nido.
Canta como los pájaros del mar y los del monte
arrea las mulas . . .  Y en mal tiempo
vuela, implacable, sobre los guanos de un bohío,
entonces alguien tiene que morir . . .

Moría el pobre campesino (negro, blanco, aindiado, haitiano, jamaiquino), morían sus mujeres, morían sus hijos . . . y sus huesos iban apilándose en la orilla de la costa.  Allí habían esperado el “accidente”, el azar de un barco que los trasladase y caían muertos y ahí en la costa sus cuerpos y sus huesos se hacían polvo.

Las duras aguas del Caribe lamieron esos huesos.

Al sur, el agua insurgente del Caribe (la falla, fosa de Batle:  casi 4000 metros desde el fondo marino a la cúspide del Turquino) toca las costas de Santiago de Cuba, Guantánamo y la cadena montañosa de la Sierra Maestra.  A todo lo largo de la Sierra Maestra:  un largo cementerio.  Cruces, cruces.  Madera simple, sabor y olor a sal.

Conocí los caminos envenenados que atravesaban la Sierra rumbo al oeste, desde Santiago de Cuba hasta Cabo Cruz (¡?).  Vi abrirse una carretera que le quitó la condición virtual de “isla” maldita a esa zona del oriente de Cuba.  Lo que mal aprendí, male enseñé (a leer a escribir, a pensar . . . ) a niños, mujeres, y hombres de cuyo imaginario a veces me apropié.

Había un pájaro . . . Se llamaba Pájaro de La Bruja.  Un pájaro agorero.  Era culpable de la seca y también de las crecidas de los ríos.  Desgaritar las mulas.  Crear aluviones.  Temblor de tierra.  Decían “de marzo a octubre el pájaro es culpable”.  Siempre.  Fui advertida.

Durante cuatro años perseguí al pájaro mítico queriendo “registrarlo” en la página.  Es responsable por entero de mi iniciación en la aventura poética tal como se entiende convencionalmente.  Me faltaba una energía, un impulso que me fue dado (¡qué paradoja!) por la ciencia.  El naturalista cubano Nicasio Viña Valle dio a conocer su hallazgo:  había atrapado, después de 30 años de paciente y aplicada búsqueda, un ejemplar del petrel de cabeza negra en la costa sur de la Sierra Maestra.

Pero . . . el pájaro nació del filo de un machete.

No está en el poema que restituye el mito la sangre sino a través del recuerdo de dos compadres muertos.  Dos iguales:  ciegos de avaricia, de hambre quizás, olvidados uno del otro, echados a la disminución de la pobreza, de la intemperie, del no ser . . .

Al morir el alba no sabe la vida, postrada, adonde despachar sus sueños . . .

(Aimé Césaire)

Update, June 2016:  The complete "Discourse" is forthcoming in English translation in Tripwire, and my scholarly essay about the work and its translation is forthcoming in La Habana Elegante.

[1] “The Will to Translate: Four Episodes in a Local history of Global Cultural Exchange.”  From In Translation:  Translators on Their Work and What It Means.  Ed. Esther Allen and Susan Bernofsky.  NY:  Columbia UP, 2013.  82.

[2] Readers can find a short story by Ríos in Jamison’s translation in New Short Fiction from Cuba, edited by Jacqueline Loss and Esther Whitfield.  Evanston, IL:  Northwestern UP, 2007.


[4] Guss, David.  The Festive State:  Race, Ethnicity, and Nationalism as Cultural Performance.  Berkeley and Los Angeles:  The University of California Press, 2000.  49.

[5] Ed. Mark Weiss. U of CA Press, Berkeley and LA, 2009. 392-395. 

[6] From Secadero.  Havana: Letras Cubanas, 2009.

[7] My rendition is adapted from the Eshleman and Smith translation of Césaire’s words: Ríos appears to be receiving or framing Césaire’s sentence somewhat differently in her Spanish phrasing than what their English suggests. --KD.