Photographer Alejandro González (b. 1974) has become known for portraits of people that, when shown in groups, become portraits of their cities. Seen above in a photograph taken by González in summer 2015, writer Marcelo Morales (b. 1977) recently completed a new poetry collection that registers personal and collective change in Vedado, a neighborhood within Havana, during the much-publicized transformations hitting Cuba in recent years.
El mundo como ser (The World As Presence), forthcoming in a bilingual edition from the University of Alabama Press in 2016, necessarily begins and ends in medias res, for any tale of change in Cuba feeds into a longer continuum of tellings. The observation of change in Havana structures a master narrative bridging the late 20th century to the 21st, and tales of observation are permeated with plenty of hopes and anxieties; there is also a counternarrative of total non-change, imagining an island "frozen in time." Morales concludes his newest manuscript just after registering a double shock whose sonic boom is too expansive to fit into the field of writing, though the magnitude of this change is partly perceptible in the way his poem fragments lift into the air.
Change gets written into intersections between personal and social living, and the first of the major shocks tilts toward the personal side. During the composition of this collection, Morales slowly lost a beloved aunt to her battle with cancer, a process that he registers here, often in subtle tones. Loss sounds through the rhythm of a chemotherapy drip, and its agonizing pull is signaled with the incremental replacement of one figure for love by another (that is, the romantic beloved, a stock figure in poetic traditions, appears elsewhere in Morales’ writing but gets displaced for a while here by the implied presence of the aunt). Love associated with the familial figure takes over as the hospital temporarily moves to the fore. When death comes, it is quiet.
On the broader social plane throughout El mundo como ser are vague changes driven by uncertainty and speculation. These flow through Havana streets to the muffled beat of regguetón. But shortly after the death of Morales' aunt came an abrupt change to that feeling of change at hand. Let's call it an abrupt evolution in the rhetoric of Cuban change, an evolution that did not come quietly at all. Just as Morales was writing the final pages of El mundo como ser in Vedado in December 2014, the presidents of the US and Cuba made their dual announcement about their intention to change their infamously oppositional governmental relations for the better.
The uncertain energies of change vibrating in Havana compressed into a new form. NOW CHANGE HAD BEEN TRUMPETED AS A MOST OFFICIAL AND DEFINITIVE FUTURITY SENT DOWN BY THE GOVERNMENTS WHOSE ACTIONS AND STRUCTURES HAVE SO LONG UPHELD THE US/CUBA DIVIDE. Of course, the official pageantry of the December 2014 announcements didn’t mean THE GREAT CHANGE could actually be executed in everyday life overnight. Changes take time to unfold, loudly and softly, and of course, more and more figures are attempting to influence the action on the Cuban field of play in 2015.
These ongoing evolutions will enter future books. Morales decided that El mundo como ser was complete after he registered that 12/2014 transformation in public speech.
Before the public announcements were made, El mundo como ser was already going to be distinct from his earlier books. Morales previously succeeded in crafting a particularly limpid prose-like fragment. He wrote manuscripts very slowly, meticulously revising them to best express a drive toward enlightenment within a zone reserved for poetry, which was located in the deep, echoing interior spaces of the mind. As a result his earlier books are characterized by a feel of cleanliness: poetry acts as a defense of interiority, usually keeping the community at bay. Where the poetry's serenity gets ruffled, tension tends to form via interactions with a poetic beloved and/or confrontations with the boundary-negating power of death.
The opening page of El mundo como ser, or The World as Presence, appears to continue in this meditative pattern. However, it rapidly becomes clear that the speaker is no longer succeeding at protecting his interior spaces from contamination from the urban life all around him, and perhaps he has given up that kind of effort. It is in the permeation of Morales' former poetic boundaries, in fact, where I find the most interesting moments of the new book. Morales allows battles between internal and external realities to surface after many years of pushing them below the reader’s lines of sight.
The motions of poetry in The World As Presence manifest as “stippling,” an idea that eventually surfaces with a key epigraph from Artaud. The play of experiences signal struggles not only for the writer, or for an individual consciousness echoing inside itself, but struggles arguably epitomizing societies going through intense change. Poems hint at the counterbalancing –or loss of balance —between association and dissociation, old codes and new codes, meetings between memory and the perception of the present.
In the following fragment, change comes to Morales' home district of Vedado. This residential neighborhood is a meeting ground for locals and visitors: it's also famous for the architecture of its 20th-century hotels (particularly the ones run by US mafiosos) and a rising restaurant scene. Change rides into Vedado on outside investments, building renovations, expanding privatization, and a renewed spike in the urban audio scripts of English-language tourism.
I haven’t written for years, I say to myself. In the street next to me, a yellow taxi.
On the horizon the sun wobbles like an egg. The end of history, I pass the tunnel, dividing lines, the sun, a violet-colored yolk. Nothing for which to die. End of story, I say. Exhaustion. A gang of Yankees, white shoes, white socks, sneakers, everything white, the Cuban mahh-racas, the Cuban artist. The Cubans. The center of the fruit is the pit. I read that. The center of me. I go into a bar, now everything is private, cool people, rich people, now everything is private, designed, now design is everything. There are a lot of ways to kill yourself, they tell me. Closing your eyes is one of them. I leave the bar, the sun strikes my forehead, reality strikes my forehead. After looking at it for a while, violet accompaniment. Terrible need for a poem, need for art.
Listening to your voice in solitude, your spirit’s voice, there are ways to not be there, to void yourself, they say, closing your eyes is one way, I think, I close my eyes, the violet mass floating in my retina. A letter “o,” a violet zero, a circle drawn by a violent reality. They won’t be able to say that I consented to the abuse. Won’t be able to say: The source of his love gave out at the end of an era. Won’t be able to say I consented to this nothingness.
Hace años que no escribo, me digo. En la calle, a mi lado, un taxi amarillo.
En el horizonte el sol se mueve como un huevo. El fin de la historia, paso el túnel, rayas de separación, el sol, una yema violácea. Nada por lo cual morir. El fin de la historia, digo. Cansancio. Bandada de yanquis, zapatos blancos, medias blancas, tenis, todo blanco, the cuban marrracas, the cuban artist. The Cubans. El centro de la fruta es el hueso, leí. El centro de mí. Entro a un bar, ahora todo es privado, gente cool, gente rica, ahora todo es privado, diseño, ahora todo es diseño. Hay muchas maneras de suicidarse, me dicen. Cerrar los ojos es una. Salgo del bar, el sol me abre la frente, me abre la frente lo real. Después de mirarlo por un rato, la compañía violácea.
Necesidad terrible de un poema, necesidad de arte. Escuchar tu voz en soledad, la voz de tu espíritu, hay maneras de no estar, de anularse, me dicen, cerrar los ojos es una, creo, cierro los ojos, la masa violácea flotando en mi retina. Una o, un cero violeta, un círculo trazado por una realidad violenta. No podrán decir que yo acepté el abuso. No podrán decir: La raíz de su amor dejó de luchar en la frontera. No podrán decir, que yo acepté esta nada.
The Vedado resident becomes part of a Havana on display for visitors, linking Morales' book into literary genres from tourism and travel over the centuries. Yet the perspective here is that of the Vedado resident being viewed. Comprehending English through the dominant local Spanish, this island citizen is capable of hearing and viewing the visitors right back. Moreover, the Vedado resident is fully capable of conceptualizing art as such (in implicit contrast to peoples in literary history who must be rendered aesthetic -- primitive, picturesque or exotic -- by an outsider's imperial gaze).
With his delicate stippling progression, Morales portrays identification with a neighborhood in order to witness changes -- imagined and real -- coming to it. These changes cannot be fully overseen from “within” the island, be that by governmental authorities above, or the vigilance of “the people” below. El mundo como ser becomes a timely yet durable entry in the poetics of place, depicting the interpenetration of experiences, their muffled soundscapes, and at the heart of the collection, a fundamental recognition of how humans lack control over place across distinct scopes of mortal experience.
To return to the photographer who portrays Morales here, poet and cultural critic Ricardo (“Richard”) Alberto Pérez shares the following idea in an essay about Alejandro González. “Cuba,” writes the poet Pérez, “is a country that for the past five decades has been under constant radical changes and unique complex processes which have left a physical imprint on the environment, both in the urban and rural areas, as well as in the lives and in the faces of its inhabitants.” I’d argue that his remarks framing González exceed the limits of photography and can be useful for thinking about poetry. Art forms and makers dialogue; Morales and González are good friends.
The constant -- sometimes manic -- imagination of possible Cuban futures has played out for decades alongside the sequential deaths of futurities that never came to be. Marcelo Morales uses poetry (as, I would add, does Ricardo Alberto Pérez himself) to track the imprints that these phenomena, change and process (factors real or irreal & either way emphatically influential)make on the mind.