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Jacket 18 — August 2002   |   # 18  Contents   |   Homepage   |  Catalog   |

Miguel Barnet

Four poems

translated by Mark Weiss

      Walking the City

I, too, am among the privileged
of the age.
I was nurtured on high, slender walls,
a melancholy child,
in spite of a taste for shiny shoes
and the tears of Deborah Kerr and Cary Grant.
My eyes would melt in silence
in Vedado’s shady places.
In my celluloid seat
I dreamed unspeakable things,
black women, naked
in a foamy landscape.
I myself invented all the stories of the city
and I built my castles of fear
upon the schemes of the penniless Chinese.
If I knocked at the doors of the great
it wasn’t to beg  for a crust or a star,
but to leave an open, perfumed flower.
Believe me, I have been among the privileged of my time,
without time to lament my personal sorrows.
There are things that they show me with a corroded shine
and I look at them —
what’s to do!
I will walk these streets
without fear of whatever unforeseen
may lunge at me when I’m lost in thought.
Child of the minstrel and his guitar,
like a dream beast
I will pluck the strings of my invention.
I continue walking the city,
it throbs in my skin,
and if by accident I knock at your door,
fear not, Lezama, that I’m the ghost
of a poem by Baudelaire
nor will I refrain from telling you that you are still among us,
you, and those with whom we surround you,
like a tree of dark signals,
a fountain of enameled fish.
I write this only
to tell you that my feet have not wearied
of going through these streets that were once mud,
through these palaces that Julián del Casal*
saw covered with snow
and that I carry in my pockets not stones
but the sons* of Teodora Ginés*
to distribute among solitary wanderers
and sleepers in the parks

I lean against the Malecón*
nervous about poisonous octopi and empty bottles tossing in the water.
A noisy truck passes
carrying men and women
volunteers for the harvest.
Why am I reminded of a chorus of medieval lutes.
I expose my heart to wind and salt.
I have crossed the threshold of my house of shadows
And I know now that I’ve become my own reflection.

*Julián del Casal. Cuban poet (1863-1893), one of the first Latin American modernists, and considered, with José Martí,  one of the two most important poets of the late 19thCentury.
*son. Traditional Cuban music form that became popular in the 40s and 50s and again in the wake of the film Buena Vista Social Club.
*Teodora Ginés. Freed slave who is said to have invented the son at the end of the 16thCentury.
*Malécon. The seawall that runs the length of Havana, and the boulevard that parallels it.

     Death’s Like That

Fatso has died who could inflate
bicycle tires with his lungs
he used to get drunk in front of the Castillo de la Punte
hiding from daylight

Patricio has died his small dry hands
clasping a final lottery ticket to his breast

Tente, from Palmira, has died in his filthy bed of straw
poor old santero

He died at midnight while pouring aguardiente
for Oggún Arere his protector
I don’t know why I’m so sad about Tente

Israel has died who sold cloth wholesale
and filled with nostalgia would announce
‘I’d like to eat figs in Poland’

Susanita has died, the old hotel keeper, worn out from weeping
in the courtyard armchair
her keys at her waist and her thick nose...ah, Susanita!

The hustler died — I can’t recall his eyes —
who used to lounge for hours
against the post with the streamers
on the Paseo del Prado

Oscar the bookie has died, but more slowly,
soaked to the ears in violet water
weighing at the end no more than a husk

The gypsy organ grinder is dead
whose monkey danced its tender dance
at the end of its leash all over town

Lucía, or was it Lucrecia, is also dead
my mother’s seamstress
who sweated over her sewing machine day and night
to support Humberto, her eternal husband
Those eyes of hers pierce his body now
Jesús is dead — I wish this was over —
the mulatto from the library
They told me to read a lot. I don’t know anything.

Picasso is dead, hung
from a bar of chocolate
                                                                  That Picasso
                                                                  did amazing things
                                                                  at the circus!

Dead. This is awful

Once again I don’t know why I say the name

I wish I could flow like a river

     In Chinatown

I wait for you
beneath the wrecked marquee
of the Chinese movie
in the yellow smoke
of an extinct dynasty

I wait for you
by the gutter
where black ideograms
that no longer say anything

I wait for you at the door
of a restaurant
on the Paramount lot
where they shoot the same film every day

Anticipating your arrival
I allow the rain to cover me
with its broken lines

Accompanied by a choir of eunuchs
and Li Tai Po’s
violin with just one string
I wait for you

But don’t ever come
what I want in truth
is to wait for you

     On Cat’s Feet

The wind has scorched my fur
the cold wind, the leveler
On cat’s feet I glide through the dark.
Carefully, with a wild beast’s caution,
I approach your heart,
your scent and the night my compass.
As if you don’t know that I exist you expose yourself
to helplessness and fright.
After all you are weaker
than a ball of yarn
and you haven’t learned to run away.
Only the rain silvering your arms
hovers between us.
You can’t see me, my path hidden beneath trees
The night, prodigal with dreams, plays again
its dirty trick on me.
Fiercely I drink your nakedness until my lips
dry out or forget.
God grant that an arrow pierce your heart
to remake you as I see you, to revive you.

Not for its apparition do I blame the night
but for its ghosts.

Miguel Barnet (Havana, 1940) is one of Cuba’s leading ethnographers. He was one of the founders of the Cuban Academy of Sciences and the Fundación Fernando Ortiz, Cuba’s major ethnographic institute, which he has directed since its inception in 1994. He has published numerous ethnographic studies, as well as five ethnographic novels; four have been translated into English, of which three have been in print since first publication. He is a member of Cuba’s Chamber of Deputies and Cuban representative to UNESCO. He has published seven books of poetry. In 2000 he was awarded the National Prize for Literature. The poems in the present selection appeared in Mapa del tiempo (1989).

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