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

José Kozer

Four poems

translated by Mark Weiss

Kafka Reborn

It’s a modest two-story house not far from the river on a narrow street in Prague. In the early morning

between the 11th

and 12th of November he awoke with a start and descended the stairs to the small kitchen with its round table and linden-wood chair, its portable stove and methyl-blue flame. He lit

the burner

and the fire became at once (three) flames reflected in the window’s three panes: smell of sulphur. He wished

to go

to the dining nook to drink a medicinal tea of honey and boldo leaves, he moved the chair and settled in before a sienna-colored clay bowl which he had placed, he’d forgotten when, on the six-colored wicker tray, Felicia’s

gift; and once again

Felicia appeared her hair in braids and the radiance of candles reflected on the white oval of that face greedy for consecrated loaves and cakes, that face

three times

a burst of flames in the window pane: she appeared and was again three times the child of her dead, a few chamber players

responded to the stroke

of a triangle and the stroke of a bell (at three) in the high belfry not far from the river: they took their ease, ten

cups, ten

chairs in the immense country house with its mansard roofs, the house in which bay windows and glass doors (barns and sheds) were open day and night, the water

and the sponges

shone. Yes: it was another time, and a chorus of girls tended the tea pots (boiling) the eucalyptus (boiling), the marjoram and a digestive water (mint leaves) respiratory

waters: at peace

at peace (at last), he climbed the stairs and saw himself stretched out in the window pane (at last) no crowd of birds

in the window.


The shop in Havana is dust

and the Irish cotton is dust

and my father, a dusty Jew,

day after day comes home with a loaf of bread beneath his arm.

Day after day, each day alike,

his eyes oblique as striped cashmere,

not like the restless eyes of a captain searching the shallows

he returns to the house, a rough and bubbling crater.

Papa arrives: we eat lunch, our eyes fixed on the ceiling’s ornate moulding,

I have never seen the water come in, have seen neither fish nor flowerpot.

My mother enters and polishes the furniture’s heavy carving, changes Thursday’s sheets,

no flower ever to be seen in any bedroom.

All of the shops in Havana have closed,

the workers, in a noisy fever, file through the streets,

and my father, a dusty Jew,

bears once more the Ark of the Law

when he leaves Cuba...

General Cleaning

All of the shades of the house were drawn,

all of the neighborhood’s windows shuttered,

before the great door of Thursday could be opened

in all its glory.

And then they erased my grandfather’s contrite corpse

the sulphuric, the naphthalene, Abraham’s steps a portent

of my mother’s slippered progress through the rooms,

polishing the seven arms of the candelabra,

bringing order to the flatware for milk and for meat,

frying the foods of exodus and abundance

while outside was a tumult of inflamed mulattas

the street overflowing with the triple flame of the bongo

and three lovely Cubans, their cheeks quivering, swayed to the rhythm of a song

while my mother straightened the mirrors for once and all.

The Offering

I was born in the house of the dying man; I no longer shake his exhausted corpse, he rests in peace now.

He is laid out, his feet face eastwards.

They are enormous; two stems of the same bloodline: from them in that far-off country the scent of camomile rises in spirals; ovoid: the oval of his shaved head withered rests as ever upon a pillow; look, they have limned on the pillowcase a fish with golden scales the arrow’s-flight of a diagonal bird: entranced, it prays on the linen of the pillowcase; it is far from the white space of the linen; its piety empowers  it to soar above the fish the seamstresses have simulated an outburst: of hops.

The scales reanimated by their golden yarn.

I know them well: they sit to their embroidery on lyre-backed mahogany chairs, for each corpse a burlap robe smelling of sweat or lavender, a fish a bird for the head’s repose in the dirt: the seamstresses do their touch-up; the head of the corpse is luminous, luminous its feet: the robe silk, soft beyond softness the cloth of the pillowcase.

The corpse of an old toad.

It has not shrunk: flies nibble at an intact body. It is an intact mass of suppuration glowing from its pores, open-work cloth: all things that fly are his; the quiet chrysalis. All things that fly come forth overflowing from ever more hidden cavities: from those depths the seamstresses pull the yellow basting of the dregs, they shake the larva.

They exude a filament of glass.

Timeless concavity: a sketch.  And on the bed he is not dead: they dress him. He is renewed: a red plush shirt, wide, wrinkled beige pants; they have woven garlands of leguminous flowers through the braids hanging above his chest: impartial.

He sits up; they have helped him.

His large bare feet secrete the rust of nails that ants sip in their holes; the petals that fall from his clothing amass in an insatiable empurpled wasp’s nest at his feet; birds of the dregs linen fish rush to submerge themselves: he smiles.

He sees in the shoetrees of space a door.

Levantine suns: the local silversmiths smell of cardamom, the necromancers, resuming their work, position him. And they carry to the plaza troughs abundant with ovals of sifted flour: flocks of birds peck at the crumbs refulgent between his lifted arms.

Photo of José Kozer José Kozer (Havana, 1940) is the son of parents who migrated to Cuba from Poland and Czechoslovakia in the 1920s, and the grandson of a founder of Adath Israel, Cuba’s first Ashkenazi synagogue. He studied law at the University of Havana, left Cuba in 1960, and received a BA from NYU in 1965. He taught for many years at Queens College of the City University of New York, retiring as a full professor in 1997, after which he lived for two years in Spain before settling in South Florida. He is the author of over 15 collections of verse. His most recent, No buscan reflejarse (2002), a selection from past volumes, is the first poetry collection by a living Cuban exile to be published in Havana. Two small bilingual collections of his poems, The Ark Upon the Number (1982) and Prójimos / Intimates (Barcelona, 1990), both translated by Amiel Alcalay, have been published. Stet, his own far more comprehensive selection of poems, will appear, in a bilingual edition with translations by Mark Weiss, from Junction Press in early 2003. He is also coeditor, with Roberto Echavarren and Jacobo Sefamí, of Medusario Muestra De Poesia Latinoamericana/ a Sampling of Latin American Poetry (1996). “Rebirth of Kafka” appeared in Bajo este cien (1983).

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