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Deborah Meadows

The Poetics of Drifting Devotions

The poetry of Reina María Rodríguez

Reina María Rodríguez: Violet Island and Other Poems. Translated by Kristin Dykstra and Nancy Gates Madsen. Los Angeles: Green Integer Press, 2004.

Notes are given at the end of this file, with links that look like this: [125]. Click on the link to be taken to the note; likewise to return to the text. If your browser employs JavaScript, just hover your mouse over the link: the note will appear in a pop-up window.

This piece is 7,000 words or about fifteen printed pages long.

“under us are gravestones
— it’s said that they’re stable
and that we’ll reincarnate ourselves
on this mixed architecture.”

                        — from “the rafters” by Reina María Rodríguez

“Contrary to their mythic predecessor, the new labyrinths will change constantly. Like all architectural projects complicit with utopian instability, a notion prevalent since the nineteenth century, that of the Situationists had little chance of being realized. But in this case the impossibility of realization is essential, for Situationists regard mobility as fundamental. They are builders of movement; they interest themselves only in buildings earmarked for demolition or endlessly transformable into new labyrinths ...”

                        — from “Angels of Purity” by Vincent Kaufmann

“Quotation of iconic predecessors maladapts us
to worship, liberty of satire and parody —
this mocking land, ...”

                        — from “Parasite” by Deborah Meadows

During a visit with Reina María Rodríguez in Havana early July 2002, she asked where faculty and students from my campus had been taken thus far. I told her we went to the designated tourist area, Las Terrazas where we saw ruins of a failed nineteenth century French-owned coffee plantation, the dead owners’ house intact, and remnants of barracoes or slave quarters. I said they took us there to get mosquito bites, pointing to the assorted welts on my arms and legs. She groaned at the sight of the bites but began a lively story about how she had written a tourist-directed article about Las Terrazas for an international edition of a UNESCO-sponsored magazine. Soon after she was hired to write the article, she stood in a bookstore reading other articles and descriptions of Las Terrazas, shut the book without buying it, came home and wrote the genre article that was ultimately published as a sort of guide. And, she laughed, she had never been there.

The slip between being-there and creating-there is an entry into how complex communication and cultural production is in Havana (and in other non-Cuban locations). To speak from the “I” who is not a singular or stable “I” has multiple renderings and context-dependent uses. I’ve been told what are logical opposites within a minute in Havana and have come to appreciate how very possible it is to decipher meaning. One learns to read, as one would in any cultural setting, even when statements may be deflected with phrases such as “it’s impossible to know,” “it’s all simulacra.” This is much more complicated than notions of self-censorship which imply a consistent means of expression or deception in the face of consistently managed oppression — we must be various in reading, or in expression, so that we might understand that the self is both socially-constructed and has the capacity for honesty, that we can still tell if someone is a phony or a good person within the realm of social simulacra. How do we make these distinctions in the context of today’s Havana, the beautiful boat-less harbor, its historic sites with ghosts of former slave ships, its vibrant cultural production, its multiplicity of selves?

The director of our campus exchange program explains it folklorically: this is a people experienced in clandestine revolution, why would anyone tell all? In response to continental post-structuralist work on hierarchies, binarist thinking, and how power saturates linguistic structures, many US poets have virtuously eschewed use of all binaries and have kept clear of the fray. In the poetry of Reina María Rodríguez, by contrast, we see that she adds more pressure to the binary divisions between self/ other, here/ there, etc. to multiply, de-stabilize, and make labyrinthine these ready-at-hand pairings. Her added pressure moves the poems’ logic of binarism to the logic of proliferation.

Some practitioners in Situationist Internationale (SI) raised similar questions in the very different context of France in late 60s during a time of civic unrest and social re-examination of power and culture relations. Here’s an excerpt from “Angels of Purity” by Vincent Kaufmann on drifting or dérive wherein the individual agent/ artist of SI leanings changes the individual self to a collective self in its experience of the city:

Thus, walking changes from a subjective activity to an objective one. Impersonal, it obliges the subject to renounce his or her customary practices in the interest of obtaining a kind of cure on the urban couch: to listen attentively to the city, like others listen to language, the Other having shifted. By the same token, the modalities for describing the “promenade” must also change. It might even be said that the dérive is walking purged of autobiographical representation, that it is a practice requiring the enunciatory and ambulatory disappearance of the walker.

And  on the SI relation to social space and structures:

This becomes clear with the mythic derives (drifts or driftings), the most practical phase of the Situationists’ spatial investigations. Relating to “psycho-geography” much as textual analysis does to literature, these are exercises in territorial reconnaissance or interpretation of the urban text, exploratory forays into singular surroundings.

Before I explore the theme of iconic representations and, like selves, their lack of stability over time and dependence on shared, social context, I will first take up the theme of ruins.

A Green Integer Volume

Reina María Rodríguez’s newly released Green Integer book Violet Island and Other Poems translated by Kristin Dykstra and Nancy Gates Madsen selects poems from several of her Cuban-published books. The opening two poems are from two early collections, and these are followed by thirty-odd pages from En la Arena de Padua, then a large selection  from Páramos (Dysktra and Madsen translate this as Plains, but I would suggest Plateaus to pick up its associations with A Thousand Plateaus) and concludes with poems from the collection entitled La foto del invernadero (The Photo of the Greenhouse). While my limited language abilities preclude me from evaluating the quality of the translation, I’m well aware of Madsen and Dykstra’s high regard as literary translators making this collection even more exciting; indeed John Beverly’s introduction to the From Cuba issue of boundary 2, comments on their “superb” work. I will, however, ask a few questions about Spanish language properties that non-experts may pose.

Rodríguez tells me by email that she has never been to Padua, Italy — a city, of course, famed for its high cultural production, its controversies such as Galileo’s trials, its famed poets such as Dante and Petrarch, as well as the suite of fresco paintings by Giotto (begun approximately 1304) in the “Arena” or Scrovegni chapel which details the Passion cycle of Christ’s paternity, birth and so on. From her email: “... no, no estuve en Padua, me refiero a la cuidad, pero es allí donde simbólicamente trancurre el poema.” [I wasn’t in Padua, I referred to the city but it’s there where symbolically the poem elapses/ passes.]

In the everyday life of Havana and in the expression of its writers, ruins are a central physical reality and symbolic area. Rodríguez’s city is crumbling and she and her partner Jorge Miralles have built living quarters and a cultural center in her rooftop apartment. Reina María Rodríguez plays an important role as part of a group of intellectuals and writers, including Antonio José Ponte, that she has gathered about her in her tiny rooftop apartment, her azotea. She regularly holds literary salons and provides a hospitable setting and has done so for many years. Both relatively young, Reina (born in 1952) and Ponte (in 1964) and their generation have benefited from university education and have encountered local, European, and world literatures and philosophical traditions. Determined and steadfast, they have experienced the worst of economic shortages after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and, like other Cubans who have not become ‘rafters’ (people who have left Cuba for Miami by raft), or balseros, they have hung on with grit and with a sense of grief for those who have left the island.

In her poem “the rafters” the old Havana buildings that collapse were built to shelter “only what won’t last” yet are subject to “humidity   the vice of rust.” The “arena” here, in part, is a “betting ring” where “they bet on horses    on salt    on men” and this site of contest implies “possible worlds/ from the passion through the windows/ my life is?” the inner life turned toward the outer public life: “the profound passions.  they bond and burn/ in hell’s square/ that is a horseshoe.” The public gamble nicely resonates with the Passion cycle of Giotto’s frescoes, each panel a composition onto another “scene” or narrative moment. The horseshoe for luck or chance depicts an emblematic device seldom associated with the Passions’ destined trajectory: old to new, of what use will the old be to the new? What are the obligations of each to the other? What toll does tradition exact from the new? How do passions generate their own conditions of bondage? Of freedom? But as we read Rodriguez’s “where do we put partitions     walls/ personal things?” the frequently discussed topic in Havana is the need or desire for personal space in the context of collapsing, historically encrusted structures, limited housing availability.

A Knack for it

I’ve mentioned the writer Antonio José Ponte, who was a regular visitor to Reina María Rodríguez’s azotea. City Lights Press has published a new English language translation of his book Tales from the Cuban Empire. It includes a story dedicated to Rodríguez, “A Knack for Making Ruins” perhaps acknowledging her reputation as having been involved with many men, leaving in her wake wrecks and ruined hearts (reina of hearts as it were), as well as the clear reference to her azotea. In Ponte’s story, the protagonist, a young man who is studying to be a city planner like his father and grandfather before him, meets with his thesis advisor to discuss his topic of building lofts because the city is “growing inward.” But he has visited this man even as a child with his grandfather, has a fond childhood memory of being treated to one coin per visit from a bowl at the door, repeated now. The old advisor:

“You never noticed that the coins were from different eras,” he began. “For a child geography is much more interesting than history.  Other countries mean more than other eras ... Perhaps we still do not need to begin our journeys in time.”

They arrive with their “coin” at a place where another urban planner lives in a condemned building. The coin ends up being a game piece for a Monopoly-type board game they can use to purchase a map of the city from the 1832 cholera outbreak. This will somehow develop his thesis. Here they experience explosions below-ground for laying coaxial cable; meanwhile, someone is removing a wooden structural support to build upward, another loft foreshadowing the social occurrence of collapsing buildings, killed residents, the transformation into ruins. Yet, we learn, a peculiar subculture of tugurs arose who built on abandoned buildings and thus began an ethos of the “true tugur [who] causes a building to fall without letting a speck of brickdust fall on him. His victories consist in returning to the house and not find it standing.” They are disliked because “They’re footloose, rolling stones, they have nomadic blood ... And it’s hard to be like that on a small island.”  and “... What your blood tells you every night is a mere mirage of the open road if the land comes to an end. ...So if you can’t get out, you go in ...” so our protagonist is told by D who dies in a collapse shortly after this conversation. A book within the short story, D’s book also entitled A Knack for Making Ruins seems to bring everyone associated with it to a fatal end. Members of his research team die off one-by-one; shortly after the prior conversation, the young man’s thesis advisor dies. Left to follow a mysterious man at the train station, our protagonist enters an underground world that begins with abandoned subway or coaxial tunnels and becomes a sort of heaven, or after life too vast and bright to locate oneself, where collapsed buildings exist, like embellished, reconstructed memory.

Like the questions posed by Situationist International (SI) about physical ruin, instability, and drifting, Ponte and Rodríguez share concerns for physical spaces that are precarious, unstable, unofficial. SI, on the other hand, seeks a collective production rather than the individual lyric voice. In his essay “Angels of Purity,” Vincent Kaufmann points to the relation between official and unofficial spaces:

As for the players, they remain invisible, literally blending into the landscape. Their preference runs, if not to secret places, then to deserted ones, like the forementioned catacombs and houses slated for demolition — or the métro, which should be opened at night after the trains have stopped running, its corridors only dimly illuminated. Also noteworthy from this perspective is the frequency of the figure of the labyrinth from which the Situationists have no intention of exiting, a kind of ultimate refuge from the society of the spectacle. The world is to culminate in a beautiful labyrinth in which little Situationist monsters can hide to outwit the formidable beast that is the society of the spectacle, which is too large to follow them inside, or, should it manage to gain access, would summarily be devoured by them.


... To be an artist is to take psychogeographic bearings, to make oneself a theorist of space as others are of text...

Perfect Copies

Where there are ideas of simulacra (copy in relation to original, or all copies with no original) and hyperreality, what do those mean when experienced in a socialist economy such as Cuba which shuns media spectacle and sensationalism for state ritual or public display of national celebration, public attendance to their famed baseball games and internationally renowned ballet or concert hall music?

In her poem “polyhedrons” Rodríguez points to the ability to make metaphors that can be violent:

... don’t you know the real scope of my metaphor? yesterday I tried to explain it to you, a concept shaping my entire life: not to crush innocence, even if we have to lie for it — to “lie” isn’t the word — to kill.

For a reader inexpert in the language, how does  Spanish represent or foreground social relations in ways that differ from English? Does that make for a different experience of the work?

And later, she descibes the price exacted from the writer by unplugged dreams and desires:

nude inside the typewriter: a time machine, a ridiculous simulacrum who just walks, toward the after, in this other empty machine, the time machine and I, we look for virginity, we deliver it, the dream, the insanity and something that I was going to be ... something without a grip, without an overflow of memory to interrupt and hold that discourse as if among crystallizations...

Yet the suspension of time required by representation or description is driven by fascination and love, (and in anticipation of a study of the poems’ use of iconic or devotional images):

... everyone freezes something inconstant in order to possess it, which has to be called love. I already told you, all I want to find in motionlessness is the before and the after, it’s an exercise in attention

Medieval selves

When one speaks of the self, how or why is it that emotions are used to define the parameters, if not prove, the self’s independent existence, its status as “feeling” entity? In Bill Viola’s “The Passions” exhibit at The Getty Center, in early 2003, he explores how joy/ fear/ sadness look in filmed images slowed to imperceptible changes of actors’ facial expressions. It requires slow and long attention to perceive changes. Though he ostensibly drew from European medieval devotional images, it’s hard not to notice both the particular, as well as the shared, universal idiom. For example, the lighting is the sort we usually associate with theatre lighting. Even if the production may be, say, a Shakespearean play, we recognize and “read” the lighting and expressions to actors’ faces and postures as drawn from the idiom of familiar contemporary theatre.

This ability to decipher raises the question of how we know interior states when exterior descriptors such as gesture, carriage of body and facial expression are drawn from a vocabulary in which we are embedded. How has theatre (or any other art form) codified emotional states into recognizable (hence seemingly universal or shared) set poses, facial expressions, bodily configurations? Why or how do some emotions (agony, grief, joy) have greater physical demands than other emotions (sustaining love, mild interest, etc.)? What is the relation of demoted truth to an artist’s fidelity to idiom, or an artist’s competence within that truth-code?

In A History of Private Life: Revelations of the Medieval World, Georges Duby writes of devotional pictures that the experience of “private piety [was]... not necessarily a different species, that the liturgical and the intimate were not necessarily opposed. The greatest inwardness was not incompatible with public display of piety.” As aesthetic pressure is exerted on text and performance, what can we discover about social practice and about the properties of selves in relation to icons?

In Rodríguez’s last poem from the Arena collection, “a girl mad as birds” a mad girl “enters my room” and “... against the frame./ space of my door/ between the labyrinth  and the changing of my mind I was alone/ that’s why I had to invent her” hence extending Rodríguez’s various constructed selves. The image of alternate self is framed in a devotional type of representation within a domestic setting. To what extent are frames required by portraits or by devotional images? In what ways are devotional images quotations?

Rodríguez continues: “that camera obscura behind the lens in that instant/ or between that lens and me...” on the Renaissance portrait device as well as the Roland Barthes reference, again representation and its mediating devices, the self always a culturally-constructed one, “... so that maybe she’ll appear/ the same woman I intended when I invented myself.”

We can turn to other poets’ Arenas and then turn to Che, the icon.

Other Arenas

Other poets have written in response to the Arena Chapel in Padua, such as Kathleen Fraser in Giotto: ARENA. Like Rodríguez’s rich artistic interactions of her azotea society and poetic preoccupations with originals and copies, Fraser’s endnote emphasizes the importance she found in Giotto’s shared society as well as “ongoing friendship with Dante [that] involved painting the very same neighbors into Arena Chapel frescoes as those being written into Dante’s Inferno. Wanting to foreground the meanings inherent in ‘faulty copying’ (as typos visualize them); playing error against mastery — the fixed Byzantine model of “perfection” as tripped-up by Giotto’s break from type.”

A portion of this poem reads:

He masses pale clothed bodies — relieved with beloved and
random Venetian stripes; blue is sparingly ppressedd ...

that not only connects us to questions of the weight of tradition on the present, but questions stability much like the opening citation from “the rafters” in this article.

In conversation with Viola’s video art work, perhaps most obviously, Viola’s Emergence (2002) which is a sort of tableau vivant based on the 15th-century fresco by Italian artist Masolino who, according to The Getty Center’s online press release, “represents Christ half-length in the sarcophagus, being supported on either side by his mother and St. John.” A less obvious but more significant point of contiguity: Observance (2002) shows “18 performers moving forward one by one, reacting to a distressing sight, and retreating. Tightly framed and hypnotically paced, it is a moving study in the varieties of strong feeling and their expression” (online press release). Observance, for me, creates an uncanny experience of being studied as a corpse at a wake where the corpse is able to film, and “study back” the observers from that point of view. That the observers, or more particularly those making or observing a solemn rite, are clothed in contemporary garb places normal, quotidian “Monday” in tension with the final or extraordinary event that death is. Here we see poets and artists work against received means of representation as well as ancient roots of taboos against making graven images and today’s taboos against photography in many art museums.

Furthering problems associated with age-old blacklisting techniques, charges of heresy in Fraser’s poem (and in Rodríguez’s Padua?) are frighteningly presented as organic, a flower, discrediting what the innocent “landscape” or “book of nature” may hold. Here’s Fraser:

A certain Flemish meanness

Graven image temporarily misplaced ... the possible enlargement of a
click(ed) moment’s pictorial efforts, Giotto keeps looking at grasses’
breadth, a band of green repeated not in stone but in lines’ lucid firmness,
the murmurs of heretic in flower and leafing Vespignano’s rose-lit sky above
Appenine road to Bologna.

Cypress hedges, masses of oleander, magnolia inlaid with flutter.
“A grey extent of mountain ground tufted irregularly with ilex and olive.”

Refusal of minute and sharp folds: French and German illuminated dawns
(gowns) and a certain meanness in the Flemish disposition of drapery.

Later, Fraser continues, using typos that blur “palette” with “palpate” in Giotto’s quest for a “great system of perfect color” that required his use of “real faces” in a way, I suspect, that Viola and Rodríguez could both appreciate:

“His own palpate softens theory’s sharp folds

seeing lLargE blank surfaces’ close-up seeing”

Another Arena

Rodríguez’s poem “ski sauvage” opens with a citation by that great self-constructor, Antonin Artaud on the role landscape painting plays in creating an ideal “that could be incorporated into reality” with a heavy stress  on could. The ski slope’s description  relies on an “(aesthetics) of disaster.” Thus, her Arena poems open discussion of questions that she will pursue in more nuanced forms in Páramos (Plains) but are central to understanding the framing of her work.

In the poetry collection entitled ARENA, Dennis Phillips derives kaleidoscopic narrative fragments from both oneiric near-wholes and grammatical discontinuities. The alternatives, the either/ or choices are often false choices, as the overbearing power of the state is in contest with the self-propelling sexuality that fails to elude oppression (“your list”) ending as failed love:

Whether this is political or not.
The same stories. Then, if not political

The failure to receive election from, presumably older men, is a wound whose injustice is nursed over in an arena where:

Fighting for an area of expertise.
Cult of the personality.
Claiming what is everyone’s
as one own.

So the agon where: “the government had ordered the clocks turned” accelerates alienation and bureaucrats ascend in malevolent power in this, Ashberyian perhaps, “system.” Somehow:

Like Giotto’s frames
and you float, fixed figure.

and somehow, one survives economic duress, earthquakes, and crumbling buildings:

They were floating and thus out of danger
These edifices that do or don’t suffice

but fragmentation, a kaleidoscopic turn can support the narration.

Iconic Photographs and Quotidian Proliferation

The poems included here from Rodríguez’s 1998 collection entitled La foto del invernadero (The Photo of the Greenhouse), as Dykstra’s Afterword points out, refer to magazine photos, to commonplace representations of the past in the rarefied, greenhouse of “her” consciousness. When externals are represented, a separation or omission of internal states may provide sustaining ingredients.

This set of poems troubles the search for permanence or suspension of time. In the “Isle of Wight” “I cracks” in its search for meaning and “what was secure” only exists in the past tense — the grammar signaling the present, “and I find myself” as insecure, but mature, contingent, and tender.

“twice the minimum” proliferates duplicities: sexual betrayal, the relation of “her” body as terms of measurement of her lover, of her building, but also doublings of being in- and outside of the poem: “swear to me that we won’t leave ‘the poem’s territory’ this time ... I won’t be reborn into the spectacle” and the divided corporeal body: top and bottom are measures of day and night.   The poet pushes the erotic sensuality of these poems to pornographic objectification, and enjoys it. The doubling explores right and wrong, life and death, and male and female divides:

I always tried to see what you were seeing
through the triangular opening
(to be the two at once) something double in the same place
as the bodies, and something double in the feet...

Che, the icon in reverse Ekphrastic Lyric

Rodríguez’s final poem in this collection “ — at least, that’s how he looked, backlit” considers both the technique of photography and the material photo in hand then tacked to the wall because “photography/ has something to do with resurrection” in regard to the devotional, or iconic, economy of Che Guevara whose aura is so strong:

I could even photograph that distant Christ;
could have that casual resignation
to recover my faith...

The narrator of the poem recalls attending school with a supposed son of Che about whom it was rumored that his mother had incestuous relations with the boy, “one I couldn’t love/ maybe because I loved him already ...” Can aura or charisma be so strong that it can cause people to transgress taboos? Then what else can it cause people to do, and are those qualities necessary to overthrow the mentality as well as the governing structures of colonial domination? Can it, in turn, bind with worship?

The supposed son is a “poet and a carpenter” shaped by his society which “made him wear a beret since he was a child.” But even though photos are images “made by the hand of man,” the “verisimilitude of existence is what matters, / the pure archeology of the photo, of reason” pursuing the question of truth-functions of icons and their stability over time. After all, the narrator does not display the photo which might be “attacked/ by the light; that the photo will also die ...” Reflecting on repetition, the poem’s narrator is pulled by the “fatal obsession” that is part of the economy of devotional images, the so-called fetish, or totemic, character that can cause a self to identify with a supposedly stable image, becoming unstable, so that:

the only thing that’s left for me is to know that I was, that I am
the imaginary lover of an imaginary man

This is amplified by the narrator’s close identity to the supposed son of Che as a “child of the revolution” who was “... made in order to be like him/ in the real death of an imaginary past.” A striking poem leaving readers to wonder how identity gets negotiated in relation to such a tall, mythic past so that today may move forward. How can society be full of possibility and avoid becoming “the ghost of fallen leaves that was once its protective tree.”

Scenesters and Hangers-on

These works raise fascinating questions on varying tensions between appearance and reality: a de-stabilized reality that is de-stabilized by what? metacognition and self-reflexivity? To what degree is this the nature, or an inherent property, of human consciousness? To what degree a function of socio-economic realities? To what degree are these properties particular and to what degree shared universal experience?

The poems “the islands” and “the work” set a sort of force-field wherein consciousness of these ideas are electrified; where the islands “are apparent worlds”:

another woman that I don’t know, thrown on top of me
only the lesser life
the unhurried gratitude of the islands in me.

The final poem from the Páramos selection, “the work” opens on a scene of several people, actually several social roles, joined under the light of “an imitation art nouveau lamp.” They are in “the window of pretense,” and like many poetry scenes, this one has fakes, wannabes, and poseurs who “all need their own personal representations to survive” and “all aspire to some truth” but are constrained by their situation, their limits, by their quest for “preservation in the self” that will exceed their time and place. That earnest human drive is depicted as the flawed, tragic engine of continuing pursuit in full knowledge of the impossibility of satisfaction of those desires, yet “... neither do they define anything beyond our failed choice, pressured by thousands of faraway mechanisms, just one false move of an antenna ... ‘like iron filings attracted to a magnet...’ can you defend me from myself? from the narrow circle of a life ...” (105).

What is real and what copy, what is human choice and what constraint, what is symbol or image and to what can it refer other than to itself? The group stays all night under the light of the art nouveau lamp which is a “true imitation” wrestling with existential questions when, disturbingly, they learn about  “one more sleepwalker tonight who jumps off the balcony toward the dock while sleeping” defining raw choice “not of archangels; toward the most real reality, toward the image of the real. One can stay very long in the image of the real. it’s the end of the work.”

In the Paris métro

In “la rue de mauvaises herbes” Rodríguez writes how “I and myself live in a toy carousel that spins, spins inward”. And on divided selves, again the figure of the sleepwalker who moves in a state of suspended consciousness but seems to make conclusive choices: “the sleepwalker has gone away, she has defied me many times by hanging herself in a dream, one that glitters and repeats ...” and the beautiful, fragile “Lalique jar breaks in my hands ...” The famed art nouveau designer René Lalique as well as Hector Guimard, the designer of many of the Paris métro entrances, are aesthetic vocabulary: in Dykstra’s essay, we learn that Rodríguez feels “guilty” about these French and Italian references in response to pressures on writers to draw upon Latin American references, and we notice how compliant she is in response to aesthetic pressure.

The drive to move from image to hard reality may evacuate the possibility of self in the logic of this poem and here is a grammatical movement from first to third person, and a temporal movement from personal to historic past set in the Parisian métro station (formerly open-air produce market), Les Halles, from personal to philosophical consolations:

...she tries to tap that harsh Lalique crystal, to sound it out with her knuckles, to live without its appearance, but you’ve taken the jar away; and the fascists, the cords, the ropes all got in as well to hang the half-beings who renounce the sanity of possession, and now nothing remains of the alternative life inside, of me inside myself, of the carousel that begins the entrance into permanent time at Les Halles; nothing remains of the uncertain attempts to experience the intertwining of the weeds, flooded with voices and voices and rallies that don’t say anything anymore. that’s why she is, I am, alone and lost in the commemoration of my red apple, of my sufficient consolation in its taste, with myself and with the apple, with the holographic memory of you, of having touched you when I looked through the skylight over the darkened silhouettes of the temples. will I take you with me from this museum to reality?

Les Halles, of course, is a central reference to Situationists, and I understand that Guy Debord includes several market scenes in his 1973 film The Society of the Spectacle.(Not to mention the well known work of Henri Lefebvre who reviews the re-appropriation of Les Halles and sees, through presence of youth culture, a shift from a site designating work to subversive play in his The Production of Space).

Like Ponte’s tugurs, if the outside world and its messages are vacuous, one may be driven further inward, or by reverse, the “she” of the poem would reach out of herself if the socio-political world was rich with possibility. Thus driven to the “consolation” of philosophy or “commemoration of my red apple” “she” is driven into memory, how it offers independent self-sufficiency, how it offers a hideout but one that is dangerously circular, a carousel.

Reina María Rodríguez and Soviet poet, Arkadii Dragomoschenko both weigh the spoiled promise of utopia and how urgings toward utopia are more long-lasting and imaginative than their physical manifestations, more durable as disappointments. Like Rodríguez, Dragomoschenko’s self-conscious use and study of discourse in Description, for example, construes self  both outside the structure enabling him to point to how the device (such as landscape conventions that are socially-learned ways of seeing) works and inside the device using it for a shared means of expression. In his well-known, “Observation of a Fallen Leaf As the ‘Ultimate Basis’ of Landscape (a reading)” he writes of the relation of time to space or, as he quotes Lyn Hejinian, that “The landscape is a moment in time/ that has gotten into position.”:

Stricken by the virus of time. And to it — again; becoming
     its axis, whose ends are joined, like sleeves of a tautology
or — also possible — its pain, unifying contemplation.
Such is the source of a “favorable environment,” the layering
of the bush,
the dog, of the shoveled earth...clay. Like the lizard’s lettering
when awakened by the flashing future

and a bit later:

A sign enters like a forged nail we hammer
                                       into the shell of oblivion.
The collar of the dictionary.
The seed’s schema is pulled straight (I teach I)
in a leaf

swirled into the surroundings
Gradually opening a mode of existence to simple
                                          “landscape” language.

The self-replicating “virus of time” can appear differentiated by position, divided by an axis or first or second placement in a logic equation, yet our most established tools of  identifying and categorizing species, such as animal motility, drive toward a future that makes meaning in a meaningless world, a shoveling and hammering that can be art, science, or language.


Arguably one of the most important poetry publishing events this year, this long-awaited volume crosses all sorts of difficult lines merely to arrive to us, and to be translated so ably is a remarkable, irreplaceable feat, so my quibbles with Dykstra’s Afterword are to be read as quibbles not as diminishing the unique material collected in Violet Island and Other Poems.

While Dykstra does well mentioning strains and faded parts of Cuba’s revolutionary project, she could strengthen the critique of the United States’ planned, systematic, intrusive  CIA activities combined with US policies of embargo and travel restrictions that demean the people and impoverish the economy of Cuba thus creating product (such as paper) shortages. So her wistful lament that much of Reina María Rodríguez’s work is unavailable in Havana bookstores seems odd. Dykstra does well in describing the “Special Period” and dire economic effects of the collapse of the Soviet Union and withdrawal of subsidies but omits critical assessment of US interference with Cuba’s trading partners. Because of the tremendous importance of this bilingual edition, she could further develop and acknowledge practices in Cuba that are admirable — that poetry and other publications are subsidized and sold at about seven cents a copy to a highly educated populace is a practice that other countries could emulate (especially those that keep book prices at a “competitive market rate” making books affordable to some, while stock is pulped or “remaindered” as planned excess and waste to protect interests of corporate profit). Of course, poets and artists chafe under any institutional life no matter the economic structure, and Dykstra does well describing the complexity of understanding contemporary Cuban poetry. Yet the Afterword seems too small a place to capture the complex and heavily symbol-laden reference to the Padilla Affair. [See Editor’s note]

At best, a reduction is due to length limits of any volume’s apparatus, and at worst it is a simplification of history which could lessen or handicap a reader’s understanding of Reina María Rodríguez and her work.

The Latter Portions in the Green Integer Collection

The latter portions of this volume include poems from Páramos (Plains) and La foto del invernadero (The Photo of the Greenhouse).The role of memory and history are inflected through, as mentioned in Dykstra’s essay, postmodernist writers such as Jean Baudrillard, Jean-François Lyotard, and Michel Foucalt.

The poem, “Violet Island” moves from a lighthouse keeper who is a searcher for comprehension and “light” to an unreliable “I” who falls asleep even though she is supposedly telling her story through the mosaic bits of the lighthouse keeper’s story. As another example of text-mediated narration becomes the ghostly character “Fela” who speaks as a lover: “this body with which I’ll come/ isn’t mine”, who seeks a place or time free of evaluation, hierarchy, judgment that may require:

...another language,
another profundity that won’t locate security, or any limit
or any bravery.   only being where we are and settling
as different intelligences into sensation, allowing us
pain, anguish, some stable flame.

Like the poems “twilight’s idol” and “watery light,” Rodríguez experiments with erotic poetry and finds the material sad, funny, transgressive, and oddly unselving  : “I undress and there’s no me” where the presence of self can suspend the presence of “description” to use Arkadii Dragomoschenko’s term for landscape:

I’ve just discovered my body and rejected it because sometimes it tries to possess a space, an obliqueness that distracts me from what is continuous, from the interruption of landscape (intimacy contained in a small flowerpot with lilies).

The poem concludes with a critique of artistic narcissism that turns the world into a projected creation of the artist, “reality as a ghost created by the author”.

A sort of interior narration of sadness conducted during a sexual encounter (usually considered a means of comfort), “Watery light” is a slow requiem for lost friends who have left Havana back in their 20s and now, again, a wave who leave in their 40s. The grief cannot be assuaged nor can the conscious self become suspended temporarily by the deep involvement with sexual orgasm. Rather the requiem turns heightened awareness of an objectified body, and again, a text-mediated experience: “(anguish about overcoming a state of anguish (ego) and a tremendous penis, now for me, it’s just literature).”

This is the kind of sex people have at a later age, perhaps, when feeling deep loss, so I disagree with Dykstra’s reading here, and see no sense of “wanting to be violated.”

But can the Book of Self be a comprehensive library?

The poem “like things that are expensive” Rodríguez looks at: “hyperrealism is the need that leaves no ground for seduction” because the division between apparent worlds and reality provokes or creates the ground for the “protagonist (agonic) of that moment, beyond its representation ...”

A Self Capable of Murder and Pretense

In “the artist” Rodríguez traces a movement of childhood scribbling when it seemed “everything was known” to maturity when writing “took on precise forms, drawings, systems, maturity had been achieved, that’s it, representation, its construction”. But further movement and growth as an artist requires uncertainty and the desire “to break up the conscious drawing” and “unmake myself in those original scribbles,” to be free of “the artificial desires of any power, or possession ...” Her poems ends by opening outward with the question whether “... when I abandon the simulacrum, the acting, the desire to seem, the fable, the plagiarism of a system of action, do I cease to be “the artist”?”

Others from Páramos such as “light in August,” a writing-through William Faulkner’s text to pursue her question of what the self is capable, of how representation may slip from the world’s hard tangibility to its own device and socialized ways of seeing. Her citation from Fernando Pessoa points to the many fictional selves required to tell social truths, to reveal intentions and devices.

“eighth step” uses quotidian objects and reiterated domestic movements as provisional ground for intention and art:  “... where the internal reflection of intention was going to be constructed ...” and the broken coffeepot that may, to some, have an aura of accumulated character is denied elevated status. Here: “it’s not a relic, it has no history other than that edge of exhaustion where so much liquid and humidity settle” and in relation to the quotidian yet individual coffeepot, the “I” of the poem says it “exists in order to place my own pain in a corner: my excess of pride, my vanity, my obsession with pretense,” that “I’m making it literature” and that “this labyrinthine search for feeling is unnecessary for me” as “something that begins to spoil with the completion of all purpose”.

(Summer 2003)

[Editor’s note] The poet Herberto Padilla (b.1932) was imprisoned in 1971, and the resulting controversy divided Latin American intellectuals and artists. Padilla was made to read a public confession accusing himself and others of vaguely defined attitudes and activities contrary to Castro’s regime, which increased the protests abroad. In 1980 Padilla was allowed to leave the country for the United States, where he taught at a number of colleges and universities and published an autobiographical novel about his life in revolutionary Cuba, En mi jardín pastan los héroes (1981; Heroes Are Grazing in My Garden).

Works Cited
Beverly, John, ed. boundary 2: an international journal of literature and culture. 29.3 (Fall 2002): 1-11. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Dragomoschenko, Arkadii. Description. Translated by Lyn Hejinian and Elena   Balashova. Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1990.
Duby, Georges and Philippe Ariès. A History of Private Life: Revelations of the Medieval World, II. Translated by Arthur Goldhammer. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1988.
Fraser, Kathleen. il cuore: the heart Selected Poems 1970-1995. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1997.
Kaufmann, Vincent. “Angels of Purity.” OCTOBER 79, Winter 1997, pp. 49-68. Translated by John Goodman. New York: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.
Meadows, Deborah. “Three from Cuba.” Edited by Mark Nowak. Xcp: Cross Cultural Poetics, (10: Spring 2002).
Phillips, Dennis. ARENA. Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1991.
Ponte, Antonio José. Tales from the Cuban Empire. Translated by Cola Franzen. San Francisco: City Lights Press, 2002.
Rodríguez, Reina María. Violet Island and Other Poems. Translated by Kristin Dykstra and Nancy Gates Madsen. Los Angeles: Green Integer Press, 2004.
Rodríguez, Reina María. email with author. 01May2003.
Viola, Bill. Bill Viola: The Passions. The Getty. January 24-April 27, 2003.

Deborah Meadows teaches in the Liberal Studies department at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona where for several years she has been part of ongoing exchanges of writers and scholars to and from Havana. Her works include a chapbook, “The 60s and 70s: from The Theory of Subjectivity in Moby-Dick” (Tinfish Press, 2003) and a book-length collection of her poetry, Representing Absence (Green Integer, 2004) and Itinerant Men forthcoming from Krupskaya press.

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