A shorter version of this review appeared in Brooklyn Rail (September 2007) and online at http://www.brooklynrail.org/2007/9/books/poetry-labyrinthine-fuges.
Critical theorist Theodor Adorno’s observation, “The more deeply [the artistic] spirit, in the process of production, immerses itself in the material on which it labors, the more it molds its own form to that of the material that resists it, the higher it rises,” could well apply to the Cuban poet José Kozer’s labyrinthine, exuberant, questing work. Adorno’s dialectical relationship between creative immersion — which implies a gradual descent towards submergence — and the volatilized upward movement of the realized artwork, mediated by the artist’s struggle with the material to be worked on, with, and against, is integral to Kozer’s poetic project.
Witness these opening lines: “Now I am within, amber. // Within, where the scent of honey slides. // Within its scent an (amber) drop, a fragrance, shines” (“Gaudeamus”); and also “On a Sunday the white butterfly skims across my meadows: dandelion-filled meadows of my imagining” (“The heavenly Jerusalem”). The sensibility that emerges from Kozer’s poetry — a representative sampling of which is contained in this superbly produced and translated bilingual edition — can be described as attuned: to the oscillations of consciousness, to the rustlings of language beneath and beyond mere words (“(I don’t care for the word word, if truth be told)” [“Last will & testament”]), and to the ever-present potentiality of a reconciled world: “They coincide: wine and caterpillar, tree and humus, earthworm and pupil: eye at the window, horizons; and (within) a vertical desire. The globe glows. The constellations glow. And their silence (nothing glows more) that perceptible silence of the carnal bark (manure): we are beyond description” (“Exaltation”).
Kozer’s poetry is in incessant movement, often eschewing line and stanza breaks in order to convey a propulsive drive with the intensity of a Bach fugue. And just as, potentially, a Bach fugue could go on forever, to the point where its ending always seems arbitrary, even disruptive, so also does Kozer’s entire body of work appear to be a single poem temporarily halted by caesuras. Memories of childhood, harbingers of old age, celebrations of domestic bliss, the pleasures and pains of the body, bouts of nostalgia (simultaneously corroded and nurtured by the passage of time), transmutations of what is read and heard in the course of a single day, the vagaries of the weather, the susurrations of vegetal and animal life — all speak and sound on the page as contrapuntal strands in an intricately proliferating (neo)-baroque composition.
Another remark of Adorno’s, “There is no element in which language resembles music more than in the punctuation marks,” serves to call attention to the musicianly style of Kozer’s deployment of punctuation; inattentive readers who, like careless musicians overcome by routine, take insufficient note of these markings will almost certainly go astray in Kozer’s verbal sinuosities. His consummately inventive use of the parenthesis — “the test of a writer’s sensitivity,” according to Adorno — deserves particular mention. In the dense, emotionally allusive “Traces, of the inscribed,” parentheses are used to restate, amplify, and comment on phrases, breaking the forward movement in such a way as to convey a ghostly other voice speaking beneath (and in chorus with) the poet’s in this ancestral tribute: “David, harp in hand before the throne (God, much the greater) rust (binds) the harp strings (at the slightest touch) will crumble: he, that insatiable king; and these now are his generations to come, like he who sat at the head of the table (shaven head) (myopic) he shakes he genuflects he’s overcome (and sways)...”
In this and many other poems, Kozer builds on the great Cuban poet José Lezama Lima’s concept of the “imaginary eras,” where individual creations, expressions, and existences from distinct and often widely separated historical periods become reinterpreted, reunited, and resurrected within the poetic image as, in Lezama’s words, “points of reference forming a contrapuntal projection to reach their unity in this new conception of world and image, of enigma and mirror.” A sequence paying homage to the great 12th-century Chinese poet Li Ching Chao, at once uproariously humorous and melancholy, posits a torrid love affair across vast reaches of time and space between the poets: in one poem, Li Ching Chao is resurrected as a weary prostitute in the Teatro Shanghai of 1950s Havana being courted by the swaggering “super-Cuban” poet; in another, she arrives from China by plane to take part in a ménage-à-trois with the poet and his wife Guadalupe, the anima of so much of Kozer’s work — or are Guadalupe and Li Ching Chao the same woman? One particularly erotic poem in this sequence is written with one word to a line, creating a scherzo effect that resonates beautifully with the title of this and several other poems in the sequence, “Mercurial motion.”
Surely the most poignant emergence of the imaginary eras may be found in the poem “Reappearance.” Long exiled from Cuba, the poet returns to his old family home in Havana and, through a Proustian upwelling of memory that crystallizes in a piece of fruit on a platter (“sensing...that it’s the same peach we’d left there forty years before”), bestows the glowing aura of resurrection on a china cabinet containing the dishes and sacred vessels left behind in his family’s flight into exile.
The mood here is not one of facile nostalgia and sentimentality, but rather of celebration and communion: “Eternal Spring. The shadow of the son observing his own flesh. The shadow frolics, but the flesh frolics also.” This poem, which enacts and gives substance to the prayer for tikkun olam that concludes “Last will & testament,” “And might I see made whole all crumbled things,” articulates a moment of reconciliation that transcends historical and personal contingency and that Kozer’s poetic ancestor, José Lezama Lima, described in terms of a telos: “...in the end poetry will unify everything; it is already beginning to do so.”
Crafting English translations of this complex poetry, which lives and moves so completely and thus far from uncomplicatedly in its Spanish — an autonomous linguistic realm that Kozer has carved out in and against the Anglophone world in which, a diasporic man from a region of multiple diasporas, the Caribbean, he has made his always-provisional home — demands a combination of creative sympathy, unselfish dedication, and audacity: qualities that Mark Weiss, who also edited the anthology, possesses in fullest measure. Dodging the traps of the simplification and banalization perpetrated by all too many so-called “free” adaptations and of the plodding literalism in which everything in the original is present save the poetry, Weiss renders justice, and homage, to the myriad subtleties and idiosyncratic inflections of Kozer’s protean style and voice, lovingly (and triumphantly) bringing the poems over into an American English as rich, strange, and musical in its own way as the originals.
Christopher Winks is Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature at Queens College of the City University of New York.
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