Caña Quemada [Burnt Sugar] - Contemporary Cuban Poetry in English and Spanish, Edited by Lori Marie Carlson & Oscar Hijuelos
(Free Press, New York, 2006)
Let’s get ready to RUUUUUM-BAAAAAH !
Kid Gavilan was the first Cuban I became aware of as a very un-Cuban child.
You see, the Kid fought Sugar Ray Robinson. That made him important to my old man -- and -- by filial extension -- importante to me.
Then Sandy Amoròs (the miracle catch in the 7th game of the 1955 World Series). Señor Amorós was a left-fielder for the BROOKLYN Dodgers. He broke my 9 year old Yankee (Yanqui) heart.
The Third Cuban was the guy who came down from the Sierra Maestra, and terminated Fulgencio Batista’s crapshoot in Habana.
A journalist who was there to see it happen came back to New York. He was a friend of my father. My father had been a writer for Black Mask. Then he became a writer for, and then the Editor-in-Chief of -- Billboard Magazine.
Anyway. Our man from Havana gave daddy a red and black arm-band. It said “26 Julio”.
Somewhere in life, I lost that cloth. But it stayed in a drawer in little Joe’s bedroom for years (along with the Brigitte Bardot picture…, never mind).
It turned out that Fidel was a bit of a left-fielder himself.
He came to speak at the U.N. -- stayed in a Harlem hotel -- had chickens running around his suite, and, in fine, told Uncle Sam to shove it.
As I write, Fidel’s still El Hombre en Habana.
Pero (but) he’s gettin’ old. So are those rusting Chevrolets with the bad transmissions.
But he still might be in power when GWB is back in Crawford clearing brush for the duration… Hey -- you shoulda seen Jackie! But I digress…
Poetry is part of “everyday” life in Cuba. Along with Mambos, Rumbas, Beisbol, and some of the toughest boxers and some of the most beautiful women on the planet.
The great Celia Cruz lived in Jersey most of her amazing life -- but she was born in Havana. And she didn’t really WANT to be one of the greatest American singers -- she wanted to be a teacher (she was). She died in Fort Lee, New Jersey -- not all that long ago…
Perhaps the most famous of Cuban poets -- José Marti -- wrote a book (un libro) called “Versos sencillos/Simple verses“.
They are simple. Ordinary. But beautiful. As “everyday” life CAN be (the preceding capitalization is intended for my fellow gringos y gringas).
Marti is not included in a book about contemporary Cuban cantos. He’s been dead for 112 years. But he’s a great reference for a culture where folks say “Bailar!” -- which, en ingles, is the infinitive “to dance”. But -- when Cubans say it -- it means “Live it up! Live for Christ’s sake!” I hope any scholars having read this far don’t can’t ticked at my amateur translations -- But if they do -- well, errrrr…, BAILAR! Let’s get down with some burnt sugar, people.
From Gustavo Pérez Firmat’s La lluvia --
Por eso quiero que hasta el fin del mundo
para que nadie nunca deje mi casa.
Hijos, ánclense a mí,
hay tormenta para rato.
Or, as I say,
I hope it rains till time’s end --
so no one ever leaves my home.
Children, you anchor here --
whilst the tempest rages on and on
and on and on.
Translating is fun (Muchas Gracias to my teacher -- Señora Elba Villavivencio of Quito, Ecuador), but -- no matter how impressive the translated text may be -- it’s not the Thing Itself (Dang whatever -- read Kant to blow any poetry high you may engender).
So I’m going to omit Lori Marie Carlson’s and Oscar Hijuelos’ beautiful attempts at invoking La Cubanía.
Ms. Carlson and Mr. Hijuelos have put together a wonderful book that slips all embargoes.
It’s just that I want to try my hand at this translating game.
From Reinaldo Arenas’ El otoño me regala una hoja --
El otoño me regala una hoja
una hoja blanca de papel -,
patria infinita del desterrado
donde todas las furias se arremolinan.
El otoño me regala una hoja.
He wrote that in Ithaca, New York in 1985. He was one of those who Fidel called gusanos and put on the Mariel boat lift in 1980.
Autumn gives me a leaf
a page waiting to be written on
infinite country of outcasts
land of the whirling furies
Autumn gives me a leaf.
From Severo Sarduy’s Obatalá --
al dueño de las cabezas.
Cascarilla, algodón, nata,
dale con grajes de plata
Y una torre de merengue.
Beautiful. Let me give it a shot --
You -- vassal to the Lord of Minds,
offer him your little shells, your cream,
your shards of silver,
offer him a tower of meringue.
Severo Sarduy was born 11 years after Kid Gavilan was born in their home-base, Camagüey. He died in Paris in 1993 (Kid Gavilan died in 2003 -- in Miami).
And from the negrista Emilio Ballagas’ Elegia de María Belén Chacón --
María Belén, María Belén, María Belén.
María Belén Chacón, María Belén Chacón, María Belén Chacón
Con tus nalgas en vaivén,
Camagüey a Santiago, de Santiago a Camagüey.
Nalgas is -- from the dictionary -- “buttocks“. Vaiven refers to “ to and fro motion”
It’s an elegy for María Belén.
She swayed. She swayed.
Burnt Sugar sways…
Joe LeClerc is a writer, musician, and kick-boxer residing in the Hudson River Valley. He is also a Circulation Clerk at the public library in Goshen, New York.