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Online Feature: “A Cuban Poet in New York” by Pablo Medina

A Tale of Two Cities

The word of my city is that word from of old.

— Walt Whitman, “Mannahatta”

As a child I fell under the spell of two great cities. Until November of 1960, when we left Cuba for good, Havana was my home. Never gray except in winter when a norther blew through it, it was almost always happy and clear, the antithesis of Dickens’ soulless London or Victor Hugo’s sordid Paris. Havana in those days might have had its terrors and sorrows, but it was, above all, a city of activity and hope. It was, besides, the place that first instilled in me an interest in human beings and sparked a curiosity for the physical world—the sun, the sea, the bay—of which it was so much a part.

The city I was born into was not so different from the one that Thomas Merton visited in the spring of 1940. Merton spent many hours strolling through the streets of Havana finding it a crucible of culture and vitality that marked it as one of the great cities of the world—Levantine because of its energy, the abundance of its merchandise, and the commerce that ran in its veins; tropical because of its easy rhythms and relaxed ways. In his Secular Diaries Merton wrote:

The more you look at the city, and move in it, the more you love it, and the more love you take from it, the more you give back to it, and if you want to you become utterly part of it, of its whole interpenetration of joy and benefits, and this, after all, is the very pattern of eternal life, it is a symbol of salvation, and this sinful city of Havana is so constructed that you may read in it, if you know how to live in it, an analogy of the kingdom of heaven.

Those of us who have lived in it know this: Havana was an analogy of paradise. When I left it, I could not imagine a world that was not Havana, a Havana that was not the world. That is why initially I felt no sorrow: to leave Havana was not to leave Havana but to enter it more fully. The waking was sudden. Miami, a city in which we stopped for a short time, was hardly the world. While Havana embraced the bay and engaged the sea, Miami turned its back on the water and spread concrete and asphalt over the wetlands of South Florida, creating a place that had no center, a place without a heart. For a city like Miami, dominated as it was by suburban development, the sea was a limit, an obstacle. For Havana it was a way, a mystery, the encounter with other parts of the world we call commerce. In Miami, as one of its denizens once told me, the only occupation is that of becoming a millionaire, the only vocation is that of the exile. In Havana there have never been many occupations, but there have always been a thousand and one vocations.

I am very glad we stayed only two weeks and that we kept going to New York—the capital of cold, of skyscrapers, in short, the capital of our civilization. We arrived there on a totally white January day when the snow seemed to have erased the limits of the imagination. New York was where Havana continued. In it I could imagine José Martí wandering the streets, Cirilo Villaverde creating that Cuba of the mind he titled Cecilia Valdés, and José María Heredia substituting Niagara Falls for the Hanabanilla as if both were the same size, a literary trope that allowed him to praise the Cuban landscape when ostensibly the theme of his poem was the powerful nature of el Norte.[1]

As a boy and a fledgling poet, books and movies introduced me to New York’s vistas, but it was precisely those Cuban writers of the 19th century who showed me that things Cuban not only survived in New York, but were actually nourished by “la ciudad grande,” as Martí called it. New York was the city of Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, and Edgar Allan Poe; it was the city of wealth, industry, newspapers, magazines, and publishing houses where our exiled writers—there is no better example than Martí—always found ways of making a living. New York, more so than any other city, was the cradle of the Cuban spirit in the 19th century. Since then there have been close ties between it and Havana that do not exist with Key West, Tampa, Jacksonville, or New Orleans, cities that have historically embraced segments of Cuba’s exiled population. Cuban writers holed themselves up in New York, where they waited out their exiles until they could return to the motherland. Meanwhile they wrote, fascinated by the experience of being citizens of that Havana of the world called New York. As a world-class city—arguably one of only two or three in the United States—New York nurtures and supports the cosmopolitan mentality, as well as the foreign and the marginal, and thus allows the poet to practice his art without the interference of a facile or kitschy nationalism.

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The Place Where I Am

When you find your place where you are, practice occurs.

— Dogen Zenji, Japanese Buddhist Master, 13th Century

In the midst of a snowy day in January, I am pricked by nostalgia while listening to a Cuban bolero titled Ausencia, or “Absence.”[2] My chest tightens and I can feel memories beating their wings inside my ribcage. When my son enters the room, I make believe I have dust in my eye. Forget about it, he says. It’s been forty-five years since all that happened.

The truth is that what we leave we are always leaving; what abandons us never stops abandoning us. The past confronts me on a daily basis and much as I try to avoid it by taking a walk, reading a book, or writing a poem, the country of my childhood is always in front of me, just beyond my reach. Nostalgia reaches me in the most unexpected moments, even when I convince myself I have achieved the liberation from the past that people call assimilation. The snow will cover the grass, the street outside, the bushes planted last summer around the building, but it will not cover the shadows that appear before me in the living room or accompany me wherever I go.

Today I felt melancholy—the appropriate word is “blue”—with the certainty that what is lost cannot be recovered and with the foreboding that everything I may use to replace it is, in great measure, insufficient. What use are the finest jewelry, the fastest cars, the fanciest clothes, the most eloquent phrases if I use them merely to disguise the void of disconnection, the source of an infinite bolero? What is the use of listening to those songs that drown me in nostalgia? The exile, I know this firsthand, has lost the place where he was and turned it into the source of his myths, the root of his longing, and the aroma of his despair. For the Cuban, who had his exile coursing through his blood, nostalgia is, has always been, the cradle and grave of his passions. He cannot love without invoking loss and he cannot sing without his mouth filling with grief. The exile has two births—that which brings him into the world and that which brings him into exile—both dominated by the trauma of expulsion.

I feel like this most days. It is not that I have been unable to find the place where I am; it is just that I cannot abandon the place where I was, and one cannot be in two places at the same time. Practice, that is, living every day in such a way that we are able to ignore, or at least tolerate, our condition as mortal creatures, becomes impossible. For this reason ghettoes arise as places where people live not in relation to the place that surrounds them, but in the shadow of one place superimposed on another. A ghetto can be inhabited by an individual, or by a million.

The character of the exile, as opposed to that of the immigrant, is defined by a sense of loss that is simultaneously individual and collective, with a corresponding focus on the past, much more than the present or future. The meaning of the word “exile” is sometimes amplified to refer to states, among them alienation (an internal exile) and expatriation (an eccentric version of emigration) that imply grades of volition and intent missing from true exile. The word’s primary meaning—expulsion from home or country—denotes an act imposed by force, in contrast to emigration, which implies not just a voluntary act but a positive one, with its focus on the future. Exile is loss; emigration is gain. Exile is anguish; emigration is hope. Exile is disenchantment, bitterness, reluctance; emigration is a waking, a return to innocence and enthusiasm.

It is obvious but I must say it: the poet’s condition determines the nature of his poetry. From the immigrant perspective the poet is not always forced to recover the subject of a poem from the past, which appears sometimes in the new language, immersed in the new culture. For the immigrant poet the new culture is not an obstacle; on the contrary, it provides him the perspective of the present from which he can turn toward the future. Let us suppose that a poet in the United States decides to write a poem about a flower. If he is an immigrant, he will search for a flor translated into flower. Finding that “flower” is a triumph that foreshadows the transformation (or translation) of his ser into self. Without self, that is, without ser in English, the immigrant poet finds himself mired in the dislocation that runs counter to practice and causes his assimilation, which is, after all, the ultimate goal of immigration, to fail completely. The failure to achieve that transformation leaves the immigrant in a state of cultural and psychic suspension. Furthermore, for the poet who lacks a profound cultural and linguistic knowledge of his new surroundings, voluntary immigration is suicide, since he has no choice but to evoke the flower in his maternal language and thus return to the past, that world that the immigrant repudiates by definition. In other words, the immigrant poet is forced to pursue assimilation at all costs or lose his vocation forever in the thickets of a superficial nostalgia.

For the expatriate poet, that eccentric who abandons his culture voluntarily but insists on maintaining his ties to it despite the time and distance, it is the space that exists between flor and flower that offers a place for his practice, but it is miniscule and unstable, and always conflicted. The examples of this type of writer are always the same: Joyce, Pound, Beckett, Eliot, Cavafy. Among the Cubans the list is quite small, since expatriation is generally a phenomenon restricted to politically stable countries. Cuban poets and writers who have practiced their art away from the island have been, in their majority, political exiles whose very condition denies them a close affiliation with the host culture; on the contrary, they see it as undermining their status as truncated beings and weakening their opprobrium and their indignation.

For the poet who lives surrounded by a strange language and culture, a flor is not a simple flor; rather, translated into another language and transplanted into another culture, it becomes a specter of “flower,” a word that appears before him on a daily basis everywhere he goes, no matter how deeply he may have immersed himself in a community of Spanish speakers. At this stage the experience of the immigrant and exiled poets is the same. The difference is that the exiled poet does not necessarily search for the flower in English (the flower of the present or the future) but a connection with the flor in Spanish (the flower of the past). The poet can no longer think simply of flor. Now, in his exile, he thinks of flor/flower or flower/flor. Flor has been torn from its natural place and transported to a foreign place where it must become flower in order to exist, in order to root itself. Only then can it disguise itself back into flor. Still, its essence has been contaminated. Its purity and simplicity have been compromised. It is flor-concept, flor-idea. He who insists on thinking of flor—the beautiful, perfect one from the past—without an implicit or explicit reference to a more immediate, more actual flower, runs the risk of becoming mired in kitsch.

By contrast, the poet who remains in his country sees things without translation, without the transformation of experience that occurs from one language to another. It is not surprising that the great North American poet William Carlos Williams would declare with enviable certainty, “No ideas but in things.” His place was firm, certain, secure.[3] Even less surprising is the fact that Williams put his statement into practice as if it were dogma. The result was an objectified poetry of the purest sort. He had found the place where he was, and the result of that discovery was practice. The exile poet, on the other hand, would say, “No things but in ideas,” in other words, in the flor/flower or the flower/flor.

The United States has been a country of immigrants, not of exiles. If the exile is a person who is incapable of abandoning—at the psychic and cultural levels—the place where he was, there is no way he can find a home in the country of immigrants, where it is essential to incorporate oneself fully to the place where one is and learn to swim in the predominant social current. This is true even when that current implies the eventual elimination of the culture of origin, at the same time that it encourages the maintenance of a superficial, invented ethnicity—the beans and rice, the statuette of the Virgin in the living room, the proper (and hip) political attitude. Because that ethnicity is artificial, it remains stunted, incapable of growing organically along with the adopted culture. Besides, for the exile it is not ethnicity that matters but his condition as someone mistreated by history.

True exile is, in and of itself, an antisocial condition. Exile, however, offers the poet a place, let’s call it spiritual, where he can establish his practice. As Edward Said suggested, he carries that place with him, and as happened with Heredia and Martí while they were in New York, it allows him to define, through rootlessness, discontinuity, and loss, a poetic that is both individual and collective—a poetic of exile. In this place that exile provides, flor and flower can coexist, sometimes by reflecting each other, sometimes by doing a bilingual dance, sometimes by becoming integrated in the practice we call poetry.

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The Implicit City

To distinguish the qualities of other cities, I must speak of a first city that remains implicit. For me that is Venice.

— Marco Polo in The Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino

If Havana did not exist we would have to invent it. Without it, Cuba would be one more island plagued by heat and flies at the edges of civilization. Without Havana the Caribbean would lack its nexus with European civilization and the filter that once softened many of the powerful North American tendencies. Without it Cubans would be a provincial hybrid race, dominated by agricultural preoccupations and subject to the power of nature. A fortified city from a very early age, Havana has been Cuba’s defense against hurricanes and war. It embraces the port and defies the sea to caress or destroy it but never, not even at present when it seems more a ruin than a city, does it surrender. It confronts climactic and political storms in the same manner that it confronted pirates: with the arrogance and pride of a grande dame of western civilization.

Havana taught me what a city was. I was raised in it and became accustomed to its order, its chaos, its concupiscence, its devotions, its baroque labyrinth of streets and alleyways, and its profound humanity. Havana made me an urban creature, a small fish in the sea of culture—the one that filled the streets daily, nourished by people and commerce and driven by the sharpness, irony, and sexual play all Cubans carry within. In other words, Havana was my first city and, when I left it, it became my implicit city, the one I always use to distinguish cities I have known and even those, real or not, that I can only imagine. Just as Marco Polo was a wandering Venetian, I define myself as an Habanero of the same type. I do not wander the world with the intentions of establishing myself in a new place. I search in every city I visit for elements of my first city—a familiar gesture of an anonymous passerby; a hidden alley steeped in shade; an avenue next to the sea where the sun is shining; a balcony dripping with flowers where a girl is licking her fingers. When I find them I rejoice, since they affirm the universality of my city, the one that I carry within and becomes a shadow city across time and distance, closer to forgetfulness than to language: a conceptual Havana where one is and is not at the same time.

In that city all possibilities gather. There exists, for example, an island city where good and evil coexist and the coffers of absence fill with expectation. On its streets I see apocryphal parades, ancestral carnivals, vendors singing their wares, the silent march of a thousand soldiers with the same face, the same martial step. Alongside that exists a mother-city with her mantle of illusions and her hands twisted by daily labor. There is, too, a girl-city, beautiful, coquettish, sexual, and lethal. There is a narcissist-macho city and a handsome homosexual one inviting me to delight in his androgynous body; another is an old man sitting under the roof of a crumbling porch. He spits, he inhales his cigar, he waits for death. The last city is a Piranesi etching: shadow and absolute silence. On its streets the dead are strolling, their only evidence an air they leave on passing, the echo of a voice in my ear.

With all these cities that are one I confront the great one, New York, which exists for all time, alongside all time, and beyond all time, the one they call “The City” as if it were the only one deserving of that appellation. Daily I superimpose my implicit city over the explicit one, spreading and stretching it until one is the other, or better said, until the two unify in the concept city/ciudad. One day it is clear, radiant with light; another day it is gloomy. Sometimes it is marble and limestone; other days it is brick, crystal, and asphalt. Some days it is in Spanish, other days in English. One crumbles in heat and desperation; the other grows with cold. One presages the end of all cities—dust, dregs, and stone; the other defies time and remains like the lustrous undying visage of our culture. New York became my city the moment in which the process of distinction between the two disappeared and I could see them as manifestations of the same idea, the same human aspiration. This process, however, would have been impossible without having within me that city which, as I define the cities of my experience, redefines and restores itself. I was born in Havana, and thanks to New York, in Havana I will die.

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[1] José Martí, the greatest poet and political figure Cuba has produced, lived in New York the last fifteen years of his life. Cirilo Villaverde lived in New York from 1840-1894, where he wrote the second part of Cecilia Valdés, the most important Cuban novel of the 19th century. José María Heredia, cousin of the French symbolist poet of the same name, lived in the city only two years, during which he produced the greatest of all Cuban romantic poems, “Canto al Niágara.” The Hanabanilla Falls were the largest in Cuba, until the present government in its zeal to modernize dammed the rivers that led to them and destroyed the falls.

[2] The bolero is by Jaime Prats. The best rendition I have heard it by Omara Portuondo.

[3] While William’s mother was Puerto Rican, there is little evidence that he absorbed her Hispanic origins. His upbringing, education, religious affiliation, and social status all point to a WASP-y existence. He knew little or no Spanish and did not associate with Spanish-speakers.

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This essay appeared in Indiana Review 28.1, Summer 2006.

Anthony Correale (Nonfiction Editor):  Medina is not satisfied with a simple understanding of exile—he has unpacked the word, turned it over and over, reframed it, drawn it as a country unto itself. Exile is many contradictory things in this essay, all in tension with one another, all, in some light, true. In form and structure, the essay reproduces and wrestles with that tension, and in so doing it reproduces the mechanism of resilience: a process, an ongoing negotiation. 

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Cuban-born Pablo Medina is the author of sixteen books, among pablo-medinathem the poetry collections The Island Kingdom, The Man Who Wrote on Water, Calle Habana, and Points of Balance/Puntos de Apoyo, and others; the novels Cubop City Blues, The Cigar Roller, The Return of Felix Nogara, and Marks of Birth; and the memoir Exiled Memories: A Cuban Childhood. In 2015 he published a collection of translations from the Spanish of Virgilio Piñera titled The Weight of the Island. Acclaimed as “lyrical and powerfully evocative” and “deserving a prominent spot in today’s literature of exile,” Medina’s work has appeared in various languages and in magazines and periodicals throughout the world. He is the winner of many awards for his work, including grants from the Rockefeller Foundation, the NEA, the Guggenheim Foundation, the Cintas Foundation, the state arts councils of New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and others. Currently, Medina is a professor of fiction, poetry, and translation at Emerson College in Boston.

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