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Poetry: Labyrinthine Fuges

José Kozer, Stet: Selected Poems (Translated by Mark Weiss, Junction Press, 2006)

The sensibility that emerges from Cuban poet José Kozer’s labyrinthine, exuberant, questing poetry—generously sampled in this superbly produced and translated bilingual edition—can be described as attuned. It registers the oscillations of consciousness, the rustlings of language beneath and beyond mere words—“I don’t care for the word word, if truth be told” (from the poem, “Last will & testament”)—and to the ever-present potentiality of a reconciled world.

Kozer’s is a poetry of incessant movement. Often eschewing line and stanza breaks, it drives forward with the propulsive 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, 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 dome—stic 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.

Kozer’s inventive use of the parenthesis 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 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. A sequence, at once humorous and melancholy, in homage to the great 12th-century Chinese poet Li Ching Chao, 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.”

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 “Last will & testament,” concludes with a prayer for tikkun olam, “And might I see made whole all crumbled things,” and articulates a moment of reconciliation that transcends historical and personal contingency and that Kozer’s poetic ancestor, José Lezama Lima, described in teleological terms: “…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 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 Leland Winks

Christopher Winks is Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature at Queens College.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2007

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