The Courage of the Poet

The Courage of the Poet

I returned to Cuba in January 1999 after an absence of thirty-eight years, accompanied by the ghosts of a past I had never lived and by my twenty-nine-year-old son, who was curious about the place his father had spoken and written about obsessively.

At the airport, while waiting for the customs officials to approve our entry papers, we were approached by two men, one dressed in street clothes, the other in the beige uniform of the customs service. My son was told to wait in a hall by the baggage claim area and I was led into a small gray room with a desk, a table, and two chairs. There they proceeded to interrogate me. While the two men hurled questions at me, ranging from why I had returned to Cuba to when I had last appeared on television in the United States, they rummaged through my briefcase and pulled out a sheet of paper containing a translation into English of one of Heberto Padilla’s poems. It happens that I often use drafts of unfinished work as scrap paper when making notes to myself or jotting down someone’s address or phone number. The man behind the desk looked at the poem quizzically and asked, “Can you translate it into Spanish?” The poem, titled “Exilios,” is not one of Padilla’s more political ones. Rather it is a meditation on different states that one passes through on the way to adulthood. It begins “Madre, todo ha cambiado ya. . .” I recited the poem, in Spanish, by heart. The man seemed pleased and turned the paper over. On the reverse was a list of names and addresses, many of which were given to me by Heberto and Lourdes Gil. “¿Y esto qué cosa es?” the man asked. The last name on the list was Raúl Rivero’s. I still remember Heberto saying to me, “Of all these people the most important is Rivero. Say hello to him for me when you see him.”

The recognition of my naiveté weighed on me heavily. In the United States a piece of scrap paper is scrap paper. In Cuba, it means something altogether different, particularly if it bears the names of two poets, both of whom had stood up to the regime with their words and were considered enemies of the state. In 1971 Padilla had been jailed and subsequently forced to make a public confession. By 1999 Rivero was considered a dangerous person in Cuba. His independent journalism, published overseas, reported the tribulations of daily life in Cuba the regime wanted kept quiet. He was an active supporter as well of the independent libraries movement. In a few years he would be charged with collaborating with the United States and sentenced to twenty years in prison. The man behind the desk made a phone call, and in minutes another man appeared in the room. He was somber and severe and asked me many more questions. After three hours, I was finally let go, with the warning that it would be wise if I did not visit the people whose names were on the list.

I began writing in the city of New York, enjoying its freedoms, its abundance, its tolerance. No one told me what to write. No one told me what to honor or criticize, when to applaud, when to keep silent. Neither Padilla nor Rivero had those luxuries. Both were journalists and poets, professions that compel you to tell the truth, your truth, first and foremost. They wrote facing intolerance; they wrote confronting tyranny with only their words as their weapons. Think about that. Words as weapons. Against intransigence, against mediocrity. It is not that they sought out confrontation, but that confrontation was forced upon them. They wrote out of conviction that the individual right to say and write what one knows and believes is sacrosanct.

That is the risk of being a poet: that in speaking the truth you will one day be called to deny your poems. Then you must reject that demand and be ready to stand behind your words through harassment, repudiation, condemnation and imprisonment. Bringing Raúl Rivero’s name with me to Cuba was tantamount to bringing a bomb, at least according to the men who were in that small room with me. Wasn’t Rivero in Cuba already? you may ask. He was and he wasn’t. In a similar way Padilla had never left. Such are the contradictions of alienation and exile. The poets’ words are present in the streets and houses of Havana, like the sun and the salt air, acting as antidotes to the repression every Cuban suffers daily. Without the words of the poets the Cuban spirit would have died long ago. And yet neither poet is by nature a political writer. Even when Rivero is writing about his cell, it is not his outrage that comes through but his tenderness—“no one knows who you are/sweet, light and serene/prisoner of the air.” His themes have no ideological foundation. They arise instead out of what the German poet Novalis called the sober and spontaneous encounter with the world. Rivero’s poems speak of love, of children, of fear, of the sorrow of abandoning his country:

Fatherland, you hurt me
and it is like a kiss and a wound
so sweet and deep
so intolerable and tender the pain

The refusal to adopt a polemical stance makes Rivero as Cuban a poet as there is:

I lived in you
and I live in you now
controversial land
our own miserable traitors denigrate
from a microphone or a wicker rocking chair
from infamy and its despicable forms
from a calumny or behind a desk
from death or arbitrariness. . .

His love for his native land is as passionate and unadorned as José Martí’s, Cuba’s greatest poet, whose generous spirit Rivero adopts in his unrepentant call to put aside ideology, a game Cubans were never good at to begin with, and let the most human elements in us dictate our actions: love, brotherhood, forgiveness:

Now I am determined to forgive everything
In order to cleanse my tired heart,
Open it only to love’s fatigue.
And so, those who are directly at fault
For my furies, the determined craftsmen of my sorrows
Are declared innocent once I finish this poem.
(“Sorrow and Forgiveness”)

It takes courage to speak the truth where truth is considered a threat. It takes greater courage to forgive those who oppress you. Forgiveness, of the sort this poet writes about, is a necessary step on the road to reconciliation. It is a great honor to meet Raúl Rivero and listen to his words, and it is a great pleasure to offer him now the greeting I brought with me to Havana in 1999.

Pablo Medina is the author of ten books of poetry and prose, most recently The Cigar Roller, a novel, and Points of Balance/Puntos de apoyo, a bilingual collection of poems. He teaches at Eugene Lang College, The New School for Liberal Arts.

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