Reina María Rodríguez: Poems in Translation

Poems by REINA MARÍA RODRÍGUEZ

Translated by KRISTIN DYKSTRA

Translator’s Note

At first, it seems simple to outline the role of place in poems by Reina María Rodríguez. She began writing poetry in Havana, Cuba, a city that permeates much of her work. She grew up in a building on Ánimas Street, not far from the ocean, in a neighborhood of modest means. Eventually she and her partner built a tiny apartment on that same building’s roof out of largely recycled materials, and there they ran a historic, open-air cultural salon in the 1990s. Today Rodríguez remains interested in everyday life, in the realities accessible to inhabitants moving through the city streets. Alongside her explorations of the present, she incorporates memories from her neighborhood into many poems.

Yet Rodríguez is keenly aware of international forces in her everyday life and writing, so her handling of place (both past and present) is not so simple after all. In fact, it is best understood in terms of pluralities, moving targets. Like many Cubans in the twenty-first century, she has a transnational family life. It requires a great deal of effort to maintain family ties across the hurdles of diaspora, in this case a triangle connecting Cuba to Ecuador and the United States. Meanwhile Rodríguez has always been committed to creating community via world literature, and therefore she continues to generate characteristic poetic dialogues with other writers across time and space. Her otherworldly awareness of constructing writing as, itself, a place contributes to a certain philosophical distance from all physical localities.

The three poems in this issue are all taken from current, unpublished manuscripts. Her attention to place shifts between the past and the present, between the more Havana-based details and the alternate dimensions where family and others may find communion. Following the recent loss of her mother, reunion can take place only within poetry itself, in the world Rodríguez creates upon the page.

—Kristin Dykstra

 

Otro loro

Claro, que el loro de Flaubert
no podría llamarse Chucho,
su autor no lo dejaría
con un nombre así.
De ahí la importancia de los nombres.
Pero en los cuentos de anoche,
-en la reconstrucción de la postal
con apariencia de Navidad
que hacíamos-,
las piezas del ajedrez en manos
de los niños
descuartizadas casi
antes de la medianoche,
tenían que recuperar al loro
con la pechuga azul
entreabierta
y la monja que llega
cuando él canta:
“puta, puta, puta”
y ella se sonroja
hasta caer su rostro en el vino
y creérselo
-aunque no lo fuera-,
con el placer que tiene
por un momento
creerse lo que no se es,
derramando
vergüenza en la copa
ajena.
¿Será verdad que detrás de un grito
estallan las cosas que creíamos ser?

II

El loro Loulou “…bajaba la escalera,
apoyaba en los escalones la curva
de su pico.”
Luego, se perdió para siempre
y su dueña Felicité nunca pudo
recuperarse
ni la monja tampoco.
La familia se lo reprocha
y se persigna todavía,
pues no lo educaron a la altura
de los acontecimientos:
no era el de Flaubert
que sostenía con su altivez
un nombre -su sentido-,
sino un loro común
que se llamaba en desventaja,
Chucho.

 

A different parrot

Naturally, Flaubert’s parrot
could not be called Chucho,
his author wouldn’t stick him
with a name like that.
From which follows the importance of names.
But in the stories last night
—the reconstruction of a postcard
which we were creating to
resemble Christmas—
chess pieces
nearly dismembered
in the children’s hands
before midnight,
they had to pull out the parrot
with his blue half-exposed
chest feathers
and the nun who comes
when he sings
“o whore, o whore, o whore,”
and her face colors
all the way to the wine
all the way to believing herself so
—though she wasn’t—
with the pleasure of
momentarily
believing herself something she is not,
spilling
shame into the alien
cup.
Is it true that after an outcry
they erupt – the things we believed ourselves to be?

II

The parrot Loulou “…used to descend the stairs
by setting the curve of her beak
on the steps.”
Then she disappeared forever
and her owner, Felicity, never
got over it,
or the nun either.
The family blames themselves
and they still make the sign of the cross,
for they didn’t train him to the level
of the occasion:
he was not Flaubert’s parrot
who upheld a name
with her hauteur – her meaning –
just an ordinary parrot
named, to his disadvantage,
Chucho.

 

Confianza

Todo les daba alergias. Por eso, recogían las almendras que, a su paso, caían de los árboles, sobre las calles, por empolvadas que estuvieran las semillas, no estaban tan contaminadas como lo demás. Porque, a esas almendras regadas entre la yerba, no las fumigaban con petróleo. La madre siempre vino con su hija y con la cesta de aluminio repleta. La cesta estaba herrumbrosa por algunas partes ya, pero ellas no le temían al oxido. Con los palitos sobrantes de los helados que otros dejaban caer al comérselos, hacían limas de uñas para vender y de eso vivían: de las almendras y de los palitos. Cuando les preguntaba cómo estaban, me respondían afirmando con la cabeza al unísono que muy contentas, porque, “lo almendrado” las protegía, aunque las almendras se hayan puesto prietas por el calor también.

 

Trust

Everything gave them allergies. So they collected the almonds, which, as they passed by, would fall from the trees, onto the streets; however dusty the seeds might be, they weren’t as contaminated as everything else. Because these almonds, scattered around the grass, didn’t get fumigated with petroleum. The mother always arrived with her daughter, their aluminum basket full. The basket was rusty in some places now, but they weren’t afraid of oxide. With wooden tasters left from ice creams, tasters that others dropped after eating, they made nail files to sell, and that’s how they survived: by living off almonds and tasters. When I would ask them how they were, they would answer in unison, affirming with their heads that they were quite happy, because “the almondy” sheltered them, even though the almonds had darkened from the heat too.

 

“El éxito”

                                       

De todo lo que ha pasado
la explicación es lo peor que ha pasado.
Una madre no es un día
para ir a la tienda.
Una madre tose,
se resfría
y pregunta cosas que nunca
responderás.
Es así esta cadena
desleal.

Toqué sus dedos tan delgados
despidiéndome,
pero en mi cabeza aún sigues joven
bañándote en el mar con la trusa
negra y amarilla
llenita de flores rojas sobre el vientre.
Lo peor de todo es explicar lo que dimos
o lo que no pudimos dar,
lo que está inhabitado
y se protege
sin más explicación.

II

Siento su voz
llamándome
cuando desde la ventanilla
la veo jugar entre olas
que pronto no volverán
-aunque la resaca la traiga
con el plato de sopa a la escalera-,
o el dinerito de un vuelto
que me presta
y nunca devolveré
con el mapa de un retazo que sobró
aunque no alcance esta vez
al estirarlo más
para que la blusa caiga
ranglán
sobre la necesidad del hombro,
sus botones cosidos
unos encima de otros
reafirmando
con hilo naranja
lo que no puede ver.

III

Alguien está tocando el piano
y alguien se detiene junto a él
es ella, la que cosió vestidos
interminables como teclas
sobre acordes
finitos.
Soy yo, la que hice poemas
que no son suficientes
para dar una explicación
que no sea baratija:
un vestido, un color, un botón,
el rastro (el trapi) 
“Rojo, blanco y azul”
que nosotras llamábamos:
“El éxito”
y no le decíamos a nadie
dónde quedaba
para ser cómplices
y dueñas del misterio.

IV

Un beso ladeado
se resbala de la mejilla,
sale a la carretera
y se dispersa
hacia el retrovisor que marca
la inocencia,
del tiempo de una vida
donde nos creíamos inteligentes.
Esos fueron nuestros viajes
y nuestras desavenencias.
Voy a morirme sin ti
-como ella morirá sin mí.
Está escrito en el sueño
con zapatos viejos.
Es el destino
una repetición
de la mano abierta
con sus finas líneas
controversiales.

Si volviera a nacer
a tener una hija y una madre
pediría que fueran ustedes.
Les diría lo que no está explicado
en la explicación
frente a la puerta de salida
donde uno no sabe ni dice
cuánto puede dar
ni merecer.

 

“Success”

I

Of all that has come to pass
explanation was the worst.
A mother is not a day
for going shopping.
A mother coughs,
catches cold
and asks questions to which
you will never respond.
That’s how this series works:
it is disloyal.

I touched her fingers, so thin,
waving goodbye to me,
but in my head you’re still a young woman
in the sea wearing underclothes,
black and yellow ones,
belly spread with red flowers.
The worst of all is explaining what we gave,
or what we couldn’t give,
a thing uninhabited,
and it protects itself
with no further explanation

II 

I hear her voice
calling me
when through the window
I see her playing in waves
that soon will not return
—even if the undertow
brings her
to the stairwell with the soup bowl—
or gives back all the money
she loans me
which I will never return
with the map of cloth left over
even if this time I can’t
stretch it any farther,
can’t get the blouse to fall,
the raglan,
over her shoulder’s need
buttons sewn
some above others
reasserting something
in orange thread
that she can’t see.

III

Someone plays the piano,
and next to him someone pauses,
it’s her, the woman who sewed dresses
neverending as keyboards
over finite
chords.
It’s me, the woman who made poems
inadequate
for giving any explanation
but the cheapest:
one dress, one color, one button,
the trail (secondhand store),
“Red, White and Blue,”
which we women used to call:
“Success”
and we wouldn’t tell anyone
where it was
so we could be complicit
and keepers of mystery.

IV

A tilted kiss
slips off one cheek,
heads for the highway
and sidetracks
toward the side mirror marking
innocence,
from the time in a life
when we believed ourselves intelligent.
Those were our voyages
and our discords.
I will die without you
—as she will die without me.
It’s written in the dream
with old shoes.
It’s the destination
a repetition
of the hand, open
with its fine
controversial lines.

If I were born again
to have a daughter and a mother
I would ask for them to be you both.
I would tell them what is not explained
in the explanation
at the exit door
where one neither knows nor says
how much one can give
or deserve.

 

Reina María Rodríguez (b. 1952) has established a reputation for determined advocacy for the arts, accompanied by a will to create conditions of maximum independence and rigor for writers. Her daily commitment to writing has resulted in an impressive array of collections over the years, including the recent books, Luciérnagas (2017), and Poemas de Navidad (2018). Among her many other awards are two Casa de las Américas Awards for Poetry in 1984 and 1998, Chevalier in France’s Order of Arts and Letters (1999), the 2002 Alejo Carpentier Medal for achievement in Cuban literature, Cuba’s 2013 National Prize for Literature, and the 2014 Pablo Neruda Ibero-American Prize for Poetry. The Princeton Library holds her papers. Her latest editions in English translation are Other Letters to Milena (U. of Alabama Press, 2016) and The Winter Garden Photograph (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2019).

Kristin Dykstra is principal translator of The Winter Garden Photograph, by Reina María Rodríguez, Winner of the 2020 PEN Award for Poetry in Translation and shortlisted for the 2020 National Translation Award. It was published by Ugly Duckling Presse, which in the same year brought out Materia Prima, an anthology of poetry by the Uruguayan writer Amanda Berenguer co-edited by Dykstra with Kent Johnson. Previously the University of Alabama Press published four of Dykstra’s book-length translations of Cuban poetry, by Rodríguez, Juan Carlos Flores, Ángel Escobar, and Marcelo Morales. She is also the translator of Tina Escaja’s Destructivist Manual. Selections from Dykstra’s current poetry manuscript appear in Seedings and at The Hopper, and others are forthcoming in Lana Turner: A Journal of Poetry and Opinion and La Noria (with Spanish translation by Escaja).

Reina María Rodríguez: Poems in Translation

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