Orlando Ricardo Menes

Poets as Translators - Orlando Ricardo Menes



(1) Abuela Nena


(1) Tio Manolo


(1) Introduction to Jose Kozer

Translations from Spanish:

(1) This Is the Book of Pasalms That Made My Mother Dance
(2) Desolation of Rebb Leizer
(3) Lupe Singing in the Kitchen
(4) Mom's Grammar



Orlando Ricardo Menes

Abuela Nena

Freedom Tower-El Refugio-
processing center for Cuban refugees

Abuela Nena waddled into the waiting room

her red dress crumpled like cellophane

her scuffed Soviet shoes
cajas de muertos
the orthopedic pair
my mama'd sent confiscated (filched) in Guanabacoa's post office.

Abuela gusana

passport stamped NULO with her tears, eleven years
muttering Ave Marias

to escape
Fidel's infernal island.

Toothless mouth:
dentures bartered
for a pound of rice, half the bag tiny black stones or

were they turds?

Hands scarred, fingers crooked
from having washed 20 tubfuls a week

charging less than black women, old Chinese washermen
who'd come to Cuba as coolies.

My Catalan grandfather, mathematics teacher, earned barely enough for

& a one-room apartment
near the docks.

Abuelo used a parasol
to shield himself from Cuba's primitive sun.
Dreamt of returning to Barcelona, barrio Pedos
de Jesus.

Died in La Habana spitting hostias from his mouth.

Abuela began a new life
on Miami Beach, an efficiency on 12th & Euclid, her neighbors
Holocaust survivors.

Refused mama's money or any help with chores & shopping.
When food stamps ran out

Abuela made do with cans
of surplus corned beef, powdered eggs
even peanut butter
which she called mierda
de pollo.

A few crumpled dollars in the fridge (can of
Cafe Bustelo).
Abuela lit round candles
for the Virgin of Regla, patron of Havana, Our Lady of Miracles
who cured mama of diphtheria
when she was seven.

In Cuba Abuela's black neighbors gave la Virgen rum & Lucky Strikes;
she wore silk gowns & faux agates

& like Abuela had a terrible temper
but also a loving heart, a joy for life, laughter from the gut.

At 70 Abuela was losing her memory, at times unable to recognize
Abuelo from his photograph
next to a large St. Roch.

Advanced arteriosclerosis, the doctor said, a lifetime of eating lard
& pan con chicharron.

Abuela warned she'd rather die than go
to a nursing home in Sunny Isles

Ester La Turca-a neighbor-called mama

with news that Abuela had stopped eating, bathing & grooming.
She was roaming the streets
como un alma en pena.

We found Abuela on the kitchen floor, dehydrated, barely conscious.

Blaming herself, mama
banged her head against the wall, pulled clumps of hair

chewed valium like chiclets.

After a week in Mount Sinai, Abuela died of a brain hemorrhage.

Lying in a casket of burnished cherrywood, she wore a frilly dress, her
favorite orthopedic shoes

her face waxy & hollow, her jaw wired shut
so that she smiled mischievously.

Mama wept, fist beating her heart, murmuring she'd made a mistake
bringing Abuela to this country, just 90 miles away, while I

cried too, though offering no real consolation, yet I knew
at that moment for mama Miami was the island

sinking in the sea.

cajas de muerto: boxes of the dead.
gusana: worm, name given by Castro to those Cubans fleeing the island
nulo: void, refugees would automatically lose their Cuban citizenship, thus becoming people without a country.
Pedos de Jes�s: Farts of Jesus.
hostias: literally "hosts," but in Iberian Spanish this word is frequently used as "damn."
mierda de pollo: chicken shit.
pan con chicharr�n: bread with fried pork rinds.
como un alma en pena: like a soul in Purgatory
La Turca: the Turk, name given to Cuban Jews of Sephardic origin.


Orlando Ricardo Menes

Tio Manolo

TIO MANOLO HAD no table manners. Told lewd stories about the very ripe plantain and the avocado. Crunched chicken bones, picking shards from his teeth like flakes of gold. Good for the blood, he said. Mama retched, an embroidered handkerchief pressed against her nose, Spanish linen atomized with Coco Chanel No. 5. Mama, la mezzo who sang Neapolitan canzone in the shower, baked cauliflower souffles in Little Havana, wire-brushed her fingernails with alcohol. Papa slept on a mattress of sawdust, drank sugar water para matar el hambre. Without shoes, the soles of his feet became hard as hooves.

Tïo Manolo liked to show off the tattoo on his shaved breast, muscles twitching, the American flag fluttering. Worked out with Mr. Atlas chest pull and hand grips. Swore he'd be the first exile to make a million. This country's wonderful, he said. Los americanos walk on the moon, crap on gold-plated toilet seats. Cars will soon run on guarapo. A super-secret satellite will shoot Fidel con rayos laser. Mama said, Esta loco. Papa (clapping): Genio! Tïo Manolo shouted Corta, then called her an old maid, uglier than rags. It took thirteen gifts for her to speak to him again.

WHen he drank too many Millers, Tio Manolo would tell the same story of how Fidel's bearded guerilleros attacked his barracks just as he was brushing his teeth. The other cops drinking run, playing Russian roulette with a captured fidelista, casting dice to decide who would get his testicles. Tio bolted out the door spraying bullets. Yito's fruit stand exploded. Mango shrapnel. Papaya pellets. Coco cannonballs. The sergeant's prize-fighting cock -- Quiquiriquï -- a ball of bloody feathers. Tïo collapsed, submachine gun between his legs, saw little stars of Bethlehem. Days of electroshock therapy, nights of catatonia. Visions of La Virgen confessing la vida es una porquerïa. He imagined himself in heaven, angels singing Guantanamera.

A week before the Cuban missle crisis, papa sent Tïo Manolo a oneway ticket to New York City and he landed at La Guardia with $20 in his pocket, amulets of Saint Jude for good luck. Slept in fleabags on Lexington Avenue, piles of New York Times for warmth. Said he got blisters from rubbing his hands so hard. Pawned his gold tooth in Chinatown for fried rice and egg foo young. Learned Yiddish cuss words at the automat. Hustled pool in Spanish Harlem. Got hustled himself on 42nd Street, a Puerto Rican transvestite who sang mambos, spoke Ricky Ricardo Spanglish. Tïo hated the slush. The cold. The canyons of skyscrapers. Cried for home at Saint Patrick's Cathedral, washing his face in holy water. If the world's coming to an end, he thought, I want to die in the tropics, then boarded a Greyhound bus to Miami.

Tïo Manolo found a job at Blackwell Plumbing, selling copper elbows and T-traps, threading galvanized steel. Mimicked the drawl of his cracker customers, ate soul food in Overtown. In 1970 he opened his own plumbing sotre, married Eloïsa, a chubby schoolteacher from his hometown. Twenty-eight years later Tïo's store takes up half a block, showroom the size of a skating rink. Two delivery trucks, a dozen workers, three attack dogs that answer to Prince. Apart from a summer home in Marathon Key, Tïo built a quarter-million ranchhouse in West Miami. Lladro porcelain on every tabletop, BMW's for my cousins Manolito and Eloisita. A small plane could land in the backyard, it's that long and narrow, blades of grass glistening like emeralds at night. There are no bushes or flower beds, just a lone Cuban plum tree, smuggled seed, that has yet to give fruit in exile.

para matar el hambre: to kill the hunger.
guarapo: sugar-cane juice.
mamon: sucker.
corta: cut the yap.
la vida es una porqueria: life is rubbish.


Orlando Ricardo Menes

Introduction to Jose Kozer

JOSE KOZER WAS born in Cuba (1940) of Jewish parents who had emigrated there from Eastern Europe to escape the Nazis. He himself became an exile in this country soon after the Cuban Revolution, settling in New York City where he taught Spanish literature at Queens College until his retirement in 1997. He now resides in Malaga, Spain.

A prolific poet, essayist, and translator, Kozer is one of the major voices of his generation, whose work has been widely anthologized in Latin America and Spain. He has written over fourteen books of poetry, including Under This One Hundred (1983) and The Crane without Shadows (1985), from which four translated poems appearing here in Artful Dodge were taken. His work has been the object of study by critics in the United States, Latin America, and Spain; last year a colloquium was held in Denver to discuss and celebrate his poetry.

Until two years ago I had no idea that a Jewish Cuban poet existed, and I was very excited when I discovered Jose Kozer in Jorge Rodriguez Padron'sAntologïa de poesia hispano-americana (1915-1980), published in 1984. As far as I can tell, Kozer is the only Jewish Cuban writer around, though Cuba's Jewish community before the Revolution was a sizable one, having grown considerably since the arrival of the first Sephardic Jews in the 1890's. The Jewish immigrants who followed them were almost entirely Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazim from Eastern Europe who settled mostly in Havana, founding synagogues, schools, Yiddish newspapers, and other Jewish institutions. My own grandfather, though not a Jew himself, was principal of a Jewish high school in the town of Regla. Few Jews remain in Cuba today, most having emigrated to the United States.

I find Kozer's portrayal of Jewish Cuban culture, specifically through the experiences of his family, delightfully vibrant and earthy. There is an impulse to document these lives, with every line becoming a kind of snapshot. Nevertheless, Kozer's poetry possesses the power to transmute the minutiae of everyday life into gems of memory. The poems achieve the resonance of myth without the crutch of abstraction. In addition, they pay homage to the ancestors, while at the same time resisting the romantic tendency to idealize the past.

Above all, Kozer is a poet who loves words. Critics have commented on el recargo verbal (the verbal overload) of his verse, a style that positions him in the Neo-Baroque tradition of such Cuban writers as Jose Lezama Lima and Severo Sarduy. The poet therefore captures the singularity of something not by conciseness but by excess. Kozer declares in one poem that "his ambition is one: all vocabulary." In another he adds, "(I love) the hybrids / (Peruvianisms) (Mexicanisms) / of diction and words." And Kozer's search for poetic language is not limited to the Americas and Europe but extends all the way to China, as can be seen in the final section of The Crane without Shadows where he "steals," as he puts it, from the style of the Tang Dynasty poets.

This lexical multiplicity is a reflection of his multicultural identity. I know of no other poet who can imagine Kafka "dream[ing] about canefields," and be convincing. Of course, some might find his uprootedness disconcerting, for people's sense of place tends to be local. Yet where Kozer writes, "I'm neither one (nor the other)," he is actually rejoicing over his condition.

I am also a product of diaspora, hence my attraction to his poetry. I was born in Peru of Cuban parents who had left their homeland fleeing tyranny, and I lived in Lima until 1968 when my family moved to Miami. My work, in turn, is multicultural as well as multilingual, many of my poems inspired by Judaism and AfroCuban mythology, though I am neither a Jew nor a person of color. Hybridisms of language and culture have the force of metaphor for me. In fact, I have come to realize that italicizing non-English words in my own poetry only serves to privilege English at the expense of Spanish. My ambition is the same as Kozer's: all vocabulary. --Chicago, Illinois, September 8, 1998


Jose Kozer

This Is the Book of Psalms That Made My Mother Dance

This is the book of psalms that made my mother dance,
this is the book of hours my mother gave me,
this is the stern book of precepts.
Enraged and impelled, I come before this gaunt book,
I come before it like a rabbi to dance a sovereign polka,
I come before it in the height of glory to dance with ceremony a      minuet,
death's clandestine arm-around-the-arm.
Goose stepping, I come before it to dance while smoking,
I'm a rabbi who raised his gown in the Russian steppes,
I'm a rabbi that an enormous czar forces to dance before the bastions
     of death,
I'm Grandfather Leizer who danced ceremoniously pressed to the 
     waist of Grandmother Sara,
I'm a damsel who arrives--all wanton--to expand the borders of
     this dance,
I'm a damsel distended by a sudden confusion of the ankles,
but death imposes disorder on me,
and there's a vase falling in the large shelves of my room,
there's a lustrous and farcical misstep,
and my feet are like a loud bellowing of four generations of the dead.

(Translated from the Spanish by Orlando Ricardo Menes)


Jose Kozer

Desolation of Rebb Leizer

                 For Jacob Kovadloff, with Sonia

It was his harsh homeland: the village Chejonov.
Rebb Leizer, head shaved, shuffled in his slippers through the ovens of
Rebb Leizer warehoused insatiable tons of potatoes in the tunnels of a
A tiny man, he felt the salt of attrition with his fingertips.
And with his fingertips the tiny man raised the exhalation of the psalms.
His voice burned amid the red craters of a chronology.
The tip of his index dripped a thick wine.
Rebb Leizer distributed gold's temptation among his children.
With his intransigent walking stick he evaded the rustic roundness of
Elbow leaning on the counter of torment,
he didn't know the sudden leaping of fish, the foggy decision of a port.
His seven children perished
between the ancestral gears of war:
Rebb Leizer affirming the stump of suffering.
Rebb Leizer jotting down paradigms in a sacred book.

(Translated from the Spanish by Orlando Ricardo Menes)


Jose Kozer

Lupe Singing in the Kitchen

Lupe singing in the kitchen,
the whole earth marinated by Lupe,
Lupe is piles of sugar in Havana's docks,
and I again emigrate to the saltpeter,
I again emigrate to the land filled with strings of Czechoslovakian
Lupe, a schoolgirl in Catholic Cantabria,
today Lupe glowingly says goodbye to her mother,
there she is again, dipping bread in the essential wine of my

(Translated from the Spanish by Orlando Ricardo Menes)


Jose Kozer

Mom's Grammar

In May, which bird was it
that mom loved: or did she talk about mimosas?
Says she doesn't remember the names of rivers that circumscribed her
     home town:
even though in the summer a male and a female would always drown,
     a male 
and a female in the summer. Mentions
a crucial conversation
with her sisters: they're like friends intertwined by the little finger;
     they'll leave. What despondency, even though
in the cabins
there's a centerpiece with tropical fruit, on deck there are beautiful
     harlots who speak a guttural language,
aviation doesn't amaze them,
not even the transatlantic cable; gaping sparrows rouse 
     letters or discharge
butterflies of light. They'll arrive
amid talcum-powdered boys, the aromatic scent of their tresses will
     disseminate through Havana's streets: Apodaca, 
     Teniente Rey, Acosta;
they'll end up purchasing
a mahogany chifforobe-with some tepid initials on the
     undergarment's drawer-that will work
as a strongbox too. By then they'll have settled down,
     soon they'll attend Zionist seminars to address one another in the
familiar tu; mom in proper Castilian.

(Translated from the Spanish by Orlando Ricardo Menes)






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