Roberto Fernández Retamar

Latinoamerican Poetry Magazine
84-85. July 2008.

Roberto Fernández Retamar

(Cuba, 1930)

How lucky they are, the normal ones

For Antonia Eiriz

How lucky they are, the normal ones, those peculiar creatures:
The ones who didn’t have a crazy mother, a drunk for a father, a delinquent son,
A house nowhere at all, an unknown disease,
The ones not eaten at by a corrosive love,
The ones who’ve worn all the seventeen smiling faces and more,
The ones stuffed with shoes, the cute ones,
The Rin-tin-tins & their sectaries, the ones who «Sure, why not? this way,»
The ones who make money & are loved up to the hilt,
The flautists accompanied by mice,
The hucksters & their clientele,
The gentlemen just a touch superhuman,
The men dressed in thunder & the women dressed in lightning,
The delicate ones, the prudent ones, the ones with taste,
The courteous ones, the sweet ones, the edibles & potables,
How lucky they are, birds & manure & stones.

Just let them keep out of the way of the others, the ones who make
Worlds & dreams, illusions
& symphonies, words that tear us down
& rebuild us, crazier than their mothers, drunker
Than their fathers, worse delinquent than their sons,
More eaten at by loves more corrosive:
Let them leave these their stations in hell, & forget it.

Translated by Tim Reynolds


Where's Fernández?

To the other Karamazov

Now he comes in, to my surprise.
I was his favorite  son and I’m sure my brothers
Know that’s how it was and won’t be put out if I say so.
In any case his preference was at least fair.
When Manolo was still a kid, he said to him, pointing at me
(I can see the marble-topped table in Los Castellanos café
We were sitting around, and the dark wooden chairs.
And the bar in the background with the big mirror and the long rows of bottles
That now and again I only see in old films):
«Your brother gets the best grades, but you’re the brightest.»
Later, much later, he told him, always pointing at me:
«Your brother writes the poetry, but you’re the poet.»
Needless to say, he was right on both counts,
But what a strange way to show preference.

It wasn’t his liver that killed him (he’d been a heavy drinker, but it was his brother Pedro who was hit with liver trouble),
But his lung, where the cancer spread because they said he chain-smoked.
And the truth is I can hardly remember ever seeing him without a cigarette between his yelloow-stained fingers,
Those long fingers of his hand that is my hand now.
Even in the hospital, dying, he begged us to light him a cigarette.
Just for a minute. Just for a minute.
And we lit it for him. It didn’t make any difference by then.

His main mistress had a Shakespearean heroine’s name,
That name we couldn’t  utter at home.
But (I think) that’s as far as the connection to the Bard went.
However, his real woman (not his spouse and certainly not his good wife)
Was my mother. When she came to from the anesthetic after the operation that eventually killed her,
It wasn’t he, but I who was at her side.
But as soon as she opened her eyes , she asked, thickly, «Where's Fernández?»
I no longer remember what I said. I went to the nearest telephone and rang him up.
He, who had always had the courage to face things, couldn’t bring himself to say good-bye to her,
Or wait until that operation was over.
He was at home, alone, surely pacing from one end to another,
I know so well because I do it myself, surely
Reaching out with a shaky hand for something to drink; searching
For the little pistol with the pearl grips that mama had hidden from him and in any case
He would never have used it for that.
I told him mama had come through okay, that she’d asked after him, that he should come.
He arrived restless, quick and slow. He was still my father, but at the same time
He had already started being my son.

Mama died a bit later, that brave heroine.
And he began to die like the Shakespearean character he really was.
Like a strange, old, moving, provincial Romeo
(But Romeo was a provincial, too).
The thunder went out of him, life lost its meaning. His girlfriend
From the boarding house no longer existed, that little brunette
He had almost frightened to death walking on the edge of the roof in the hurricane of ’26;
The girl with whom  he’d spent a honeymoon in a little hotel on Belascoaín Street,
And she trembled, kissed him and gave him sons
Without losing her modesty of that first night;
With whom he shared the death of their eldest, «the little one» for always,
During the doctors’ strike in ’34;
With whom he had studied for the finals; and whose jet-black hair turned gray,
But not her heart, that burned against injustice,
Against Machado, against Batista; the one  who welcomed the Revolution
With eyes bright  and pure, and was lowered into the ground
Wrapped in the Cuban flag of her Cerro school, the little public school for girls,
Like the boys’ school where her brother Alfonso was a schoolfriend of Rubén Martínez Villena;
Who didn’t smoke or drink, wasn’t glamorous and didn’t look like a film star,
Because she was a real star;
Who while she washed at the stone wash place,
Worked up the soap suds and improvised poems and songs,
Filling her children with a rare mixture of admiration and pride and embarrassment, too,
Because other mothers they know weren’t like that
(They didn’t know yet that no mother is like another, that every mother,
As Martí said, should be called a marvel).
And old man thunder began to go out like a candle.
He sat hours in the living room of a house that had become enormous.
The bird cages were empty. The plants in the patio had dried up.
Newspaper and magazines piled up. Books went unread.
Sometime he would talk to us, his sons,
And would tell us things about his modest adventures,
As if we weren’t his sons, but those old cronies of his
Who were all dead, who he’d get together with to drink, conspire and recite,
In cafés and bars that no longer existed.

On the eve of his death I finally read The Count of Montecristo, by the sea,
And I felt I was reading it through his eyes,
In the dining room of the somber Catholic school
Where he consumed his orphan’s childhood, with no other happiness
Than reading books like that one, that he talked to me so much about.
That’s what he wanted to be like out of captivity: just (more than vengeful) and gallant.
With some wealth (which he never had, because he was as honest as the sun’s rays,
And he even became famous because he once resigned from a post when he realized he was supposed to steal).
With some love affairs (which he was fortunate enough to have, although they didn’t always turn out so well in the end).
Rebellious, picturesque, rhetorical like the Count, or better yet,
Like a musketeer. I don’t know. He lived literature, the way he lived ideas and words,
With an authenticity that’s overwhelming.
And he was courageous, very courageous, when confronted with  police and thieves,
When confronted with hypocrites, liars and assassins.

Near the end he asked me to wipe the sweat from his brow
I picked up the towel and did so, but I realized then
That I was wiping away his tears. He didn’t say anything.
He was in horrible pain and was dying. But the Count,
Gallant, eighty- or ninety-pound musketeer that he was, only asked me
To please wipe the sweat from his brow.

Translated by Paul Bundy

Roberto Fernández Retamar Cuban poet, essayist, and literary critic and cultural spokesman for the regime of Fidel Castro. After first studying art and architecture, Fernández Retamar studied literature in Havana, Paris, and London. He taught at the University of Havana (from 1955) and from 1965 edited the magazine of the Casa de las Américas, the government publishing house. He also taught briefly at Yale University (1957–58) and lectured at several other universities in the United States. He began to write poetry under the influence of José Lezama Lima and the group associated with the journal Orígenes. After the Castro revolution, he became one of the most eloquent spokesmen of the new regime, censuring Orígenes poets who failed to become actively involved in the revolution. Poesía reunida (1966; “Poetry Reunited”), a collection of his poetry written from 1948 to 1965, and A quien pueda interesar (1970; “To Whom It May Concern”) maintain a balance between ideology and artistic expression. Other volumes of poetry include Buena suerte viviende (1967; “Good Luck in Living”), Qué veremos arder (1970; “What We Will See Burning”), Cuaderno paralelo (1973; “Parallel Frame”), and Revolución nuestra, amor nuestro (1976; “Our Revolution, Our Love”). Fernández Retamar’s greatest impact was as an essayist. Ensayo de otro mundo (1967; “Examination of Another World”) redefines Modernismo by emphasizing its ideological content and its relationship to the writers of the Spanish Generation of 1898, the time of the earlier Cuban revolution. Modernismo, especially in its rebellious prose, is often interpreted as a denunciation of U.S. imperialism. His best-known work is a study of culture in Latin America, Calibán (1971), which refutes the ideas of the Uruguayan writer José Enrique Rodó. He also wrote such works of criticism as La Poesía contemporánea en Cuba (1927–1953) (1954) and Para una teoría de la literatura hispanoamericana y otras aproximaciones (1975).

Última actualización: 28/06/2018