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‘Platicamos ya de mi calma móvil, de mi inmóvil trasiego, de mi ansiedad sedente’ (Let’s talk about my mobile stillness, my immobile activity, my sedentary restlessness)[i]

Plans during lockdown remain mostly unfulfilled. I’ve not shone with creativity. I’ve not read any Galdós (not that I’d planned to). I’ve not achieved mighty things. But I have read Camus’ The Plague and I have re-read José Lezama Lima’s Paradiso for the first time since dedicating four years of my life two decades ago to obsessive scrutiny of the novel for my PhD.

What tremendous comfort. What an experience.

Lezama was maestro of a dynamic group of poets, painters and a priest in 1940s and 50s Havana dedicated to artistic, poetic and spiritual exploration. A mystery school of sorts. Whilst proudly Cuban, their shared vision of culture was americana (which in Spanish means of all the Americas) and global. No image or culture was beyond their poetic reach. The aesthetic richness was also political. The poets and painters of Orígenes puzzled over what it meant to be Cuban, to be inspired by the poet-statesman José Martí, to resist the deadening impact of commercialism and corporatism and foreign dominance of economy and culture, to sing of Cuban identity as an identity. Their visions were inspiring. They were revolutionary.

Lezama rejected the corruption, venality, injustice and aggression of both Machado’s and Batista’s dictatorships. He was as conscious as Castro of the need to carry to conclusion the revolutionary project initiated in the nineteenth century wars against Spain and emblematised in Martí. Lezama’s was a revolution of art, and he threw his considerable energies into projects for the promotion of literature in Castro’s new order, becoming Director of Literature and Publications of the National Council of Culture, and later one of the vice presidents of the UNEAC, the Writers and Artists Union. No poet, painter or novelist in Havana would not have known of Lezama. Most were friends. Yet by the mid-60s the Orígenes group had disbanded and solitary figures were pushed into exile or silence.

Lezama’s vision of history was of the people’s capacity for creative expression. He saw culture as a process of transformation, expansion, exploration, integration, inclusion, interchange. Cultures are enriched by other cultures. Any culture failing to be enriched by other cultures will fail to enrich other cultures. This vision is articulated in his poetic essays of La expresión Americana (1957) and La Cantidad Hechizada ([1970], which include Las Eras Imaginarias). Lezama was deeply stirred by the need for change, but his revolution is aesthetic, poetic, spiritual, and often at odds with the political transformations happening around him. Paradiso was well received until news of the explicit scenes of sex, some gay, all gothic and macabre, reached the censors. An integrally Cuban novel, there was nothing overtly political, and a non-political book is political by being non-political. Nothing about the glories of the revolution, the depravity of Batista, the poverty of Cuba under imperialism. In fact, the story is about an asthmatic bourgeois kid from a military family living in one of the big houses on the Paseo del Prado. And his poetry continued to be baffling – blooms of odd words in odd syntax. No socialist hymns here. No stirring praise of Che’s New Man. No eulogy for collectivization. Paradiso cannot even be called elitist; it is baffling for everyone.

He penned a eulogy to Che Guevara after his death in Bolivia, ennobling him as a mythic hero, brother of Tupac Amaru, protected by Viracocha. Stirring stuff. But the text is weird (and very hard to translate.): ‘Girdled by the ultimate test, bare stone of the beginnings to hear the inauguration of the word, Death went looking for him.’ And it continues, in typically lezamiano strangeness: ‘Like Anfiareo, death does not interrupt his memories. At the moment of crisis, when necks are exposed, he was always protected by aristía, protection in combat, but also areteia, sacrifice, the zeal for holocaust. He sacrificed himself on the funeral pyramid, having undergone the terrible ordeals of his power for transfiguration.’[ii] And I’ve selected the simplest bits of this bizarre piece. I have often wondered whether there was mockery in his praise; perhaps not mockery of Guevara but of the official hero-worship. But then again, the language in this piece is no different from any of his other texts. Nothing is simple with Lezama.

His ostracism and his asthma increased with his international reputation. He was removed from official posts. His sister fled to Florida. Lezama died in 1976, his second novel, Oppiano Licario unfinished, out of favour by all but his close friends, hungry, thinner and sad.

Yet his star has risen over the last two decades, notable with the republication of much of his work, and the conversion of his house into the Casa-Museo Lezama.

‘I live on Trocadero, a narrow, hot and dusty street’, explained Lezama in an interview with Felix Guerra.[iii] Trocadero is indeed a dusty furnace. Your eyes water. The walls glare in the sun. It makes you thirsty. ‘I would give another eternity to have a tree in front of my house,’ he said. ‘So great is my longing that I would move house – I would abandon my house – just to have the one tree. I would live happily in a branch, if the sparrow made room for me.’ The casa-museo is blissfully cool inside, with cracked patterned tiles on the floor and open doors leading off a small patio. But there is no tree to be seen, not until you leave the house and strain your eyes to the end of the street where it joins the leafy boulevard of Prado, where Lezama used to stroll.

Cuba, like the British Isles, is an archipelago of trees. And like here, many of the old forests are lost. Lezama felt that loss personally: he used to pee against trees as a kid and he would have continued to do so, but ‘carezco de árbol íntimo (I lack an intimate tree).’ No tree in his patio. He felt that loss nationally: Columbus’s vision of wooded paradise, he says, is no more. He also felt it globally, and reflected sadly on the slaughter of trees in the Amazon: ‘When man swings his axe,’ he declared prophetically, ‘he swings it against his own neck. The man’s blood and mine flow in the mortal neck of the tree, and the tree will not survive this crime against itself.’[iv] And so quickly are the trees lost, he muses, that he will never find that tree in whose branches he might live. What an image: forest-felling as an act of suicide. How prescient. And these words are from over forty years ago, before the language of ecosystem collapse and climate change was so pervasive and so pressing.

He wrote strange poems. All his writing is strange. Voluptuous vine-creeping sentences of bizarre words, adjectives made from nouns and adverbs made from people’s names. Bedazzling landscapes filled with creatures, demons, monsters and erotic vegetation. Macabre and sinister sexual encounters. Arcane numima from archaic cultures. His art is often described as ‘baroque’, which captures something of its quality, but even the baroque is too static. I imagine Lezama sitting, hot and fat and asthmatic, daubing at his thin moustache with a white handkerchief, clutching his soggy cigar between chubby fingers, and planting dream-forests, word-woodland, jungle-visions. He wrote his own intimate trees.

‘Each tree,’ he wrote, ‘is a cathedral of leaves and each leaf a cathedral of seasons.’ How beautiful. How sad that he lacked his intimate tree. And yet his poetry compensated for this lack . He called himself, like the tree, un viajero inmóvil, a stationary traveller, ‘hasty to be still, to be serene beneath the moving sky.’[v] He scarcely left his house, scarcely left Havana, and left Cuba on three brief occasions.

‘Travel is little more than a movement of the imagination,’ he wrote. ‘Travel is to recognize, recognize oneself, it is the loss of childhood and the admission of maturity. Goethe and Proust, those men of great diversity, almost never traveled. Their ship was the imago. I am the same; I have almost never left Havana. I acknowledge two reasons: each time I left, my bronchial tubes got worse; in addition, the memory of my father’s death has floated at the center of every trip. Gide said that every voyage is a foretaste of death, an anticipation of the end. I don’t travel: that’s why I return to life.’[vi]

Lezama has been a great comfort over the past twenty years. He has been a great comfort over the last month during isolation. ‘No hay nada más real que la imaginación.’ Bodies are not essential for travel. Journeys are not measured only in miles. Dreams, visions, poetry and the imagination sustain us. And those of us lucky enough to have trees visible from our windows are blessed.

Good health to the trees. Good health to Lezama. Good health to all.

Dr William Rowlandson, Senior Lecturer in Hispanic Studies at the University of Kent

[i] ‘Para leer debajo de un sicomoro. Diálogo casi interminable con José Lezama Lima’ Por Félix Guerra – 17/11/2017 (translation mine).

[ii] Lezama Lima, José (1988) Muerte de Narciso: antología poética, ed. David Huerta (Mexico City, Ediciones Era), 133.

[iii] Guerra

[iv] Guerra

[v] Guerra

[vi] Lezama Lima, José (2005) José Lezama Lima: Selections, ed. and trans Ernesto Livon-Grosman (University of California Press): 175.