Cuban Poetry and the Revolutionary Period: Asking about the Persians

Persian warriors on the Ishtar Gate, Pergamon Museum, Berlin.

Not unlike the inspiration that José María Heredía and Joaquín Lorenzo Luaces found in the Greek war for independence in the nineteenth century in order to establish a parallel with the colonial situation of Cuba at the time, the Cuban poets of recent decades have used passages and images from the Greco-Persian Wars as reference points for the Cuban situation in several different moments of the revolutionary period, essentially in the seventies and the transition from the twentieth century to the twenty-first; in other words, during the peak and later decadence of the process initiated in 1959.

The question of the Persians in Cuban poetry goes from conviction and the clearest, most defined political and geographical divisions of the seventies to vagueness, doubt, reservations, fear, exile, distance, and negation in the first decades of the twenty-first century. From an epic “we” to introspective individuality, from violence and war to the fusion of the erotic and the martial. These changes, in direct dialogue with the island’s sociopolitical situation, can be identified in a series of poems that refer to the Greco-Persian Wars: a key example is “Le preguntaron por los persas” [They asked him about the Persians] (published in 1964) by Roberto Fernández Retamar, a text that represents the dominant ideological posture of the sixties and seventies in Cuba. Others are “La violencia” [Violence] (published in 1999) by José Félix León and “Los destinos” [The fates] (published in 2003) by Leonardo Sarría.

In The Persians by Aeschylus, the Greek playwright places the definition of Hellenic democracy in the mouths of the enemies of Athens. Through the dialogue between Atossa and the Chorus, we learn how the Medes interpret the (then) novel form of government. The Persians represent the fall from grace of the monarchic system, in spite of its enormous power, while the Athenians incarnate the rise of the democratic system.

Roberto Fernández Retamar, on the other hand, in his poem “Le preguntaron por los persas,” tells us what is being said, in his case from the other side, about the new Persians: the lyrical subject talks about the unknown, about what he has heard about the Medes. This time, he is not a direct witness, a messenger, a trustworthy informant (typical of an Attic tragedy); instead, he talks about hearsay: “They say their territory is enormous.” Later, the lyrical subject stops passing on what he has heard and continues informing the reader in a more direct manner. In Fernández Retamar’s poem, in spite of the new mythic-geographic readjustment, the topological entities appear in high definition: the Persians are the invincible and monstrous empire, a foreign power of inconceivable power; and our space, surrounded by a huge sea (which grants it an insular character closer to the blessed conception of Eliseo Diego than the damned circumstance of Virgilio Piñera) is the territory of the humble, of the patriotic collectivism that defends its land against the invader.

Retamar, despite these changes, maintains the vision of the Persians put forth by Aeschylus and the Greeks in general: they are violent, barbaric beings, ostentatious and very powerful, aristocratic and monarchic, unscrupulous conquerors; and, on the other hand, he presents our space as one in which everything is more moderate, in which we speak from the humble space of belonging. Like Aeschylus, Retamar describes an innumerable and practically invincible enemy confronted by a simple, small people that only fights to defend its own. Since the poem was published in 1964, it is hard not to relate it to the Bay of Pigs Invasion of 1961. Therefore, while the poem ought not be reduced to a single reading, we can clearly interpret the spaces of Persia and Athens in relation to the opposition between the United States and Cuba. Regarding this reading, in the presentation of Retamar’s work in the volume Con las mismas manos: Ensayo y poesía [With the same hands: essays and poetry] (Ayacucho, 2008), Roberto Méndez declares that his are:

long-term verses, in which the image of the Persians, avaricious invaders of Greece, are the allegory of the United States, always ready to fall on Latin America and very especially on Cuba. The writer, who has read Herodotus, Xenophon, and Plutarch, knows who to cite on the topic of imperial wars and the brief but intense period the island’s inhabitants spent in revolution before their “powerful neighbor.” He fortifies his convictions. The superposition of intentions, the historical canvas of antiquity, which contains within itself Rubén’s gesture of alarm as well as the atmosphere present in his own country in those days, contributes exceptional gravity and density to the text.

We find similar opposition between arrogant attackers and the men of the people who defend themselves once again in the version of Los siete contra Tebas [Seven against Thebes] (1968) by Antón Arrufat, who also utilizes an Aeschylean reference (this time mythical and not historical, although Aeschylus makes use of historical and mythical information just the same) to analyze and argue from the theatre of combat of the Bay of Pigs. Arrufat, like Retamar, also pits the seven opulent, arrogant foreign enemies who wait outside the city’s gates against common people, builders of schools, peasants, etc. But Arrufat does not limit himself to the collective representation of The Persians of Aeschylus, which clearly defines which side is in the right, and whose collective characters Retamar employs in his poem. Arrufat, like Aeschylus, individualizes and complexifies the tragic conflicts and reveals that guilt and justice fall on one side as much as the other, within and without, just as he indicates that those from without, who were once those from within, might have rights that have not been respected. The individualization and complexification seen in Arrufat, which form part of the development of an Aeschylean cosmovision, suggest the manner in which young people born after 1970 would approach similar subjects and causes.

The true and historical situation of war between Persians and Greeks is transported, in Retamar’s poem, to a potential, future, hypothetical war, which brings to mind the way in which the Cuban government has represented the opposition between the United States and Cuba for decades, although there has been no war in the strictest sense of the word. The “we” in Retamar’s text does not allow for an outside, liberty is only on the speaker’s side: he whom is “sold” to the exterior power is also a slave: “Because what could he be but a slave, he who offers his fragrant language, and the gestures that his parents preserved for him in their guts, to the barbaric cackler, like he who submits his neck, his flank to the caress of a greasy merchant?”

The enemy power is “enormous,” a “barbaric cackler,” comparable to a “greasy merchant,” with “numerous” men who “are abundant stains” with “garish garments”; “they weigh like a bundle,” “are potent and grand,” with “noisy and new carts,” with “crammed” and “dirty boats.” For their part, in total opposition to what is described as an immense and monstrous exterior power, the “we here” and the “we, these few” appear in the poem: the space of the speaker’s I/we is made up of “picturesque and lively populations,” among “the music of the islands,” in a “hard and wooded land, entirely ours,” living alone in “the necessary luxury of the truth that leaps from dialogue,” “aware that all things have an order,” “that justice and honor exist, goodness and beauty,” surrounded by an “enormous water” and by a “glory also enormous.” Retamar opposes the humility of the other people to the modern machinery of the Persians, to the Median preference for the artificial he also opposes natural and human characteristics, to the expansionist pretensions of the Persians he opposes the sense of belonging of the others, of a simpler life as defenders of their land.

But, for poets born after the seventies, nothing seems so defined nor so clear; they do not even seem interested in assuming a position based on traditional ideological and political divisions. Unlike Fernández Retamar, the authors who started publishing in the nineties and who revived the topic of the Greco-Persian Wars distance themselves from the party-line postures and the legitimized political discourse of the island, choosing instead, in their texts, to prioritize emotions and feelings like fear, desire, the rejection of violence, uncertainty, trauma, loss, resignation, fear... Although it is not so evident and clearly expressed as the opposition and dialogue we find between “Nosotros, los sobrevivientes” [We, the survivors] by Fernández Retamar and “Generación” [Generation] by Ramón Fernández Larrea or “Poema de situación” [Poem of situation] by Norge Espinosa, the topic of the Greco-Persian Wars allows us to compare the ways in which certain Cuban poets have maintained a dialogue with power and their sociopolitical situation in moments of crisis. What’s more, this single subject allows for different readings in accordance with the historical moment, personal experience, and the social changes that have taken place in Cuba during recent decades.

Contrary to the monolithic and massive “we” that Retamar draws from The Persians by Aeschylus, José Félix León and Leonardo Sarría speak from the first person singular, from feelings much more individual and isolated from the previous collective and triumphalist glory. Nature, which serves as a reaffirmation and contrast before exterior space and enemy power in Fernández Retamar, functions as a method of evasion, escape, and negation in José Félix León. Strawberries, the sea, algae, iron, love, shadow, the “debris of marble / and tombstones I will never see again” or the lost hexameter by Theognis (mentioned in José Félix León) act as an outline of dispossession, of deterioration, of the inevitable loss caused by the violence that is denied again and again in the text, but that can be glimpsed in the description of the surroundings that fluctuates between beauty, calm, and fright. The enormous water in Retamar is opposed, in José Félix, by his “other waters.” The space becomes undefined, the smallness highlighted by Retamar for the island’s space is reflected by José Félix in the roadstead of Falero, “small on the map,” but in his text the poet’s strategy is to forget the violent, not to confront it, but to channel it through decadence and collapse as if it were all part of the natural course of things: “the Persians did not cross these valleys,” “violence does not exist.” In José Félix, nonconformity is reflected in the evocation, from the first verb, of a past of which only fragments remain—fragments to which the lyrical subject must anchor himself in order to survive.

In “Los destinos,” Leonardo Sarría transforms the “enormous glory” we read in Retamar into a “coldness we know as glory,” reserved for the valiant warriors of Thermopylae led by Leonidas. The lyrical subject, upon returning “the volume to the shelf,” opposes “that other coldness we know as fear” to that glorious, ancient coldness that led the Spartans to confront a fate that carried them consciously and irremediably toward death. Faced with a reading of past heroism, he experiences trembling and fright. If the Greeks’ steps were definitive, precise, and firm, Sarría’s speaker moves with his “head hung,” “clumsy,” totally unadjusted. The poem, made up of two strophes, dedicates the first to singing of the bold Spartans, and the second, in contrast, is centered on the first person singular, isolated from all heroism, moving (rather than toward an understanding or hypothesis of who guaranteed their survival) toward the horror and fear that surround sacrifice as well as survival. Unlike Retamar, Sarría divides the space of the poem, not based on the ideological or the geopolitical, but rather between the actions of the heroes of the past and the present of the subject, for whom he feels not admiration but terror and fear. Faced with violence and confrontation with enemies, the lyrical subjects of José Félix León and Sarría keep their distance, and their empathy lies with the vanquished, not because of their glory, but rather because of their defeat, their loss, the memory of beauty and the horror that they incarnated and that they represent.

The sea and the concept of the beautiful are the most repeated and coinciding subjects in all three authors. In Retamar, we see opposing seas, theirs and “ours,” and the natural beauty to which he sings reflects the moral triumph of the humble before the invaders; in José Félix León, the sea mingles with other elements, evoking a past in which beauty can be revealed only in brief bursts, instants that are almost all lost, fragments of what once was; and in Sarría, although he does not deny the enemy’s existence, although he describes the direct confrontation of Greeks and Persians, the beauty of the warriors is fused with the fear of disaster and extreme violence, of the possibility of the instantaneous destruction of all the things it took so long to build.

Retamar blends the beauty of revolutionary morals with defense of the homeland; José Félix anchors himself to fragments and ruins in order to reconstruct a lost, longed-for beauty in the past, and Sarría blends beauty and terror before a heroism that, missing from the history books, makes him tremble.

The differing approaches and reactions to heroism and glory in the younger poets is a far sight from the spirit traditionally understood as epic. They approach epicness through escape, exodus, distance from collectivism, and recognition of feelings understood as unheroic, such as cowardice and evasion.

As an ironic turn in events and their analysis, the Cuban professor and polyglot Armando Chaguaceda indicates in an article on the current politics of the island published on May 22, 2017 in the newspaper La Razón that (even compared to present-day Persians) Cuba seems less open to democratic dialogue that certain Islamic countries. Unlike what seemed to Retamar like a parallel between Athenian democracy and the island, Chaguaceda denies this proclivity for debate and this healthy, illuminating closeness with language that seems to defend Retamar in his text, seeing the Cuban political system as closer to that of the hegemonic ancient Persians than to any democratic tradition. Years on, the questionable equivalence between the pairs, Athens-Persia and Cuba-USA, is more or less dismantled. In Cuba, closer now to the Islamist Persia of the present, “it seems that we do not aspire to be, politically speaking, like the Persians.”

Yoandy Cabrera

Translated by Arthur Dixon

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LALT No. 7
Number 7

The seventh issue of Latin American Literature Today highlights indigenous voices with dossiers dedicated to three Wayuu writers from Colombia and Zapotec poetry and prose. We also pay homage to renowned Venezuelan poet Eugenio Montejo with a special dossier, as well as returning to the strange worlds of Latin American science fiction and opening a new space for Brazilian literature in Portuguese and English.

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