Octavio Armand and the Undoing of Cuban’s Literary Tradition

Johan Gotera with Octavio Armand. Photo: Natasha Tiniacos.

Distress as a Semblance

Reticle No. 1: Farewell and Homebound

Farewell   with   each   hand  weeping.  Sea.  A    voice
spending itself. Sea.  A thousand farewells. Sea.   Voice
spent     by     words      like     shed    skin.     Then     th
e       closing        scream      raising        seagulls.       A
handkerchief  that  soars.  Slip.   Squeezing   the   heart
empty.    Beating      between      the   fingers.      Waves.
A       receding        shore,       its       foam      ever      in
creasing   in  the  distance.  A bar of soap. And always
the same farewell, this one. A weeping hand, the tongue
regally        swollen,        stuck        on       the      palate,
hardened.     Salt.     Foam.     Then,     sea.      Farewell
from    one    lip    to   the   other. Brother, dear, mother.
Farewell     from     cheekbone    to    foot.    Prints burn
ed  by the wind,  flour-pestled statues. History and blue
under      the       eyelid:      tooth,      he,      she.     You.
Farewell.
    In    the    end:    to   die    after one’s death.
A   day   after.   An   open   sea in gaping mouths. Butter
Flies     underwater.     Fishes     like    flowers.     Trans
parent           depth.          I         walk         on          burst
ing     bubbles.     They     talk     to     me.      Our     live
s    are    the    rivers    that    (don’t)   flow into the sea.
Column    of    fish    scales.  Column   of    eyes
.    A cit
y       strewn       like      my     body.     Under     my     t
ouch,      a     rampant      voracious      razor
.    Shade.
Through     the     eyelid    I    watch.    Buried     in     s
and    I    watch.    Specular    sponge    licked and thou
sand    times    like    wringing    finger   in hand   weep
ing.    Afterward,    sea.    Then,    sea.    Over    the    b
lood,        sea.
      Of     blood,    sea.    And    farewell.

(translated by Roberto Cantú)

"Reticule 1," the first of five sections from “Despair as Surface,” appeared in Piel menos mía [Skin less mine] (1976), one of Octavio Armand’s earliest books, but it seems to prefigure the general features of the demanding poetics that Armand has developed over the past forty years. In the space of that emblematic poem, the impact of exile intersects with the torture endured by language under the weight of the exilic experience. The poet speaks of a laceration, a farewell that produces an instability in which both the solid ground of sense and the order of language totter. Exile here is not merely thematic but also embodied in language; the result is a landscape dispersed and fragmented, mapped by words cut by a cruel syllabic arbitrariness. Space breaks down, as does perspective and even the very body of words. Within the complexity of the poem the family portrait is broken, altered, and notions such as homeland, history, community or property are displayed as debris, torn to shreds. Even the agitation and choppy rhythm of the poem indicates a breakdown that takes place at several levels in the writing: precisely the same decomposition taking place in the disconnected language and the staging of corporal mutilation that continues to constitute the background to Armand’s work. In this poem, bones, teeth, the whole anatomy, the relatives mentioned and the torn syntax are contaminated by the multiple and complex decomposition that Armand considers one of his major challenges.

In order to explain the radical nature of Armand’s project within Cuba's literary tradition, one can attempt to imagine a triangular map that outlines the tensions between the meaning of his work by considering it vis-à-vis the cultural and/or political projects of José Lezama Lima and José Martí. For practical purposes, I will reduce Lezama’s literary project to his far reaching attempt to envision a glorious destiny for Cuban culture, what is commonly –and problematically– considered the island’s “teleology.” For Martí, I will choose his rarely mentioned final scene: the description of the Cuban Apostle's body offered by Corporal Juan Trujillo from the military health system when he recognized Martí as he lay dying in Dos Rios. "It seems that as he fell, Martí pulled out his revolver," says the Spanish corporal, "because I saw him lying on the ground with his arms stretched out and the gun in his right hand. After he died I noticed that he had bitten his tongue and literally pierced it with his teeth"

The tongue that would provide an epic for the nation, the normative language of the great orator who established the conditions for a future community was suddenly deactivated by the incisive cruelty of that final scene. The poetry of Armand seems to develop as scrutiny of that suffocated language, as if his poetry has fallen off that scene of mutilation and autophagy. A broken, twisted, boiled and uncontrolled tongue that appears in many metaphors of Armand seem to arise from that disjointing principle, which is the particular way in which language is dealt with in the work of this exiled poet.

In the stifling rhythm of “Reticule 1” it would probably not be excessive to sense the most abrupt experience of exile: the body of both the poet and of the poem torn to pieces, the farewell a disjointed “depart/ure,” the heart emptying itself even as it beats “betw/een two fingers.” The tongue also becomes “ro/yally deformed,” an alteration that could be read as the end of solidarity between voice and sense, between breath (pneuma) and being, thus marking the end of the transcendental word and of the prestige associated with "the voice and the ideality of meaning," as Derrida has noted, since here the poem has renounced full presences. Consequently, the family seems to be scattering, with each part of the body bidding farewell to the whole in which it was contained. Dismembered, words open in order to break rhythm’s conditioning and to reveal cracks and unexpected infringements; the archives that safeguarded the topoi of farewell, tenaciously overturned; the enumerations of bloodlines creating a space of morphological exceptions that rarefy the geometry of the family portrait.

Such fragmentation will result in an overwhelming experience, a centrifugal force capable of erasing any space of restitution. Natality (the central), such as mother tongue, mother, bloodlines, even citizenship and physicality ("a city like my scatter/ed self") is surrendered to the experience of an unstable sea that dissolves logical linkages and familiarity. Tracks for a return are eroded.  "The wind burns foot/prints, statues carved in flour" and all that is solid –ground, roads– will be destroyed. "I walk on bursting bubbles." Genealogical drives are threatened and memory, broken like language, will functions within dispersion, not accumulation. No longer does the nation hold language in its sway and being loses its dwelling.

What Armand sets before us in his “Reticule” is the rupture of the physical and verbal body increasingly distanced from the solid ground of meaning. Landscape has been shredded, become a place of no return. The poet, now a stranger in his own language, enters a radical exile, loses familiar horizons and twists the course of language, undoing and removing its prescriptions.

 

Against the domestic drive

Home and its reality, domesticity and family, are unquestionably topoi profoundly Cuban. Their appearance in Armand's work occurs at the end that Lezama Lima carefully described in his Antología de la poesía cubana [Anthology of Cuban poetry] as he tracked (and ordering) the drives that he found throughout the development of Cuban poetry from its beginnings in the 16th century. Wanting to identify the earliest hints of Cuban character, Lezama recorded diverse expressions of insular sensibility, forging a prestigious tradition for not only music and architecture but also silversmithing and pastry.

Paradiso, Lezama’s most ambitious novel, is a celebration of home life and houses in the tropics where “everything wants to exist and overflow." Leaving the sea and its uncontrolled murmur behind, he describes the appeal of indoor environments, in order to show us a Cuban home from within, thus embodying the rich drive of domesticity. In some commentaries written by Lady Calderón de la Barca about her stay in 19th-century Cuba, he finds rich Cuban motifs –a city draped in white muslin and blue silk, a gothic dressing table, or a heavy mahogany desk– suggestive of family warmth and sufficiently strong to ensure a firm, foundation for his island. That homey strength offers him an image with which to confront chaos, a moment of national integration that could enable Cuba to fulfill a destiny, an image of a country in the process of growing and taking root, developing the metaphor of its own being.

In both his literary work and his reflections and essays, in many ways Lezama imagined what he referred to as a time-proof Ark of the Covenant for the family. His goal was to create a Republic of Letters, a haven for the literary family. As Fina García Marruz explains, Lezama knew that "he could be a secret, invisible builder of a house for everyone". At the same time, his survey of the island's literature (the Antología), with which he endeavors to organize a national expression, leads him to explore the Cuban household as the site in which the continuity of family ties and certainties held the potential for a Cuban imaginary grounded in shared family customs, what he calls, in various passages, "the roots of our family unit".

Lezama’s entire effort to achieve that imaginary, his entire plan to gather and describe Cuban customs and expressions and their subsequent integration into an imagined destiny for the island, will plunge to the ground in a poetry like Armand’s, marked definitively by the experience of separation, abrupt territorial estrangement, loss of home, distance from one’s native country, and loss of one’s verbal community –Armand could even be considered a poet without a community. Caught in one of History’s unexpected turns, he is not only shipwrecked on the unstable sea of exile to which he was cast in the childhood he describes as short-lived, he has watched in sorrow, his self "scatter/ed,” as the energizing effects of Lezama’s Cuban imaginary faded. His poetry, written as the mythology Lezama developed for the island lost its hold, embodies the chaos of a fragmented world.  Simultaneously a flight from and a fresh start for that mythology, it has required of Armand a thorough interrogation of things Cuban and a radical alteration of his language.

Seen from that perspective, Lezama’s project ends where Armand's project begins. The former is driven by a passion for legacy and archives, the work of the latter is marked by dispersion and the brutal absence of roots. The former is as effort to establish a theoretical grounding for a mythical environment (by retrospectively inventing the future on the basis of original characteristics), the latter strategically breaks apart established topoi and arrests the texts of Cuban culture. The former saturates space, the latter suddenly loses it. The former dreams the sources of Cuban literature, the latter, from the outside and in his own way, readies it for a wrenching change.

One poet strives to point out the growth of an ideal city, the other leaves forever the solid ground that had safeguarded him. Lezama, with Martí, guides the island toward a literary kingdom. Armand seizes the "Apostle" at the moment of his greatest darkness: as he dies in Dos Ríos, his tongue pierced by his teeth, words and landscape disappearing into him, with him. In that sober scene of autophagy, a near total retreat of the nation's discourse, Armand recognizes a brutal incision that corresponds to his own at times traumatic experiences with the language of poetry. The recognition prompts a new way of being in language that enables him to exorcize its rules and undermine its restrictive grammars of identity.

As geography closes in on Martí in Dos Ríos and he is found with his teeth sunk in his tongue, we are privy to the strangest and most controversial bequest of the great orator whose voice and words, as Lezama's metaphor claims, so great as to "to fill the house and its strange disruptions of time.". That gift, as Armand’s poetry shows, is a broken and uncontrolled language, powerfully untranslatable, powerfully fractured; it is a language able to counteract the language-related needs of a community whose “favorite heroes are verbal” and one that has sought incessantly to regenerate itself through the euphoria of discourse political and literary.

Heir to that dead language, which kills by threatening everything it has built, Armand’s work seems driven by a powerful awareness of disarticulation. Taking as his point of departure the contradictory scenario of Martí’s death, he subverts the legacy of a figure who defined the limits of Cuban speech. His project, however, is not one of subversion for its own sake. Wanting neither to spurn nor usurp Martí’s symbolic power, he has pressed its limits, marking the end of an embalming and giving rise to daring new critical perspectives.

Filiation, memory, childhood, nation and language are dismembered, as if in Armand’s work destruction were a ubiquitous point of no return decentering expression. “Reticule 1” discussed above exemplifies well the geometrics of that destruction, as Armand simultaneously recounts and annuls or kills language, loading his palindromes, conceits, and puns with a daring that raises his linguistic bets to a dangerously paradoxical level and continually forcing language to restart elsewhere, smashing its stability.

What the "Apostle" might have said in his last moment –in that final, disjointed language– is what Armand has retrieved for poetry; consequently, his task consists in an effort to let that injured tongue speak. He understands Martí’s last moment as the "most eloquent" of his speeches. Referring to it in Superficies (1980) as "a verbal doodle," he hints at incitement and provocation, a potential power outage, a menacing destruction, and a challenge to an authoritarian canon. It would be impossible either to retrieve or revive the force of that canon now that its influence, along with its old prerogatives and their historical effects, has nearly died. Armand has nevertheless envisioned a new language set in motion precisely from Martí’s extremely disabled symbolic force. Thus, Armand confronts a vociferous nation of powerful writers and orators clamoring against the insane silence of a broken language, intercepted by death eroding it to the ultimate, momentarily reversing its order and foundation.

Johan Gotera
Northwestern University

Translated by Carol Maier

Languages

Number 8

The eighth issue of Latin American Literature pays homage to Nicaraguan writer and politician Sergio Ramírez, winner of the 2017 Cervantes Prize and an important voice in a country currently gripped by crisis. We also feature poetry from Octavio Armand, as well as special sections dedicated to four indigenous writers of Mexico and Guatemala, bilingual sci-fi from Worldcon 76, and the poetry of Marosa di Giorgio, Olga Orozco, and Elena Garro. 

Table of Contents