On Endurance: An Introduction to Writing by Reina María Rodríguez
The verb resistir resembles the English word resist, yet it has an expansive array of meanings. The many valences of resistir fan out across the poetry and prose of Reina María Rodríguez, writings operational on multiple layers at once.
One common starting point for considering meaning within the Spanish language itself, the Royal Spanish Academy’s dictionary, offers eight different definitions using institutional Spanish for this verb. Entry number one: tolerar, aguantar o sufrir (options only partly captured in English as to tolerate, bear, or suffer). Meanwhile, in Cuban settings, political usages of resistir often refer to a battle for survival in the face of pressure. That may be pressure from the eternal U.S. economic embargo, or the general uncertainty and need of the island’s post-Cold-War decades, the restructuring of everyday life in the new century, or the simultaneity of all such pressures, and a translation of resist may express the general idea well enough.
Of course, you don’t need to be Cuban to feel the urgency of a struggle to endure under pressure. Rodríguez has reached audiences around the world with expressions of everyday urgency, which are central to her long career in poetry and prose. The endpoint to resistance is surrender, and mortality is its ultimate human expression. This fate looms over many of Rodríguez’s explorations, and one wonders how long surrender can be held at bay. But before we arrive at the end of our journeys, our day-to-day struggles are innumerable.
The English verb resist becomes too limited to express the many intonations of endurance essential to writing by Rodríguez: To hold out, to support (as in weight), to withstand, to last, to remain firm, to put up with, to make a stand against, to weather, to survive safely, to be unaffected or undamaged by, to not be beaten by, to be able to stop oneself doing, to fight against, to keep courage… The motion of each poem, its pace, its relation to time, suggests more exact shadings to her language.
In this dossier we include “He has spots,” a very brief poetic prose text by Rodríguez representing her influential collection Variedades de Galiano (Galiano St. Variety, 2007, reprinted in Prosas de la Habana, 2015). Roaming cats hold the line of resistance here. One of the family’s cats, Dinesen, has disappeared. The others make a conscious effort to carry on: “We never heard him again, but they knew and were prepared not to forget, prepared to keep going” (“nunca más lo oímos, pero ellos sabían y estaban preparados para no olvidar, para resistir”). Their determination compresses into only a few lines.
In other works, Rodríguez takes the measure of intense pressures on her wider community. We include “Passage of Clouds,” a piece from the beginning of her 2003 inter-genre book Otras cartas a Milena (Other Letters to Milena, released in a 2016 bilingual edition by the U. of Alabama Press). In this collection, multi-faceted crises spiral outwards from the island’s shattering economic crash and intense period of readjustment after 1989. Known euphemistically as the island’s “Special Period,” this phase involved Cuba’s loss of international trade (particularly petroleum) and the strategic alliances formerly enabled by the Soviet Union. Food and goods became hard to get on a daily basis for much of the population in the 1990s, and Rodríguez, whose family and neighborhood were marked by that deprivation, wondered how they could possibly survive. In a series of letters at the heart of the book, addressed to her daughter, Elis Milena, Rodríguez lays out metaphysical inquiries resulting from crisis.
I’ll suggest that the ultimate battle waged by Rodríguez happens on yet another plane, where her prolonged commitment to writing becomes visible as a combat mode: in her long-term resistance to the pressures of meaninglessness. The recurrent threat hanging over her world is a void of meaning. It is sometimes implied and sometimes overtly named. For example, in “The Cold” (“El frío”), Rodríguez writes,
we’re never safe from the meaninglessness of this day
that doesn’t claim intelligence or reason
that doesn’t allow your beauty
to age with earthly wear and tear
and forces you to look up at the sky through the walled-in pause
imposed by its serenity.
nunca seguros ante el sinsentido de este día
que no pretende la inteligencia ni la razón
que no permite que tu belleza
envejezca en los desgastes terrenales
y te hace mirar al cielo por la estrecha pausa
que su serenidad ha impuesto.
The poet bets everything on her ability to carve out a space of contemplation. Her daily determination to sit down and write, which has resulted in dozens of books, is her most potent weapon against a pointless everyday.
Spaces in which to locate and create meaning thus matter to a discussion of her writing. Whether or not any given place remains viable for other aspects of everyday survival —whether it provides food or shelter or meets some other material need—it may be filled with meaning by an observer. Rodríguez draws questions about survival out of the places of daily life, while defamiliarizing local realities.
Her work with images of her city and nation tends to diverge from patterns common in other types of expression, such as journalism. “Passage of clouds” is a good example of the difference poetry can make. Explicitly dated by Rodríguez to September 18, 1994, the piece includes imagery of balseros, the rafters who received a great deal of news coverage as they cobbled together rafts and took to the sea. Rodríguez gives her own perspective to a stock image from international media of the time: the islanders who were part of a major wave of emigration during Cuba’s Special Period.
“Passage of clouds” circumvents the language of newspaper coverage, with its emphasis on concrete aspects of a “now.” Instead, Rodríguez examines the departure of rafters in oscillating fashion: from afar, from near, again from afar, weaving local images into a larger meditation on human symbolic history. I find the telescoping effect of her prose poem more akin to a painting, created for a museum some centuries in the future, and open to a mediated representation of the truth, than to a photograph created for placement in the news media, reliant on the illusion of direct access to the real. Her telescoping generates an unusual interiority, suggesting philosophical and spiritual dimensions of the scene, all from the viewpoint of an islander who is not stepping into the sea.
Despite Rodríguez’s choice of representational modes that differ from journalism, her subject matter never detaches from an awareness of historical moment. It is worth noticing that other images of migration feature in both the past and present of her literary museum scenes, and that the migration of peoples is a massive global phenomenon in the twenty-first century. For example, in the Cuban case, departure by raft is not the only form of migration characterizing the end of the twentieth century and the rise of the twenty-first century. Rodríguez often refers to the dynamics of presence and absence involving people who have left a scene, whether by plane or some other mode of travel not so sensationalized (and sensationally associated with Cuba in the minds of English-language readers) in media coverage as the rafts of the 1990s.
As nations morph under the pressures of the twenty-first century, migration and diaspora have altered the faces of community identity within Cuba, and far beyond it too; scholars refer to a “greater” Cuban geography encompassing those who have moved beyond the island’s physical territory. One of the newest poems by Rodríguez in this dossier is “An apple core and a mouse” (“Una manzana mordida y un ratón”), from a manuscript yet to be published in book form. An incident inspiring Rodríguez to write this poem occurred in her daughter’s home, which is no longer in Havana but in Coral Gables, Florida. A very large mouse jumped out of the toilet (in fact, Rodríguez told me, this happened twice). Moving this event into her poem, Rodríguez uses it to question whether “we” have arrived anywhere in our earthly migrations. The inquiry could be read metaphysically; or as a query to all families affected by contemporary migration worldwide; or as an address to Cubans in particular; or even as a reflection on her own immediate family, who live divided amongst three nations as I write this essay.
Conventional nationalism lies undone in the face of human need. So do other place-bound identities, like the neighborhood world in Havana so associated with the twentieth-century works that first made Rodríguez famous. Have family and self similarly unraveled? Resistir: to carry on —in displaced day-to-day realities, or only inside the deep space of one’s own mind.
These tensions between place and displacement are then inherent to the contemporary drive for survival. Rodríguez’s curiosity about place is one of the energies lifting all of her works. She has set many pieces within the changing contours of the city of Havana, frequently on her street (Ánimas) and in her apartment building. On the opposite side of a spectrum connecting proximity to distance, she depicts moments from her travels in other works, be those travels physical, mental, or spiritual. And she frequently mashes the two facets —inside and outside, here and there— together.
For this dossier, we offer a diverse set of scenes amplifying the echoes between endurance and place. In addition to “he has spots,” with its semi-domestic cats; “the cold,” identifying the threat of meaninglessness; and the two pieces referencing migration, “passage of clouds” and “an apple core and a mouse”; four additional texts introduce readers to Rodríguez’s writings of endurance.
“Undertow” (“Resaca”), from her 2016 collection El Piano, invokes the iconic cityscape of Havana. In the first line, Rodríguez names the poem’s setting as the Malecón, the routinely photographed structure that is a seawall, a road, and a promenade where Havana meets the sea. Here the speaker seeks the very pulse of time. Given the centrality of music to her imagery, the end of the translation exploits more than one meaning of tiempo, which I’ve translated as both tempo and time.
“The roof” (“El techo,” from an unpublished collection the author currently calls “Chapapote”) refers to the tiny home that Rodríguez and her ex-partner, Jorge Miralles, built on top of an apartment building in Havana. They constructed it without a permit, using mostly recycled and repurposed materials. Known as la azotea (the rooftop), this home played a historic role in Cuban culture as an unusually independent salon. The events they hosted in the 1990s —largely held outside on the roof, and therefore open to view from surrounding buildings— modeled new possibilities for civic space for artists and intellectuals in Havana (that is, spaces not overseen by the state, which played a central role in cultural institutions after 1959). The roof in this poem acquires other, expansive metaphorical layers, whether related to political status, a generational angst particular to islanders who have lived through the constant chatter about “change” from 1989 forward, and the ongoing pressure to migrate —or, the universal human relation to life and death. As Rodríguez writes in this poem, the wood they obtained to build the existing roof over their home was originally intended for use in coffins.
“Children’s story” (“Cuento infantil,” published in Luciérnagas, 2017) can similarly be read in more than one way. For those with a special interest in Havana’s literary history, it offers another commentary on the writer’s rooftop home. The personal overtones of the fable, however, allow this short fable of domestic life, ownership, and gender to slide in other directions.
The final piece is the earliest of this set. Entitled “time’s arrest / la detención del tiempo,” this prose poem appeared in Spanish in the 1992 collection entitled En la arena de Padua, which drew significant international interest to Rodríguez. The piece exists in English as the title poem of a 2005 edition printed bilingually by Factory School. To create it, Rodríguez blended famous lines from William Shakespeare (there) into a domestic setting (here), generating the dual mindspace so characteristic of her work. In her hands, the verb detener(se) offers another example of multidimensional possibilities in transit from Spanish into English: to stop, to arrest, to hold, to apprehend, and reflexively to pause, take one’s time, or come to a halt. Regardless of the moment-by-moment translation, this poem’s central inquiry returns us to one person’s experience of the passage of time. The poem’s interior gaze explores the pressure of time upon a single life; simultaneously, this gaze examines humanity’s interior worlds across time and space, registering the pluralized, melded voices of the poets.
The weight of time bears down on the human ability to sustain any relation with another being —and eventually, even, with oneself. Rodríguez pushes that falling sky back with poetry. Resistir: to memorialize acts of endurance in literary form.
Kristin Dykstra is principal translator of The Winter Garden Photograph, by Reina María Rodríguez, Winner of the 2020 PEN Award for Poetry in Translation. She co-edited Materia Prima, an anthology of poetry by Amanda Berenguer (Uruguay), Finalist for the 2020 Best Translated Book Award. Previously the U. of Alabama Press published four of Dykstra’s book-length translations of Cuban poetry, by Rodríguez, Juan Carlos Flores, Ángel Escobar, and Marcelo Morales. She also translated Tina Escaja’s Destructivist Manual. Selections from her new poetry manuscript appear in Lana Turner, Seedings, La Noria (with Spanish translation by Escaja), and the website for The Hopper.
In our eighteenth issue, we feature the work of beloved Cuban poet Reina María Rodríguez alongside that of João Cabral de Melo Neto, renowned Brazilian poet and third Latin American winner of the Neustadt Prize. We also highlight Latin American women poets, indigenous literature from Brazil, new works in translation, and a return to the essay through the words of Mariano Picón Salas.