Women’s Poetry of the Cuban Diaspora
This brief selection of works by five Cuban women poets is brought together by a common context that is as much personal as political. They were all born and educated in Cuba but migrated to different parts of the world between 1990 (the beginning of the period of scarcity called the “Special Period” following the collapse of the socialist world which triggered large-scale migration) and 2021 (marked by the public uprisings of July 11 alongside the pandemic). Among the poets in this collection, Damaris Calderón (b. 1967) has been featured as the youngest Cuban poet in several anthologies. The youngest in this collection, Elizabeth Mirabal (b. 1986), has asserted her literary presence through major honours in 2021. With the large-scale migration of an overwhelming majority of Cuban university graduates to different corners of the world, it is now widely acknowledged that the literary or artistic production of the Cuban diaspora is, at the least, as significant or voluminous as the one produced inside the national territory.
The early works of almost all the poets in this collection were published in Cuba, and their subsequent poetry engages with their own pasts, at once personal and collective. By limiting this selection to women and the diasporic condition, and to the specific themes of immigration, alienation, and yearning, my intention is to achieve a collective emotional portrait drawing from the suggestion that women’s histories are perhaps best captured through group-biography in which families and social/cultural groups can be linked through wider historical processes that highlight the importance of social interaction in the development of ideas and identities.1 With a broader understanding of “yearning” as an existential condition, these poems, apart from their literary value, can also be seen as an attempt at a group-biography of an imagined community.
This selection, made specifically for LALT, features one poem by each of five poets alongside biographical notes: Damaris Calderon, María Cristina Fernandez, Yosie Crespo, Legna Rodríguez Iglesias, and Elizabeth Mirabal. The poems display a diversity of styles ranging from a conversational or anecdotal mode to the erudite prose form, at times bordering on the jocular and at other times fierce in their resentment at the gaping wounds and emotional dismemberment caused by historical events beyond individual control where love and hatred are too hard to separate.
This is part of a work-in-progress toward an eponymously-titled bilingual anthology with the works of the following twenty-three Cuban women poets: María Cristina Fernández, Legna Rodríguez Iglesias, Dermis Pérez León, Lizette Espinosa, Zoé Valdés, Eilyn Pérez Amores, Gelsys García, Damaris Calderón, Ena Columbie, Yosie Crespo, Ana María Pedroso, Alessandra Molina, Eilyn Lombard Cabrera, Sonia Díaz Corrales, María Elena Hernández Caballero, María Elena Peña de Prada, Milena Rodríguez Gutiérrez, Odette Alonso Yodu, Lleny Díaz Valdivia, Kelly Martínez-Grandal, Elizabeth Mirabal, Gleyvis Coro Montanet, Eva María Vergara.
All the poets and poems in the anthology have been selected, translated and annotated by Indranil Chakravarty.
Damaris Calderón Campos (b. 1967, Havana) has been living in Chile since 1995. She has published more than fifteen books in various countries including Cuba, Chile, Germany, and Mexico. Among them are Duro de roer (1992), Sílabas, Ecce Homo (2000), Parloteo de Sombra (2004), Los amores del mal (2006), El remoto país imposible (2012), and Las pulsaciones de la derrota (2013). She has participated in international poetry festivals in the Netherlands, France, Uruguay, Argentina, Peru, Mexico, and several other countries. Her work has been translated into English, Dutch, French, German, Norwegian, and Serbo-Croatian. In 2011, she received the Simon Guggenheim Fellowship in the poetry category. In 2014, she was awarded the Altazor prize and the “best published work” prize from the Consejo del Libro y la Lectura for her book Las pulsaciones de la derrota.
Everything is perhaps excessive.
The pain in the word pain
dragging its weight along the joints
pain not articulated
pain of the joints the vexing winks
of prisons open-air jails
numbing pain that amputates insensitizes
pain that must be painful
harsh lights of harsh lanterns
like sneering eyes
harshness we shall see no more
needle entering flesh
the night’s punch
the scratch the nocturnal jab
the night’s alcohol
the night’s ocean
the sun’s distillate the drunkards
the bone the marrow-hole the ribcage the human rib
the drunkenness the tarantella the unharnessed life.
María Cristina Fernández (b. 1970, Santiago de Cuba) moved to Miami in 2006. Her first book, Procesión lejos de Bretaña (2000), and her titles for children—El cielo de los deseos (2001) and Cachete y la Tropa del Don (2002)—were published in Havana. In Miami, she published her volume of short stories El maestro en el cuerpo and, a few years later, another titled No nací en Castalia (2016). Her new collection of short stories, titled P, was published in 2020, while her latest poetry book, Miracle Mile, came out in 2021. Her poems, short stories, and reviews have appeared in Letralia, Hypermedia Magazine, Conexos, Diario de Cuba, El Nuevo Herald, and others publications
I’m not homesick2
When they ask me if I have left someone behind on the island
—isolated, annihilated, hallucinated—
I linger and ponder over a stretch of sea.
A friend, I would say,
that I left behind a friend
his drum and his altar
two ways of worshipping and perpetuating life
in trying to save it from the tsunami.
A friend looks over the edge of those years of reflection
and measures utopia.
Utopia wasn’t zen
the Cuban ass is way too hot
to sit on the zafu.3
Or even the stool.
Utopia was no Esalen4
—no poor man’s money to pay for a stay—
in the New Age coast of California.5
When I think of the island
—isolated, annihilated, hallucinated—
I touch books, reread a poem, seek comfort.
Share a regret, a thought, a stretch of sea
worth more than any uprooting
any return to the anthill.
I’m not and will not be homesick.
Sick neither of home nor its yearning
There are nights when I return to that city in dreams
because I cannot, with my salt or my salary,
pay for the most expensive passport in the world.
And yet at night I can close an eyelid, so to say,
and peel it open with my own saliva, every morning,
as if it didn’t hurt.
Yosie Crespo (b. 1979, Pinar del Río) has been living in Miami since 1993. She studied Public Relations and Hospitality at the University of Miami and Florida Gulf Course University in Naples. In 2011, she won the New Values in Hispanic Poetry award for her collection of poetry titled Solárium (2011). Her other poetry collections include La ruta del pájaro sobre mi cabeza (2013), Caravana (2018), and Queríamos saber qué era una rosa (2021). For her book Estrella de Ocho Puntas (2019) she won the Victoria Urbano prize for best creative work, organised by AEGS (Association of Gender and Sexuality Studies). She was also a finalist for the Paz de Poesía Prize (2016) organised by the National Poetry Series of New York and winner of the Fourth Federico García Lorca Youth Poetry contest in 2011, as well as the International Short Story Prize at the Buenos Aires Book Fair in 2010.
This city, this house
This fortuitous island
this ruinous woman at the base of my neck
this tongue this mouth which in springtime calls out your name
this sadness that I must try to resist at the slightest hint of pain
these strokes of chalk erased by water
this wish to slow you down a bit too much
and this wish to tell you too much a bit too quickly
this mono-coloured fish on my ordinary stone
this fog of time corroding at the edges
this severe cold that autumn silences
this earth this flesh this startling splendour
that leaves without turning back
this hint of light in this listless desert
and this final position of my ship in the wharf
this torment of god as my sole inheritance
whose circumstances I could not fathom
this smothering of time and this gratuitous dying
this deep that lies at my feet
and this voice of having loved without hiding its strength
and this arrival from silence to tell us more about silence.
Legna Rodríguez Iglesias (b. 1984, Camagüey) writes the column “Irrelevante” in the online magazine El Estornudo and the column “53 Noviecitas” in Hypermedia Magazine. She won the Centrifugados Prize for Young Poetry in Spain in 2019, the Peace Prize from the National Poetry Series in 2016, the Casa de Las Américas Award (for theatre) in 2016, and the Julio Cortázar Iberoamerican Short Story Award in 2011. She has written several books of short stories, such as La mujer que compró el mundo (2017) and Qué te sucede, belleza (2020), and several poetry books: Tregua fecunda (2012), Hilo+Hilo (2015), Chicle (ahora es cuando) (2016), Título (2020), Miami Century Fox (2017), Transtucé (2017), Mi pareja calva y yo vamos a tener un hijo (2019), and Spinning Mill (2019). Her works of fiction include Mayonesa bien brillante (2015), No sabe/no contesta (2015), Las analfabetas (2015), Si esto es una tragedia yo soy una bicicleta (2016), and Mi novia preferida fue un bulldog francés (2017). She has been translated into English, Italian, German, and Portuguese.
The hurricane drove my house to hell
The hurricane drove my house to hell
I don’t know how long it took me to get there
it could be one day, a year or maybe more
God knows what formalities are needed to get all the way down there.
I don’t know if I am ready to see it.
But when I see it
when I finally have it in front of me
I myself will tear off the roof tiles
and loosen the hinges
I myself will hammer whatever crockeries I find
I myself will trample the rocking chair
and kick the wardrobe mirrors.
When I finally have it in front of me
with its living room and its two bedrooms
with its kitchen and its bathroom and its entrance
I myself will break the door open
and throw the brooms
for having left and leaving me behind
Elizabeth Mirabal (b. 1986) has been living in the United States since 2015. She graduated in Journalism from the University of Havana in 2009. She received the Iberoamerican Verbum Prize for her novel, La isla de las mujeres tristes (2014). She is the co-author, with Carlos Velazco, of two books about Guillermo Cabrera Infante: Sobre los pasos del cronista (2009), winner of the UNEAC Essay Award and the Cuban Literary Criticism Award, and Buscando a Caín (2012). She also wrote Hablar de Guillermo Rosales (2013), a selection of interviews titled Tiempo de Escuchar (2011), and Chakras: Historias de la Cuba dispersa (2014). She also compiled La intimidad de la historia (2013), Regreso de Ricardo Vigón (2015), and Poesía Completa de Juana Borrero (2016). Among her recent works are the novel La belleza de la inutilidad (2020) and a book of poems titled Herbarium (2021).
Think of Emily Dickinson…
Think of Emily Dickinson with her herbarium of voluminous books and wide range of flowers from around Amherst, so close to Emerson and Whitman, yet so overlooked by all. She tried to make an herbarium of her own with words. One that did not involve either the physical collection of plants and flowers, or going out into the garden and pressing collected specimens for days. It is an herbarium where all collection is inward, in a garden that grows within, where nothing exists except a past and its hazy remembrance firmly hardbound. An inexpensive herbarium, nothing burdensome, one that only asks to be evoked. Neither is it a Lydia Cabrera-style herbarium, made up of notes from insiders or confessors.6 It is thus an individualistic, self-generated herbarium that cannot be exhibited as an album. Why would one want to do things that do not belong to one’s own time? Did she feel she would become more herself if she invented it? Be one with the greatest creators of herbariums that the world has ever seen: Goethe, Kant, Humboldt. Did she dream, always dream, that the rags of her emotional herbarium would enthral someone? An herbarium sans images. A sombre herbarium to be contemplated by whosoever wishes, in its hideouts, its interstices, in the less spectacular parts of houses where floor-tiles hide blackish-green rust. Since the herbarium suggested cannot accomplish so many things, may not converse without the fear of falling, failing, and fracture, let’s make a private one, a limited, self-contained herbarium.
Texts compiled and translated by Indranil Chakravarty
1 Caine, Barbara. Biography and History. Palgrave Macmillan, 2010, p. 61.
2 The English word appears in the Spanish original.
3 A soft round cushion used for zen meditation.
4 An institute in Big Sur, California that conducts spirituality and well-being workshops.
5 Communities that centre around eclectic religious practices that came into vogue in the 1970s.
6 Lydia Cabrera (1899-1991) was a celebrated Cuban ethnographer whose scholarly work on Afro-Cuban religious traditions is foundational. She left Cuba in 1960 and lived mostly in Miami, in self-imposed exile. For her studies on the Abakuá secret society, she relied on “insiders” and “confessors,” as they did not allow women members.