The Poetry of Heberto Padilla
Among Latin American poets of the twentieth century, Heberto Padilla is and will be recognized for his intense—though modest—poetic output. It remains to be seen whether he’ll be remembered as more than the protagonist of “The Padilla Affair.” That’s the designation given to the 1971 scandal that occurred in Cuba when Heberto Padilla appeared in public to retract his “counter-revolutionary” attitude, after his dissident book of poetry, with the defiant title Fuera del juego [Out of the game], was published in 1968 and received the prize of the UNEAC, the Cuban writers’ union. His repentant speech provoked protests among European and American intellectuals, since it was obvious to many that the poet was not sincere, but had acted under coercion after having been tortured, something Padilla himself admitted much later. Before the disclosure of its intricate plot, the case divided the Latin American intellectual community into those who supported and those who condemned the Cuban Revolution. Nevertheless, the value of Heberto Padilla’s poetry transcends this tragic affair, which is why the appearance of Fuera del juego y otros poemas [Out of the game and other poems], published by Cátedra and edited by Yannelys Aparicio Molina and Gustavo Pérez Firmat, is so timely, given that it was released in 2021, exactly fifty years after “The Padilla Affair.” This book is truly opportune because it exposes, in very revealing detail, the facts surrounding the “affair” and its consequences on the author and his subsequent work. It lets us delve deeper not only into Fuera del juego, but also into other poems selected from works published before and after this book. This anthology offers us the chance to take stock of Padilla’s work.
Beginning with the introduction, one can appreciate the careful and judicious documentation of the most meaningful aspects concerning the life and work of Heberto Padilla. Although the book was edited by scholars who are specialists in the field, as one expects from a book published by Cátedra, it doesn’t overwhelm the reader with superfluous notes or tedious erudition. For this new publication, the editors examined the original 1968 edition of Fuera del juego and two later editions, correcting typographical errors, standardizing punctuation, and clarifying significant changes between the first and subsequent editions in footnotes. We shouldn’t overlook, however, that this book appears with the title Fuera del juego y otros poemas. While it doesn’t include all of Padilla’s works, it does offer a selection of poems from books published after Fuera del juego, including El justo tiempo humano [Just human time] (1962), Provocaciones [Provocations] (1973), El hombre junto al mar [The man by the sea] (1981), and A Fountain, A House of Stone (1991). It excludes Rosas audaces [Audacious roses] (1948), a book that can be considered a youthful experiment and one that Padilla didn’t recognize as worthy of his work. Padilla was multilingual and the editors included a selection of his work as a translator, taken from Poesía romántica inglesa (1979). In what follows, I will attempt to summarize how the editors interpreted the poetry of Padilla for this edition.
Heberto Padilla’s poetry may be categorized as “conversational,” although certain characteristics differentiate his work from that of the most representative poets of this style. Rejecting hermeticism and the use of obscure metaphors or figurative language, his poetry attempts to be direct in its communication. Nevertheless, unlike Ernesto Cardenal’s “Prayer for Marilyn Monroe,” it avoids references to mass culture or allusions to film, television, and popular Cuban or foreign music. Padilla’s poetry is refined and rich in literary references; in other words, it’s an “honest” poetry that doesn’t adopt a conversational stance as a pose or conceal its cultured influences, nor does it try to imitate vernacular speech by recurring to colloquialisms or anecdotes about mass culture. As the editors point out, the three keys to Padilla’s poetry are wandering, objecting, and singing. All three are present throughout his work, each in its own way, but the attitude of the “objector” appears with greatest intensity, sometimes accompanied by irony or defiance, but also by a feeling of fragility. We read in Fuera del juego: “History is the blow you must learn to resist. / History is that place that plants and uproots us.” Padilla was a rebellious poet who belonged to a tradition that extends from romanticism to the first vanguard movements and continues its experimentation into the disruptive second half of the twentieth century. In this sense, the Cátedra edition is quite coherent in that it begins with Fuera del juego and ends with selections from Poesía romántica inglesa.
The correlation between the elements of wandering, objecting, and singing allows us to explore the evolution of Padilla’s poetry. It’s worth noting that his work is not simply an autobiographical reflection. The speaker expresses himself with subtle distancing in different and distinct ways, but one can see traces of certain subjective experiences in his work. Padilla was an inveterate traveler during the 1950s and 1960s, and this desire to travel and discover himself in diverse geographical locations is present in the books El justo tiempo humano, Fuera del juego, and Provocaciones. The Cuban landscape isn’t as present in those books, which is important because this absence led to accusations against him during the 1971 controversy, when he was criticized for using his privileges to travel instead of committing himself fully to the Revolution. One could say that the speaker’s impulse to wander, seen in the first three books, coincides with the spirit of objecting against the powers of history. We can cite an example of this from one of Padilla’s most referenced poems, “In Difficult Times,” which opens Fuera del juego. The poem is constructed as an anatomical list of all that’s demanded of a man “in difficult times”: his hands, eyes, legs, chest, heart, and shoulders. It ends with these verses: “And finally they begged him, please, get moving / because in difficult times / this is, without a doubt / the decisive test” (p. 82).
Irony manifests itself from the start: although there’s no mention in the poem of the Revolution or a revolutionary leader, it’s implied that the man should step in line, matching his pace to that of History: an allusion to the Marxist concept of history as an ascending and liberating march, which ironically ends up transforming the man into a puppet who’s ordered to be “obedient” and told “please, get moving.” The poet had been a rambler who resided in many countries and savored the zest of wanderlust, but after the “Padilla Affair” he was forced to swallow the bitter pill of not being able to roam freely in a totalitarian society.
In El hombre junto al mar (1981), singing becomes the predominant trope. We should keep in mind that most of these poems were written in the 1970s, when the poet lived under house arrest. After the forced retraction of 1971, he could no longer wander or object, and that negation turned into an affirmation of life and a kind of restrained eroticism, expressed in a domestic setting. At its heart, this poetry represents a “no” to the violence and death of history: “The warmth of your body is my flag,” he writes in one of the verses of this book. The 1970s were very difficult years of loneliness and humiliation, when only a few friends dared visit him. During this period, he returned to his work as a translator, but the name of the translator was printed in tiny font on the editorial pages of the published books. They buried and erased Padilla as a person. That burial left its mark on this book and foreshadows what will appear in the scanty pages of his later work. In a poem in which he alludes to the exile of Luis Cernuda in the United States, Padilla writes: “Poetry became terribly hostile to him.” This same observation holds true for Padilla himself.
A Fountain, a House of Stone (1991) is his last book, but there are only seven new poems in the fifty included in the volume. As in El hombre junto al mar, the domestic space continues to be a constant presence, and this persistence is noteworthy. It’s as if the speaker in his poetry had failed to free himself from the ostracism he experienced in the 1970s, as if even while living in the United States he continued to suffer from confinement, fear, and decline in vitality. The signs of darkness and opaqueness, as well as images of lifelessness, appear more than once (night, ashes). The poem entitled “The Princeton Cemetery” opens with a dispassionate reflection on life and death, but takes a turn with the insertion of the adverbial locative “suddenly.” Padilla introduces an anguished tone with his description of someone who wanders within the confines of his house, anxiously climbing the stairs, one by one, until he looks out a window at the gravedigger and the gardener in the cemetery and pronounces these words: “Oh, God, tell us when, why. / There’s not only one Ash Wednesday in our life. / Toward that cemetery everyone walks with the same fear, / the same eyes, the same feet” (p. 262). The poem ends the way it began, with a metaphysical reflection, but what the speaker first perceived as natural order is now expressed with a feeling of fear. One need only compare this “wandering” to that of Padilla’s first books, brimming with rebellion and vitality, to recognize these verses as the antithesis of his early work.
“Toward that cemetery everyone walks with the same fear.” The impersonal subject of these final verses shouldn’t allow us to forget the personal depth from which that fear emerges. For the editors of Fuera del juego y otros poemas, the impact of the “Padilla Affair” was undeniable: he never got over the trauma, and the impulse to write poems came less and less often. In the final section of this essay, I’d like to go beyond this conclusion. In spite of this increasing silence, his work was heading toward a new phase that allows us to value his poetry beyond the “Padilla Affair.”
First, let’s review what happened. By the time Padilla decided to compete in the literary contest that would award the prize to Fuera del juego in 1968, the fervor of the early days of the Revolution had dissipated. The Cuban people were living under surveillance by the State, and Padilla had to submit his manuscript to the competition clandestinely, using his wife Belkis Cuza Malé as his conduit. Several poems had been published previously in Cuban magazines, eliciting official displeasure, and converting him into an intellectual persona non grata. In spite of all that, Fuera del juego won the contest. Three years later, the Office of State Security arrested Padilla and his wife, an ordeal narrated by Padilla in his memoir La mala memoria (Self-Portrait of the Other), which reveals the tip of the horrific iceberg. Although the physical and psychological torture can be described, discerning its impact is difficult. Eventually Padilla was set free, and in a meeting of writers convened by the UNEAC, he retracted his “counter-revolutionary” activities and made accusations against various writers and his wife. One can appreciate the horror of this scene by watching Pavel Giroud’s 2022 documentary El caso Padilla. Later came house arrest and with it loneliness, with visits from very few of their friends. The intellectuals had learned their lesson. It would be hard to find a writer, male or female, who would challenge the regime the way Padilla had.
At the end of his life, Padilla, who would write the word History with a capital letter in his poetry, felt an aversion towards History, which has a perverse way of finding excuses or justifications for the unjustifiable. But this is also history, without the capital H. And it is, of course, a self-criticism for backing the Revolution and for justifying all that was now making him suffer. In terms of the resulting division among intellectuals, for some, the situation will remain an anecdote of volatile opinions justified by the circumstances, while for others, it stands as a testimony to the blindness of that period. But Padilla himself warns us of this very thing. In Self-Portrait of the Other, Padilla narrates how intellectuals outside of Cuba were enthralled with the Revolution and its leader; the rest was trivial, purely anecdotal, but the rest happened to include the Cuban people. For those who lived outside the island, their world could go on, with or without their support for the Revolution; for those living on the island, their life, as under any dictatorship, depended on a “yes” or a “no.” Undoubtedly, the “Padilla Affair” was not and will not be the last immoral act justified by intellectuals and artists. But going beyond the “anecdotal” allows us to read in greater depth what happened and how it influenced his work.
In his poetry, Padilla doesn’t speak about the horror he endured. Why not? Perhaps because Padilla never had a penchant for the poetry of denunciation, in which literary creativity is reduced to a clear communicative intention that employs a register more appropriate for prose, or even worse, for a pamphlet. True art communicates in silence, thought Proust, thus complicating things further. Silence itself gives meaning, and the final poems of Padilla invite the reader to ponder and reflect. The language has distanced itself from the flowing verses of conversational poetry and has become more hermetic. The influence of poets from the United States has something to do with that, as we can see in “Memory of Wallace Stevens in Florida” and in “The Princeton Cemetery,” whose staircase is reminiscent of Robert Frost’s “Home Burial.” In Frost’s poem, a husband and wife stand at either end of a staircase while they speak about the death of their son, who’s buried in a family graveyard visible from the window at the top of the stairs. In this poem, which deals with the inability to communicate grief, the woman reproaches her husband for pretending to speak of their loss, and by so doing perhaps diminishing its significance. In “The Princeton Cemetery,” the window isn’t mentioned, only alluded to: “Suddenly, light filters into the house, the blinds rustle / you hear the sound of someone climbing quickly up the stairs” (p. 262). Nor does Padilla introduce the theme of grief over a specific person, although it’s suggested, when he goes on to say: “and there lies another victim for us / an empty algebra” (p. 262). The theme of emptiness is present in the works of another exiled Cuban poet who has a premonition of his death. I’m referring to “Dos patrias” by José Martí, but in Padilla’s poem there is no allusion to a homeland and the emotion is contained, almost muted. Among the classic tropes of exile are nostalgia and grief over the lost homeland, as well as the uncomfortable loneliness of a foreign land. We find those sentiments in the Cuban poetry of Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda and José Martí, but they’re absent in Padilla’s final poems. In them we see no desire to return to the past, no nostalgia for the patria, no future on the horizon, only solitude and a growing withdrawal from the world. “The Princeton Cemetery” is a poem about death, but from a distant, almost abstract gaze, which makes it all the more heartbreaking. Of course, for each abstract image, there’s a displaced life compressed into the poem. Padilla never adapted to the United States, drifting from one academic job to another at different universities, enduring a divorce and a growing inability to write, in addition to years of poor health, a heart attack, and a solitary death in Auburn, Alabama, where he taught. I don’t mention these circumstances as a justification for his truncated work, which speaks for itself; however, providing context does aid in understanding his poetry. Exile has been a constant presence in literature, but neither writing nor reading are subject to the determinism of history. Let’s return to the throbbing poetry of Padilla. Let’s read his verses between the silences and rumbles of history.