Monday, March 16, 2015

The Weight of the Island - Selected Poems of Virgilio Pinera - Translated by Pablo Medina (Dialogos/Lavender Ink)

Today's book of poetry:
The Weight of the Island - Selected Poems of Virgilio Pinera - Translated by Pablo Medina.
Dialogos.  An Imprint of Lavender Ink.  New Orleans, Louisiana.  2014.

The Weight of the Island is a posthumous Selected Poems of the work of Virgilio Pinera (1912-1979), as translated by Pablo Medina.  Pinera died of a heart attack in Cuba in 1979.  Medina tells us in his introduction that Pinera had always been adamant about the three constants in his life, "his poverty, his gayness, and his love of art."  

Pinera addresses those concerns in thoroughly modern ways in these poems of "emotion reined in by disillusion."

The first thing the reader discovers is how new these poems feel, sound, read.  So much so that Pinera had to be absolutely ahead of his time.

Elegy and Such

I invite the word
walking its barren bark among the dogs.
Everything is sad.
If it crowns forehead and breasts with shining leaves
a cold smile will blossom on the moon.
Everything is sad.
Later the sad dogs will eat the leaves
and bark out words with glistening sounds.
Everything is sad.
A dog invites the hyacinths by the river.
Everything is sad.
With loony words, with doggerel arrows,
with tiny toothy leaves
the hyacinths wound the mute damsels.
Everything is sad.
The black grass grows with a quiet hum,
but shiny edges caress the rhythm.
Everything is sad.
Behind the words the serpents laugh,
deaf earth allows no sound.
Everything is sad.

A heavenly bird barks in the sky
to scare death away.
The bird discovers it with with the flowers of night
and seduces it with words of a dog
and buries it with a cupful of earth.
Everything is sad.
I invite the earthbound word
that cuts through life and mirrors
and splits the echo of its image.
Everything is sad.
A play of words and barks.

Everything is sad.
A javelin whooshes through the speeding wind
in virile variations.
Half a cup of earth silenced the music.

Everything is sad.
Then the earth drank itself.
Everything is sad.
And when the time for death arrives
place me before a mirror where I may see myself.
Everything is sad.



Many of the poems in The Weight of the Island reach back to the 1940's but they read as timeless, thoroughly contemporary.

Pinera was harassed and jailed for being a homosexual -- but he also worked for the State as a writer for a time.  His principle fame in Cuba arose from his work as a modernist playwright.

These beautifully modern poems remain incredible time capsules though.  Pinera's poems as translated by Pablo Medina are not only completely accessible and approachable but natural, as though written with Pinera watching over Medina's shoulder, sharing a drink, a cigar.

I See It

Better death raise
the crown of your life
to weigh it,
and on the forehead where the moon hides its reflection
death will overcome its own severity with splendor.

You are naked,
as if the hourless days slid down your body,
as if a fleeting animal raced
between rest and memory.

Day now begins its ascent
and you end up in the sudden beak of inertia.
You call me as if the impregnable shrouds
of destruction dropped on my ear one by one.

And I too label you destroyed,
I reach your outskirts,
I set fire to you with the suns of my condolence,
I place you in a box of laments,
your fear reaches me and I wreck the air
with the vibrations of its impediment.
I see you in the air like a dead star
shattering into cold moons,
I see you with your shoes and your perfection.



Today's book of poetry is always honoured to read fine poems and in turn to bestow some small vestige of honour upon them when given the chance.

I was in Cuba last year and found a couple of excellent bookstores - but I speak and read almost no Spanish.  I did find two bi-lingual editions of Spanish/English poetry at an outdoor bazaar in a square in central Havana where all of the stalls were selling books.  The vendors swarming about like anxious dancing librarians.  But I didn't find any Pinera.  A problem now remedied.

Poem to be Said in the Midst of a Great Silence

Can it be they are going to kill?
Will they pierce the heart with a huge knife?
And with the sharpest scalpel empty the eyes?
And with the steeliest chisel break the skull?
And with the most hammer of hammers crush the bones?

Can it be that on the erotic table
--table of sex, table of love--
my love, you and I,
being startled one night
your heart spoke
when you were under my blood?
Can it be the same as it was
when it was an oath, and even more so,
your work, your word bled,
soaked by the soft perfume of kisses,
so as not to deny, to be one indivisible?
And can it be so blindly believed,
so blindly, that all the suns go dark forever
while the soul travels in darkness?
Can it be there never was a soul despite the waves of music we made?
Soul that never was though soul you might be for an instant?
Remember that instant when you were a soul and adored me,
and then your own monster came suddenly
to take you to the place where being you were?

Can it be that after you are no longer,
when not being is merely a mound of dried out kisses,
you will be by not being, instead being love?



Dialogos Books is doing the English speaking world a great favour by publishing The Weight of the Island as a bi-lingual Spanish/English book.

This poetry is so original, so human and immediate - it has taken so many years to get to us and yet remains totally new.


Pablo Medina has done a spectacular job.  Virgilio Pinera did the living and superb writing.

Virgilio Pinera

Pablo Medina

Virgilio Piñera Llera (August 4, 1912 – October 18, 1979) was a Cuban author, playwright, poet, short-story writer, and essayist.

Among his most famous poems are "La isla en peso" (1943), and "La gran puta" (1960). He was a member of the "Origenes" literary group, although he often differed with the conservative views of the group. In the late 1950s he co-founded the literary journal Ciclón. Following a long exile in Buenos Aires, Piñera returned to Cuba in 1958, months before the Cuban Revolution.

His work includes essays on literature and literary criticism, several collections of short stories compiled under the title of Cold Tales, a great number of dramatic works, and three novels: La carne de René (Rene's Flesh), Presiones y Diamantes (Pressures and Diamonds), and Las pequeñas maniobras (Small Maneuvers). His work is seen today as a model by new generations of Cuban and Latin American writers. Some believe that his work influenced that of Reinaldo Arenas, who wrote in his memoir Before Night Falls of Piñera's time in Argentina and friendship there with Witold Gombrowicz.

The magazine Unión posthumously published autobiographical writing by Piñera in which he discussed his homosexuality. However, his literary and cultural perspective went beyond sexuality, to express concerns on national and continental identity and philosophical approaches to theater, writing and politics. This focus drew fire from the Spanish American literary establishment of his time, including Cuban poets Cintio Vitier and Roberto Fernandez Retamar, as well as Fidel Castro and Che Guevara.

Due to Piñera's social points of view and especially to his homosexuality, he was censured by the revolution, and died without any official recognition. As more of his work has been translated into English, Piñera's work has been rediscovered by American academia as a testimony of 20th century resistance against totalitarian systems.

Pablo Medina was born in Havana, Cuba, and moved with his family to New York City at the age of twelve. Medina’s writing has been acclaimed as “lyrical and powerfully evocative” and “deserving a prominent spot in today’s literature of exile.” His Pork Rind and Cuban Songs was the first collection of poems written directly into English by a Cuban-born writer. In addition, he has published six other poetry collections,Arching into the Afterlife (Bilingual Press), The Floating Island (White Pine Press), Puntos de apoyo (Editorial Betania),  Points of Balance (Four Way Books); The Man Who Wrote on Water (Hanging Loose Press); and Calle HabanaPhotoStroud); a memoir titled Exiled Memories: A Cuban Childhood (Persea Books); and, with Carolina Hospital, Everyone Will Have To Listen/Todos me van a tener que oír (Linden Lane Press), a collection of translations from the Spanish of Cuban dissident Tania Díaz Castro. In 2008 he co-translated García Lorca’s Poet in New York (Grove Press), a work that John Ashbery called “the definitive version of Lorca’s masterpiece.” His fifth poetry collection, Points of Balance, has been called “nothing short of linguistic mastery.” His sixth collection, The Man Who Wrote on Water, was called “exemplary” by the El Paso Times. His first two novels, The Marks of Birth (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) and The Return of Felix Nogara (Persea Books), were highly praised by critics in the U.S. and abroad. The Cigar Roller, his third novel (Grove Press), was praised as “a mental idyll. . .no less fecund than Wordsworth’s,”  while his fourth novel Cubop City Blues (Grove)  has been called “a rich and stunning novel” by the LA Review of Books. He is also the author of A Trumpet Sounds, a verse drama premiered at Foundation Theater (J. E. Prusinowski, Director/Producer) in 1995 and staged at Gloucester Summer Theater (Joe Salvatore, Director) in 1997. Medina’s poetry and prose and translations from and to the Spanish language have been published in many periodicals and anthologies, and he has been the recipient of numerous awards, among them grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, The Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund, the New Jersey and Pennsylvania State Arts Councils, the United States Department of State, The Oscar B. Cintas Foundation, and The Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, as well as fellowships from the Rockefeller and Guggenheim foundations. Medina served on the Board of Directors of AWP  (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) from 2002 – 2007 and was elected President in 2005 – 2006.

Telluric, absurdist, surrealist, feverishly tropical, Virgilio Piñera’s The Weight of the Island is a poetic cosmos without parallel. Piñera’s voice is disturbing, anguished, dissonant and yet deeply moving. You feel the full emotional and psychological presence of the man in every verse he penned. We can rejoice that the English-speaking public can finally become acquainted with this utterly original poet. Only an artist of Pablo Medina’s gifts could have achieved the miracle of bringing Piñ era fully alive into English. 
     -- Jaime Manrique, author of Cervantes Street

When we read the poetry of Virgilio Piñera we must try to identify the invisible or the mystery that lies behind his words, for his language is filled with doubt and irony as the Cuban poet works the regions of despair, desolation and loneliness. Through Medina’s translation the reader can access the invisible and hidden in Piñera’s poetry, the mystery between the lines which Pablo Medina deftly uncovers. Medina’s translation of Piñera’s poetic words is vivid and sensitive and becomes a recreation of that poetry rather than a mere translation. If Piñera as a poet translates his desolate life into a poetry which is fierce and bitter, Medina’s English rendition of that poetry captures the vitality of the original Spanish and conveys the fierceness of a poet who felt imprisoned by “the cursed condition of water on all sides.”
     --Professor Isabel Alvarez Borland, author of Cuban America Literature of Exile: From Person to           Persona

Virgilio Piñera’s poetry occupies the fragile space between sadness and beauty, between disillusion and reality. His poems are quiet champions against indifference, affirmations that seek to both grieve over and honor our human existence. Pablo Medina's translations are enduring, necessary treasures.
--Richard Blanco, Obama inaugural poet and author of The Prince of los CocuyosVirgilio Piñera has been too long ignored amid a louder, at times discordant music of twentieth century Latin American poetry. With these subtly innovative and accessible translations in The Weight of the Island, poet-novelist Pablo Medina now sets Piñera in his rightful place on the international stage alongside poet-icons José Lezama Lima and Nicolás Guillén. Piñera’s early work is fierce and surrealist, presenting the torrid sensuality and suffocation of his most beautiful island―Cuba―simmering in all its ebullient tropical illusions. Spanning the era when Cuba was a brand new country set free from both the Spanish and Americans to make its own history, moving ahead through hard Revolution then post-Revolution, this smart selection moves back again in time into the more interior and privately experienced, meant also to present Piñ era’s more intimate writing, his personal evocations of love and disillusionment, his closely observed poems of absurd social behaviors and mechanical decorum played out against the certainty of mortality. Yet Piñera’s poems are all celebrations of life, divine spirit cries that break through the stifling silence of our permanent night. Medina’s remarkable translations in The Weight of the Island now renew his gifts to the world.
     --Douglas Unger author of Voices from Silence


Poems cited here are assumed to be under copyright by the poet and/or publisher.  They are shown here for publicity and review purposes.  For any other kind of re-use of these poems, please contact the listed publishers for permission.

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