J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Burnt Sugar

Burnt Sugar: Contemporary Cuban Poetry in English and Spanish
Tradepaper edited by Lorie Marie Carlson and Oscar Hijuelos
Free Press
0-7432-7662-0


Music and poetry both have a strong rhythmic component, which may explain why Cubans have a historic affinity for both art forms. In Burnt Sugar a new collection compiled by Carlson and Hijuelos readers get a convincing sample of twentieth century Cuban poets (therefore no José Martí), that deliberately eschews politics.

According to co-editor Carlson they originally intended to include Cuba poets still writing under the Castro regime’s rule: “However, current U.S. regulations, set forth by the Department of Treasury, rendered it too uncomfortable—both from a practical as well as legal standpoint—to do so.” (p. XVI)

While there seems to have been a deliberate editorial choice to avoid political themes, it is difficult not to read political significance into some of the collected verse. Themes of isolation and longing reoccur, as in Heberto Padilla’’s “I Have Always Lived in Cuba:”

“I Live in Cuba.
I have always lived in Cuba
Those Years of roaming the world,
Of which much has been said,
Are my lies, my falsehoods.” (p. 13)


Conversely, for Gustavo Pérez Firmat finds pleasure in the protection of isolation in “The Rain:”

“I miss the rain.
Tonight when it finally pours again
I know the rain
Surrounds the house and makes it safe.
(Thanks to the rain once more we’ll be an island.)” (p. 1)


And there is optimism, despite current hardship, as declared in Pura del Prado’s “The Island:”

“The Island will forever be invincibly alive,
Though we be missing.
She will survive historical ruins,
her emigrations
and political conflicts.
It is good thus.” (p. 76)

Elements of Cuban life and culture are celebrated, including Chano Pozo, the Cuban percussionist who gave the Dizzy Gillespie’s Cu-Bop band Afro-Cuban authenticity, appearing in Adrian Castro’s “To the Rumba Players of Belén, Cuba:”

Did Chano Pozo inherit
he whose ears were present
at the first drumming?
Oye Chano
are your hands homesick
when not beating on goatskins?” (p. 86)


A volume celebrating the poetry of Cuba need not be overtly political. Indeed, the poems collected in Burnt Sugar, are excellent, often covering universal themes, like love and loss. English translations are often presented alongside the original Spanish poems, while a few mix the two languages in ways that make side-by-side comparison impractical.

Yet, reading the brief biographical notes of the contributing poets, it is difficult not to draw some conclusions about Cuban life. Three contributors, Reinaldo Arenas, Jesús J. Barquet, and Lisette Mendez, emigrated to America during the Mariel Boatlift, despite the danger they would be exposed to from brutal street gangs organized by the Castro regime. Indeed, there are many former prisoners of conscious in this collection, including Arenas and Heberto Padilla:

“A poet, novelist, and journalist, he was arrested and imprisoned briefly in 1971 because of a book of poems critical of the government—an episode commonly referred to as ‘El Caso Padilla.’ In 1980 he was permitted to leave the country, whereupon he came to the United States.” (p. 110)

Other poets of conscious were less fortunate in the duration of their incarceration. Angel Cuadra was imprisoned for fifteen years, while Armando Valladares’ term lasted twenty-two years. Clearly, free artistic expression is incompatible with the Castro regime. While Carlson might be reluctant to state that in her introduction, bemoaning Treasury Department restrictions, it is clearly expressed by the fact that twenty-eight of the poets collected in Burnt Sugar were born in Cuba but either now reside in America, or were living here at the time of their death.

Burnt Sugar is a highly recommended volume that hints at some of the artistic dividends humanity will collect when Cuba’s tyrant falls. In his introduction Hijeulos remembers the words and spirit of his grandmother, whose attitude is appropriate when thinking about the poets and musicians of Cuba. According to Hijuelos: “Castro, and any form of tyranny, she abhorred, but never had she shown any malice to ‘her people.’”(p. XXII)

Cuba is a captive nation and ordinary Cuban are prisoners of a totalitarian regime. Perhaps we can start to look forward to a new day, sans Castro, when the poets of Cuba can write as they please, making collections like Burnt Sugar thicker. Until then, we can still enjoy the great many Cuban poets collected here, who voted with their feet, at great personal risk, to live and write freely.

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