A sustained search for revelation
JOSE Kozer’s own prologue is a fitting introduction to this breathtaking series of 64 poems, almost all of which have the same name: ‘‘ A sixty-year-old man writes a poem and entitles it Anima. Days later he writes another poem with a tone similar to the first, entitles it Anima, then realises he has just begun a series which must all bear the same title.’’
Anima is a collection of repeated expeditions into a single region, a sustained search for revelation in the confluence of the poet’s origin, his being and his death.
The region is an island: the Cuba of Kozer’s childhood overlaid with traces of a Dantean Purgatory. Fundamental to the exploration of an island is the return to where one began: ‘‘ The point of departure,’’ writes Kozer, ‘‘ must (necessarily) close in an oval, a circle or circumference, in which the last [poem] returns to the first’’.
These recurring intensities may alarm readers accustomed to the lighter themes of much Australian poetry; in its sustained circularity, Anima is almost obsessive. Kozer is not interested in the clarity of rational order; this is a poetry aware that ‘‘ the existence of a centre’’ might, on closer inspection, turn out to be ‘‘ many centres whose base is ungraspable’’.
In the Spanish-speaking world, Kozer has long been recognised as one of the greatest Cuban poets of his generation. He has published 52 books of poetry and prose and is the first living poet of the diaspora to have a book published in Cuba after the revolution.
Born in Havana in 1940 to Jewish immigrants, Kozer left for the US in his early 20s and has lived there since. His Cuban identity is inextricable from this diaspora in which he has spent most of his life. Indeed, the way his poetry drifts from one barely discernible location to another is a reflection of the diasporic condition, in which one is always writing from somewhere else.
One of the ‘‘ generation of the 50s’’, Kozer is part of a wider evolution of Cuban poetry that took place within and outside the country in the third quarter of the 20th century. His conversational tones, and the absence from his work of overt or aggressive political themes, are typical of his generation. Kozer’s poetry is in fact deeply political, but his politics are derived from his ontological position. Associated with the neobarroco (neo-baroque) movement, his poems are distinguished by thundering collisions between points in space and time that shatter language registers and layers of experience.
Such restlessness leads to a kind of hesitant anarchy. To the reader he writes, ‘‘ these poems are not under the control of any poetic will, they do not know themselves, they proceed from a strong sense of unreality connected to that deep ignorance the author feels before all things . . .’’
The difficulty of the poems shouldn’t put the reader off. For Kozer, difficult poetry is provocative: the poem must be fully open to complexity, and flexible enough to articulate it. Rather than providing a clearly discernible message, it is a poetic process, or a journey through various materials, that constitutes the experience of Anima. Don’t be fooled into thinking that these poems are abstract, symbolist missives; they seek only the clearest details of the world’s movement and immediacy: Avoid aphorisms, Kozer: every general law contradicts itself. Happiness is air olive trees flowering sugarcane (the sight of it) tobacco in flower (don’t smoke) eat once a day.
In avoiding generalisations, Kozer’s search for the specific is closely linked to what he wants from poetry in general: the poem is to open a space between ‘‘ things’’ and our sense of them, revealing a world that exists at the limits of human perception. His frequent use of brackets cleverly illustrates the intersections between the location, and the intention, of his poetry: He leans out the heron passes by he hears a gaggle of sparrows (grant me, Lord, a vision superior to the senses) the heron moves off the sparrows fall silent.
The poetic self is ever-present, but it is smaller and far more humble than the bold, lyrical ‘‘ I’’ of other Americans such as Pablo Neruda or Walt Whitman. When Kozer writes that he is ‘‘ going to take part in the movement of the constellations’’, he is submitting himself entirely to the whims of the universe: I get rid of prosopopoeias metalepsis anagoges and all other propositions of formal knowledge.
When he proclaims ‘‘ voy a cantar’’ (‘‘I am going to sing’’), he is not about to speak on behalf of a nation (like Whitman) or a continent (like Neruda). Rather, his singing is purely of his own flesh, small and fragile like his homeland, and precarious as his memory of it: I dislodge my old self: I am carnal, I sing. Let the palace gates stand open for me, mother (I sing) guided by my silhouette’s contours.
This translation by Sydney poet Peter Boyle is an achievement as monumental as Kozer’s own. Of a poetry that is deliberately evasive (and bursting with the peculiarities of Cuban Spanish) Boyle has managed to fashion an English Anima that reads with the calm assurance typical of his own poems.
This is no small feat: to reproduce Kozer’s world, Boyle needed not only to find dictionary translations, but to enter and find comfort within the disturbing flux of material and spirit that Kozer proposes. The result is that Boyle often modifies Kozer’s syntax and line quite noticeably (tellingly, many English translations are a few lines shorter or longer than the originals), reflecting Boyle’s rich understanding of the generative powers from which this series emerged. Stuart Cooke is a Sydney-based scholar and poet.