A sus­tained search for rev­e­la­tion

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Stu­art Cooke

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.

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