Poetry and The Revolution: Cuban poems from the 1960s

Wilfredo Lam (1902- 1982): Untitled (1957)_pastel on heavy paper and canvas

Wilfredo Lam (1902- 1982): Untitled (1957)_pastel on heavy paper and canvas


We have chosen the poems featured below from the anthology Cuban Poetry: 1959 to 1966.

The anthology was published by The Book Institute, Havana, in 1967.

The book’s prologue (Foreward) and biographical sketches were written by Heberto Padilla and Luis Suardíaz.

Editorial supervision for the book was through Claudia Beck and Sylvia Carranza.

. . .

Excerpt from the Foreward:

This is not an anthology of all contemporary Cuban poetry. It takes in only the period from 1959 to 1966; and only the poems of authors of several generations who have had at least one book published in those years.

We have selected the years beginning with the triumph of the Cuban Revolution, because during this period an extraordinary change has taken place in the life and work of our poets. It is easily discernible that the poetry written in these last seven years sharply breaks away from the poetics which to a large extent dominated our literature. A new universe of expression has dawned, a new truth, a new life.

We have been guided in our selection by the Revolution’s impact on our poets, and by the unique characteristics that make them outstanding in our language. It is an impact that delves into everyday reality, analyzing it and reflecting it in all its dimensions. Whenever possible, we have preferred a criterion of historic evaluation rather than an aesthetic one. Each poet is represented by those poems that we have considered to be more characteristic of his works, of his themes; but we have chosen with special care those that express the problems set forth by History. This does not mean that this selection of poetry is solely social or militant; reading it will prove just the opposite. It is simply the poetic testimonial of men of different ages and different literary backgrounds that carry out their work and are participants in one of the most intense and moving periods of our entire history.

. . .

Cuban Poetry: 1959 to 1966 focused on the verse of poets born between 1894 (Manuel Navarro Luna) and 1944 (Nancy Morejón – one of only two female poets – the other being Belkis Cuza Malé – included in the selection).

. . .

Translations from Spanish into English of the poems which follow were done in 1966 and 1967 by:

Claudia Beck, Rogelio Llopis, Sylvia Carranza, Stasia Stolkowska, and R. Frank Hardy.

. . .

Alcides Iznaga

(born 1914, Cienfuegos, Las Villas)



Time stands still in the school patio

amid fenced-in almond and cedar trees,

under a sky fraught with heavy rain,

between old and stately walls,

burning blindly,

non-committal and innocuous,

immutable, independent,

unattached to the trees,

to the fences and walls,

to the sky and the vertical air,

so free from corrosion

and so intense

that it fills to the brim the patio and the sky.

. . .



I remember you as the river we have lost and kept;

because we are impotent.

Now these birds are chirping.

Now the wind escapes.

Now the doves are flying

and I am sitting by the Hudson.


Some passers-by hurry along

and I ask myself whether their rush will get them anywhere.

I feel downcast,

and you have died so hastily and unexpectedly.


I see people dragging along the leash

lap dogs, mean looking and toy-like,

or listening to their toy-like, jabbering transistor radios,

completely unaware of Riverside’s charms at this time of day,

and I am touched by the way the wind seems to spur them on.


I cast a look on Time

and before losing what I lose

and giving what I give,

I know the reverse.

But we are impotent;

we are not the returning wind;

we are doves,

birds that chirp for a while

and are heard no more.

. . .



I see the afternoon take shape before me silently

but I have withdrawn to my airless room.

The afternoon has not diminished its brightness;

it brings out the green in the trees,

the marble-like whiteness in children’s cheeks,

the contrasting colours of nearby buildings;

but all this will last out an instant,

because the trees, the children and buildings

are one with the tremulous afternoon in my heart.


I pass my finger through its hair,

and touch a flower visibly withering

like the flower which yesterday bloomed everlastingly

and has now become minutes of ashes.

. . .



Very few Sundays did we have for us,

very few nights, too.

Behind the table we would seek refuge in ourselves:

joking, roughhousing,

and the pointless strolls on the Prado.

Why did we then waste away

those times so beautiful and ours?


I was somewhat hesitant toward you,

timorous – as I’ve always been –

instead of letting you seduce me.

Now all of me is in you, within you

– attentive to your every throb, even the least perceptible;

to your eyes that always dream;

to your eyes somewhat sad;

to your eyes so deep.

. . .

Day’s Story (A Variation)

(for Isabel Castellanos)


The day throws off its shell,

it rises and starts on its way

distributing winds, surge of waves, tenderness;

distributing songs and tearing down bastions

belonging to the absurd stage of our history;

slowly, it has to make a stop;

it transpires and smiles

and begins shaking hands with its friends;

and all begins to change,

and the taxi’s fare rejects the back seat

and sits in front with the driver;

and they both talk amiably

as though they were old friends;

on all this the day looks on quite pleased.


Some basilisks,

some executioners,

some businessmen,

some generals

try to block the successful day,

but it just slips away from them

like water through disabled fingers;

and only when its mission is fulfilled

does it make its voluntary exit,

colouring our thoughts with its irrevocable accomplishments.

. . .

Eliseo Diego

(born 1920, Havana)

Only This


Poetry is nothing more

Than conversation in the shadows

Cast by an ancient stove

When all have gone,

And beyond the door

Murmur the impenetrable woods.


A poem is only a few words

One has loved,

And whose order time has changed,

So that now

Only a suggestion,

An inexpressible hope,



Poetry is nothing more

Than happiness, a conversation

In the shadows

After everything else has gone

And there is only silence.

. . .

Jesús Orta Ruiz (Indio Naborí)

(born 1923, Guanabacoa)

Exposure and a Way


The new roof was not to have

Fifteen gutters deflecting rain.

The roof had to be only rain.


The moon did not appear;

Hidden were the stars.


But even so,

That night was a clear night.


We saw that men who differ

Go opposing ways,

And we struck out on ours.

A revolutionary soldier caught on camera by chance as he was struck by the bullet that killed him_Tirso Martinez_Cuba, 1958

A revolutionary soldier caught on camera by chance as he was struck by the bullet that killed him_Tirso Martinez_Cuba, 1958

Roberto Branly

(born 1930, Havana)

Reminiscence: January ’61


The Year of Education has hardly begun

and already we are hustling off to the trenches.


It was like the strategy of golf;

the manoeuvre followed by the tin-horn heroes,

by Wall Street’s golf strategy.


Hardly had we time

to whiff at the gunpowder from our rifles

and already the salt spray from the sea

and the gusts of winds announcing rain

were upon us;

we were like sentinels, with our eyes glued to the night.


We rested our mouths on the butts of our rifles

and bit into them during our sleepless wait;

we had a drawn-out taste of military life,

under the light of the stars,

amid the dew-covered, knee-high grass.

. . .

Antón Arrufat

(born 1935, Santiago de Cuba)

Tempo I


I look at your face

Before our fingers begin the work of love.

Love is a futile crime,

Much like death herself,

Because we always die too late.

I must stagger under

The cruelty of that presence

And that punishment

Beneath the sun.

(Snow never comes to console us in the tropics.)

. . .

Domingo Alfonso

(born 1936, Jovellanos, Matanzas)

People like Me


People like me

daily walk the streets,

drink coffee, breathe,

admire the Sputniks.


People like me

with a nose, with eyes,

with marital troubles,

who take a bus,

and one fine day

sleep underground,

unnoticed by all.

. . .

Crossing the River


The oxen and the horses wade through the waters of the river.

A yellowish, foam-capped streak of water rhythmically laps the river banks.

The horsemen goad the herd, make nervous use of their spurs.

The sweaty beasts are water-drenched.

Blood begins to stain the water.

A little girl is heard crying.

We do not know why.

. . .

Señor Julio Osorio


Señor Julio Osorio remembers every day the good old times

when not a year passed without his travelling to New York.

Those were the times my father was out of work,

and my sister Rita was the victim of old Doctor Beato’s offspring,

while my mother sewed pants on a Singer

for private tailors with a meagre clientele.


Now I work, my sister is about to graduate from High School,

and little do we care whether Señor Osorio

makes his yearly trip to New York or not.

. . .

A Love-Affair at Forty


Carlos never had a wife.

Luisa never had a beau.

Carlos longed to marry.

So did Luisa.

Luisa was thirty-five,

Carlos almost fifty.


Carlos and Luisa were united in wedlock.


Luisa was not in love with Carlos;

but had no use for spinsterhood.

Carlos was not in love with Luisa;

but was in need of a wife.

. . .

Poems of the Ordinary Man


I am the ordinary man;

during certain hours, like millions,

I go up and down elevators,

then I have lunch like everyone,

talk with students

(I carry no cross on my shoulders);

day in and day out I meet up with many people,

people who are bored, people who sing;

next to them my insignificant figure passes;

the soldier suffers, the stenographer stoops.

I sing simply of the things felt by

the ordinary man.

. . .

As Hard as Myself


As hard as myself

is that small man,

my constant companion;

inflexible, strong;

he weighs, he analyzes;

he judges every single thing.


But now and again

he lets me down;

he cuts a flower.

Dausell Valdés Piñeiro_born 1967_Cuban painter: "They are dreams still" (Son los sueños todavía)_acrylic on fabric

Dausell Valdés Piñeiro_born 1967_Cuban painter: “They are dreams still” (Son los sueños todavía)_acrylic on fabric

Luis Suardíaz

(born 1936, Camagüey)

When They Invented God


When they invented God,

Words hadn’t gotten very far;

The alphabet was still unborn.

This was at the beginning.


When they turned out the first books,

They stuffed them with metaphysics

(not even very well thought out)

And the bludgeon of the supernatural


It is a thankless task –

Launching forays against the outworn creeds

Of men long dead –

An ineffectual tactic.

Let’s put the angels in their place,

Consigning celestial vapours to oblivion,

And the fine biblical precepts

To the crucible of class struggle.


We materialists feel sorry for

That host of believers graduated from Oxford,

And stockbrokers who invent a hundred swindles

– and meanwhile go about their rituals,

Pressing their suit with heaven.


When they invented God,

Things were different.

Now we have to put our house in order.

In the beginning there was matter.

It was later on there came

All this mix-up about the heavens and the earth.

. . .



How much love

In a cup of coffee shared.


In hands

Fused in a single melody.


In the dusk

Opening and closing before the eyes of lovers.

. . .

The Seed


They told us,

“This is beauty.”

So that we

Might not see her for ourselves

Or create her for ourselves.


So now it is hard to say,

“This is beauty.”

And we refrain,

Since we would make a fatal mistake.

. . .

Armando Alvarez Bravo

(born 1938, Havana)

Concerning a Snapshot


Quite so, it is myself among them

In the snapshot,

And then it comes back again:

A peculiar mania we have:

The zealous hoarding of Time’s faces.


Still, I do not remember

Exactly, I have forgotten

That day, the light

Of that morning,

What we were talking about,

Who we were,

The wherefore of that picture.


Time has passed – thousands of years.

Days linked to one another in a chain.


Past is the time of facile reference.

And I learn suddenly

How terrible, how simple, how beautiful and important

Were the words, the names,

I got from books, from movies,

from the letters of that friend,


Passing hungry days in an ancient European city,

Invited me

To share his pride of exile.


Thousands of years have passed.

I am no longer this double,

Looking out at me, so alive,

Frozen forever on a landscape

Where some, perhaps, move about

Through comfortable force of habit,

Unconscious of erosion’s transformations.


Something has happened between us,

Making us different, separating us.

Our times are incongruent.

Wilfredo Lam (1902- 1982): La Barrière, or: The Barrier or The Obstacle or The Gate_oil on canvas_painted in 1964

Wilfredo Lam (1902- 1982): La Barrière, or: The Barrier or The Obstacle or The Gate_oil on canvas_painted in 1964

A Bit of Metaphysics


There we find ourselves again,

At home, sitting in the livingroom,

As though none of it had ever happened.

Outside, the over-reaching trees

Dig themselves into the night.

The silence – almost perfect.

Suddenly the rain begins,

As when one of us told the first lie.

. . .

David Fernández

(born 1940, Havana)

A Song of Peace


[ Associated Press: Redwood City, California, November 17th:

Only four days after reading a letter from their son in which he told them that his luck was running out, Mr. and Mrs. Silvio Carnevale received a telegram telling them of his death in Vietnam.

“I feel sick; sickened by what I’ve done and by what has happened to my friends,” said the letter. “I feel as if I were a hundred years old…My luck is running out. Please do whatever you can for me…Dad, I don’t want to die. Please get me out of here.” ]




Perhaps some time or other,

under rosy California orange trees,

stolen by your grandfather from our grandfathers,

you dreamed you might become

President of your nation,

or, perhaps, only an honest citizen.

Possibly the simpler dream only

spurred on your great-grandfather,

and when he fled from distant Italy,

and here founded family, homestead and new hopes

in North America, the new and promised land.




(I am only imagining,

only leafing through your possible history,

making up a future

you will never have,

since the promised land

has appointed you a grave

far away, very far

from your orange groves.)




Also, perhaps,

you never even knew

about this corner of the world,

known as Vietnam

where daily you are dying,

daily you feel how lost

your interrupted childhood,

where you lose all sense of logic,

where you wield a rifle,

(I know why but you do not),

no longer now in play.

Here arraigned against you

are the shadows and the trees,

the wind, the roads, the stones,

the very smoke from your campfire,

and the silence of the mountains,

none of them yours – nor to be.

And the drinking water, heat and rain.

And, of course, the bullets ––

the things you took there turned against you.




Perhaps you never thought

it could happen.

This is not a dream;

this is breaking something in you,

blotting out the orange groves

of your grandfather,

which are so far away.

Perhaps you would like to be there now,

sitting in the shade with your friends,

in the shelter of a song of peace,

because you are already fed up with the whole thing.

You never knew why

they cut off that song of peace in the middle.

Yet here you are, following after

others like yourself,

who came to destroy

the homes, the families, the budding hopes of this people

– this people named Vietnam.

You probably never heard of it

until that dark day when they sent you,

together with your buddies,

without a word to tell you why,

over to this land where now,

undone by the very arms you brought along,

you are dying, dying;

daily, hopelessly, endlessly dying.

. . .

Guillermo Rodríguez Rivera

(born 1943, Santiago de Cuba)

Working Hours


And now that things have settled anew

And can move toward their likely destiny

The grieving image will take another form.


That voice

Will not be heard again.

The presumably right way of doing things then

Will not be mentioned again.


One will pick himself up from that handful of dust,

From that terror of darkened stairways,

From the rains that made him shudder in the afternoon;

And will utter the word made flesh just now.

And will find that it suffices.

. . .



You will use words from stories you have read,

You will talk of seafoam, roses,

All in vain.

For you will understand that

This story is different

And cannot be written that way.

. . .

Víctor Casaus (born 1944, Havana)

We Are



We are.


We are

Above the yellow

Words of the cables

In this shining island

Which was built the day before yesterday.


We are,

Even with our eyes red from the dew,

With the fist and the shortcoming

And the mistake and the man who doesn’t know –

And the man who knows but has made a mistake.


We are underneath the weak

Smiles of the bland and defeated

Butterflies. We are forever in

This small zone we live in.


(To be,

simply to be,

is – in this place and in this latitude –

a by-no-means trifling victory.)

Cover of a "notebook" (cuaderno) of poems by Nancy Morejón_published in 1964

Cover of a “notebook” (cuaderno) of poems by Nancy Morejón_published in 1964

Nancy Morejón (born 1944, Havana)

A Disillusionment for Rubén Darío


“A white peacock passes by.” / “Un pavo real blanco pasa.” : R.D.


If a peacock should pass by me

I would imagine your watching over

its figure, its legs, its noisy tread,

its presumed oppressed walk,

its long neck.


But there is another peacock that doesn’t pass by now.

A very modern peacock that amazes

the straight-haired poet in his suit weatherbeaten by the saltspray of the ocean.


But there is yet another peacock

not yours,

which I destroy in the yard of my imaginary house,

whose neck I wring – almost with sorrow,


whom I believe to be as blue as the bluest heavens.

. . .

Miguel Barnet (born 1940, Havana)



Ché, you know everything,

Each nook and cranny of the Sierra,

Asthma over the cold grass,

The speaker’s rostrum,

Night tides,

And even how

Fruit grows, how oxen are yoked.


I would not give you

Pen in place of pistol,

But it is you who are the poet.

. . .



You and I are separated by

A heap of contradictions

Which come together,

Galvanizing all my being.

Sweat starts from my brow,

Now I am building you.

. . .

Barnet’s poems in the original Spanish:

. . .



Che, tú lo sabes todo,

los recovecos de la Sierra

el asma sobre la yerba fría

la tribuna

el oleaje en la noche

ya hasta de qué se hacen

los frutos y las yuntas.


No es que yo quiera darte

pluma por pistola

pero el poeta eres tú.

. . .



Entre tú y yo

hay un montón de contradicciones

que se juntan

para hacer de mí el sobresaltado

que se humedece la frente

y te edifica.


. . . . .