In his poem, read on August 14 during the ceremony for the reopening of the U.S. embassy in Havana, poet Richard Blanco chose the sea as the metaphor for the union of the two nations that are initiating a new road, between the persons who, on both shores, dream with “the end to our doubts and fears.”
Certainly, the sea, as subject, actor, symbol, scenario, has always been present in Cuban poetry. “Who is the holy Sea/ who is the man/ whose stupid and petty heart/ Your majestic immensity does not astonish?” Jose María Heredia wrote; while Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda wrote, “do not find any delight/ like loving and singing in the sea.”
On the contrary, Virgilio Piñera says in “La isla en peso”: “the damn circumstance of the water everywhere/ forces me to sit down at the coffee table./ If I did not think that the water surrounds me like a cancer/ I would have been able to sleep the sleep of the dead.”
The thing is that “an island is an absence of water surrounded by water: An absence of love surrounded by love…,” according to Dulce María Loynaz; and she follows by asking: “What is an ocean?” to answer: “The sea is just a long dream/ that the land is dreaming/ between swinging suns…/ It is the dream of the land/ sleeping over a flame….”
Thus the voices of our classics murmur in Richard Blanco’s text, who would have been born on the island and not in Spain if the circumstances had been other for his family, and he would have read more of Ballagas, Lezama, Piñera or Diego, than the English-speaking writers.
But life, for him, like for a great many others, was like that. He grew up far away from the land of his parents and grandparents, but they spoke to him about tastes, smells and colours and, since nostalgia is also learned, he dreamed about that island, and he dreamed about a shared ocean where the sound of the waves is a mantra that heals us beyond the noise of hate and bitterness.
In the last 56 years very few Cuban families, perhaps none, have escaped from the pain caused by separation – exile involved – from a loved one, or a very close friend; or, even worse, because of their tragic death at sea.
Each family has a different life story, different memories, different sorrows, a space in the heart for those persons we haven’t seen again. Two of my aunts, five first cousins, a grandaunt, a second cousin whom I loved like an older sister, are over there. Some of them passed away and for others I am dead. No attention is paid to any sign from this side of the sea. I don’t know if for them, we who remained here were banished from the photo albums or, like my brother and I do, keep those images of a faraway time in which the mangoes would rot on the ground, when we used to play under the ackee tree and all of us danced barefoot under the rain.
Just like I have never again seen those relatives, the same happens with my old friends, who, compared to the first, can be on Facebook and even be one of our contacts on the internet, but it is as if they were other persons, mutants who only show their faces on photos.
Not everyone has gone through this. My wife reunited with her brother after 48 years without seeing him, and though the spent about half an hour crying, they survived the meeting. My brother-in-law, on the other hand, never again saw his father and the last thing the latter said before dying was his name. Each Cuban family has an arsenal of memories in these matters.
I know a 94-year-old lady who emigrated in 1959 and yearns for everything about Cuba. A day doesn’t go by without her saying she doesn’t like the coffee from there and that she wants to eat Cuban food because her children and grandchildren only eat American food, and she loves fried ripe plantain, white rice with minced meat, a fried egg and avocado salad, and she would give an arm for a tamale, fried fish, rice and chicken and yucca with Cuban dressing. (“Far from you thirst and hunger/ are not quenched/ with being flattered with fruit and a stream of water:/ far from you is the concrete solitude,” wrote Juana Rosa Pita en “Carta a mi isla”.)
That nonagenarian, to whom Lecuona dedicated a song (“Azul”), speaks of the streets of Centro Habana as if she was walking through them right now and she remembers all the Cuban sayings. She says that when she left, by sea, she looked at the island intensely and said: let me take a good look at you because I am sure I’ll never see you again. Perhaps when she was leaving she remembered Avellaneda’s verses: “Goodbye, happy homeland, dear paradise!/ Wherever fate in its fury impels me,/ Your sweet name will praise my ear!”
But time has gone by, and it never stops, because “one does not flee in time,” said in “Cuerpo del delfín” the poet Fayad Jamís, who, in the same poem, slipped in this message: “A transparent bird, moaning, up there builds a new sea,/ between the old city and the old sea,/ above our bodies and the wall”: a dream to which, many years later Richard Blanco responded to: “Today the sea is still telling us that the end to our doubts and fears is to gaze into the lucid blue of our shared horizon to breathe together, to heal together.” (2015)
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