The sixtieth anniversary of the death of Mariano Brull Caballero (1891-1956) has gone by almost unnoticed in our cultural panorama like the centennial of the publication of his first book: La casa del silencio (The House of Silence: 1916). One of the fundamental poets of our literary avant-garde is almost a stranger today for Cuban readers.
He was born in Puerto Príncipe, later Camagüey, on February 24, 1891, in the house on Contaduría Street owned by Catalonian military Miguel Brull y Seoane and Cuban-born Cecilia Caballero y Varela, a descendant of an old family of the territory that had received the Crown of the Marquis of Santa Ana and Santa María, a matter that, apart from that, never seemed to interest the writer, who only seemed to believe in the dignity of intelligence.
The family had to move according to where the father was posted, and this is why Mariano lived part of his childhood in the colony of Ceuta before moving to Malága. He was around 10 years old when he returned to the city where he was born and was enrolled in the school of the Escolapio Fathers, where the majority of the teachers were Catalonian like his father. Already by that time he starts cultivating poetry and some of those verses appear in local publications.
He studied law in the University of Havana but though he was an applied student, he had no difficulties to insert himself into the intellectual sphere and to go to the gatherings of El Fígaro’s writing staff, to go to the theatre and give lectures and poetry readings with his friends Pedro Henríquez Ureña and Francisco José Castellanos.
His first book of poems, La casa del silencio, appeared in Madrid in 1916 with a prologue by Henríquez Ureña. In it not only the logical influence of Rubén Darío and other American modernists is not only evident, but also the young man’s veneration of Juan Ramón Jiménez and his search for the archetypical perfection of poems.
The young writer’s life took a decisive turn in 1917 when he was assigned his first diplomatic post as Second Secretary in Cuba’s Legation in Washington. He then began a long career in the foreign service that would last for the major part of his life and would take him to Washington, Lima, Madrid, Paris, Brussels, Bern, Rome, Ottawa and Montevideo.
During all those years the writer had an itinerant home where he lived not only with his wife Adelaida Baralt Zacharie (1889-1952) and his daughters Sylvia, Cristina and Ana María but also his in-laws: Luis Alejandro Baralt Peoli and Blanche Zacharie Hutchins, the latter a good friend of José Martí during his exile in New York. In these places they soon established relations with writers and artists and animated intellectual gatherings in which poetry held a privileged place.
Brull, a man of multiple concerns, was an art critic; in Paris he was head of the writing staff of the Gaceta Musical founded by Mexican Manuel Ponce; and he also maintained close relations with Pablo Picasso and poet Paul Valéry, for whom he translated La jeune Parque into Spanish with such perfection as his versions of some texts by Stephan Mallarmé. Moreover, he introduced the young Alejo Carpentier to the Parisian intellectual world.
For Mariano being a diplomat was not a privilege, or a pretext to travel, but rather a higher form of cultural work. He seriously carried out his work with systematic effort in which he accumulated an enviable professional experience, apart from the island’s political caprices. Thanks to him Alejo Carpentier was able to land in Paris without documents in 1928, without being deported to Machado’s police forces. From his venue in Belgium Brull helped many German Jews leave Europe and took care of the repatriation of Cubans during and after the Spanish Civil War. He was not always free of risks; in 1939, in the face of the imminent start of the World War, he was authorised to return to Cuba with his family, they arrived unharmed, but the ship carrying their furniture and valuable objects was sunk by a German submarine.
His public work did not stop during the forced Havana parenthesis. He was one of the organisers of the Second American Conference of National Commissions for Intellectual Cooperation, held in November 1941. In it he was named as one of the technical advisers for the creation in America of an International Centre for Intellectual Cooperation, antecedent of UNESCO founded in 1947. In 1940 he had collaborated with Chacón y Calvo in the organisation in the University of the exhibit Escuelas europeas, for which Brull lent pieces from his own collection among which drawings by Jules Pascin and Pablo Picasso stood out, in addition to his bust made by Spanish sculptor Enrique Pérez Comendador. A less remembered detail is that he prepared a volume with Poemas selectos by Juan Clemente Zenea, preceded by his essay “Juan Clemente Zenea and Alfredo de Musset. Romantic Dialogue between Cuba and France,” published by the Lex publishing house in 1945, with illustrations by Amelia Peláez and which today is a rare and valuable book in Cuban bibliography.
In contact with the new poetry tendencies being ardently debated in Paris, Brull had an inclination for the so-called “pure poetry” and though he did not take seriously certain foolish things, it had a decisive influence on his subsequent work. Mexican essayist Alfonso Reyes, one of those who attended the Paris gatherings with him, recalls the origin of the term jitanjáfora which is almost the only thing that our current literary stories recognises in the Camagüey writer’s career.
“In that family living room, where his father-in-law, Dr. Baralt, liked to recite verses from the Romanticism and the Restoration, it was frequent that Brull’s beautiful daughters be asked to recite poems. One day he decided to renovate the stale genres. The surprise was enormous and the effect was tremendous. The oldest of the girls learned the poem her father had prepared for such a case; and accepting the joke with the immediate understanding of childhood, instead of repeating the old verses for children, she started to warble, full of sobriety, this veritable bird trill:
Filiflama alabe cundre
ala olalúnea alífera
liris salumba salífera.
Olivia oleo olorife
alalai cánfora sandra
zumbra ulalindre calandra
“Choosing the most fragrant word of that wreath, since then Mariano Brull’s daughters were called “Jitanjáforas”. And now it occurs to me to extend the term to all that poetry genre or verbal formula. All of us, knowing it or not, carry a jitanjáfora hidden within us like a lark.”
Though this procedure existed centuries ago and authors like Lope de Vega and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz had used it, he developed it in fresh, ingenious verses full of good humour, especially in his book Poemas en menguante which appeared in 1928 and had an influence on some Cuban poets, especially his compatriot Emilio Ballagas. But that poetry, which some theoreticians wrongfully called “pure poetry”, ceded its place in the books of his matureness: Tiempo en pena (1950) and Nada más que… (1954), to a more intimate and existential writing, with a strong philosophical nuance. But, as Roberto Fernández Retamar wrote in La poesía contemporánea en Cuba:
“The unity of this work, throughout more than 20 years, offers the surprise of a work almost without evolution, as if the objectivity that all pure poetry involves would have erased the necessary life of the poet and its necessary changes.”
It is said that on one occasion Gabriela Mistral abruptly said to Brull: “Mariano, what are you going to do with those small pieces of glass when you are old?” The author of Ternura did not believe that her colleague’s poetry would serve to comfort or to give warmth. It was a particular and unfair criterion, but has seemed to guide the majority of Cuban criticism. No one denies the role of precursor of the Camagüey author on the island’s avant-garde, his influence, while ephemeral in Ballagas or in Florit, but his option for “pure poetry”, the praise Valéry dedicated to him, the work created apart from the most visible currents of writing in Cuba, are rather treated with the same reserve as that which for decades accompanied the work of his predecessor Julián del Casal. It is as if he could not be forgiven for his not very common sensitivity, his spiritual aristocracy, the fact that he got to where others couldn’t.
On my part I cannot stop feeling moved by the story of the final years of the poet: in 1950, during his diplomatic mission in Ottawa, his mother-in-law Blanche Zacharie de Baralt passed away, it was the announcement of the collapse of that ideal and itinerant home she had sustained for decades. Two years later it was his wife Adelaida Baralt who died in Brussels. In 1954, officials from the Cuban coup d’état regime deprived Mariano of his embassy in Montevideo with the pretext that he was disobeying official orders.
The family returned to live in Havana, on 25th Street in El Vedado. As José María Chacón y Calvo would write: “His lifetime’s dream had come true: he had the ideal abode of the poet. That was ‘the house of silence’. It was surrounded by very beautiful gardens.” The poet still had breath to publish a book, to give some lecture in the Lyceum and even to visit for the last time his native Camagüey in 1955. Unfortunately, the writer was barely able to inhabit that paradise less than two years. He passed away on June 8, 1956 and was buried with diplomatic honours, even though the same government that had dismissed him remained in power.
In 1983 the Letras Cubanas publishing house published a wide selection of his poetry prepared by Emilio de Armas, but it has not been published again and Brull remains surrounded by that silence which no anniversary is able to take him out of. (2016)
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