Samuel Feijóo, a mountain traveller

An artist with a personal freedom and an unstinting honesty.

Around the year 1972 I attended for the first time a lecture. I can still remember when I entered with my father the meeting room of the Circle of Intellectuals in Camagüey. That night the guest speaker was Samuel Feijóo (1914-1992). Contrary to what some expected, his speech was far from being an erudite dissertation. He spoke in the most easy-going way possible about popular culture, especially regarding the oral heritage he was prolific in exemplifying with refrains, street vendor cries and stories. Toward the end, he gave out some pieces of paper and pencils to those attending so that they would squeeze their memories and contribute with new materials to the compilation he was preparing for his magazine Signos.

When he concluded, my father took me to greet him. I was sufficiently timid during my adolescence that I couldn’t say a word. My father told him that I had read his books: Juan Quinquín en Pueblo Mocho, Tumbaga, Mitos y leyendas en Las Villas…and I brought myself to add another title: Alcancía del artesano. He looked at me with sincere surprise and asked if I had understood it. Though my answer was affirmative, he was a little sceptic: “That is a difficult book, because it has a lot of aesthetics.” It was my first encounter with a writer, at least with such an authentic one. Years went by before we met again, but I continued reading his books.

The life and work of Samuel Feijóo should be better studied. The commemoration of his centennial is a great opportunity for this. In life there were colleagues who were fond of him and wanted to highlight the value of his writing, but the most common was that he was treated as a picturesque character, or simply a mad man, about whom many witty stories were told, but he wasn’t taken too seriously. His acrimonious sincerity, his rugged easy way of being, did not help him in our republic of letters. He was not event awarded a National Award for Literature.

In Feijóo it is not necessary to seek scientism, rationalism or attachment to a literary school. He had a strong and original personality, with a continuous desire for freedom that prevented him from becoming established in the urban literary environments and continuously forced him to make contact with the landscape and the rural population of the centre of the island. He was not an academic folklorist, but rather a man with special receptivity to collect whatever witty remark, tales told by elderly persons or more or less racy stories that crossed his way. More than the analysis, description or classification of those samples, he liked to make extensive thesauruses with them which today have incalculable value, suffice it to recall: Cuentos populares cubanos (1960-1962), La décima popular (1961) and the already mentioned Mitos y leyendas en Las Villas (1965).

That did not prevent him from being a more than notable historian of our literature as shown by his essay Sobre los movimientos por una poesía cubana hasta 1856 (1961) or his compilation Sonetos de Cuba (1964).

It is less common to remember his work as an editor. For 10 years (1958-1968) he was in charge of the Department of Publications of the Central University of Las Villas. We owe to him the appearance of key books like: Tratados en La Habana by José Lezama Lima, Lo cubano en la poesía by Cintio Vitier, Cetrería del títere by Lorenzo García Vega and Enmanuel Kant, introducción a su filosofía by Medardo Vitier, just to cite a few. Parallel to this he founded and directed Islas, which under his direction was the most important Cuban university magazine. This magazine published from an unpublished essay by Lezama to drawing portfolios by Lam or by Portocarrero. That sizeable publication was a sort of forest where historic documents were rescued, political speeches, and lectures on the economy were published together with poems and literary essays, in addition to dedicating a great many pages to spreading the work of the “popular artists from Las Villas.” Everything stopped in 1968, when the university authorities dismissed him from the publishing house and the magazine with the pretext that they did not respond to the university’s interests. Feijóo, backed by very few intellectuals, battled against the excess but was barely able to make them let him found his own magazine Signos in 1969 so that, as it was said in the academic corridors, “he could do whatever he wanted with it.”

It is difficult to find a history of visual arts in Cuba that speaks of Feijóo, but five years ago the Museum of Fine Arts offered the display “An unknown sun” that collected pieces by the creator from 1937 to the end of the 1970s. The surprise was general. Feijóo was not exactly the “primitive,” “mountain” artist which he wanted to impose on us at some time. His oil painting on canvas La cena, dated 1944, shows him very close to the creative atmosphere of a René Portocarrero or to the ornamental resources of Amelia Peláez; those were times of learning, because another piece from the same year, Composición con figures, had the oneiric air of his admired Chagall. Was he one of the so-called “Sunday painters”? Perhaps, but he achieved with his work pieces that at times approached that other exceptional Sunday painter, the Aduanero Rousseau, as is demonstrated in his Paisaje en San Vicente, with its idyllic flavour so close to the poems of his youth. He was a poet of the pencil and brush, a man who never lost the astonishment in the face of the most humble life and the Cuban countryside landscape.

As in all creators, there are aspects in his artistic work, it is licit to prefer his early stage, that of the 1940s and 50s with his meticulous and almost byzantine works like La pecera, La dama oriental and above all that archetypical Cena del guajiro, belonging to the collection of writer Roberto Fernández Retamar, which he began in 1954 but was able to finish only in 1963, since each time Feijóo arrived at his friend’s home he asked that it be taken down because he affirmed that it lacked another detail.

Others preferred to remember him for his tardy manner; the one in which he assumed a deliberately infantile style of drawing, in which he incorporated signs, many times with spelling mistakes and whose usual tone was that of a joke and challenge. For me, the most moving piece from those years is the poster made in 1977: Esta noche baila aquí Alicia Alonso para los niños, los bobos y los soñadores, where the ballet dancer’s figure, treated at the same time in an easy going way and with tenderness, is surrounded by the words of the title. The warmth of the yellows and oranges alternates with the coldness of the blue and produces a veritable effect of dance movement. Actually, it was one of the anthological posters of that time.

I got to Feijóo’s poetry around 1977, during my years as a university student, when a young poet and dramaturgy student, Amado del Pino, recommended that I read El girasol sediento. A while later I was able to find in the Cuba Científica bookstore a copy whose pages were already yellow and its cover coming undone, which accompanied me for some time, since I tasted its content little by little. The work got to gain my attention in such a way that today, several decades later, I can still remember the circumstances in which I read it, the pleasure it gave me and I conserve, almost intact, that copy in my library.

The volume had seen the light in 1963, though one of his small notebooks, “Camarada celeste,” had been published independently in 1944 and the rest appeared with certain variations in the Libro de apuntes (1954). It was the preamble of his poetic creation, whose greatest moment would become public in 1964, when the very university publishing house printed Ser fiel, a group that includes his two major texts: the long poems “Beth-el” and “Faz.”

However, those who knew the author could see that his work was being produced by accumulation, by rugged proliferation and that for him it was common to bring to light his notes and trial runs, like someone offering an itinerary of life and rarely sparing readers the ups and downs of his work. Producing a poetry reduced in volume, very chastised in the formal and in which all mumbling was discriminated against, would have seemed to the writer a lack of honesty.

In 1957, in Lo cubano en la poesía, Cintio Vitier attempted a dangerous parallel: while Lezama for him is “a poet essentially linked to history,” “Feijóo belongs completely to nature.” I confess that to me such a dichotomy seems forced. It is true that in Feijóo’s poetry writing history does not appear explicitly as in that of the author of Dador, nor is it lived as a teleological reflection, or as an erudite imagery, but rather as lucidity of daily life, the search for the best essences and loving commitment to an intellectual work that never cuts itself off from the most popular vitality. Few intellectuals of the Cuban 20th century were so on top of their real historical obligations as Samuel Feijóo was, without being strident or opportunistic, and with a personal freedom and unstinting honesty.

The duty of current researchers is to study with justice and sensitivity the work of this creator, setting aside that coarse image that he once used to defend himself from intriguers and ambitious persons; to enter his foliage to show his best fruits. The anecdotic should give way in the face of the literary and artistic fact. Only then will we start to really know him. (2014)

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