Nearly three decades ago, the régime that still holds power in Cuba decided to rename one of Havana’s most popular streets, Carlos III Boulevard, after the recently slain socialist president of Chile. Néstor Díaz de Villegas, a student already set in his poet’s vocation, answered this action by writing –then reading aloud to his classmates in the southern city of Cienfuegos– his “Ode to Carlos III”.
With what grace and dignity
have you presided over the old avenue
for so many years!
But now, can you stomach
the riff-raff parading under your
stony feet and pretending
to know about hierarchies?
O, Old friend, you are better off!
You don’t have to suffer them.
You’re not forced, like me,
to see, to hear, and to speak…
In reaction to this poem, Cuban authorities ordered Díaz’s arrest and subjected him to thirty days of interrogation. Found guilty of “ideological deviation”, the eighteen-year-old poet went to jail. Five years later, in April 1979, a fleeting improvement in relations with the United States led the Cuban régime to free a number of its political prisoners including Diaz. Within a few weeks of his release, Díaz was working at a furniture factory in Vernon, California. His poetry continued without surcease.
With the present book, Díaz’s work is making its first substantial appearance in English. Earlier volumes have won Díaz the affection of Spanish-language audiences as well as admiration from writers like Reinaldo Arenas, who wrote to Díaz: “You’ve started something new in poetry”. Fine writing speaks for itself. Then again, the first question anyone asks about a book is : “What gives the author license to write it?” So let me speak briefly for the poet.
The setting of Néstor Díaz’s life comes direct from the seemingly exotic one that lurks in the background of these poems: eighteenth-century France. The upheavals of that society began a juggernaut that would subjugate much of the world, including Díaz’s Cuba, across a broad span of time. The poet has been inhaling this reality since his own beginnings. He also understood that in order to grasp what’s in front of one’s eye, one must first imagine it. Díaz’s sonnets are “thinking machines” that enable him not merely to see the air he breathes, but to make striking associative leaps between the most disparate parts of the human universe. What, you may ask, is Janet Reno doing in a work alongside the painters Watteau and David? Just this: Díaz –to use Nietzsche fabulous phrase– has brought off a circumnavigation of the world in art.
To this translation, a third party is indissolubly linked: Benigno Dou, who godfathered the enterprise and nurtured it to completion. The translator’s part of the work is dedicated to him with every conceivable affection.
The spacial joy of translating these poems came from the poet’s measure-by-measure involvement. Díaz has a surpassingly vivid sense of English, and a good number of the solutions we reached are thanks to him. The punctuation marks, of course, are mine alone.