Translators' Note: memory of water
These selections are from Travelling, a book of thirty-five prose paragraphs by contemporary Cuban poet Reina María Rodríguez. Over the course of this collection, Rodríguez undertakes travels both literal and figurative; most often, as in these two selections, the distinction between physical and imagined travel is blurred to the point of irrelevance. Rodríguez describes Travelling’s first-person speaker as one “who moves among places, people, situations, never experiencing them as real, but rather as elements in a script, or objects in a gallery.” Citing the influence of Roland Barthes, Rodríguez tells us she hopes the individual sections of Travelling, like those of Barthes’s Mythologies, are both viable as independent fragments and united by a common effect and tone. The collection’s episodes remind us as well of W.G. Sebald’s novels in their hypnotic oscillations between haziness and clarity, memory and oblivion, candor and evasion, histories personal and public.
Rodríguez composed Travelling in the mid-eighties. She wanted to include photographs in the text, which proved a challenge, as there were few places to have film developed in Cuba at the time. Finally a doctor friend managed to develop the pictures at a hospital, and the manuscript was ready to be printed. By that time, though, Cuba’s so-called “special period” had begun, an era of extreme deprivation brought about by the loss of Soviet patronage, and there was no paper to print the book. Finally, in 1995, the Mexican group Un Libro para Cuba, dedicated to aiding print culture in Cuba “en solidaridad con la lucha del pueblo cubano contra el bloqueo norteamericano,” arranged to have Travelling printed in Mexico City in an edition of twelve hundred. Rodríguez was pregnant with her daughter when she finished Travelling; she didn’t see it printed until after her daughter’s seventh birthday.
As often happens when poets write prose, questions about Travelling’s genre are inevitable but likely immaterial. The book’s title page identifies it as a “relato novelado”—a fictionalized account, or a memoir—but Rodríguez tells us this was the publisher’s choice of terms, not her own. Rodríguez says flatly that she does not like the term “prosa poética.” “Para mí,” she writes, Travelling “es prosa.” Indeed it is, but with due respect to the author, we think it’s also poetry.
Daniel Borzutzky, writing recently on poetryfoundation.org about Cuban poet Omar Pérez, rightly suggests that when Americans approach Cuban poetry, they inevitably become entangled in thickets of history, mythology, and fantasy. We lack both the space and the expertise to navigate those brambles here, and instead refer the reader to Borzutzky’s fine article, Mark Weiss’s The Whole Island: Six Decades of Cuban Poetry, and to the work of Kristin Dykstra. Dykstra has produced excellent translations of Rodríguez (as well as Pérez), and written extensively about Cuban poetry with great intelligence and sensitivity. It was she who introduced us both to Rodríguez’s work and to Rodríguez, and she has been unfailingly helpful to us in our struggle to render Travelling in English. Our debt to her is second only to our debt to Rodríguez herself. —jb & js
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This poem originally appeared in the June 2011 issue of Poetry magazine