José Lezama Lima (1910–1976) was a Cuban writer and poet considered to be one of the most influential figures in Latin American Literature. The son of a military officer, Lezama lived through some of the most turbulent times of Cuba’s history, fighting against the Machado dictatorship. His literary output includes the semi-autobiographical, baroque novel Paradiso (1966), the story of a young man and his struggles with his mysterious illness, the death of his father, and his developing sensuality and poetic sensibility.
Although he only left Cuba twice (trips to Mexico in 1949 and 1950), Lezama’s poetry, essays and two novels draw images and ideas from nearly all of the world’s cultures and from every historical periods. His baroque style creates stunning constellations of unusual images which can make some of his poetry extremely challenging.
In addition to poetry, Lezama wrote many essays on figures of world literature such as Stéphane Mallarmé, Paul Valéry, Góngora and Rimbaud.
WOMEN AND THE HOME
You were boiling milk
and adhered to the customs of aromatic coffee.
You tiptoed around the house
with thriftily measured steps.
Every little detail a sacrament,
like an offering to the night’s weight.
Your every hour is justified
traipsing from room to room,
where portraits hang
that enjoy your comments.
You lay down the law for every day
and the Sunday bird half-opens
with the colours of fire
and froth in the pot.
When a glass is broken,
it tinkles with your laughter.
The centre of the house
flies like the point on the line.
In your nightmares
it rains incessantly
upon the collection of miniature
plants and the subterranean flame tree.
Were you to lose your cool
the broken skies
would come crashing down on us
in shards of marble.
O, HOW YOU ESCAPE
O, how you escape in the moment
in which you’d already achieved your best definition.
O, dear girl, how you refuse to believe
the questions of that freshly cut star,
that soaks its tips in another enemy star.
O, if only it could be true that at bath time,
when in the same discursive water
the still landscape and the finest animals bathe:
antelopes, serpents with staggered, evaporating steps
appear amid dreams, without a craving to lift
the longest head of hair and the most remembered water.
O, dear girl, if in the pure marble of farewells
you’d abandoned the statue that could accompany us,
well the wind, the funny old wind,
stretches like a cat allowing itself to be defined.
ON AN ENGRAVING OF CHINESE ALCHEMY
Beneath the table you spy three doors to small ovens,
where you can see stones and bars burning,
where the dwarf peeks out
chewing on sleep-inducing seeds.
On the table you see three blue and gray cushions
on two of which lie sort of geometric figures
made from unbreakable eggs.
Beside it an unadorned jug.
Lumps of firewood on the floor.
A man hunched over a scale
weighs a basket of almonds.
The ebony rod
immediately reaches the pointer.
The man who’s selling
fears the three small ovens
hiding beneath the table.
That’s where the expected figures
when the man doing the weighing
manages to balance the basket
To his right the abstracted observer
of the man weighing,
plays with some birds
Translations by John Lyons