In this historical moment when many readers are turning to poetry for traditional words of comfort, a new bilingual edition from The Song Bridge Project will meet that need. The Miracle Unfolds: Selected Poems (2010 -2019) presents excerpts from seven books by Juana Rosa Pita, with English-language translations by Erin Goodman.
As the book’s title suggests, Pita’s poems address spiritual and moral aspirations. She is direct when describing her writing as a quest for beauty and understanding – and when claiming that she has turned up these results in the writing process. In “To Know Without Knowing” (“Entender no entendiendo,” 212-213), for example, she compares poetry “to a beautiful physics equation” (“una ecuación bella de la física” ). Each poem becomes a container of knowledge, even though Pita pauses to explain that a poet doesn’t necessarily plan to convey specific ideas when beginning the compositional process.
Despite a title hinting at a deferral of knowledge, the poem “The Key Is Elsewhere” (“La clave está en otra parte,” 214-215) exemplifies her larger pattern of decanting the knowledge gained through writing. The poem presents straightforward advice: “The key to reality is in dreams / and the key to life is in faith” (“La clave de la realidad está en el sueño, / la de la vida en la fe” [3-4]). In this edition we do not get context situating Pita’s work in relation to larger literary frameworks. However, to link her vision to a broader Cuban lens in the future, or to put in dialogue with other poems by women, it seems useful to consider how she may dialogue with precursors such as Fina García Marruz (1923-), one of the island’s most prominent poets, who shared with other writers in the Orígenes movement both a Catholic faith and a handling of poetry as an epistemological zone, charting paths toward knowledge.
If you read that last quote from “The Key Is Elsewhere” out loud in the Spanish, you can hear how along with her taste for mysteries that lead us toward spiritual revelation, Pita wants to appeal to our senses, through the tones and motion of her words. One senses that she wishes to tread lightly on this earth, limiting and concentrating her images. Her interior quests privilege sensations of lightness, though her words are not without their shadows.
Pita was born in Havana, Cuba, in 1939 and left the island in the early 1960s (passing through Spain, as many Cuban exiles did at the time), and settling in the United States for the long term. Both the poet and the translator acknowledge the importance of life outside Cuba for Pita; among other basic outcomes of that migration, of course, is her literary condition of writing Spanish-language poetry within a nation that is English-dominant.
Pita uses one of her poems, “Spring Partita” (“Partita de primavera,” 14-15) to assert that her own experience of this condition should connote a “both/and” approach to life, rather than an “either/or” oppositionality. She does so by explicitly substituting “exile” with the historically widespread Latin American term “mestizo” (a noun or adjective describing a person or culture as “mixed,” evoking centuries of post-conquest hybridity in the Americas):
I live between two languages
and in neither am I an exile:
mestizo is my verb. (1-3)
[Habito entre dos lenguas / y en ninguna soy exiliada: / mestizo es mi verbo.]
When the poetic word (verbo) itself is “mestizo,” at once a status and an act, it is hard to imagine a more bicultural philosophy. At the same time, because the word “mestizo” is the only word in this segment that remains the same in both the Spanish and English renditions, a bit of paradox tugs at the reader’s mind.
In contrast to the many contemporary US Latinx poets who have been pushing the possibilities for bilingualism and/or self-translation, such as Raquel Salas Rivera and Urayoán Noel (whom I highlight because they have pushed linguistic co-existence to ever more virtuosic heights), Pita maintains conventional boundaries to the mixing she enacts. Her languages may flow together in mestizo dimensions of thought, and yet, as languages, Spanish and English largely continue to exist in the separate, facing pages embodied by the bilingual edition. Such comparisons among poets diminish no one. They are, instead, vital reminders of the very real and extensive plurality that contemporary Spanish-language expression enables within the United States.
Pita’s acknowledgment of a state of displacement continues in subtle ways across various poems by way of landscape. Pita (who meditates on rivers, among other features, and evokes occasional memories of Cuba) dialogues with a Cuban exile tradition famous for landscapes, a tradition that includes the nineteenth-century patriot, José María Heredia. Exiled from Cuba for his opposition to Spanish rule, Heredia is the author of an über-famous poem about Niagara Falls, a natural wonder uncontained by any single nation, yet indubitably northern in contrast to his remembered Cuba.
Another promising comparison involving Cuban poets in the eastern United States is to Lourdes Casal (1939-1981), whose lifetime overlaps with much of Pita’s own. Right now, I am thinking of Casal’s ruminations on gray northeastern landscapes, such as a poem featuring a train station in Bridgeport, Connecticut. There she sustains a short conversation with an elderly man from the Latino Caribbean, shifting between emotions of identification and dis-identification. Pita´s northeastern United States is occasionally gray, as in an autumn-themed poem, but hers is not Casal’s gritty working-class city. Instead we view a green and thriving Harvard Square (see “Spirit of Harvard” on 22-23).
There are as many bookstores as trees
in Harvard Square, and more living culture
than itinerant students in search of
professorial accomplices. (13-16)
[Hay tantas librerías como árboles / en Harvard, y más cultura viva / que alumnos itinerantes en busca / de profesores cómplices.]
To the extent that Harvard is a “labyrinth” (“laberinto”), as Pita asserts in the final line, hers is a lively and pleasurable understanding of what a labyrinth might provide. In this respect, then, her labyrinth departs from more critical deployments of the image in contemporary Spanish-language poetry. Harvard may produce unexpected finds, as she warns us early in this poem, but her findings confirm a largely calm and contented depiction of the world, even hinting at utopia.
Pita chose the poems for this edition in collaboration with Erin Goodman, an experienced translator from Spanish to English. Throughout the book, Goodman delivers a meditative tone in English. Her wording is pitched to the quiet tones of the poet’s aesthetic. We see in her translator’s note that she has paid careful attention to the poet’s own conception of her three-line poems as “sorbos de luz,” or “sips of light.” This imagery seems useful for most of the poems, regardless of format. Pita is thirsty for comfort, and poetry becomes a vessel for light that she can share, in turn, with others.
While Goodman relies on the term “exile” in the translator’s note, Pita’s occasional discomfort with the word suggests that it might be worth situating her poetry in relation to Cuban-American writers who have added extra terms to their lexicons in more recent years, such as “migration” and “diaspora.” (See, for example, the anthology The Portable Island: Cubans at Home in the World; editors Ruth Behar and Lucía M. Suarez do not negate the importance of exile but assert a twenty-first century need for additional terms and complexities [NY: Palgrave MacMillan, 2008].)
The Miracle Unfolds then demonstrates that there is a potentially interesting discussion to be had about recognizing political dimensions within Cuban diasporic poetry, even when not pursuing them to the full extent possible. For example, Goodman renders ciudadanía as “residence” within one poem, a point she highlights in her translator’s note. She has chosen this option rather than “citizenship” or “nationality,” options specifying allegiance and civic values such as responsibility, as well as the legal identities associated with a set geographical territory. Goodman points out that Pita herself most often avoids writing visibly political poetry, especially about Cuba.
This is a worthwhile explanation. Yet to my ear, the choice of “residence” does more than addressing the impermanence of exile, a quality that Goodman rightly names. To my ear, the use of this word in an English translation of Latin American poetry unavoidably echoes Residence on Earth (In the original Spanish, Residencia en la tierra), the title of a prominent New Directions edition of poetry by Chilean writer Pablo Neruda, translated by Donald Walsh. That association conjures Neruda’s emphasis on the elemental experience of life on earth. Since Goodman has worked with Southern Cone texts as well as Pita’s poetry, I am curious about how deliberate this overlap might be. Neruda is the best-known Latin American poet to make it in English translation to date, so resonance with his work can generate a surplus pleasure, the sense of acquaintance with a larger poetic community.
In contrast to Goodman’s isolated choice to avoid the politics of “citizenship,” their inclusion of a poem sharply critical of Fidel Castro, “Abuelo’s Reluctant Prophecy” (“Renuente profecía de mi abuelo”), stands out for its blunt political critique. Since politics are not entirely absent from the fabric of the whole collection, after all, let’s revisit this question of polishing the uncomfortably political edge off the English translation.
English-language readers of poetry do tend to prefer an uncomplicated Cuba (or even tilt toward seeing socialist Cuba in more utopian terms). But the poem critical of Castro blows the lid off that expectation, even if politics get downplayed elsewhere by the poet and/or translator. So if we were to extend this discussion into future possibilities for translators, I suggest that there could be a cost in taking lightness one step too far in translation. Discomfort, and the pointed dropping of political rhetoric into other dimensions of language, can generate some of the punchy liveliness of exile communities and their literary traditions, past and present.
Remembering that exile traditions within the literary history of the United States are plural takes me to one final reflection. Goodman’s own translation projects seem to work in opposite directions across the Cold-War era political spectrum (at least if viewed in the crudest of left/right terms). She recently translated a memoir by Sergio Bitar, a former Chilean government minister, called Prisoner of Pinochet: My Year in a Chilean Concentration Camp. As a result, Goodman has moved from that critique of Chile’s violent right-wing leader over to Pita’s brief but unmistakable critique of Castro, the longest-serving leader of the Latin American left.
Given the very strong tendency of Latin American literature to be discussed in political terms in here in the United States, and often over-simplified in that process, I think it is promising that in our moment of the twenty-first century we have literary translators working with individuals who speak out of such disparate positionalities. Goodman has listened with respect to two people who both ended up residing in exile in the United States for a significant portion of their lives, due to our hemisphere’s political crosswinds, and thanks to her efforts, so can we.
Pita, Juana Rosa. The Miracle Unfolds. Translated by Erin Goodman. The Song Bridge Project, 2021.
Kristin Dykstra is a writer, literary translator, and professor. Her essay “Ensenada,” co-translated with Juan Manuel Tabío, appeared in Rialta in September 2021. Dykstra is principal translator of The Winter Garden Photograph, by Reina María Rodríguez, Winner of the 2020 PEN Award for Poetry in Translation and Finalist for the National Translation Award. She organized and introduced a May 2021 dossier dedicated to Rodríguez in the digital magazine Latin American Literature Today. Previously she translated numerous poetry editions, such as books by Juan Carlos Flores, Marcelo Morales, Tina Escaja, and others. Selections from Dykstra’s own current poetry manuscript appear in Lana Turner: A Journal of Poetry and Opinion, Seedings, Clade Song, The Hopper, and La Noria (with translations by Escaja).