HAVANA TIMES, July 13 — When I first met Roberto Manzano, I immediately knew that I was in contact with a true poet. Notwithstanding, it was a disappointment.
A true poet would —of course— speak with a serious voice and be somewhat scornful to a young 25-year-old apprentice. He or she would forgive their hurried verses. Such a person would put their “tough” hand on your shoulder and show you their vast library. They would become lost from sight in the depth of their thoughts, and some phrase would emerge from their throat with an aphoristic tone.
But nothing like that transpired.
When I met Manzano, he had recently arrived in Havana and was living in a tiny apartment. Wearing flip-flops, the poet received us and became my friend at that very instant. It was a conversation that lasted a thousandth of second, without words, one that was face to face. It was this “I know you” in which souls are exchanged when people fall in love.
For those who don’t know Roberto Manzano, I want to present him with one of his poems:
When you are sitting alone in the corridor’s last darkness, don’t forget that you are absolutely indispensable;
don’t forget that you spread the hanging gardens on the high walls year after year, with your solemn dedication;
don’t forget that you have created the incredible, ringed possibility of the buttonhole and the button, that divine simplicity;
don’t forget that you built the symmetrical rebellion of the pyramid, hauling who knows how or from where;
don’t forget that you combined certain substances and squeezed them into that restorative marvel, a pill;
don’t forget that it was probably you who plowed at Fobos, or who built the thrones that repose in the ungraspable;
and that if you are not seated there it’s because you yourself, in that coherence of desire and truth, did not want it;
for if you had wanted it with greater accord you would be there, surely, seated in the ungraspable thrones;
but you know you don’t need it, for the air there is motionless like the suffocation of immortality;
ah, you where yourself the maker, you yourself the determiner, and you order your days by constructing and selecting;
they need only that added something, some available good omen, so that the right gestures are put in orbit;
but your heart has been full of force and surprise, of adobe and mortar, and in your giving you were receiving yourself;
the road found your feet, the distance found your eyes, the world’s gravity found your shoulders, oh Atlas;
I know that you are, though you don’t think it’s so, absolutely indispensable, that the world demands you, it needs you.
because we can leave, but we cannot leave, staying is our true purpose on the earth;
even though you are sitting now at the end of the corridor, head sunk in your hands, while December falls in silence.
Synergos: Selected poems of Roberto Manzano
What verses! And to think that its author was this guajiro (farmer) standing in front of me. It was a true shock. Yet Manzano has now alerted us that exactly in our “aesthetic consciousness (is) where lie the roots are (of our) exclusive attitudes.” This is why what we sometimes think is a “disappointment” is in fact “sensational.”
Few have entered into Cubans fields as has Manzano. His book Canto a la Sabana (I Sing of the Savanna) is one of the most significant works in Cuban poetry. Incredibly, it was written in the 1970s, though he had to wait until 1996 for it to be published. Appearing from the hand of Manzano as our grasslands, our oxen, our lagoons, our grandparents, is to enter the homeland. That is our raw and verdant Cuba.
Song to the Savannah
Dying in body,
I give birth to my soul.
With each shade of cloud passing,
one of the dead sustains me,
one of the living applauds my rushing on.
One afternoon I arrive and say:
This road of bienvestidos,
I sowed it.
I arrive one afternoon and say:
Horse, untamed smudge of gray-brown earth,
may you gallop like life
from night into the future.
I go along the furrow.
I glimpse the old sugar towns.
I scan the path of the horizon.
In the dusty red fields-roads
I stop and say:
My, what root-travelers.
What harvests for the light.
I stop beside the ateje tree,
tree of the fieldworkers’ fingernails, and say:
my accord with my fate,
may I know where I come from and where I go.
Only a gesture away I have
the morning star,
the play of the grass.
My own rider,
I’ve broken the ancient hold.
An adherent of Jose Marti to the core, Roberto Manzano went from being a school teacher and has emerged as the poets’ teacher. There is nothing more logical. What teaching has given in him is like the white of butterflies in the rivers of the Escambray Mountains: abundance and fragrance.
His poetry, strong and moving, has had the immense fortune of being published recently in a bilingual volume. The publisher (Etruscan Press, of Wilkes University, in Pennsylvania) has gathered under the title of “Synergos” some of the Cuban writer’s best works.
Spanish and English —the languages of Marti and Whitman, two of Manzano’s main influences— were the languages chosen. Translated by Steven Reese, this is a unique opportunity for English-speaking readers to get closer to the poetry of an important contemporary Cuban poet.
As added value, the volume presents a revealing interview with the author in its last section. The initiative of producing this book arose from a reading carried out by the poet at Youngstown State University (Ohio) in 2002. According to what Reese tells us in the introduction, the welcome by the audience was astonishing, and Manzano received a standing ovation by all those present.
If only that had been the end of it, that would have been fine – but there was more. The verses that now become available in spoken English are highly aesthetic poems, poems not about Cuba, but about the human spirit. They will be a surprise, like the way they were the day I found Manzano sowing in my earth.