Only the Road/Solo el camino: Eight Decades of Cuban Poetry is a timely book. Now that Cuba is open to American tourism and visitors, it is appropriate that a comprehensive collection of Cuban poetry be made available in translation. After all, the best way to travel is with the poetry of the place you are going to read ahead and to read when you are there. There is an uncanny magic reading a poem in situ.
Margaret Randall collected the poems for this volume and did all the translation. As someone who knows the challenges of translation from Spanish to English, I think she has done a masterful job of keeping the spirit and the poetry intact. I am grateful that she provided both the Spanish and the English versions because even the best translations sometimes lack the urgency of the original.
Solo el camino begins with Tengo, a poem by Nicolás Guillén that captured the simple exultance of victory, the satisfaction from going without to having and of having not just material things, but having dignity. It is anthemic. Then there is the beautifully romantic tragedy of Emilio Ballads writing of the impossibility of gay love in mid 20th century Cuba in De toro modo. “Can you fathom the deaf grayness of that stone: never?” It is a poem that goes from romantic joy to broken despair in just a few words.
There are short, brilliantly witty poems from Samuel Feijó such as Poética which celebrates the concerts of birds that fill the forests, with not one getting credit for the score. Poems full of warmth and humor, though few words. Then there are the apocalyptic prophetic poems of María Elena Hernández. The poetry comes in all forms, long, short, angry and joyful, political, and romantic. It is representative of humanity, and of course, of Cuba. This anthology is also an exemplar in how to be mindful of diversity of voices. There are many women poets, a rarity in anthologies unless specifically anthologies of women writers. The introduction by Randall has a lot to teach anthologists about how to be mindful and how to do real outreach.
At times, some of the magic is lost in translation, not so much on the page, but aloud. Spanish has a fluency, a facility for poetry that English will never achieve. Randall effectively captures the meaning, the imagery and the heart of the poems, but cannot always produce the flow, the assonance, the aural magic of Spanish poetry. That magic comes in part from the construction of the language, the way verbs are conjugated, the fact there are not five ways to pronounce “a” and other innate qualities that we just don’t have in English.
I recommend Only the Road/Solo el camino highly. It’s a beautiful collection of poetry, some that has not been published in English translation and will be new to readers. It is also a corrective to the biased view of Cuban literature as repressed or propaganda depending on how widely published it is. We are opening up to Cuba finally, so it is incumbent on us to understand it better and how better than through its poetry.
Only the Road/Solo el Camino will be published on October 14, 2016.
I received a temporary e-galley of Only the Road/Solo el camino from the publisher via NetGalley.