“The Brilliance of the Cut” — On Víctor Rodríguez Núñez’s “tasks”
“I am absolutely against nationalism,” Víctor Rodríguez Núñez tells Katherine Hedeen, his colleague and translator, in Asymptote. “In my view it’s a completely perverse ideology that’s justified humanity’s greatest crimes.” He continues, “There’s no reason for me to limit myself. I can leave the island and still be Cuban, but differently, and that’s exactly what I want to be.”
Rodríguez Núñez makes his home away from Cuba in Ohio, where he has taught at Kenyon College since 2001. Gambier, Ohio, is a far cry from Havana, not only because of the differences between cultures and languages, but also between the landscapes themselves. From the February snow of the Middle West and the voracious sun of the Caribbean, the silent corn huddled in sentry and the metropolitan energy of an island capital — place, culture, and identity exist in a close-knit system of mutual influence. The poet conserves his private rendition of Cuban identity, insists that he can “still be Cuban, but differently.”
How does an artist make sense of these contradictions? How does one refuse the violent baggage of nationalism but embrace the influence of genius loci? Like so many expat authors before him, Rodríguez Núñez finds intimacy in the distance and familiarity in the gradual, inescapable forgetting:
The poems in Rodríguez Núñez’s award-winning volume tasks invite the reader to a Cuba of recollection, of disjointed, misremembered encounters and vague impressions challenged by his later visits back to Cuba. This mindscape exists for the poet to trace the imperfections of his own memory as if tracking a lost cat through the old neighborhood only to find that, no, there never was a cat. The poems are dense and reflexive until his verse breaks open to reveal a lucid scene, as in the opening lines of “[indisciplines]:”
“Here for the first time Rodríguez Núñez eliminates uppercase letters as a marker for units of meaning,” Hedeen writes in her translator’s introduction. “This change in form has profound implications for content, a radical move toward a new form the author calls ‘edgeless poetry.’ No limits to sense, no point where an idea or image begins or ends, the greatest fluidity of thought possible. And so, it’s not just verses, stanzas, or poems that are enjambed, it is meaning itself.”
This may be a slight overstatement. Many if not most of the lines stand as discrete semantic units that build one upon the next into a difficult but mostly accessible coherence. The verse is evocative and at time overtly political: “a squirrel’s more mindful than a government minister,” he writes. “you give it a nut it saves it asks for another / and it’ll eat even when it’s full / the tropics are naturally socialist”.
The central innovation of Rodríguez Núñez’s verse seems to stem not from his composition or the turns of phrase — often striking in both languages — but from his employment of the line break and his omission of both capitalization and much of the punctuation. By disjointing grammar, words (especially verbs) teeter at the end of certain lines, where they masquerade (as reflexive or transitive, for instance) before the following line casts its new, often revisionary spotlight. Take for instance this passage from the first poem in the collection, “[origins]:”
Hedeen’s translations are crafted and thoughtful — although she misses an opportunity here for the frisson of “after all I am,” a phrase which relates the postnationalism and nostalgic confusion of the volume as a whole. One instance aside, her translations represent the Spanish poems in verse that is still poetry when it finally arrives in English, and that is no small accomplishment.
Rodríguez Núñez challenges the translator with daisychains of observation, interior monologue, and disjointed reflections. These poems take the day-to-day as their premise, a launchpad for the remanufacture of identity. Grappling with the grubby means of producing one’s self is the true task:
“I no longer write poems,” Rodríguez Núñez tells Hedeen, “I write poetry. When I write, I’m not interested in the structure; it’s the process itself that’s most important. In other words, my strategy is precisely not to have a strategy, but to have a tactic.”
The mesmeric energy exists separate from the mere lack of capitalization and punctuation, though. It comes from the gyre of his attention. To borrow a description from one of his poems, his process is like “a centrifuge where molasses runs off”.
He also does not insist on his Cuba as a truth bestowed. In fact, “to forget is to create”. It is the inherent instability of a process lacking telos, the inversion of photographic aura. Rodríguez Núñez doesn’t aim to capture the real Havana, or the real soul of Cuba, or his own true self. When the ex-pat’s comfortable distance has collapsed, and the poet abroad suddenly comes face-to-face with the real, distance and intimacy are each transformed by perception and the productive process — authored, not authoritarian.