May 1, 2006

Ricardo Pau-Llosa @ Casa Bacardi

Drawing on influences as diverse as Pedro Calderon de la Barca, Wallace Stevens, Federico Garcia Lorca, Pieter Bruegel, and Pablo Neruda, Ricardo Pau-Llosa gave an hour long reading at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-America Studies on April 27, 2006.

Pau-Llosa began the reading with several poems within the tradition which he inherited from Jose Marti. One of the first poems, “Dos Rios” (Cuba) , a haunting remembrance of the elder poet set in Central Park South, summarizes the Pau-Llosa’s affinity with Marti:

In truth, you wrote about just
one subject: freedom and its monsters.
You went to your death on your first charge
shot from a bronze horse somewhere
between me, November and a few pigeons.

Marti, the bums are watching.

The “bums” one gathers are not merely the homeless in New York, but also Fidel Castro, one the frequent targets of Pau-Llosa’s satiric wit. The poem, “Ganaderia” (Cuba) begins in Camaguey during the Cuban Revolution and with the slaughter of cattle to “feed the campesinos. / Neither the industry nor the cattle ever recovered. / The guerilla leaders were educated men, / how could they not know you don’t eat breeding stock?” The poem then relates an anecdote about Ubre Blanca (White Udder):

Two decades later Fidel is in love with a cow
Ubre Blanca (White Udder). Before the cameras,
he explains each step of his gloved penetration,
bull semen dripping from his fist. Gently he lifts
Ubre Blanca’s tail after reassuring her
with a stroke on the rump. The forearm sinks
into the cow slowly and his face announces
the moment he opens his fist inside her.
One day the record breaking milk mother died
and a distraught Fidel ordered a monument be built
to White Udder, the revolutionary cow.

The poem then parallels Castro’s rise to power and the refrain from the first stanza:

They were educated men, how could they not know
what was coming? How could they not save Ubre Blanca
from the endless speeches, the cameras, and the fist?

Pau-Llosa’s poetry is riddled with paradoxes and he has a gift for recognizing the miraculous strangeness of the world. For example in the poem, “Kendall Gulls,” (The Mastery Impulse) these birds, which many of us take for granted as part of the South Florida scenery, are transformed by Pau-Llosa’s craft into emblematic icons: “They fight, or dance as if, for a morsel/ Someone’s dropped on the grass-bald line,” and in the final stanza, “So much metaphor makes of a simple world, /and of such makings need.”

Perhaps it is also his other life as an art critic that shapes Pau-Llosa’s poems. Many of his poems pay homage to artists such as Wilfredo Lam, and his themes of hunger and desire, of coincidence and design, and of human evil vis-à-vis the natural world are juxtaposed against the landscape. In “Flight to LA” , the speaker in the poem possesses an acute awareness not only of his monad consciousness (he is alone in a crowded aircraft with people sharing a similar journey), but also the historical forces that shaped the continent, yet despite these realizations, fails to connect.

Pau-Llosa’s sixth book of poems will be released by Carnegie Mellon next year, and his next reading will be at the Institute of Germanic and Romance Studies, University of London, School for Advanced Studies. His website is

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