Puerto-Rican poet and author Mairym Cruz-Bernal was in NYC for the 2013 Latin American Poetry Festival and read her poem Carta AntiSuicida (Anti-Suicide Letter), La Astronauta Rusa (The Russian Astronaut) and other pieces belonging to her new book Cielopájaro Nuestro (2013).
Here in New York City I am part of a taller, a writer’s workshop in Spanish, that meets every Monday and is correspondently named Los Lunes. Once a week, individuals from all over the Spanish speaking countries read works of Latin American writers and afterwards, we write. I say this because a number of us attended the festival to get a sense of what is going on in the current Hispanic writing scene. Immediately after the festival ended, we walked up to Mairym and asked if she could have dinner with us and share more of her poetry because we simply wanted her words to stay a little longer. She agreed, and we were surprised when she mentioned that her weekly writing group in San Juan meets Los Martes, on Tuesdays. So, in between days, and picking a Sunday to unfold an unholy communion of truth, un-truth, and words, we met with her at a restaurant in the West side.
I found her sitting at the side of the table near her husband, Pedro Salicrup who also writes. Most of my fellows from the taller had already arrived and were sharing conversations with her. She was wearing a gold colored necklace shaped like a key chain, blonde hair over her shoulders and a bohemian white blouse. Throughout the dinner, the sounds of laughter and loud conversation played in the background so typical of NYC life, where silence is sacred and discretely unattainable.
A familiar figure in the cultural and countercultural Latin American poetry scene, Cruz-Bernal’s new book Cielo Pájaro Nuestro is her 13th publication that collects nine years of work. When I asked her about the title, she showed us an image of a sky so blue and daunting, a conglomeration of heavy clouds outside her home in San Juan. The image was passed around the table while Cruz-Bernal explained that the cielopájaro is the figure of a bird with open wings, drawn by the clouds at sunset, as a result, the title for her book. In New York, where mostly skyscrapers and buildings inhabit the skyline, I have seen many birds flying in groups, migrating from here to there, but I’ve yet to see a cielopájaro, a figure constructed by chance in the drawings of the clouds, appearing at the end of a day and disclosing the beginning of twilight.
Cielopájaro vuela en remolinos
y tiene que ver con el orígen de las Galaxias,
como si un ala fuera más breve o más pesada.
Kattia Chico, San Germán, Puerto Rico
My translation: “Skybird flies in turmoil/ and has to do with the origin of Galaxies/ as if one wing were more brief or heavier.”
From her new book, I read poems concrete like blades, and a direct language that resists baroque or overly- abstract metaphors. Her use of negative structures has a relentless guerrilla feel to them that I enjoyed furiously. Cruz-Bernal’s Carta Antisuicida (AntiSuicide Letter, 2013) for instance, begins from the stuffiness of household quotidian anxiety, renders poetic resistance, and allows for hopeful renewal. My translation of her piece says:
I write in red words this antisuicide letter/ Listen well/ I will not kill myself. The eye of the revolver will not enamor my mouth. The bullet will not make more holes in my brain. /I will not kill myself / I will have blue butterflies for breakfast that will flutter over my oatmeal with berries/ I will walk barefooted all the years that remain/ to the air I will teach how to sing/ I will not kill myself even if I die/ I will not kill myself/ I will laugh wildly at the new tenderness/ I will pass a warm cloth over the furniture/ I will guess the space molded by buttocks in the straw of the dinning room’s rocking chairs/ I will make the porridge to the sons of my sons/ I will rape the same man over the same skin until my fingers stop hurting/ until he doesn’t reject my repeated kisses/ He will die but I won’t/ not the one who writes and cooks/ not the one who was opened because she could not give birth/ not the one who aged of red ink/ no/ I will not kill myself/ I will open the doors and the windows/ here there will always be birds/ I will dress with organza cloth, tulles and chiffon/ I will feel my skin to the orgasm/ alive/ nobody demolishes me nor nothing/ under the rug there are no floors/ this house is haunted/ If I blow/ each red petal will be a butterfly.
In it’s original language: “Escribo en letras rojas esta carta antisuicida/ Escucha bien/ no me mataré. El ojo del revolver no enamorará mi boca. La bala no hará más hoyos en mi cerebro./ No me mataré/ desayunaré mariposas azules que revolotearán sobre mi avena con fresas/ caminaré descalza todos los años que me queden/ al aire le enseñaré a cantar/ no me mataré aunque me muera/ no me mataré/ reiré a carcajadas las nuevas ternuras/ pasaré un paño tibio sobre los muebles/ adivinaré el hueco de las nalgas moldeando la pajilla en las mecedoras de la sala/ haré la mazamorra a los hijos de mis hijos/ violaré al mismo hombre sobre la misma piel hasta que ya no duelan mis dedos/ hasta que ya no desprecie mis besos repetidos/ morirá él pero yo no/ no la que escribe y cocina/ no la que fue abierta porque no pudo parir/ no la que envejeció de tinta roja/ no/ no me mataré/ abriré las ventanas y las puertas/ aquí siempre habrá pájaros/ vestiré con telas de organza, tules y chiffon/ sentiré mi piel hasta el orgasmo/ viva/ a mí no me derrumba nadie ni nada/ debajo de la alfombra no hay pisos/ esta casa esta hechizada/ si soplo/ cada pétalo rojo será una mariposa.” 2013
Although uncompromising about love, her work is lovable and moving, as she blends fiction with autobiography, and responds to the fraught issue of “women’s writing” and its often-problematic reception. During dinner Cruz-Bernal was prone to make remarks about women’s writing: “Hay que recuperar un lenguaje” (we have to recover language) and later “Hay que recuperar el cuerpo que se nos negó” (we have to recover the body which has been denied to us) but also warned us, emerging writers: “Tenemos que dejar la poesía llorona de lado, podemos descargarnos en la hoja, pero luego a escribir desde el Yo, encontrar el Yo.” (we have to leave sappy poetry aside, we can take it out on the page, but afterwards we must write from the “I” and find the “I”). Cruz-Bernal, who has a background in clinical psychology, has molded a subject that humanly roams between self and other, and is made of those concrete, embodied instances where the “I” can long, hope, fail, feel cold and hunger, disappointment and warmth. For example, her poem about New York describes an “I” that bestows the gift of solitude and the gift of privacy through the foreign eyes of the female Caribbean islander who finds city life to be a platform for universal affects. My translation:
the taxi cab runs
the first man with whom I speak to is the taxi driver
a man, black gentle
he looks at me from the rear mirror
we talk about politics
about the next imminent war
with a religious voice
we agree so much
we don’t need to talk
but I love the sound of your voice
took out my small notebook and wrote these words
winter was starting
never did a man make me feel
In its original language: “Nueva york/ el primer hombre con quien hablo es el taxista/ un hombre negro gentil/ me mira desde el retrovisor/ hablamos de politica/ de la proxima Guerra inminente/ en ingles/ con voz religiosa/ dijo/ we agree so much/ we don’t need to talk/ but I love the sound of your voice/ me silencié/ saqué me libretita y escribí estas palabras/ comenzaba el invierno/nunca un hombre me hizo sentir/tan amada.”
In person Mairym Cruz-Bernal is friendly and excitable as we covered an array of subjects from the danger of writing love poems before one turns eighty to using a masculine voice when writing, from Alfonsina Storni to Miguel Barnet, and how she first read Alejandra Pizarnick’s works in a carefully piled stash of photocopies, way before she was ever able to buy the real book. Her blonde hair and green eyes are visible marks which refuse to be tethered to any definition of what being a Puerto-Rican writer means, as it appears that her poem La Astronauta Rusa (The Russian Astronaut) is a response to the misunderstandings of gender and visible identity, like this stanza translated to English:
in the bars where I studied the university of life
I always said that I was an astronaut and that I was Russian
to avoid the you don’t look puerto rican
and what does a puerto rican look like
that discussion faded once and again
until I finally turned into a russian astronaut
In its original language: “en los bares donde estudié la Universidad de la vida/ siempre dije que era astronauta y que era rusa/ para evitar el you don’t look puerto rican / and what does a puerto rican look like/ esa discusión una y otra vez se esfumaba / cuando finalmente me convertí en astronauta rusa”
The university of life, like “the fabric of life” that poet Kay Ryan describes so well, is full of slaps, lessons, bee stings. It stretches like connected tissue and it continues even when we cannot take another step, regardless the gravity level, or how others misconceive us. Calling herself a Russian astronaut seems like Cruz-Bernal’s aesthetic attempt to levitate from the politics of walls, borders, language, gender, and grasp these subjects in their truth, or in their un-truth, without being indifferent to them. Reading this book, I was awoken and reminded that the poetic task is prone to be fulfilled in solitude, despite the countless people and islands one may encounter. Cruz-Bernal, who has traveled from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, continues to follow the recommendations of a taxi driver who told her one night that “al fin del mundo se viaja solo” (to the end of the world, one must travel alone). And, thus, her poetry might just be an attempt to do that: reach the end of the world but staying at gravity level, with astronaut’s clothes.
Carolina A. Drake
New York 2013