Prophet

Legacies: Selected Poems

by Heberto Padilla, translated by Alastair Reid, by Andrew Hurley
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 179 pp., $15.95

Like the Russian Revolution, the Cuban events of 1959-1960 coincided with a literary revival, intense but short-lived. This rapid flowering was chiefly visible in the Monday supplement of the newspaper Revolución, and among the founding editors of this supplement, called Lunes, was the poet Heberto Padilla, newly returned, like many other radical intellectuals, from ten years of exile in the United States. It was characteristic of this group that, in contrast to the Orígenes circle of their seniors who, being nonpolitical, had remained at home during the Batista regime, they tended to write social poetry, variously influenced by the poets of the countries that had given them refuge. The poetry of the Lunes group is direct and economical, and happily free from the prevailing Hispano-American rhetoric.

The group was short-lived. In fact, except for Padilla, only one continues to write poetry, Pablo Armando Fernández, who publishes infrequently, his last book having appeared in Spain in 1969. Of the rest, Roberto Fernández Retamar is an important editor, and writes mostly criticism, and the highly talented José Álvarez Baragaño died suddenly in 1962, with his powers still only partially developed. He served rather as a link with the Orígenes group than as a practitioner of the new Lunes directness.

Now, twenty years later, Heberto Padilla is almost the sole survivor of these pioneers. Silence or conformism has overtaken the founders of Lunes, which has become a term of opprobrium in Cuba. “So much money was wasted on that publication,” we are told. And now Padilla, after brief domestic fame and a long eclipse, has published an ample selection of his poetry in New York, where he has at last been allowed to return.

Padilla’s first volume—if we omit a small collection he published at the age of sixteen—reveals in its title El justo tiempo humano (The Right Moment for Humanity) the poet’s optimism in 1962. It is scantily represented in this selection. The poetry is spare but romantic. For Padilla’s predominant influences have been Blake, Wordsworth, and Byron, and those Russian poets who were strongly influenced by English romanticism. The outstanding sequence of this first Padilla volume is “The Childhood of William Blake,” a series of ten reflections on incidents in Blake’s life and on his art, projected forward from imagined forebodings in his childhood. From these brief poems Blake emerges as a poet and engraver, as a wanderer in the London streets, and as the prophet not only of industrialism and its horrors, but also of the new Jerusalem. I should like to quote this poem in the original, since it displays Padilla’s splendid and gnomic economy, a quality rare in Hispano-American poetry, in a way that does not survive translation. However I will be content to give the second section in the present translation.

We are in the Lambeth house that the child William Blake will inhabit as a man, a place that Padilla visited more than once during a stay in London …

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