April 18, 2012
Wallace Stevens and Cristina García? Not the most obvious pairing. Yet it is Stevens’s poems that remained on García’s desk throughout the writing of Dreaming in Cuban, giving the novel its epigraph.
And for Stevens, Havana is right up there, almost as central to the poetic landscape as Hartford. He made his first trip in 1923, sailing from Key West. Walking around the city made him want “in the wildest way to study Spanish,” which he promptly did, “buying bundles of El Sol of Madrid” and poring over these. In “Academic Discourse in Havana,” he writes: “The world is not / The bauble of the sleepless nor a word/ That should import a universal pith/ to Cuba.” In “Someone puts a Pineapple Together,” he says: “The angel at the centre of this rind, / This husk of Cuba, tufted emerald,/ Himself, may be, the irreducible X.”
In 1944, the 65-year-old Stevens began corresponding with the 24-year-old Cuban poet, José Rodríguez Feo. Between 1944 and 1955, a total of 99 letters were exchanged, 48 from Stevens and 51 from Rodriguez Feo (all collected now in a new volume, Secretaries of the Moon). Beginning formally, Rodríguez Feo was soon able to inject a playful note, calling Stevens “my dear prisoner of Hartford” and “mi Dear Don Walacio,” while Stevens responded with “My dear Antillean.” In 1949, when Rodríguez Feo was passed up for a job at Princeton, Stevens wrote that his true vocation was to stay where he was and “respond to Cuba and make something of it, and help to invent or perfect the idea of Cuba in which everyone can have a being just as everyone has a special being in a great church – in the presence of any great object.”
There’s no reason why Havana and Hartford should be bonded together in this way. Also no reason why they shouldn’t be.