Orlando Ricardo Menes

Introduction to Jose Kozer

JOSE KOZER WAS born in Cuba (1940) of Jewish parents who had emigrated there from Eastern Europe to escape the Nazis. He himself became an exile in this country soon after the Cuban Revolution, settling in New York City where he taught Spanish literature at Queens College until his retirement in 1997. He now resides in Malaga, Spain.

A prolific poet, essayist, and translator, Kozer is one of the major voices of his generation, whose work has been widely anthologized in Latin America and Spain. He has written over fourteen books of poetry, including Under This One Hundred (1983) and The Crane without Shadows (1985), from which four translated poems appearing here in Artful Dodge were taken. His work has been the object of study by critics in the United States, Latin America, and Spain; last year a colloquium was held in Denver to discuss and celebrate his poetry.

Until two years ago I had no idea that a Jewish Cuban poet existed, and I was very excited when I discovered Jose Kozer in Jorge Rodriguez Padron’s Antología de poesia hispano-americana (1915-1980), published in 1984. As far as I can tell, Kozer is the only Jewish Cuban writer around, though Cuba’s Jewish community before the Revolution was a sizable one, having grown considerably since the arrival of the first Sephardic Jews in the 1890s. The Jewish immigrants who followed them were almost entirely Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazim from Eastern Europe who settled mostly in Havana, founding synagogues, schools, Yiddish newspapers, and other Jewish institutions. My own grandfather, though not a Jew himself, was principal of a Jewish high school in the town of Regla. Few Jews remain in Cuba today, most having emigrated to the United States.

I find Kozer’s portrayal of Jewish Cuban culture, specifically through the experiences of his family, delightfully vibrant and earthy. There is an impulse to document these lives, with every line becoming a kind of snapshot. Nevertheless, Kozer’s poetry possesses the power to transmute the minutiae of everyday life into gems of memory. The poems achieve the resonance of myth without the crutch of abstraction. In addition, they pay homage to the ancestors, while at the same time resisting the romantic tendency to idealize the past.

Above all, Kozer is a poet who loves words. Critics have commented on el recargo verbal (the verbal overload) of his verse, a style that positions him in the Neo-Baroque tradition of such Cuban writers as Jose Lezama Lima and Severo Sarduy. The poet therefore captures the singularity of something not by conciseness but by excess. Kozer declares in one poem that “his ambition is one: all vocabulary.” In another he adds, “(I love) the hybrids / (Peruvianisms) (Mexicanisms) / of diction and words.” And Kozer’s search for poetic language is not limited to the Americas and Europe but extends all the way to China, as can be seen in the final section of The Crane without Shadows where he “steals,” as he puts it, from the style of the Tang Dynasty poets.

This lexical multiplicity is a reflection of his multicultural identity. I know of no other poet who can imagine Kafka “dream[ing] about canefields,” and be convincing. Of course, some might find his uprootedness disconcerting, for people’s sense of place tends to be local. Yet where Kozer writes, “I’m neither one (nor the other),” he is actually rejoicing over his condition.

I am also a product of diaspora, hence my attraction to his poetry. I was born in Peru of Cuban parents who had left their homeland fleeing tyranny, and I lived in Lima until 1968 when my family moved to Miami. My work, in turn, is multicultural as well as multilingual, many of my poems inspired by Judaism and AfroCuban mythology, though I am neither a Jew nor a person of color. Hybridisms of language and culture have the force of metaphor for me. In fact, I have come to realize that italicizing non-English words in my own poetry only serves to privilege English at the expense of Spanish. My ambition is the same as Kozer’s: all vocabulary. —Chicago, Illinois, September 8, 1998