In a literary world dominated by trend-setting and little else, Cuban poet Raúl Rivero stood out as an intimate observer of human folly, with his monumental “War Zone,” the apocalyptic vision of a country he visited on the third day of the revolution.
Rivero, who died on Nov. 30 at 75, had invited friends and admirers to join him at his home in Havana for a celebration on Dec. 8 and he had been diagnosed with leukemia less than a month before his death. On Sept. 19, 2013, the death of poet and friend Aleida Conde-Mejía, in a direct hit on the Cinta Lucia, a Havana street in the middle of the night, brought Rivero to his knees. Within hours, he explained, “The attack on the Cinta Lucia was like a violent explosion through the center of my domestic life … in deep mourning, I will face the fact that I won’t know you much longer.”
“I have nothing to say to them,” Rivero had written of his friends. “In this generation, we have been taught to be people of feelings rather than of ideas, to cause pain rather than to heal it.”
Soon afterward, Rivero’s mother died and left behind an empty house and a melancholic son. But with the support of friends, Rivero quickly found a way back into a poetry that was at once a memory of the objects and relationships that touched him and a devotion to the causes for which they had been created. Not only was he defiant to pressures from both within and without Cuba, but as his poems have shown, he was actively engaged in the quest for democracy as well.
Rivero’s contemporaries, often slipping back into their nostalgia for Cuba as a sort of lost place, often alluded to the great cultural innovations that had come of the revolution and inspired poets before him. In 1965, for example, Nadine Gordimer began a poem by recalling the great number of deaf and blind children who had been released by the revolution:
Do you remember the ruined apartments by the ocean?
Children and people born blind were freed. How did you feel when you saw them?
They’re no longer suffering. For months you were denied the sight of the world.
The brilliance of Rivero’s poetry was measured in quality and not just quantity.
I cannot imagine what more is needed for me to take you as my friend. And if I have no admirers here — how can I describe to you the level of humanity I think you possess? You need no introductions. You walk with you own capacity, you have the capacity of self-mastery. You never seek to change from a narcissistic, not to say selfish, self-centered point of view. You see that the self is the essential thing. You walk without seeking inanimate objects. You are a human person.
Rivero’s books are among the best-sellers in Cuba.
He was born on Oct. 25, 1944, in Cienfuegos, and the Hemingway Institute in the United States will hold a memorial service for him on Dec. 8, with special readings at 5 p.m. followed by a concert of his poetry.
Report by William Ruud, editing by Andrew VanWyngarden
From exiled to exiled, Raúl Rivero paints deeply private but shared story of the tumultuous Cuban Revolution