Speaking to the Living and the Dead: Lezama’s Ode to Casal

James Irby
Princeton University


Where the dead are simply dead, the living are in some sense already dead as well.  Conversely, where the afterlife of the dead receives new life, the earth as a whole receives a new blessing. 

                                Robert Pogue Harrison, The Dominion of the Dead.

…for the poet is representative.  He stands among partial men for the complete man, and apprises us not of his wealth, but of the commonwealth.

                                Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Poet”.

[PREFATORY NOTE:  I offer here, under the same title used then, the main part of an unpublished talk I gave on April 14, 2004, to students and faculty of the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at Princeton University.  This main part is a commentary on "Oda a Julián del Casal" that focuses on how six different textual features of the poem interact to produce an overall rhetorical effect:  1) apostrophe, 2) recurrent verbal motifs, 3) obscurity, 4) recognizability, 5) verb tenses and moods, and 6) mythical allusions.  The wording of this commentary remains the same as on that occasion save for a few adjustments for the sake of greater clarity and the insertion of some bibliographical or factual footnotes.  What I omit now are that talk's first five introductory pages and its final page of perfunctory close.  On that occasion, I thought it helpful to begin by reminding my listeners who Casal was, citing earlier instances of Lezama's special interest in him (notably his groundbreaking essay "Julián del Casal" of 1941) and evoking the circumstances of the poem's composition in 1963 during the centenary of Casal's birth: introductory remarks that now seem unnecessary for readers of a journal explicitly revived in memory of the author of Nieve. Unnecessary, that is, except perhaps for reminding them now, as I did my listeners in 2004, that 1963 was still very soon after the Bay of Pigs and the Missile Crisis: in other words, a time of virtual state of war that generated in Cuba "an all-enveloping rhetorical climate of intensely polarized slogans, commands, exhortations and anathemas, in contrast to which, as we shall see, Lezama's poem deploys a very different kind of rhetoric that posits a collective space of quite another sort".]

     The first of the poem's textual features I want to talk about is its use of apostrophes.   It opens right away with imperative verbs that speak successively to two groups of plural addressees, an “ustedes” and a “vosotros”, politely asking them to allow a “he” to return, to come forth:

Déjenlo, verdeante, que se vuelva;
permitidle que salga de la fiesta…

     The whole poem is structured around a series of apostrophes that run here from the beginning all the way to the end.  But as they go along, the apostrophes change their addressees.  The first four stanzas are addressed to those plural “you’s”.   But in line 63, at the beginning of the fifth stanza, the poem suddenly begins to address a singular “you”: 

Las formas en que utilizaste tus disfraces…

     This singular “you” is evidently the “he” whose return the opening lines of the poem had asked to be permitted and this will go on being the addressee during almost all the rest of the poem, until we get to within three lines of the end, where the opening mode of plural address is resumed and the “he” again mentioned for the last time: 

Permitid que se vuelva, ya nos mira…

     Any utterance addressed to a “you” necessarily implies an “I” or a “we” as its source, even when no first person pronoun is explicitly used.   The voice of this poem never says “I”.  But, starting in line 61, just a couple of lines before the singular “you” is addressed for the first time, the voice of the poem begins to speak as a “we”:

Su tos alegre sigue ordenando el ritmo
de nuestra crecida vegetal…

     And it will go on using the first person plural to the end.  It’s as if that “we” had to become explicit for the “he” to become a “you”.  One of the main rhetorical thrusts of this poem is to call upon a plural audience to allow this “he” to come back from where he had been into a space (or spaces) the poem immediately begins to characterize in its own terms, at the same time that it also begins to characterize in its own terms the identity or nature of this “he”, in order, eventually, as a result of those characterizations, to place “him” and “us” into a special kind of relationship.   A relationship, as we shall see, whereby this “he” who becomes a “you” is said to act on “our” behalf, to represent “us”, in a realm that has fully mythical dimensions, even though the historical dimension is never lost sight of.   Part of this process, of course, is the way in which the reader also feels addressed and thereby characterized by this succession of “you’s” in the poem that go from a neutral plurality to a very specific singularity.  (By the way, from here on, I’m going to refer to this “he” who becomes a “you” as “the subject of the poem”.)
     The second textual feature of the poem I will point out also begins to appear at the very beginning: its use of certain verbal motifs that recur and undergo variations or recombinations, some of them to return in hauntingly musical patterns—either single words or whole phrases—that extend, like the apostrophes, over the entire poem.  (By "musical" here, I don't mean "pleasant in sound" but rather "rich in modulated semantic resonances".)  For example, the motif of the color green, introduced right away with an immediate variant in the opening stanza as the very first characterization of the subject whose return the poem calls for:

Déjenlo, verdeante, que se vuelva,
permitidle que salga de la fiesta
a la terraza donde están dormidos.
A los dormidos los cuidará quejoso,
fijándose como se agrupa la mañana helada.
La errante chispa de su verde errante,
trazará círculos frente a los dormidos
de la terraza…

“Verdeante”, an adjective with a semi-participial character derived from the verb “verdear”, signifies the activity of either becoming green or making other things turn green, with strong connotations involving vegetation and the change of seasons.  The next recurrence of this motif, as the noun “verde”, is paired with another active semi-participle, “errante”, from the verb “errar”, all the meanings of which this poem will draw upon: errant as wandering, roving, in movement, but also errant as wayward or (as one dictionary puts it) “straying from the proper course or standards”.   This immediate pairing of “green” with “errant” is not unrelated to the fact that “green” will acquire additional connotations as it recurs in the course of the poem.  Later it will also become “el verde de la muerte” (line 142).
     Two other recurrent motifs introduced in these opening lines are that “terraza” and those “dormidos” on it.  In this case, it’s not a question of a recurring quality or trait but rather of a recurring place associated with figures, actors, who also recur.  The poem will never clearly specify who these “dormidos” are but they will always return in close connection with the subject, as indeed they appear here at the beginning, where it is predicted that the subject “los cuidará quejoso”, a phrase we’ll return to in a moment.  The “terraza”, on the other hand, will be equated later in the poem with another space:  “las profundidades”, “el valle de Proserpina”, i.e. the underworld of the dead.  Note, too, that the basic sense of  “cold” signified by the adjective in “la mañana helada” will also recur with ramifying effects, first as “nieve” and then, more insistently, as “frío”, especially, as we shall see, in stanza four (lines 44-62).  And, in fact, toward the end of the poem “terrace” and “cold” will merge in “terraza helada” (line 191).
     The third textual feature of the poem also exemplified right away in this opening stanza is the peculiar obscurity of its language, evidenced here by the tantalizingly mysterious set of traits attributed to the emergent subject.  The apostrophes lead right into, even seem to produce, a kind of narrative: a scene in which he and other figures and things interact.  And yet, as details and gestures quickly accumulate, they don’t add up to form a single clearly recognizable story, but instead seem to combine bits of different stories, different situations, implying strangely different kinds of connectedness or cause and effect.  Perhaps you may wonder why I didn’t mention this feature first, since obscurity may well have been for you the poem’s most immediate and striking impact.  Well, I wanted to call attention first to some of the poem’s notable recurrences that are also very much there from the start.  Those recurrences offer a useful introductory context for situating the poem’s obscurity, which has multiple aspects, one of the most distinctive of which is, in fact, sequential, narrative, causal in nature.  By approaching the obscurity from this angle we can see better, I think, its functional rather than merely hermetic role.  That is, how it works in the text rather than how it is the result of some hidden code.    
     Let’s look again at what the subject does after his permitted return.  Or rather what the poem initially says he will do, using the future tense, as if predicting actions the further course of the text may or may not confirm:                                          

A los dormidos los cuidará quejoso,
fijándose como se agrupa la mañana helada.
La errante chispa de su verde errante,
trazará círculos frente a los dormidos
de la terraza, la seda de su solapa
escurre el agua repasada del tritón
y otro tritón sobre su espalda en polvo.

     It's very striking here and in the immediately preceding lines how so many figures and things succeed one another so quickly and in such close physical interaction and yet, at the same time, in centrifugal instability:  indoors, outdoors, party, sleep, action, sollicitude, complaint, lapel, surroundings perceived from within those surroundings, chill morning that seems invaded by a spark revolving in magical circles, by water through which mythical tritons have moved and yet, also, by dust!  What kind of subject is this that the poem is calling forth?  What are his powers as he moves among traces of the four classical elements (fire, water, air, earth)?  So dynamic, so hybrid…  Then, as part of the repeated apostrophe rounding off the stanza (lines 11-12), comes this even stranger characterization (which will return to conclude the entire poem):

Dejadlo que se vuelva, mitad ciruelo
y mitad piña laqueada por la frente.

Here our subject takes on momentarily the guise of a thing, a composite object, as if plum tree and pineapple had been grafted together and, what’s more, lacquered, as in a piece of lacquer work!  Note, too, the combination of Asiatic motifs (plum tree, lacquer work) with a tropical American one (pineapple).  
     Some curious light will be cast back over this complex figuration by the opening of the next stanza, which again repeats the apostrophe.  But before we look at that, I want to identify, as particularly relevant at this juncture, a fourth feature of the poem, which is like the obverse to the obscurity we’ve just been considering.  By that I mean the poem’s treatment of the factor of recognizability.   After all, this is an ode to a historical figure whose name appears in the title:  does the body of the poem ever allude to that figure in terms a more or less average reader might identify?  The answer is:  only gradually, only obliquely, and even then, only in terms readers rather well informed about Casal’s writing and personal circumstances can pick up.  
     It’s true some of Casal’s contemporaries reported he had green eyes (though others said they were blue).  It’s also true that, as a journalist, he wrote crónicas sometimes about high society balls and banquets in Havana, so that noun “fiesta” at the beginning might be an echo of that (at any rate, there’ll certainly be more unmistakable echoes of that sort later in the poem:  “la condesa de Fernandina” in line 65 and “la marquesa Polavieja” in line 116 were real high society ladies that Casal wrote about in eloquent detail).(1)  He was also reported to be very fond of  japoneries and chinoiseries, a fondness he also evidenced in his writing:  hence the Japanese mask in line 19 (one of his friends reported he had an “horrible máscara asiática”(2) on the wall of his room) and the “dragón de hilos de oro” in line 20 (possibly a beast represented on a parasol or kimono  of his, like the “dragones hechos con áureos hilos” on the kimono of his friend María Cay as he portrayed her in his poem “Kakemono”).  Casal also did a lot of theater and music criticism of all kinds, from vaudeville to grand opera: hence the mention in line 22 of  “el Teatro Tacón”, a real theater in Havana he often attended.  And that seemingly incongruous “tos alegre” in line 18 is the first of a long and diverse series of allusions to Casal’s fatal tuberculosis.  The last such allusion, seemingly even more incongruous yet actually historical, comes near the end of the poem in line 183:  “alcanzaste a morir muerto de risa” (Casal died of a sudden massive lung hemorrhage provoked by a fit of laughter when a friend told a joke during a dinner party). 
     But, as I said before, these “real” details are only gradually mixed into the texture of the poem, a very densely woven texture that reinscribes such details into another order.  And the “mixing” goes deeper and further than I’ve shown so far.  Information found in two essays of Lezama’s allows us to see to what extent this occurs in stanza two, which opens (lines 13-18) with variants of the initial apostrophes that now direct the subject toward a space characterized by a peculiar array of things and creatures:

Déjenlo que acompañe sin hablar,
permitidle, blandamente, que se vuelva
hacia el frutero donde están los osos
con el plato de nieve, o el reno
de la escribanía, con su manilla de ámbar
por la espalda…

Five years after writing this poem, in 1968, in his autobiographical essay entitled “Confluencias,” Lezama spoke of a dramatic moment in his own adolescence when in his presence his grandmother removed from a huge wardrobe in her house on the Prado in Havana a number of family heirlooms and mementos, the sight of which suddenly reactivated for him a myriad of childhood memories:

Ahí estaban el smoking de mi abuelo, con el cual había muerto mi tío Andresito, los trajes con los que mi abuela había asistido a las bodas de sus hijas.  Estaba también allí una desmesurada escribanía con pozuelo para la tinta y unos renos de plata labrada, y sobre la escribanía una manilla de ámbar muy usada en el XVIII y XIX, para rascarse.  Esa ingenua oleada reminiscente pasa a la segunda estrofa de mi obra Oda a Julián del Casal [donde], para sugerir el título de una de sus obras aludo al reno de la escribanía y a una manilla de ámbar por la espalda.  A veces pienso con deleite que en el día de las despedidas, ese escaparate titánico volverá a abrirse para mí.  Oímos de nuevo:

            Déjenlo que acompañe sin hablar,
            permitidle, blandamente, que se vuelva
            hacia el frutero donde están los osos
            con el plato de nieve, o el reno
            de la escribanía, con su manilla de ámbar.

Era un ruego que hacía por Casal y por mí.(3)

     There are many things worthy of comment in this extraordinary revelation and we’ll return to some of them later, but, for the moment, let’s just note the fact that, in order to characterize the subject of his poem, Lezama has transferred to him details from his own life. 
     We also have evidence pointing to another transfer of a similar sort in another passage a bit later in the same stanza (lines 22-27):

…[camina] hasta la Concha de oro del Teatro Tacón,
donde rígida la corista colocará
sus flores en el pico del cisne,
como la mulata de los tres gritos en el vodevil
y los neoclásicos senos martillados por la pedantería
de Clesinger…

Many years before writing this poem, back in 1941, Lezama published a brief essay entitled “Parejas infieles,” on the subject of nineteenth century French poets who frequented actresses’ dressing rooms, and there we find this passage about Baudelaire:

Las dos mujeres que rondan a Baudelaire le colocan en deliciosos antípodas: Jeanne Duval, mulata nerviosa, cuyo papel en los vodevils reducíase a asomar el rostro y dar tres gritos acuchillados, le acerca al XIX de Saint Pierre.  Es la querida delgada de Baudelaire y podía haber sido conocida a la salida del camerino.  Pero Madame Sabatier le lleva al XVIII.  ¿Acaso no la había conocido Baudelaire en el taller del escultor Clésinger, tan neoclásico que su cámara de trabajo parecía tanto un mausoleo como un camerino?(4)

In this case, the transfers have been taken from the life of Baudelaire, whose name, of course, will appear repeatedly later in the poem, entering into a number of hypothetical comparisons with the subject.  Note how the kinds of spaces evoked by the two sets of transfers contrast with one another: on the one hand, possibly hitherto unrevealed details from the privacy of Lezama’s own family history; on the other, obscure yet historically recorded details concerning two of Baudelaire’s lovers and their other artistic connections. So here in the stanza of the poem where the emergent subject is beginning to be characterized by a few details from the life of Casal, at the same time, mixed in with them almost imperceptibly, there are also details from the lives of two other poets, creating a kind of composite life.(5)   
     Now outside information of this kind, even when it comes from the author himself, doesn’t exempt us from the task of reading the text.  We still need to distinguish what the passages in the poem say, as well as what they don’t say, in and of themselves.  Particularly in the case of the objects and animals enumerated in lines 13-18: fruit bowl, bears, plate of snow, reindeer, writing stand, backscratcher.  Lezama says these were bibelots, family mementos, included “para sugerir el título de una de [las] obras [de Casal]”.  To be sure, the title of one of Casal’s collections of poems is Nieve.  But an enumeration of mementos suggests a certain kind of domestic space that two Cuban poets, even when separated by two generations, could have shared and surely that is a more comprehensive effect intended here in the poem.  (And these are no mere knickknacks: a domestic space, by definition, always contains mementos of the dead, no matter how insignificant they may seem to others, a fact which Lezama’s essay dramatizes).(6) There remains, of course, the question of how a reader ignorant of Lezama’s revelation would read such a heterogeneous enumeration.  Taken together, a fruit bowl, a writing stand and a backscratcher do comprise a domestic series, but how would that reader fit in the bears and the reindeer and the snow?  And would he take them as “real” or, as the essay identifies them, as representations, figurines, curios?  This is a kind of perplexity and indeterminacy found in many passages of the poem.  In fact, it also characterizes that combination of plum tree and pineapple we were looking at a moment ago, which now, in this light, seems construable as another kind of bibelot. 
All this, you will have noted, still comes under the heading of recognizability.   Both of the poetic passages we’ve just examined make one wonder what kind of ideal reader they presuppose.  To put it differently:  what kind of literary culture—with what kind of poetic canon—could recognize equally well such intimate allusions to the lives and poetry of a Baudelaire, a Casal and a Lezama all at once?  I wonder whether the whole poem doesn’t assume the advent of a literary utopia of that sort.
     The next textual feature I want to discuss is the way the poem uses certain verb tenses and moods in order to create a temporal perspective.  This, of course, is a very complex matter and I must limit myself here to just a few examples.
You will recall how, when I began by talking about the apostrophes, I indicated that line 63, at the opening of the fifth stanza, marks a rhetorical turning point, since it is there that the singular “you” begins to be addressed.  Well, that’s a turning point in another respect as well, because there, also for the first time, the voice of the poem says that the subject did something, a statement made in the preterite as part of a narrative told in the past:

Las formas en que utilizaste tus disfraces…

Up to this point, the subject’s actions have been told only in the future or in the present, as if still unfolding from that opening speech act of the apostrophes that started calling the subject into the “now” of the poem.  But here, as the lyric voice begins speaking to the subject, it also begins to tell him what he did in the past, in the past of his own life presumably, which is the beginning of an extensive network of diverse narrative segments having the subject as protagonist that occupy much of the rest of the poem and unfold in different time dimensions, backwards and forwards and even to the side, as it were.  Because note also that this first preterite is followed, in the same statement, by a past perfect subjunctive (line 64):

hubieran logrado influenciar a Baudelaire.

thereby immediately creating an alternative story line, indeed proposing an alternative version of history, in which currents of world influence run in different directions.
     Now already a little before that rhetorical turning point we’ve just noted, it’s interesting to see how the use of certain verb forms implicitly brings the subject of the poem more fully into the text as an effective presence, thereby preparing the way for his more active role as a narrative protagonist. 
     In stanza four (beginning at line 44), a stanza all still told in the present tense, we find a reprise of that visit to the chorus girl first outlined in stanza two (the gift of the flowers), with much further elaboration of detail.  (Note, by the way, how often the subject of this poem is characterized in terms of sociability: visits, greetings and, especially, gifts.)  The motif of the cold that we noticed earlier is here repeated very insistently:  the adjective “frío” occurs seven times in this stanza alone, applied to the subject’s hands and to other things mentioned in proximity, producing a kind of spreading effect, a part of which effect is a reiteration of the subject’s physical symptoms of illness, introduced earlier in terms of his cough, as we saw (and, in fact, the cough also recurs here).  Cold hands that, though cold, can give greater life (“avivar”) to things they touch.  Here again we see that sense I pointed to in the first stanza of the poem, that “strong sense of physical interaction and yet at the same time of centrifugal instability”.  The scene of the gift of flowers to the chorus girl is expanded:  a strange third party is introduced, the mannequin, an inert effigy that in turn undergoes strange traumas in some strange further setting, no longer just a theater but now including a cliff, a beach.  And some strange spiders as well, these too carried over from earlier—from line 33:  “el brillo de las arañas verdes”—and worked upon also by the subject’s hands.  But are they really “spiders”?  The word “araña” may also mean in common Spanish usage “chandelier” and it so happens that in his crónicas Casal would often comment on the lighting in homes or public places, gas or electric, and often use precisely that word.  The poem repeatedly weaves that word into its texture as well, as part of its numerous zoología fantástica, varying the qualifiers that go with it, but never in such a way that we can determine precisely which of its meanings predominates. 
     Here at the culmination of stanza four the introduction of two verb forms not hitherto used further affirms the subject’s active presence in the poem.  One is, in lines 55 and 57, the twice repeated warning “cuidado” (not, strictly speaking, a verb form, but still a kind of imperative, short for “tengan cuidado”), as if to alert the reader to further activities, greater powers, on the part of the subject:  “cuidado, sus manos pueden avivar…” and “cuidado, él sigue oyendo…”, the second of these employing the other verb form I just mentioned:  the present progressive, it too repeated almost immediately:  “su tos alegre sigue ordenando…”.   Both these verb forms represent stances on the part of the lyric voice that, as it were, come up closer to the reader, engage the reader in a shared now that seems to include the actual time of reading.  Later on, in the last four stanzas, even after the introduction of a narrative preterite, the lyric voice will intensify this effect of dramatic inclusiveness by its use of deictics such as “ahora” and “ya”.  
     Now for the last of the poem’s distinctive features that I chose to identify for the purposes of this talk: its mythical allusions.  We’ve just seen at the end of stanza four how out of that strange interaction of hands, flowers, chorus girl, mannequin, cliff, beach, spider-chandeliers, etc., the subject of the poem emerges as now acting within a larger natural setting:  “la propia tierra maternal”, “espacio coralino”, “nuestra crecida vegetal”, and acting within that realm, precisely, as a regulating force that continues even now as we speak (lines 60-62):

Su tos alegre sigue ordenando el ritmo
de nuestra crecida vegetal,
al extenderse dormido.

This phrase announcing the subject’s power to govern “el ritmo / de nuestra crecida vegetal” foreshadows his reappearance, later on in the last three stanzas, as an actor in an explicitly mythical context.  In lines 151-157 we read:

Los frascos de perfume que entreabriste,
ahora te hacen salir de ellos como un homúnculo,
ente de imagen creado por la evaporación,
corteza del árbol donde Adonai
huyó del jabalí para alcanzar
la resurrección de las estaciones.

And in line 164, the last line of the same stanza, we also read:

… levaste nuestra luciérnaga verde al valle de Proserpina.

Both these passages evoke, under variant names, well-known protagonists from Greek mythology: “Proserpina” is the Latin name for “Persephone”, queen of Tartarus, the underworld of the dead, and the Hebrew name “Adonai” replaces “Adonis”, the youthful beloved of both Persephone and Aphrodite, who, after his death and descent to Tartarus, was allowed to return periodically to the world of the living, his movement back and forth thus marking the natural cycles of winter (death) and spring (rebirth).  To use “Prosperina” for “Persephone” still refers to the same Greek deity, but “Adonai” for “Adonis” is a different matter, because the Hebrew “Adonai” is a traditional appelation for none other than the God of Judaism and Christianity (and at times, in the latter, for Christ).  So when the poem inserts “Adonai” into that passage clearly evocative of the Greek myth, there’s a displacement and in more ways than one.  Because it doesn’t actually say the subject is Adonai / Adonis.  Adonis was born from the bark of the tree into which his mother had been transformed and what our subject is said to be is a kind of versatile fragrance, as if emanating (but only in part) from that bark.  After that insertion there’ll come yet another displacement when the name “Adonai” reappears a bit later, in lines 169-170, where it now seems to revert to its traditional meaning, with the subject taking a different role:

Pues todo poeta se apresura sin saberlo
para cumplir las órdenes indescifrables de Adonai.

The way these names are used is only one of many indications of how the poem mixes and reconfigures mythical paradigms.
The myth of Adonis (like that of Persephone herself) traditionally stresses the return of greenness to the world of the living.  But the subject of our poem is repeatedly said to follow the inverse movement of taking something green down to the world of the dead, not only in the line I quoted a moment ago—“llevaste nuestra luciérnaga verde al valle de Proserpina” (line 164)—but also in these three other equivalent passages that figure so prominently in the last two stanzas:

La misión que te fue encomendada,
descender a las profundidades con nuestra chispa verde… (lines 165-166).

… quisiste llevar el verde de tus ojos verdes
a la terraza de los dormidos invisibles (lines 172-173).

… la chispa con la que descendiste
al lento oscuro de la terraza helada (lines 190-191).

In the light of these passages, we see more fully something we already noted earlier:  “green” in this poem develops a range of connotations well beyond just life and vegetation.  We also see that, though the subject of the poem has some traits of Adonis / Adonai, he is still a composite figure with traits that evoke other mythical heroes as well.  The spark taken for our sake evokes Prometheus.  Taking something vital to the dead, who go on having their needs and must also be sustained, evokes Osiris, the Egyptian god who undergoes death and rebirth to perform that function.  And lines 136-139:

Eres el huevo de cristal,
donde el amarillo está reemplazado
por el verde errante de tus ojos verdes.

seem to graft the subject’s errant green onto the egg of ancient Greek Orphism. Which means, then, that this poem’s economy of life and death is peculiarly rich and hybrid and that, on the basis of what we’ve seen so far, we’ve only begun to measure its values. 
     To look a bit further into that economy, here are three points I think should be taken into account:  (1) the comparisons of the subject with Baudelaire, (2) the role of the “dormidos de la terraza”, and (3) that “quitasol de un inmenso Eros” the subject is said to open up “aquí y allí” in line 176.
     The subject is not compared with Baudelaire as a maker of poems.  First of all, it is the subject’s disguises that could have “influenced” the French poet (see lines 63 and 78-81), and then, the subject’s life and death that have the same “quality” as Baudelaire’s and therefore could also have “influenced” him (see lines 83-84, 143-144, 179-181 and 184).  How are we to understand this?  How can disguises be placed on the same level of importance as life and death?  It’s true that both historical subjects, Casal and Baudelaire, were dandies, struck poses, delighted in dressing themselves, surrounding themselves, with striking garb and accouterments.  But by successive recontextualizations this poem endows the word “disfraces” with a greater range of signification than it normally has (as we’ve noted how it does with other key words).   By the time it first appears in stanza five, “disfraces” can already be taken to extend to all the strange textual manifestations by which, up to that point, the subject has come to pervade the space of the poem:  his multiple traces, including the bodily symptoms that point to his suffering, his death.  And it is the dignity and intensity of the pose, the posture, the stance of his life and death—his passion in the fullest sense of the word—that make him worthy of comparison with Baudelaire.  Which is not to say that the historical subject Casal’s poetry is ignored in the poem.  Lines 168 and 186 repeat a line from his poem “Nihilismo”:  “Ansias de aniquilarme sólo siento”.  And lines 104-107 contain precise allusions to at least three other poems of his (“Las oceánidas”, “Venus Anadyomena” and “Marina”):

… pues entre la medianoche y el despertar,
hacías tus injertos de azalea con araña fría,
que engendraban los sollozos de la Venus Anadyomena
y el brazalete robado por el pico del alción.

Note this way of figuring the subject’s creative activity: a grafting of azaleas onto spiders that engenders a goddess’ sobs and a bracelet stolen by a bird.  Hence my use of the term “hybrid” when speaking of Lezama’s own poetic figurations: here his poem is naming its own procedure.  We’ll return to these lines in a moment.
     Who are those “dormidos” that reappear throughout the poem, located on their “terraza”?  One thing is certain:  despite that strategic insistence, always in close connection with the subject, the poem won’t tell us exactly who they are.  What it clearly does do, near the end (lines 172-173 and 190-191), is equate the “terraza helada” with the underworld of the dead that the subject takes his green down into.  But the “sleep” of these “dormidos de la terraza” is no ordinary metaphor for “death”, because it’s a peculiarly active “sleep”: they walk about (lines 126-127) and they also respond very scornfully to the subject’s care (lines 75-76).  Are they located only in death or in life and death both?  Is their “sleep” a state of hostile insensitivity, like that of the unenlightened according to certain Gnostic beliefs?  Note how they’re worked into that very remarkable sequence with which the penultimate stanza draws to a close (lines 172-176):

… quisiste llevar el verde de tus ojos verdes
a la terraza de los dormidos invisibles.
Por eso aquí y allí, con los excavadores de la identidad,
entre los reseñadores y los sombrosos,
abres el quitasol de un inmenso Eros.

     Who are these “excavadores”, “reseñadores” and “sombrosos”?  Not very nice designations.  Are they coterminous with the “dormidos”?  That “aquí y allí” is very striking.  Nowhere else in the poem does the lyric voice explicitly speak from a “here”.  Here “allí” is clearly “la terraza de los dormidos”, so “aquí” must be the “here and now” of the poem’s enunciation, the world of the living.  But if in the world of the dead not all are truly dead, then in the world of the living, not all are truly living.  And that “por eso” is also unprecedented:  as the categorically stated consequence of his mission to the underworld—and acting in both realms, now, in the present tense—the subject also opens this equally unprecedented “quitasol de un inmenso Eros”. 
     And so now another mythological figure is named, a messenger of love, bearing not a bow and arrow or a spear, as Eros was usually represented, but a protective cover, which the adjective “inmenso” seems metonymically to qualify as well: an enormous  encompassing “quitasol”.  Readers familiar with a story of Casal’s, written within months of his death, “El amante de las torturas”, will recall here that “red inmensa, tramada de hilos de seda […], mostrando en el centro, a manera de roseta, un quitasol japonés”(7) with which the protagonist had covered the ceiling of his room.  Earlier, I suggested that the subject’s “disfraces” could be taken to signify his multiple manifestations throughout the poem.  Similarly I would suggest here that this “quitasol de un inmenso Eros” could be taken as figuring not only the scope but also the nature of the connections that the subject extends over the space of the poem.   The poems of Casal’s alluded to in that passage we cited earlier (lines 105-107)—“Las oceánidas”, “Venus Anadyomena”, “Marina”—are all intensely, polymorphously erotic in their depictions of bodies in liquid landscapes: the martyred body of Prometheus, the body of Venus emerging from the waves, the floating body of a dead woman from which the seabird’s beak snatches a golden bracelet.  Even though I admire very much the final stanza of Lezama’s poem—the choral amplitude with which it restates and recombines in closure earlier motifs, earlier appeals—for me, nevertheless, its most stirring lines are precisely the ones with which the penultimate stanza culminates: the lines that make more explicit the lyric voice’s bond—and by now the reader’s as well—with the subject it has so extensively called forth:

Nuestro escandaloso cariño te persigue
y por eso sonríes entre los muertos.

Wonderful lines, surely spoken—and to be re-spoken—with a corresponding smile.


1. However, in his own verbal portraits of her, Casal did not call Concepción Castrillo de Polavieja “marquesa” but rather “la bella generala”, “la hermosa generala”.  See Julián del Casal, Prosas III, pp.14, 48-50 and 52-54.  Her husband, Camilo García de Polavieja y del Castillo (1838-1914), Captain-General of the colony in 1890-1891, received the title of "marqués" only in 1895, after Casal's death. Casal effusively evokes María Serafina de Montalvo y Cárdenas, condesa de Fernandina, in Prosas I, pp. 135-136 and III, pp. 43-44 and 46-48.

2. Manuel Sanguily, “Corona fúnebre”, in Casal, Prosas, I, p. 30.

3. José Lezama Lima, La cantidad hechizada, pp. 455-456.

4. José Lezama Lima, Analecta del reloj, p. 236.

5. Note how the phrase "[camina] hasta la Concha de Oro del Teatro Tacón" also harks back to a time prior to Casal's life.  "La Concha de Oro" was a popular orchestra in early nineteenth century Havana led by the famous Cuban violinist Claudio Brindis de Salas (1800-1872).  See Helio Orovio, Cuban Music From A to Z, p. 35.

6.Here I am echoing portions of chapter 3, “What Is a House?”, of Robert Pogue Harrison's admirable book The Dominion of the Dead, which, as the first of my opening epigraphs was meant to suggest, has significantly influenced my view of this poem.  See, in particular, his remark about "those sundry passed-on objects, mementos, and portraits in and through which a household's ghosts typically make their presence felt in the traditional domestic space" (p. 43).

7. Casal, Prosas, I, p. 236.

Works Cited

Casal, Julián del. Prosas I. Havana: Consejo Nacional de Cultura, 1963.

--- Prosas III. Havana: Consejo Nacional de Cultura, 1964.

Lezama Lima, José. Analecta del reloj. Havana: Orígenes, 1953.

--- La cantidad hechizada. Havana: UNEAC, 1970.

Pogue Harrison, Robert. The Dominion of the Dead. Chicago: University Press, 2003.

Orovio, Helio. Cuban Music from A to Z. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004.

Sanguily, Manuel. “Corona fúnebre” en Casal, Prosas, I.