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A note on Maria Elena Cruz Varela.

... says only; this is a picture of all life, and from it learn the meaning of your life. And conversely, read only your life and understand from it the hieroglyphics of universal life.

- Nietzsche

The first night I stayed in Maria Elena's house in Havana, she told me in vivid detail an account of November 21, 1991. Her friends were used by the Brigadas de Accion in order to make Maria Elena open her door, and when she did, she was pushed, face first, into the wall, her arms pinned behind her. Her intruders dragged her down the stairs and into the street. In public view, the Brigadas de Accion tried to force her to eat the manifesto she had written, signed and distributed the previous day, a manifesto that echoed a document she had submitted a year before to the President of the State Council. Maria Elena had composed the document to reflect the feelings of the Criterio Alternativo, an intellectual opposition group to which she belonged. She intended her statement to commemorate and protest the thirty-first anniversary of the Cuban Revolution:

Because I am a rational being, conscious of my individuality and prudent of mind, I absolutely refuse, with the only weapon at my disposal (the only weapon that interests me and that I consider effectual: The Word), to participate in what I consider to be "a closed system of impossibilities," a system that recognizes submission to a crude ideology, in which antagonism has the upper hand and is the only alternative. The noun dead is used far more frequently than its antonym life; the same holds true fear war and peace, hate and love ... Like the responsibility one has when writing books that are evaluated and read by others, I feel responsible for the role I am willing to assume at this historical moment. My point of view is No I do not agree. Experimenting with the lives of people must be stopped. This is my manifesto.

Maria Elena described to me how, made to kneel in the street, she had clenched her teeth and refused to open her mouth until she could taste her own blood, could see it flow on the ground before her. But as her accusers cursed and beat her she remained silent. Six days after her arrest, a closed trial was held, the official charges against her, "illegal association and libel."

Maria Elena's accounts of the arrest blurred with stories of her subsequent imprisonment, blurred with her cellmates' stories, some of which would later find their way into her poems, and some that would not - among them a fellow inmate's dispassionate report to Maria Elena that she had strangled her newborn because she couldn't stand the sound of the crying. Maria Elena recalled her own fourteen year old son's first visit to see her. Soon I would learn from the poet's family that our initial meeting marked the first time Maria Elena had spoken to anyone of her two years in prison. As yet stranger to her, I had become the person through whom she could, as she later described it, exorcise the demons of her memory.

I had arrived in Havana on Sunday, September 19, 1993 and I met with Maria Elena Cruz Varela shortly after. I had never encountered anyone like her. Her intensity made me drunk, I couldn't follow her eyes, the movements of her head, the energy and desperation with which she spoke. As I listened to her I felt she might fly to the window and jump. I found myself studying the windows' size and proportions. Many times I nearly stood close to them, although the evening heat and humidity were overwhelming. Then I wanted to close the windows with my eyes. I was suddenly a believer in magic. The woman who sat with me now in the close heat of a Havana night wore no make-up, no high heels. An extraordinarily sensual woman, she wore a yellow blouse open down the back. Three ribbons, one below the other, gathered her shirt at her waist. As she spoke the shoulder of her blouse would fall down her arm "... I didn't decide to be a woman or a Cuban or a poet. I only chose to he a mother twice," she repeated. "It's been twelve years since I wrote my first verse, a tacky verse! But I have always, always lived like a poet, like this. The way you see me, the way you feel me."

Maria Elena repeated words and phrases, as if she were reteaching herself the truth, as if the language itself must he intensified, hammered and hammered out, made lyric. I remember her words, her precise diction, so much that was said during our first hours together. Chronicled here, the white space of the page around her words fragments her speech and frustrates me, frustrates all that was fused by her passion and her intelligence and her need. She said:

You don't know how happy I am that you came here because of my poetry ...

I am not leaving Cuba because I feel historically obliged, because as a poet I have to stay here, with my people. I don't believe in exile for me. It exists but not for me...

There are opponents that do not oppose. I am not one of those, but I don't judge them either...

I am imprisoned by a system that gives me no alternatives ...

I belong to my people, not toward the history of a hundred years from now, but in the history of the moment we live today ...

Maria Elena Cruz Varela was born on a farm called Laberinto (Labyrinth) in Colon, a province of Matanzas. Her parents were campesinos, peasants, and her education, therefore, is entirely self-taught. The two years of her imprisonment merely suspended a long struggle for this young Cuban poet who had, by the time I met her, already authored three books of poems, Mientras la espera el agua (While the Water Waits for Her, 1986), and Afuera esta lloviendo (It's Raining Outside, 1987). These collections had been published in Cuba by Letras Cubanas. Nothing remains of the latter, the copies confiscated and destroyed. A third book, Hija de Eva (Daughter of Eve), was published in Spain in 1991 and sold in Miami, though Maria Elena never saw any of the proceeds, royalties, or reviews.

During the years before her imprisonment, however, her work had not gone unnoticed. In 1989 she received an award from the National Union of Cuban Writers and Artists (NUCWA), but that organization threw her out in 1991. Prior to the Pan American games in Havana in September of that year, she was placed under house arrest to prevent her from talking to the international press. In spite of her incarceration, and just before the Fourth Party Congress, Maria Elena did meet with foreign journalists and she spoke out for social and economic changes in Cuba. The following day the Brigadas de Accion Rapida, a group of civilians recruited by the government to hold spontaneous demonstrations in front of homes of dissidents, broke into Maria Elena's home.

Throughout the centuries, writers and artists have confined themselves in different ways - Ovidio's exile, Proust's cork paneled rooms. Coffins and tombs can serve the same purpose. Poets, by trade, are introspective, and such introspection can become merely self-imposed isolation. In Maria Elena's case, however, that isolation was rigorously imposed by others, and she would explain to me that such censorship produced in her a suffocation, a scream she could not hold any longer. She told me of her experiences as a condemned poet, without self-pity. Hers was a narrative out of the mouth of an angel, a terrible angel. Maria Elena spent one year and eight months in prison. Then, "[She] left the small prison to enter the big one." She had just turned forty.

On the second day of our meeting in Havana, Maria Elena gave to me her entire work, a manuscript including many unpublished poems, a work so exquisite that I died many times with each reading. Later, reading and re-reading those poems in my own hotel room, I'd look up to the windows that overlooked the Atlantic, open my eyes wide to face the magnitude of the ocean, its blues and violets and greens. Between the poems and the sea, I thought I had encountered el paraiso. Maria Elena's poems, written and preserved against censorship, humiliation, beatings, imprisonment, constitute The Ballad of the Blood, now given to the world. The survival of this work is evidence of what can happen to the imagination during times of extreme adversity, and evidence that in spite of that adversity, the universal spirit seeks freedom. Maria Elena's poetry, indeed, was the only place she could be free.

Now the world has begun to recognize and celebrate these poems. Maria Elena has been adopted as an honorary member of the eight PEN organizations and has been initiated into the International PEN Club. In 1993 she was awarded the Poetry International Prize in Holland. She was granted permission to leave Cuba in May of 1994 to visit Washington, D.C., where she received the Liberty Prize from Liberal International. Maria Elena Cruz Varela now lives temporarily in Puerto Rico with her daughter. She lives not as an exile, but as one granted permission to work as Visiting Poet at the Inter-American University of Puerto Rico. Her son remains in Cuba.
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Author:Cruz-Bernal, Mairym
Publication:The American Poetry Review
Article Type:Biography
Date:Jul 1, 1995
Words:1576
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