Monday, March 30, 2009

A poem and architecture

(Street scene in La Habana Vieja by Vicky)

I've always wanted to visit Cuba for personal reasons too--for instance, the history of my name, Dulce María, being rooted in my French ancestors' detour through Cuba, and in my poet grandmother's affinity for her contemporary, Cuban poet Dulce María Loynaz who was not as well known at the time. Growing up, I learned to revel in Loynaz's sensual and passionate work. I've also enjoyed the fact that Dulce María Loynaz, born on 10 December 1902, saw herself as a wanderer; she traveled through Europe, the Middle East, South America and the US. Her poem, "Viajero" ("Traveler"), is powerful. But, after the revolution she lived in Emily Dickinson-like seclusion until she died on 27 April 1997 at age 94. So, I want to start this entry with a poem I currently repeat as if in mantra.

Que la vida no vaya más allá de tus brazos.
Que yo pueda caber con mi verso en tus brazos,
que tus brazos me ciñan entera y temblorosa
sin que afuera se queden ni mi sol ni mi sombra.
Que me sean tus brazos horizonte y camino,
camino breve y único horizonte de carne:
que la vida no vaya más allá... Que la muerte
se parezca a esta muerte caliente de tus brazos!

What I Want
To have life go no farther than your arms.
To hide with my poem in your arms.
To have your arms encircle me whole and trembling
leaving nothing outside, not my sun, not my shadow.
To have your arms my horizon and highway,
short highway and only horizon of flesh:
To have life go no farther... To have death
resemble this feverish death of your arms!

This poem is in Dulce María Loynaz: A Woman in Her Garden (Selected Poems), translated by Judith Kerman et al. White Pine, Buffalo, NY 2002.
(Street sign in Old Havana)

It took nine years to build the Scale Model of the city of Havana (picture, below, by Vicky); it is the second largest scale model in the world after the one of New York. It encompasses the most important zones of Havana at a scale of 1 to 1000 and explains past, present and future developments within 4 sq km of the city center. The tiny buildings are made of recycled cedar wood cigar boxes, and they are painted in different colors to represent the three major phases of the city's development: the colonial period from 1519 to 1898; the post-independence period when there was rapid growth and technological development from 1898 to 1959; the revolutionary years from 1959 to the present, as well as future urban plans. The Model shows the city in all its magnitude and beauty.

We began the day by meeting with world-renowned architect, urban planner and professor Dr. Mario Coyula, who is in charge of the Scale Model and is also the director of the Grupo para el Desarrollo Integral de la Capital/Group for the Integrated Development of the City, a multidisciplinary team of experts that works as an advisor on urban policies for the city government. It promotes a comprehensive development of Havana, and helps to create awareness about all issues concerning the city.
It's amazing to think through Habana's history, from the inception of the city to now, and the factors that have impacted its architecture. It's true: generally, even though UNESCO declared Havana a World Heritage site in 1982 (and thus you might assume that world funds would be poured into it), the city is in dire need of fixing up. Though still beautiful and eclectic, after 40 years of neglect, worsened by the salty humidity of the ocean, most buildings are peeling and falling (see street scenes below). But there are signs of active revitalization, for example, the Hotel Los Frailes (musicians in the lobby pictured on the left) located in a narrow alley in Habana Vieja, just steps from Plaza San Francisco (pictured below), is impeccably restored. It was the former mansion of the fourth Marquis and Captain of the French Navy, Don Pedro Claudio Duquesne, and now, repurposed, it makes you feel as if you're in a medieval abbey. La Habana is visceral; 3 of its 11 million people live in the city; tourism and investments are expanding. And no matter its current condition, I agree with Christopher Columbus who (during his first voyage in the vessel Santa Maria) wrote, "I have never seen such a beautiful place." He spent five weeks in Cuba and liked it so much that he returned the following year to explore it again. By 1516 there were seven permanent settlements established on the island, including one he called El Puerto de Carenas. Later, it was renamed Batabano, then San Cristóbal de la Habana, and ultimately simply Habana. By 1519 when the city was fully established, it was described as "the jewel of the Spanish crown."
The second of today's three highlights was visiting Museo de la Revolución y Granma Memorial/ Museum of the Revolution, located in the former Presidential Palace. There we learned about the history of the Cuban Revolution and examined documents and objects, among them the famous yacht Granma that returned Fidel and his 82 guerilla fighters from Mexico to Cuba to launch the struggle for liberation from the Batista dictatorship, and an SU 100 tank destroyer (pictured above).

Oh yes, and the third highlight was that we were scheduled to examine the teaching of music and dance--and it was my birthday! We actually danced on the rooftop of a private house in Habana Vieja, and I was given a bottle of Cuban rum, which, of course, I shared with the entire group. In one of these two pictures you see members of the band that played that night, Grupo Dulce María (think that name's popular in Cuba?), pouring the first and best bit of the rum in honor of all the Santos.

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