Small Ode to a Black Cuban Boxer
By Nicolás Guillén
Translated by Roberto Márquez
cocked before a squirrel-quick body
and the punch in your smile!
Boxer, the North is hard and cruel.
The very Broadway
that like a vein bleeds out
to scream beside the ring
wherein you bound, a brand new rubber monkey,
without resorting to the ropes
or the cushions of a clinch . . .
the very Broadway
that oils its melon-mouth with fear
before your fists of dynamite
and stylish patent leather shoes . . .
is the same Broadway
that stretches out its snout, its moist enormous tongue,
to lick and glut upon
our canefields' vital blood!
you're not aware of certain things down here,
nor of certain things up there;
for training is tough, muscle a traitor,
and one must gain-you say with joy
-a bull-like strength, to make the punch hurt more.
only a bit more shaky than your feeble Spanish,
is good enough inside the ring
for you to understand that filthy slang
spit from the jaws of those you waste
jab by jab.
In truth, perhaps that's all you need.
And, as you certainly will think,
you've got it made.
For after all, it's great
to find a punching bag,
work off some fat beneath the sun –
to swim and
from shadow-boxing to a fight,
from the shower to the table,
come out polished, fine, and strong,
like a newly-crafted cane
with the aggressiveness of a black jack.
So now that Europe strips itself
to brown its hide beneath the sun
and seeks in Harlem and Havana
jazz and son:
the Negro reigns while boulevards
Let the envy of the whites
know proud, authentic black!
Nicolás Guillén was born in the provincial city of Camagüey, Cuba, on July 10, 1902. His commitment to social justice and membership in the Communist Party made him the national poet of revolutionary Cuba. Guillén's invocation and reliance on the vernacular musical form emerged from the creolization of African and European aesthetics. Not only was Guillén one of Cuba's foremost poets who wrote in many styles, he is regarded as one of the foremost Caribbean poets of the 20th Century.
From its broad-ranging national and Latin American roots, Guillen’s poetry achieved universal projection depicting the struggles and hopes of the men of his times. Many elements come together in his work: sensuality, humor, and the Afro-Cuban musical modalities, along with great knowledge of folklore and traditional Spanish poetry.
Rather than deploying Afro-Cuban culture as an aestheticized response to foreign influence, Guillen focused on racism at home and abroad, including racial hierarchies within black Cuban culture and racism’s attendant inequalities. Guillen was concerned about manual work and worers and also claimed the power of physical labor for his art, as in the manifesto poem “Legend” : “Our somng/is like muscle under the skin of the soul”. Numerous poems in his collections give voice to laborers themselves, many of them working in city in improvisational modes :street vendors, organ grinders, drummers, singers, guitarists, dockworkers.
In his chronicle , “In a Jeep with the Cyclists”, Nicolas Guillen wrote: “Sports and poetry? Why not?” “I think that, far from being at odds with poetry, there's a great amount of beauty in a stadium, a boxing ring, a baseball diamond, a tennis court, which should be expressed in poetry. Walt Whitman –such a great lover of nature- truly understood this.”
“Me? Well, I wrote Kid Chocolate an ode some time ago, in 1928; and a poem about chess and boxing, and some verses about baseball. So, I'm entitled to expect that athletes, in turn, become interested in –if they already haven't done so- poets and poetry. Perhaps, it’s not as lively as sports; undoubtedly it's more intimate, but it usually has some moments of cutting and distressing emotions… Doesn't it?”
This poem titled “Small Ode to a Black Cuban Boxer”, is dedicated to Eligio Sardiñas popularly known as Kid Chocolate, a boxer who won many times professional world championships in Cuba.
The speaker in this one addresses the boxer directly and while taking note of his “weak Spanish” and even “feebler English” reminds him of the ties between boxing and Neo-colonial exploitation. The speaker underscores it by noting that the implicitly racist Broadway that cheers when he jumps like a “modern elastic monkey” is the same predator that “stretches its snout with its enormous humid tongue/to lick up gluttonously/all the blood (Cuba’s) canefields”. These are critical images regarding the way boxers were treated in the United States and even the economic and political domination that country had on Cuba.
At the same time, the speaker admires the boxer’s strength at work-“your explosive fists"-and concedes that boxing gives him physical and psychological agency-“It’s good, after all,/to find a punching bag”. Like the activity of intellectual workers, the poem also concedes that boxing accrues cultural currency, portraying the boxer’s ability to “speak for black for real” as forceful reminder to European faddish yearnings for primitivism from Cuba and Harlem.
From : Man-Making Words: Selected Poems of Nicolas Guillen by Nicolas Guillen(Author),Robert Marquez(Author, Editor)