Photographers Unknown, As Long As the Sky Whirls
For Lázaro Gómez
As long as the sky whirls
You will be my redemption and my doom,
lily in underwear,
salvation and madness
every night waiting.
As long as the sky whirls
no infernal could be a stranger
because I have to take care that that would not harm you,
No joy would go by inadvertent
Because in some way I have to reveal it to you,
As long as
you will be the truth of myself,
the song and the venom,
the danger and the ecstasies,
the vigil and the sleep,
the dread and the miracle.
As long as the sky whirls . . . but perhaps the sky whirls?
Well: as long as the sky exists.
As long as
you will be my pain most noticeable,
my loneliness most tragic
my bewilderment unanimous
my perpetuous silence
and my absolute consolation.
As long as the sky exists . . . but perhaps the sky exists?
Well: as long as you yourself exist.
As long as
you will be the mirror and the time,
the infinity and the imminent,
the memory and the unusual
the defeat and the verse,
my enemy and my image.
Because there would be no more suns than the ones you yourself radiate
like there would be no other penance than to know that you exist.
But perhaps you do exist?
New York (May 1985)
Reinaldo Arenas, Mientras el Cielo Gire, 1989, English Translation 3003 Lázaro Gómez Carriles
Born in Aguas Claras in July of 1943, Reinaldo Arenas Fuentes was a gay Cuban poet, playwright and novelist known for his criticism of Fidel Castro, the Cuban Revolution and the ensuing government in Cuba. He was the author of the memoir “Before Night Falls”, written after Arenas’s escape to the United States in 1980. The memoir narrates his experience in the Cuban dissident movement and years as a political prisoner.
After moving to the city of Holguin as a teenager at age fourteen, Reinaldo Arenas became employed at a guava paste factory. Around 1958 when living conditions in the city worsened, he decided to join Castro and his revolutionary movement. Arenas spent ten days at the guerrilla headquarters in Velasco but was turned away. Once the guerrilla commandant realized that President Fulgencio Bastista’s secret police were already searching for Arenas, he accepted him into the group.
At the age of sixteen, Arenas was awarded a scholarship at La Pantoja, a captured Batista military camp that was converted into a polytechnic institute. Students attending took major courses in Marxist-Leninism in which they had to master the USSR manuals of the Academy of Sciences and the Political Economy. Cuban Marxist theorist Blas Roca’s “Foundations of Socialism in Cuba” was also required reading. Arenas graduated with a degree as an agricultural accountant, but would later describe his education as indoctrination.
In the early 1960s, Reinaldo Arenas relocated to Havana where he enrolled in a planning course at the University of Havana. While in the program, he worked for the National Institute for Agrarian Reform. During this time, Arenas began to live his life as a gay man, albeit secretly for fear of ending up in a Military Unit to Aid Production (UMAP), a term which basically described a concentration camp for Christians, suspected Cuban dissidents and LBGT people. A previous relationship Arenas had with a man, later arrested and sent to a UMAP camp, led to Arenas being listed as a gay man by the Cuban Committee for the Defense of the Revolution.
Throughout his life, Arenas developed friendships and had relationships with many gay men. Various friends and acquaintances he knew pledged their loyalty to the Cuban regime in exchange for their safety. Many became informers for the government and reported other men, often friends or those with whom they had relationships. The government’s intention, in addition to seeking out dissidents, was to find gay and bisexual men and either persecute and jail them or turn them into informers. Although the reward for cooperation with the regime meant life outside of prison, the price to pay for living as an informer was to participate publicly in acts of repudiation denouncing your anti-regime beliefs or homosexuality.
In 1963, Reinaldo Arenas moved to Havana to study at the School of Planification and later at the Faculty of Letters of the University of Havana, where he studied literature and philosophy. He began working in 1964 at the National Library José Marti. Maria Teresa Freye de Andrade, who was the director of the National Library, officially transferred Arenas from his position at the National Institute for Agrarian Reform to a position at the National Library. When Fidel Castro appointed Police Captain Sidroc Ramos as the library’s director, Areans left his position at the library and became an editor for the Cuban Book Institute until 1968.
Arenas’s writings were beginning to gain recognition in the Cuban literary world in the 1960s. He received a literary award for his 1967 novel “Singing from the Well” at the Cirilo Villaverde National Competition held at the National Union of Cuban Writers and Artists. In the year before, Arenas’s “El Mundo Allucinante (This Hallucinatory World)” was awarded First Honorable Mention by the National Union of Cuban Writers and Artists. Although there was no better entry in the competition for that year, the judges refused to give the First Prize to Arenas; as a result, no First Prize was given in 1966. By 1967, Arenas’s critical writings and openly gay life were bringing him into conflict with Cuba’s communist government.
From 1968 to 1974, Reinaldo Arenas was a journalist and editor for the literary magazine “The Cuban Gazette”. In 1974, Arenas was charged and convicted of ideological deviation and publishing abroad without official consent. He escaped from prison and tried a failed attempt to leave Cuba on a tire inner tube. Rearrested in southern Havana, Areanas was imprisoned in El Moro Castle, used at that time as a prison for rapists and murderers. By writing letters for illiterate prisoners, he maintained his life in prison and was able to obtain paper for his own scholarly work. Arenas was caught and severely punished for attempting to smuggle his work out of prison. Threatened with death, he was forced to renounce his work and was finally released in 1976.
Arnenas fled to the United States during the 1980 Mariel Boatlift, a mass migration organized by Cuban Americans with the consent of Cuban President Fidel Castro. In 1987, Arenas was diagnosed with the AIDS virus. He continued to write, speak against the Cuban government, and mentor many Cuban exile writers. After battling AIDS for three years, Reinaldo Arenas died of an intentional overdose of drugs and alcohol in December of 1990 in New York City. In 2012, he was inducted into the Legacy Walk, an outdoor public display on Chicago’s North Halsted Street, which celebrates LGBT contributions of world history and culture.
Reinaldo Arenas published a significant oeuvre of work in his life. In addition to his two poetic volumes “El Centro” and “Leprosorio”, he wrote a set of five novels, the “Pentagonia” series, which recounts life in post-revolutionary Cuba. Volumes included in this series are “Singing from the Well”, “Farewell to the Sea”, “Palace of the White Skunks”, the satirical “Color of Summer” and “The Assault”. Arenas’s second and best-known novel “Hallucinations”, also published under the name “The Ill-Fated Peregrinations of Fray Servando”, was smuggled out of Cuba and first published in France in 1969.
Arenas’s autobiography “Before Night Falls”, written after his escape from Cuba and published in English in 1993, was listed on the 1993 New York Times Best Books of the Year. This book became the 2000 film of the same name, directed by painter and filmmaker Julian Schnabel; the role of Arenas was played by Spanish actor Javier Bardem. The film version of the book was listed as one of the Top Ten Movies of the Year by the American Film Institute, nominated for the Golden Lion at the 2001 Venice International Film Festival with filmmaker Schnebel winning the Grand Jury Prize and Bardem winning Best Actor.
Reinaldo Arenas’s papers, typescript drafts, essays, interviews, newspaper articles, correspondence and other documents are housed in the Princeton University Library.
Note: Several interesting articles on Reinaldo Arenas and his work can be found on the eclectic blog website Byron’s Muse. The articles can be located at: https://byronsmuse.wordpress.com/tag/reinaldo-arenas/