Noche Cubana — Español-English

Noche Cubana is a bolero (ballad) composed by César Portillo de la Luz (La Habana, 31 octubre 1922 / 4 mayo 2013).

The recording cited below is of Omara Portuondo singing Noche Cubana in 1958, on her debut recording as a soloist. There is an extensive essay (in Spanish) on the music of César Portillo de la Luz and on this particular song and recording, at the YouTube site for Noche Cubana.

The lyrics of Noche Cubana are presented here, first in Spanish, then my poetic translation of them into English, and finally a word-for-word literal translation of the Spanish lyrics.

In my poetic translation, I have tried to suggest the lush elegance of the Spanish lyrics but I have made no effort to match the line-by-line syllable count, nor the rhyming pattern of the original. A “singable” English version of Noche Cubana is left to future work (if ever).

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Noche Cubana
César Portillo de la Luz (La Habana, 31 octubre 1922 / 4 mayo 2013)

Noche cubana
Morena bonita de alma sensual
Con tu sonrisa de luna y ojos de estrellas.

Voz de susurro de frondas y arrullo de mar
Besas con brisas y tu abrazo es calor tropical
Noche criolla quien junto a ti no, no quisiera soñar
Quien no la luz de tu dulce sonrisa no quiere besar?
Negra bonita de ojos de estrellas
En tus brazos morenos quiere vivir un romance mi alma bohemia.

Voz de susurro de frondas y arrullo de mar
Besas con brisas y tu abrazo es calor tropical
Noche criolla quien junto a ti no quisiera soñar?
Quien a la luz de tu dulce sonrisa no quiere besar?
Negra bonita de ojos de estrellas
En tus brazos morenos quiere vivir un romance mi alma bohemia.

Noche cubana
Noche cubana
Noche cubana

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Cuban Night (César Portillo de la Luz)

Oh, Cuban night
You lovely dark girl of sensual soul,
With the moon as your smile, and your eyes made of stars.

Your voice is the whisper of palms and the sea’s lullaby,
Your kisses are breezes, and the tropical heat your embrace.
Oh, Creole night, who could be next to you and not wish to dream?
Who would not want to be able to kiss your sweet shining smile?
Beautiful black girl with eyes made of stars
In your dark arms my bohemian soul wants to live a romance.

Your voice is the whisper of palms and the sea’s lullaby,
Your kisses are breezes, and the tropical heat your embrace.
Oh, Creole night, who could be next to you and not wish to dream?
Who would not want to be able to kiss your sweet shining smile?
Beautiful black girl with eyes made of stars
In your dark arms my bohemian soul wants to live a romance.

Oh, Cuban night,
Cuban night,
Cuban night.

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Omara Portuondo – Noche cubana (canción) César Portillo de la Luz
https://youtu.be/frgbtk8mOhM

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LITERAL

Noche Cubana (César Portillo de la Luz)
[night cuban]

Noche cubana
[night cuban]
Morena bonita de alma sensual
[brunette/brown pretty of soul sensual]
Con tu sonrisa de luna y ojos de estrellas.
[with your smile of moon and eyes of stars]

Voz de susurro de frondas y arrullo de mar
[voice of whisper of fronds(palm fronds) and lullaby of sea]
Besas con brisas y tu abrazo es calor tropical
[you-kiss with/as breezes and your embrace is heat tropical]
Noche criolla quien junto a ti no, no quisiera soñar
[night creole who next/together to you no, no would-want dream]
Quien no la luz de tu dulce sonrisa no quiere besar?
[who no the light of your sweet smile no want kiss]
Negra bonita de ojos de estrellas
[black(female) pretty of eyes of stars]
En tus brazos morenos quiere vivir un romance mi alma bohemia.
[in your arms brown/dark wants to-live a romance my soul bohemian]

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Night Sky In Cuba
(another poetic translation of Noche Cubana)

Night sky in Cuba,
A black woman beauty of sensual soul
With a smile made of moon rays and eyes made of twinkling stars.

Your voice is the whisper of fronds in sway, and murmurs by the sea,
Your kisses are breezes, and tropical heat your embrace.
Creole night please stay, who could be with you and not want dreams to see?
Who could receive your sparkling sweet smile and not want kisses to be?
Black woman beauty with star shining eyes,
In the arms of your darkness my bohemian soul seeks to live out a romance.

Your voice is the whisper of fronds in sway, and murmurs by the sea,
Your kisses are breezes, and tropical heat your embrace.
Creole night please stay, who could be with you and not want dreams to see?
Who could receive your sparkling sweet smile and not want kisses to be?
Black woman beauty with star shining eyes,
In the arms of your darkness my bohemian soul seeks to live out a romance.

Night sky in Cuba,
dark warmth after day
light from far away.

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Hardboiled Half Dozen

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Hardboiled Half Dozen

Polishing the egg
her unwavering focus.
Best stay out, rooster.

“I me carry you,”
Ella big-eyed reaches up,
I stoop to obey.

Mommy has her charms,
but none give rides like papa.
Ella has it made.

She stole the wife’s man
by stealing the man’s woman.
Child conquers marriage.

Sex has a purpose:
children consume you and leave
love as memory.

Limp battered old cock,
testy clucking old layer –
what’s left after chicks.

1 December 2001

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Poetics Dismissed by Gods

A Lesson – Half Understood – In Poetics

As I walked, I turned, and saw Apollo beside me.
“Why do you rail against the world?” asked the god,
holding my book of poems in his hand.
“I want to strike, like lightning,
opening men’s minds to the truth.”
“This is pointless,” said the god,
“Men are but the mere implements of God,
and this world will be righted, as necessary
in due time.”
“But that would be bloody, and devastating,” I protested.
“Mortal fool,” chided the god, “abandon your false pride.
It is not for you to direct your kind.
Men are but the many blinks of the eye of God,
and whether one is a drop in the tide of blood
ending one civilization,
or a glint in the flow of honey
at the cresting of another,
it matters not.
I, in my unknowable infinitude
will rewind the spring of time
and replenish the well of knowledge,
to maintain the eternal cycle.”
“But can’t we try to steer our culture to the good?” I pleaded.
The god shook his head with a patient smile,
“Life is given to you,
make the most of it,
achieve what good you can,
but do not attach yourself to prideful dreams;
all of this has come and gone countless times,
and it will cycle uncountably on.
Hew to what endures.”
“In my poems, I seek the essence of God,” I said,
“to present Him so as to touch hearts
and open minds to a greater awareness –
perhaps leading even just one person to greater good.”
Him, Her, It, Them,
The Great Unknowable Void,” instructed the god,
“Thought is to God as a ripple to the ocean,
a leaf to a forest,
the whisper of a breeze to the expanse of sky.
God is immeasurably beyond the confines of mere words and concepts,
and no man can know anything about God
by the word.
Release yourself,” commanded the god.
“Still,” he said as an afterthought,
handing my book to me,
“the effort has merit.”
I blinked, and he was gone.

8 July 2002

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Lord Krishna, Disguised as Apollo, Dismisses My Writing

“Parasites neither herd nor flock –
they accumulate.
They all have identical aims
yet share no goal in common.
Humans may be the most cannibalistic of parasites.”

Suddenly, he was there, leafing through my book,
muttering an answer to the question floating in my mind,
“Yes, it is a work of genius, too bad.”
“Why!”
“Well, no one will read it.”
“But how…,”
ignoring my voice to answer my mind, he continued,
“Men are wedded to their delusions,
they only want to see what conforms to their views,
enlightenment is tenaciously blocked.”
“And women?” I asked.
“Women, too, are deluded,
though, of course, they are wiser than men,
and so, they are oppressed.
Women have less compunction,
their focus is their young,
or the surrogates they adopt when childless.
If you wish to be read,
write what people think,
do not challenge their ignorance.
By elaborating the general delusions,
you will be honored and rewarded;
by exposing them
you will be shunned to invisibility.
The seekers of enlightenment
are disappeared from the world
by the collective defense of popular delusion,
not by a choice to become meditating hermits.
The world is delusional,
and to live in it is to participate in the collective madness.
This is why the world collapses
and periodically must be wiped away.
It is the cycle that endures,
not the phases of delusion that revolve through it.

You can reach enlightenment, but you cannot transmit it.
You feel compassion for some,
because your heart is still mired in the world,
and in your love for these others
you wish to pass on knowledge.
But that, too, is a delusion.
Only they can find their own enlightenment,
which so very few choose to do.
So, ultimately, to awaken
one must release all emotional entanglements –
whether of pride or love.
You cannot save the world, only live in it,
you cannot save your loved ones, only appreciate them,
you cannot save yourself, only awaken.”

10 July 2002

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Ghosts

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Ghosts

Ghosts crowd the mind,
living flesh only mirrors images cast by memory —
realities lost to dust —
scattered into wind.
A woman, alive only in fantasies of desire,
an aroma in the mind, gardenias?
How is it I can feel the palpitations
under a receptive embrace
now not even a breath from butterfly wings?
Motionless life fills thought
while lifeless motion crowds vision of the street.
Who are these people?
They appear real but they are castaways
boring through their mutual unconscious
with blaring determination,
their horizons close,
filled with illusions but free of ghosts.

I sit in a eucalyptus grove,
the afternoon sun cascading down tiers of leaves
shimmering to the eddies,
the streaming air shushing
through swaying fronds, against vaulting trunks;
a weaving dance of light and shadow,
the shifting of veils hung from a dome of light.
Spirit brushes along quivering green,
the caress of light warming earth’s uplifted hands,
massaging warmth down eager limbs
drawing the milk of life deep into folds
below the darkness of all birthing,
beneath the gravity we rise from.

Is some of the air you once breathed
now drifting in this stream?
Is some of the force of your life
now rippled by waves of birdsong?
Is some of the heat of your passion
now a whisper of love
absorbed imperceptibly from this day?
Am I as much a ghost as you?
Yes, of course;
this breath is what matters,
this kiss is what matters,
this love is the vessel of life.

I hear the voice of Maria Callas —
la divina
an echo preserved to rekindle sensations of presence,
to relive our own times of transcendence,
to feel life.
And yet, what of hers?,
less than the whisper of sunlight on seafoam,
now as much part of the Aegean wind
as the smile of Helen of Troy.

And, so it must be,
as we loose our last breath
we melt into the earth’s breathing.
Perhaps our bones will imprint future rocks,
perhaps our ashes will trail the last eddy of our body’s heat
like spent candle soot coiling up into darkness.
Is that your memory, a lingering warmth in the darkness?
And now you mingle with so many,
my mind a country of spirits,
new immigrants arriving daily;
a land I can know yet never visit.

Shall I tell you about it?
There is a wonderful bar, top shelf in the well,
jazz trio backing Ella;
all the many Jesus drinking wine, relaxed,
dancing with Mary, Martha, Salome,
the intense political debates resolved.
Down by the river, the poets convene,
and I listen as their word plays
wrap around the fire and lift into velvety night
twinkling unseen with the chirping of crickets.
At dawn we stretch to greet the sun,
naked bodies flushed with warmth, washed of time.
At night in the city
I will hear sopranos and drink white Burgundy,
I will see Don Giovanni and drink Médoc.
The once ambitious wander the streets bewildered —
harmlessly deranged —
there will be no order, only peace.
At the shore, a poet will say of the dawning light
“It is as bright as the love left behind.”
I hear the voice — love is an art.

29 October 2006

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A Day with Ella – #822

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A Day with Ella – #822

It was a perfect day.
It started with mother waking us both far too early,
and on such a damp chilly morning,
a holiday for us, mother rushed off to work.
As always,
you had to have your way,
so we were in the park while the ducks were still sleeping,
one leg up and bills tucked in back under a wing,
the pond glassy still,
white tufts of down spread over its waxy surface.
The swings were coated in dew
and I used all but one of my pocketed paper napkins
to wipe one dry for you,
and after a minute you were all done.
Swinging through the quiet chill of heavy morning air,
just you and I alone in the entire park –
besides the sleeping ducks –
is not much fun as it was on Saturday,
a balmy sunny day with children laughing and playing everywhere.
You reached for a high bar to swing out on
but the dew-coated metal slipped right through your hand
and you landed on your back in wet sand –
shocked, hurt, angry.
I had to hold you in my arm,
brushing off the sand
as your cry filled the empty quiet over the pond.
I held you that way a long time,
through the park, around the town,
and later back at home.
We spent the whole day together,
never more than an arm’s length apart.
We washed a little,
sampled the aromas of all the herbs and spices –
some things must spill, it’s not important –
and we made a tent,
a big one with three chairs and a quilt,
then we went inside and turned on our flashlights.
It was very funny being in that tent,
quiet too, you hardly heard the rain pattering on the roof.
In the end, you fell asleep on my chest,
while I slumped on the couch,
listening to Mozart piano music
and motets by Thomas Tallis.
As Spem in alium floated into the corners of the room
and your warm heaviness sank into my heart,
misty rain filled the forest on our mountain
and I began to reclaim some of the oceans of sleep that I’ve lost
these last two or so years.
I know it was a perfect day.

21 January 2002

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Waking The Dead, Redeeming The Living

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Waking The Dead, Redeeming The Living

“They make a wasteland, and call it peace.”
— Cornelius Tacitus

“Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that His justice will not
sleep forever.”
— Thomas Jefferson

Noam Chomsky,
Christopher Hitchens,
Robert Bly,
Thich Nhat Hanh.

From the exact to the sublime,
the timely to the timeless,
the perceptive to the transcendent,
my mind begins to awaken to the magnitude of the crime,
my mind begins to open to my complicity in the evil —
Vietnam…

The Black Wall in Washington
is not a monument to dead soldiers,
it is a continuous dirge to a nation’s lost honor,
an innocence lost over and over again,
a loss of soul.
Nothing can ever be right until we expiate that crime,
a crime that continues
by the willful ignorance, the convenient unknowing
of we who enjoy the bounty of this American life.

Oh, dear God, don’t call us to accounts for a thousand years!
for it would take at least that long — even if we tried —
to compensate for the enormity we have created;
and yet,
how sad to think our gods could be so cold,
our universe could be so empty and soulless,
that retribution for such evil could not possibly arrive —
even tomorrow.
What other comfort can the peasantry of the world have
as they shiver under the lengthening shadow
of our remorseless empire?

Monsoon-soaked ground bubbles up mines like a deranged apocalypse —
playthings for children —
and rivulets of poison trickle out of air-dropped wastelands
to seep into the veins of a new generation
and wither its fruit in the womb;
and here, in Jefferson’s land of the “ignorant and free,
in a state of civilization” that “never was and never will be,”
reflection on a withering career bubbles up memories,
fresh, gnawing, immune to time’s erosion,
buoyant against convenient forgetting,
stinging in their rebuke against my compliance to the course of evil.
Yes, even us little nobodies are faced with moral challenges,
inconveniently, unfairly, when we are young, when we are fragile.
We survive, we connive, we comply,
we feed our children and make our way,
but dare not hold out a cupped hand of water
to Jesus on his way to Golgotha.
My God, think what it would do to your career —
our future.
So we let others stretch out their hands
and we survive, quietly, into this future —
are we proud of it?
Now,
what great truth and what measure of courage
do you pass onto your children setting off on their own?
“Do you remember the Vietnam War, dad?”

We tell our children nothing about this,
we lie, we deny,
we glorify garbage myths for commercial exploitation,
we honor our greatest living war criminals
with prizes, bank presidencies, book contracts, speaking fees,
and we honor our greatest dead war criminals
by naming airports for them, by entombing them in televised temples.

Yes, I remember the Vietnam War.
I was not brave,
I did not challenge evil,
I looked out for myself,
and I am here.
All I can offer you is the truth,
and hope in that to find some redemption for my moral weakness,
and some grace in awakening you to greater good,
to deeper meaning,
to honest judgment that unfolds in your actions.

I want to cleanse my children’s country,
I want to cleanse my soul — in this world;
let the trials begin.

25 June 2001

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An Expired Doctorate

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An Expired Doctorate

Riding down the hillside along this lovely tree-lined street,
early evening liquid sun
oozing through the dancing cracks in the mosaic vista of the distant bay,
a luminous weave darting through a trembling fabric of leafy green
masking the immense face of the ripened sky behind its rippling veil,
and filling sight,
as susurrus of rushing air fill sound,
and reflections of lost promise fill mind.

How marvelous to be alive, to be aware, to feel the light,
to ride my breath through this eternal now.
How fortunate to have such balm to soothe the sting of failure.
Not a major failure to be sure,
only that of work and ego to achieve any useful end or recognition,
to see the raw promise of youthful ambition,
distilled by fine education to a potent extract,
now become a weak vinegar – sour and watered –
and a passionate vocation reduced to hireling occupation,
the reductionism of mind to mere calculator.

So I find myself
engrossed in the minutiae of a superfluous part
in an unnecessary weapon
within the excessive arsenal
of an insensate empire.
While I speak this poem – or you read it –
about fifty children in our world
will die from easily preventable disease,
and one hundred women will die or suffer disability
in pregnancy or childbirth
for lack of simple remedies and care.
To overcome such tragedy only requires
one quarter of the military costs of the third world,
or ten percent that of the United States.

Imagine,
so few less bullets, so much more life.
I look into my little daughter’s eyes
and think of those mothers and those fathers suffering such loss.
I look into my little daughter’s joyful dancing eyes
and draw purpose in each day of pointless employment,
as a trivial cog in the sprawling machinery of blind empire,
a Cyclops gone mad with lack of vision,
ravening the world with unquenching power.

I work among a swarm of aphid zombies,
each focused on his own proboscis
oblivious by intent, trained through rigorous education,
to even the agony of one beside being chewed alive
in mandibles of political expediency
by preying mantises invoking greater imperial glories,
the whole an infestation withering the vine of life.
I marvel at such voluntary unanimity in the degradation of human soul,
at such profound denaturing of awareness,
at such complete filtration of compassion from human hearts –
are they even still human?
Can it be true that so many accede to such enslavement?,
emptying themselves of their spiritual birthright
solely to tremble in fear as hollow vessels of mindless desiring
for things metered out by owners of a vampire economy?
Those quick of mind, well educated, articulate,
mouth such perfidy and platitudes to curry favor, to move up-class –
parasites in a parasite empire –
with no moral anchor
to drag along the course of their ambition.
How well did Yeats write:
“The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”

Could I somehow liberate myself
to do some greater good – however minor –
yet still support my family?
How many others feel like me?,
engaged in our pangs of conscience
being rich enough to support such luxury,
and too weak to live on principle alone.
How much simpler the logic of life without such impediment,
yet what an opulence of poverty.

One in ten, surely not that many,
one bullet out of ten,
one French fry out of ten in a soldier’s mess,
one warplane out of ten,
one general out of ten.
Surely we would never notice,
surely we could train that marvelous capacity for unseeing
to shield consciousness from any perception
of such a trifling reduction of opulence.
Yet, wouldn’t even these willfully unseeing
feel the smile of grace for a transformed world
from the face of every child?

To open your mind and heart to this world is to go insane –
certainly if alone –
to survive one needs refuge in community.
Like a Christian in the Roman legions nineteen centuries ago,
I, too, will rejoice with the fall of empire.
How can I not pray for revolution,
even knowing how fearful a thing that can be?
My demeanor is resigned, my soul is in rebellion.

3 May 2001

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