Poetry by Jorge Olivera Castillo


I was a small island in the ocean
populated with the song of swallows
and the joyful whisper of the woods.

Now I’m a continent,
where dust has a lease on the land,
chained to the banisters of silence,
I’m the intimate friend of the darkest nights.

Forgive the pulse of burden
in each word
budding from my throat.

But I’m sinking slowly
beneath rough waves
that rise
where loneliness ends
and oblivion begins.

(Cambridge, January 2017)


Much time has passed without tears
or rain
in these regions of disenchantment.

Only stones
hardened faces
and some heaps of sand
that the sun licks
once it shows its face
through the blinds of daybreak.

We don’t know why
they’ve confiscated all the mirrors
and the worn-out blankets of our illusions.

Perhaps a way to make death human?

What’s certain is that we’re still here
in the vortex of aridity
with our eyes fixed
on all the messages
the orator dispatches in bulk
without the strength to weep
and waiting for the promised storm.

This Poem

This poem
with its dose of gunpowder
and double-edged swords
is written to split the hand
pushing me to a dark
and deserted place.

This poem
that stutters with the glint of pearls
is written to arrive at the summit
of any one of my dreams
and show the world
that joy has not died.

This poem
is also a flower that smells of you
from its first lines
until its final end
which marks the beginning
of a new astonishment.

(Cambridge, November 2016)


What appears to be an object worthy of the museum
clutched in my drunken fist
is a real pistol

I am close to
and at the same time far from my target
the arm a straight line
the gaze fogged
by doubts
of passing one more night
without your words running
to some of the seven doors
of my refuge
following these detonations.

Way Out

In one of the stone-ridden labyrinths
I retrace daily
with the steps of a wounded man
I see the tenuous budding of flowers
at the edge of my path.

A still-distant image
my eyes bind to,

As I advance, the petals grow
with light galloping over their surfaces.

I stumble, but manage to regain
the rhythm of my strides.
I fall face forward and get back up
like a spring.

Nothing will detain my triumphal march
to what appears to be
a half-open door.

(Cambridge, November 2016)


Jorge Olivera Castillo

Jorge Olivera Castillo was born in 1961 in Havana, Cuba. Between 1983 and 1993, he worked as a journalist for the Cuban Institute of Radio and Television. At the end of his tenure there, he became frustrated with the Institute’s censorship and use of state-run propaganda. He began to write for the Miami-based Radio Martí, publishing critiques of the Cuban government. Along with 74 other so-called public dissidents, Olivera was sequestered in the 2003 “Black Spring” crackdown against Cuban detractors of Fidel Castro’s administration. At a one-day closed trial, he was sentenced to 18 years in Guantánamo Prison for “enemy propaganda” and began to write poetry as a means of survival. Olivera was held in solitary confinement for nine months before being released on humanitarian grounds and for declining health. With help from PEN UK and the Harvard Scholars at Risk Program, Olivera was permitted to leave Cuba in 2016 to write in residence at Harvard. In the 2017-2018 academic year, he was an International Writers Project Fellow at Brown University. He has written eight books of short stories and poetry, and his work has appeared in Index on Censorship's Beyond Bars: 50 Years of the Writers in Prison Committee (2010) and PEN International’s Write Against Impunity (2012) anthology. It has been translated into Italian, French, Polish, and Czech. He can be contacted by email at [email protected].

David Francis

David Francis received his PhD in Romance languages and literatures at Harvard University. He received his MFA in poetry from Columbia University, was a Fulbright Fellow in Bogotá, Colombia (translating the poems of José Asunción Silva), and is currently translating a collection of sonnets by the Cuban writer Severo Sarduy. His poems or translations have appeared in The Chronicle of Higher EducationInventoryThe FSG Book of Twentieth-Century Latin American Poetry, SpoKe, The New Yinzer, and elsewhere. He can be reached at [email protected].

Copyright (c) Jorge Olivera Castillo, 2016-2018. English translation copyright (c) David Francis, 2019.