José Lezama Lima (lay-ZAH-mah LEE-mah) is generally considered one of the most influential Cuban poets, novelists, and essayists of the twentieth century. He was born to a well-to-do military family, where old patrician and immigrant traditions blended into a true creole spirit. His father was a colonel in the Cuban army, and the family moved frequently with him. During the time they lived in the old damp fortress of Havana, Lezama Lima developed asthma, a condition from which he suffered for the rest of his life and which marked the rhythm of his poetry and prose. During World War I Lezama Lima’s father volunteered for war service on the Allied side, but he died in training in the United States during the influenza epidemic when Lezama Lima was only eight years old. Until her death in 1964, Lezama Lima’s mother was the biggest influence on his life. It was she who urged her son, when he was already a successful young poet, to take up the family history in a novel. The suggestion eventually led to the novel Paradiso, on which Lezama Lima worked for almost twenty years. His mother’s death threw him into a deep depression, which he overcame by completing the novel.
As a student of law, Lezama Lima participated in the protest against the dictatorship of General Machado that led to the university’s being shut down for years. Lezama Lima spent that time reading, accumulating the often quite arcane erudition that underlies his poetry. In his personal response to the crises of literary modernism, his poetic work followed the transformation of Symbolism into “pure poetry.” The encounter with the Spanish poet Juan Ramón Jiménez after his arrival in Cuba in 1936 from war-torn Spain was of lasting influence on Lezama Lima. He became interested in the mystical line of “pure poetry” and pushed it in the direction both of hermetic, heterodox philosophy and of orthodox Catholic theology. When his exuberant baroque images overflowed the marked intellectualism and exquisiteness of postsymbolist poetry, he developed in his Muerte de Narciso (death of Narcissus) the drama of the Fall of man that can only be overcome by artistic creation....
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