14 March 2012
Conflicting Emotions of Home: The Expression of Disillusionment and Yearning in Jose Kozer’s “Diaspora” and “First & last”
José Kozer, a poet and writer within the Cuban diaspora, became a Cuban exile during the Fidel Castro revolution. Much of his writing centers on his life during his youth in Cuba before the revolution and his family’s Jewish tradition. In “First & last” he writes of his disillusionment with his home country and with his own life, highlighting the struggles and disappointments he had. Although he holds great love and yearning for his country in his other works, it seems from “First & last” that he has given up on it, but there remains an ambivalence about what he says.
1. My parents came from Poland and Czechoslovakia, at twenty I ousted myself from my country, forseeing that the nation would take on something like the air of a general prison; that wasn’t to my taste (I would come to learn that the whole planet is a general prison): I was born in Cuba, where I left no progeny, and I will not return: I am the first and last Cuban generation. (1243)
Kozer writes that he “ousted [himself]” from his country, alluding to how he felt about it. He chose to disassociate himself with his homeland and took ownership of that action—shown with his use of “I” and “myself” in the excerpt. “Ousted,” as defined by The Oxford English Dictionary means to “drive out or expel from a position or place” and Kozer’s decision to use “ousted” suggests that he forced himself to leave, implying a sense of reluctance on his part. He explains that he left because Cuba adopted the “air of a general prison,” no longer as free as in the past, but adds that he eventually learns “the whole planet is a general prison.” Perhaps on some level Kozer regrets leaving Cuba for that reason because this quality shows up everywhere—no matter where he lives, he will feel some form of that prison. His declaration at the end addresses his position and the position of everyone else in his situation. Directly preceding that, he writes “I was born in Cuba, where I left no progeny, and I will not return,” describing the experience of many of the other Cuban exiles that left when he left. He equates his own experience with theirs. Kozer’s last statement, “I am the first and last Cuban generation,” speaks not only for himself, but for everyone else who feels the way he does. Kozer’s generation embodies the first and last group of Cubans to leave in this way, with these feelings of disappointment and alienation. He suggests that what they all experienced has the same quality–that these unique circumstances solely belong to them.
In his poem, “Diaspora,” he talks about his family life in Cuba—particularly his relationship with his parents and what they meant to him. His family comes from a Eastern European Jewish tradition and they moved to Cuba (perhaps to escape the Holocaust) and raised Jose Kozer there. We see from the poem his strained relationship with his father and we get the sense that he yearned for something more from his familial life.
The shop in Havana is dust
and the Irish cotton is dust
and my father, a dusty Jew,
day after day comes home with a loaf of bread beneath his arm.
Day after day, each day alike,
Papa arrives: we eat lunch, our eyes fixed on the ceiling’s ornate
I have never seen the water come in, have seen neither fish nor
The repetition of “dust” in the opening lines suggest a dullness—which we see in the scene where Kozer enjoys a meal with his family. The repetition of images and words such as “dust,” the string of things and dusty items, “day after day,” indicate that in Kozer’s life there exists an overwhelming sense of monotony. Kozer views the world as dusty, dry, and lifeless—lacking luster. The actions of his father going to work every day, coming home every day with “a loaf of bread beneath his arm,” “each day alike,” all show that nothing changes in the routine. The scenes with the father prove just as unexciting, with Kozer’s eyes “fixed” on something as arbitrary as mold during the meal (rather than having conversation)—so boring infact that the mold becomes “ornate.” Perhaps he sees the intricacies in mold because he has had so much time to ponder it. He and his parents don’t talk during the meal and that indicates that they don’t have much to say to one another and that single action becomes more telling when every single day they have nothing to say—hinting at the strain in his relationship with his parents. These descriptions and imagery directly contrast with what he has never seen (and what we can assume he wants to see). He chooses to focus on “water” and the movement of water as things he has never seen before and water embodies the opposite of dust and dryness. Perhaps water could serves as a symbolism for excitement in his life that he lacks. In a more literal sense, the things he wants to see, “water [coming] in,” “fish,” and “flowerpot,” things that one finds in the outside world, and his yearning to see those things act as a sign that he doesn’t get to go out and interact with nature and the world as much as he likes. The line of the father who “comes home” to Kozer and Kozer’s mother supports this idea. Kozer remains indoor, in his own house throughout the poem—not outdoors. We do not see movement from his character as opposed to the father and this further supports the suggestion that Kozer sees the excitement he lacks in his own life as a quality that can only exist in the outside world—in the unknown.
Kozer, Jose. “Diaspora.” 1975. The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature. Eds. Ilan Stavans, Edna Acosta-Belen, Harold Augenbraum, Maria Herrera-Sobek, Rolando Hinojosa, and Gustavo Perez Firmat. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2011. 1241-1244. Print.
Kozer, Jose. “First & last.” 1999. The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature. Eds. Ilan Stavans, Edna Acosta-Belen, Harold Augenbraum, Maria Herrera-Sobek, Rolando Hinojosa, and Gustavo Perez Firmat. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2011. 1241-1244. Print.
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