José Kozer: an Acrobat without a Net Standing between Fullness and Emptiness. A review of ‘Letters from Hallandale’

Letters from Hallandale, a collection of texts by José Kozer (b. Havana, 1940) about his favorite authors, is much more than a tour of his personal library. These “letters” belong to the unprecedented genre of self-bibliography. Through their vignettes, they reveal not only the meticulous readings of a graphomaniac (book-obsessed, readophile, scribe), but also the secret aspirations, admiration and poetics of a great writer of an American origin and destiny, who already belongs to us all.

Ricardo Piglia said that “the writer writes his life when he thinks he is writing his readings”. And here, we happen upon such complete intersection. Thoreau is, of course, among the writers rescued by Kozer for his capacity to immerse himself in his being, to live immersed in each activity, without dispersion, in a state of full concentration. There is the Japanese poet Saigyõ, who practices the austerity and discipline of a plant. There is Kafka, who lived for writing; and, it goes without saying, there is Lezama, with his intuition and mysterious illumination. Kozer aspires to live his life (which is writing and reading) with that same sacramental density. That’s why these texts allow us to witness the rites and ineffable ceremonies of discovering a Zen paradox in every sound, and a space of retreat in every instant. Kozer writes: “To read poetry is not to understand, but to access the intuited knowledge of a text through the mysterious path of ignorance”.

The opening vignette, “Where the Poems are From”, suggests that prose writer Kozer is not far from poet Kozer, ever immersed in the dizzying flow of words: “Man wanders through forests and peninsulas, gone, exposed, accompanied by all the words in the dictionary, all the infectious possibility of language. He writes. He writes. A syllable, a space, a breath, a word attached to another word. An oracular space connected in a growing and multiple possibility.” This book gives us not only the sensation of secretly listening in on Kozer’s inner monologue, or the conversations he holds with Martí, Ana Rosa González Matute, dear Víctor Sosa or Néstor Perlongher, but also the impression that we too participate in the intimacy of those dialogues. For the text evokes an unusual sensation, that of a writing that listens. As Deleuze reflects in A Thousand Plateaus: “Life does not speak, it listens and waits.” That silence is the Real that lurks behind words.

Kozer’s essays, like his poems, also listen and lie in wait. As I mentioned, this prose-writing Kozer is not far from poet Kozer who drills holes into the metonymic foam, a surfer from the beaches of Hallandale entering the eye of the wave in which the crests of signifiers fracture and swirl about. Kozer’s prose surges onward with the freedom of poetry, with its very same fluidity and Moebian breath, with its glimpses and hidden promises. In these letters redundancy becomes a resonance, Lezamian in its repetition, Sarduyan in its release of echoes between pasts and futures, between unexpected dimensions. In The Third Mind, William Burroughs wrote: “When you cut the present, the future leaks.” There are many clairvoyant cuts as well in this writing that advances parsimoniously (paranomasiously), orbital, always in search of ephemeral illuminations. This is the Kozerian poetics. In his essay on Lezama, however, Kozer rejects the idea of a poetics: “I believe less and less in poets and poems, much less in poetics. I believe more and more in poetic moments.” But, let’s admit it, that renunciation outlines, if not defines, a whole poetics in itself, an aesthetic of the dissolved, the counter-written, the under-knowledge and the indetermination.

For Deleuze, poetry leads language towards the frontier that separates it from silence, that separates language from animal howl, thought from non-thought. Such is the experience on the verge of reading Kozer, the acrobat without a net standing between fullness and emptiness. His poetry is intimate but historically inspired, abundantly narrative but also abstract, anecdotal and anacoluthonical, humorous and pathetic, full of sense and sensibility as much as of nonsense and misunderstandings. It is to be expected, then, that one might surface from this journey to the center of Kozer’s readings as a castaway who’s pushed around by the tides, face up to the sky, gushing out oodles of baroque ocean waters.


Below is a text by José Kozer included in Letters from Hallandale. Rialta Editions, 2017.

“What? Read?”

The subject of these questions is me. A subject that contains a life that reads. Since when? Since I was a teenager. Until when? It is my will to read until my very last day. What? Everything that has been called great literature, from Hita to Beckett, for example. And everything from the new authors that one might intuit to be somewhat important. This is a debatable term, intuition, but who gives. How do I read? As a rule, lying in bed. This is how Proust, D’Annunzio and Valle-Inclán used to read, among others.

Why read, invest a life in reading? Reading is a social good. For instance, readers don’t have time to murder. Is the non-reader a murderer? Rarely.  I sense, however, a statistic: there are more criminals, more murderers among non-readers than among readers. Why? Reading is an all-encompassing obsession; I can’t conceive a true reader who is not obsessive. Even when Schopenhauer recommends not to read, by arguing that reading restricts original thought and creative activity, and since reading is a form of laziness, I read in his ironic observation a whole meaning: to spend a lifetime avoiding reading is to read in another way, to read interiority all the time: to read the soul, a mirror of one’s own book that one tries to decipher. Thus, a reading of the self that avoids the other from a false premise: that the other author will inhibit the original author in us.

We live in a definite time and space, its frontier unequivocal: it is called Death. A reader, by definition obsessive, is bound to that limit: he has no time but to read. His time, his imagination of the world, is not doomed to crime (Villon, Genet, are not murderers but thieves). The non-reader is bored, everything that entertains him deep down bores him: at some point (I admit this is not a rule but it is more common than among those who read), boredom leads him to crime. Not to the thesis of crime as a form of art (De Quincey), but to the realization of crime. Real violation of the Commandment.

Reading is bliss.  He who reads lives immersed, doesn’t experience the alienating notion of the ravages of time: he lives devoted to his reading, as a monk or a nun of modernity. To read is to exist in a state of ever-present vulnerability and risk: a joyful suffering, a restorative delight. A filling bounty. The joy of surrender, a civil faith. He who reads hums between the lines, exalts himself, rests himself: lives. The body outdoors is an intensity, but the body immersed in the book is also an intensity, no more, no less. Another aspect of the privilege of having been born.

How to read? Not only lying down in bed, comfortably ensconced in an armchair or standing in front of a monastic table, but, by becoming a text. Embodying the text he reads. The gash, the separation between text and reader disappears; this is the primary source of joy. In Childhood in Berlin around 1900, Walter Benjamin tells us about a Chinese painter who showed his most recent painting to his friends: a park, a narrow path near the water that ran through a patch of trees leading to the small door of a house at the end of the grove. When the friends turned to congratulate the painter, he had disappeared. As they turned towards the painting they saw that the painter was walking along the narrow path leading to the door of the house. He stopped, turned around, smiled at his friends and disappeared through the half-open door.

This is how one should read: involved. Or, following Rimbaud: I IS BOOK.

I started reading when I was ten years old. Robinson Crusoe was my first book; I read it from cover to cover and, perhaps because I didn’t have another book at hand, I read it in full a second time. This beginning, truly an initiation, was a catalyst: it led me to read incessantly. Just after, I read The Whale Hunters, plus Verne, Salgari, Edmondo De Amicis (how I cried). And then The Social Contract (I didn’t understand a word of it), followed by Martin Buber’s Moses (which I reread at the age of fifty with some understanding).

Sixty years of reading, not as an academic or a scholar, not as a memory that collects and recounts what is read (quoting, reconfiguring plots and episodes to the letter, remembering the characters), but as a porous vessel, a receptacle of materials and waters that are ingested, digested and dissolved into the inner system, deeply integrated. Once the materials of reading are absorbed, the body gets thicker: my blood is made up of letters. Alphabetic globules. Thus, my circulatory system contains dissolved book shocks; my lungs load and unload to the rhythm of paragraphs, verses, and versicles that I ingest daily. I am, therefore, a book. A messy book, since I read willy-nilly and whatever I want. A book that has its own internal logic, composed of abundant readings, perhaps of each and every one of the books read in the course of a lifetime.

I celebrate sixty years as a reader. I feel a slight uneasiness, the mystery of an approaching nostalgia: on the one hand, the sorrow of not having read more, more rigorously, with more integrity; on the other hand, the awareness that to die is to stop reading. Paracelsus said that “it is not the eye that makes man see, but man who makes the eye see.” A systematic and consistent reader makes the eye see from among the truths of the world the loving truth in the pleasure of a good book, the spiritual recollection that makes up all deep reading.

To read is to access the palimpsest of a whole civilization, to access the palimpsest of a life.

I may soon stop writing poems, quite a relief to my few readers, my possible future critics, and perhaps to myself. I sense that as I stop writing I will read more. My voracity will lead me to consume greater doses of printed word. Perhaps I will become a silverfish that only devours printed paper.

If so, I will have reached Paradise by becoming an endless succession of texts.

Pablo Baler (b. Buenos Aires, 1967) is a novelist, critic and professor of Latin American literature at California State University, Los Angeles. He is the author of the novels Circa (Galerna, 1999), Chabrancán (Ediciones del Camino, 2020), and Los sentidos de la distorsión (Rialta, 2022) as well as the essay Latin-American Neo-Baroque: Senses of Distortion (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016). Baler has edited the international anthology The Next Thing: Art in the Twenty-First Century (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2013). His short story collection La burocracia mandarina was published by Lumme Ed., São Paulo, Brazil (2013, Portuguese translation, 2017). A graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Stanford University and the University of Berkeley, Baler is also an International Research Fellow of the Centre for Fine Art Research at Birmingham City University, United Kingdom.


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