OBITUARY : Dulce Maria Loynaz

When, in 1992, the Cuban poet Dulce Maria Loynaz was invited to Spain to receive the country's highest literary award, the Cervantes Prize, she was already frail, and slowly going blind; she made a touching appearance on television and in the very literature-conscious Spanish press. This prize was a terrible embarrassment to Spanish editors, for none of her work was in print, a situation that my bookseller in Andorra described as "incredible" and "without precedent": "a disgrace".

All I could find in Madrid was a short story, La Novia de Lzaro ("The Bride of Lazarus") - a perfect example of Loynaz' cool, almost abstracted prose style - issued by a small poetry press, Betania, in 1991. It was not until the end of 1993 that there appeared a selection of poetry and prose from Editions Universal in Miami. It includes her later volumes, published in Havana, Poesias escogidas ("Selected Poems", 1984), Bestiarium (1985) and Poemas Nufragos ("Shipwrecked Poems", 1993). In the same year, Espasa Calpe in Spain produced a generous selection of her poems and, in 1994, the wonderful French series "Orphee" published an anthology, La Fille Prodigue ("The Prodigal Daughter"), from Editions de la Difference. To our dishonour, none of her works has been published in Great Britain.

I first encountered the work of Dulce Maria Loynaz in the late 1950s, when I was teaching at the University of Salamanca. It was not a volume of poetry, but a poetic travel book, Un verano en Tenerife ("A Summer in Tenerife", 1958), the sort of travel book for those who do not like travel books. It is a brilliantly impressionistic portrait of the island, written in a rhythmical prose often close to poetry, full of visual surprises and passionate digressions - digressions are the soul of literary invention - and with almost no practical information. It prompted me to spend a week on what was then still a fairly primitive, enchanted island. Loynaz fell in love with it, and with the man who became her husband, a journalist on the Diario de la Marina.

Dulce Maria Loynaz was born in Havana in 1902, into a distinguished family. Her father was a general in the army. They lived in a palatial colonial-style residence, furnished with elegant and expensive antiques and works of art, overlooking a lush tropical garden giving on to the sea. There, with her sister Flor and two brothers Enrique and Carlos Manuel, the future neo-romantic poet lived a charmed and privileged existence, one in which music and all the arts played a large part.

Dulce Maria was educated at home, and was encouraged to paint and write. Her first poems appeared in the Havana newspaper La Nacin in 1919. She was allowed to travel freely, and her first trip was to the United States. She was later to explore the Middle East, Turkey, Egypt, Mexico and Latin America, and she had a deep love of British and European culture.

Her first book, chastely entitled Versos, containing poems written between 1920 and 1938, was published in Havana in 1938 - limpid, exquisite lyrics of love and loneliness and illuminating descriptions of animal and natural life. They were reprinted in Tenerife (1947) and then in Madrid (1950). Themes from her incessant travelling are found in Juegos de agua ("Fountains", Madrid, 1946), Poemas sin nombre ("Poems Without a Name", Madrid, 1953) and the collected Obra Lyrica (Madrid, 1955).

During the 1950s, Loynaz also published a fine, delicately emotional novel, Jardin (Madrid, 1951), and she wrote essays for various journals. But after the revolution and the rise to power of Fidel Castro in 1959, she fell silent. She went into "interior exile", which is the only true non-political stance one can take in the face of totalitarian absurdity. She was totally apolitical, and never complained of any ill-treatment at the hands of the revolutionaries and their masters. "They treated me correctly," she was to say, "neither well nor ill." And added: "They respected me." She was indeed a figure who compelled respect, because she never demanded it.

But Loynaz was no idle amateur. She kept on writing, without publishing. She made translations of her favourite poet, Walt Whitman. In 1927, she had graduated in Civil Law from the University of Havana. She was elected President of the Academia Cubana de la Lengua, which met in her own house, and was a corresponding member of the Real Academia Espanola de la Lengua from 1968.

She had been the friend of many great writers, including Afro-Cuban, avant-garde, and neo-romantic figures like her fellow Cubans Alejo Carpentier, Nicols Guillen, Eugenio Florit and Emilio Ballagas. During his visit to the New World in the early 1930s, Federico Garca Lorca stayed with her family in Havana, and became especially attached to her brother Carlos Manuel. Here Lorca composed the first drafts of his controversial play El Pblico whose subject, considered unspeakable then, was the story of a homosexual male in search of a pure and total love with another man. These drafts were left by Lorca as a parting gift to Carlos Manuel. But the play was left unpublished until after Franco's demise, and was not performed in Spain until 1985.

Another writer who in 1937 visited the Loynaz house was the Nobel prize- winning poet and essayist Juan Ramn Jimenez, who sketched a eulogistic word portrait of Loynaz in his Espanoles de tres mundos ("Spaniards from Three Worlds") in 1938.

Three and a half years ago, Loynaz suffered a bad fall, and had an operation on her right thigh. Her blindness was increasing. But she often had visitors, among them Alicia Alonso, the ballerina and mistress of the Cuban National Ballet, also suffering from a loss of vision, and the young novelist Zoe Valdes with her husband the film director Ricardo Vega.

So Dulce Maria Loynaz' "interior exile" is in every sense at an end. She has departed on another of her many voyages, and is exploring with eager interest, as always, I am sure, the landscapes of another interior.

James Kirkup

Dulce Maria Loynaz, writer: born Havana 10 December 1902; twice married; died Havana 27 April 1997.