Monday, September 19, 2005


The heart of example

Throughout history, the best poetry has come out of times and places of revolutionary insurgence and upheaval. Examples of the past century that come to mind are Russian poetry in the 1920's; Spanish poetry in the 1930's, and the Proletarian movement in the United States and internationally; French poetry growing out of the anti-Fascist resistance in the 1940's (Aragon, Eluard, Char); poetry of the insurgent French colonies in Africa and the Caribbean (Leopold Sedar Senghor, Aimé Cesaire, René Depestre), starting in the 1950's; and similarly, of the Portuguese colonies in Africa in the 1970's (Agostinho Neto, José Craveirinha); Chinese and Vietnamese poetry for much of the 20th century; there are other examples, and earlier ones.

For much of the later half of the 20th century a phenomenal poetry movement (or great interweave of movements) thrived, in spite of every kind of obstacle, in the countries and cultures of Central America. Among the dozens, hundreds, of excellent poets whose work emerged from those times and places, one of the most widely renowned is Otto René Castillo of Guatamala.
I walked strange shores
in search of my country's face.
Dawns of gulls followed me.
I received the brutal embraces
of he who discovers a cataclysm of roses
in the most hidden places of his soul;
touch of hands in the nights
of escape, where the liquid eyes
of our mother burned,
her ageless dimension of cottonwood,
branches up
defending the city of birds
from the endless assault of water.
(From the poem "Exile," in the book Let's Go!, a selection of Castillo's poems translated by Margaret Randall -- chosen from his 1965 book Vámonos Patria a Caminar -- published in a bilingual edition in 1983 by Curbstone Press; previously published by Cape Goliard in the U.K in 1971.)

A brief biographical note about Castillo in the above book reads, in part: "His political activities began in 1954 as a young student organizer, and in that year he began writing poetry while in exile. During the next ten years he was imprisoned, tortured, and exiled again." In 1966 Castillo returned to Guatemala from exile again and joined the FAR (Armed Revolutionary Front). In March 1967 he and his guerrilla group were ambushed and captured. Castillo and another member of the guerrilla group, Nora Paiz, were tortured for several days and then burned alive by government troops.
But I don't shut up and I don't die.
I live
and fight, maddening
those who rule my country.

For if I live
I fight,
and if I fight
I contribute to the dawn.
(From the poem "Even Beneath This Bitterness" in Let's Go!)

The poetry anthology Volcán edited by Alejandro Murguía and Barbara Paschke (City Lights Books, 1983, and still listed in the City Lights catalog) is a good basic bilingual selection of 20th century poets from El Salvador, Honduras, Guatamala and Nicaragua, translated by numerous translators. The book includes poems by Mercedes Durand, Claribel Alegría, Roque Dalton, Otto René Castillo, Roberto Obregón, Roberto Sosa, Leonel Rugama, Daisy Zamora, Gioconda Belli, Rosario Murillo, Ernesto Cardenal, and many others.
The coconut palms are now being harvested in the garden
and summer is reddening the gentians in the orchard.
Blue and beautiful are these days,
clear and fresh.
My beloved places are also yours.
Across thousands of miles my words touch you
like the bird now seen perched on a coconut.
Time and distance have been prolonged.
But one of these luminous days
(the rose bushes are full of buds)
or a more distant day in winter
(there are flowering laurel on all the highways,
and cashews and mangos and yellow corteces)
with the last sun or in the first rain
we will gather the fruits of hope.
From the poem "Letter to a Sister Who Lives in a Distant Country" by Daisy Zamora, translated by Barbara Paschke, in Volcan. Zamora took part in the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua, and was known during the years of guerrilla warfare as "Comandante Dos" ("Commander Two"). Later she served as the Vice Minister of Culture in the Sandinista government.

Poems such as these answer out of hand the timid nervousness in some quarters of the "literary" world about the use of poetry to express political ideas, to depict political events, to incite political action. To shut political content out of poetry (as if such a thing were possible) is to gut poetry of life; it results in a dead poetry, a poetry corpse.

True poetry understands and embodies the passion and clarity and beauty of the living world, the world of possibility and the future, the world of the realization and manifestation of our dreams.
We have suffered assassin's blows
in so many parts
and written your name
on so little skin
that death is no longer our end,
freedom has no place in death. [...]

For there's nothing more beautiful
on the width of the earth
than a free people
putting finish to a system that dies.

then watch and dream with us
when we enter the night
or arrive at the day,
in love with your beautiful name:
(Otto René Castillo, from the poem "Freedom" in Let's Go!)

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