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July 6, 2010 / johnoliversimon

Costa Rica 2 – Osvaldo Sauma and Ana Istarú

Tica poet Ana Istarú

My assignment, as outlined in the previous post, meant that I didn’t, in my brief stopovers in San José (a jet-lagged afternoon and a rainy evening), look up any Costa Rican poets. Two poets I got to know on my long Caminante voyage in 1995-96, and would have liked very much to catch up with this time — whatcha gonna do — are Osvaldo Sauma and Ana Istaru.

Tall, bearded, with a ponytail, Osvaldo Sauma is the black sheep of a wealthy Lebanese-Tico family. Costariccenses are called Ticos because they tack the diminutive ending –tico onto everything. ¡Momentico! they say, just a little moment! Colombians say this too, but there is nothing whatsoever diminutive about Colombia.

Born in Costa Rica “at 10° north and 84° west,” Osvaldo Sauma is at the far end of a Middle Eastern diaspora that leaves him searching for his roots. “I’ve never seen Beirut,” he confesses, “nor the cedars of Lebanon/ I did not know my grandfather/ nor his father the old Sheik/ I don’t know one word of Arabic.” But when he goes to Morocco, bargains for a djellaba in the market, and puts it on, he feels “like an Arab among the Arabs,” touching the Moorish strand in the culture of Spain whose deepest tendril is poetry:

in the time of the Truce of God
when the victorious poems
were transcribed in black silk
and for an entire year
proclaimed to the wind
the mind of the most noble of the Arabs

At the same time, however, Osvaldo is wryly aware that his worldly patrimony is considerably more modest:

and to think that in this path
of enmities and sacrifice
of women and solitude and freedom
I’ve inherited only insomnia
and this old Olivetti
a keyboard that has a hard time
tinkling out my sad melody

Every time an attractive woman crosses the room, Osvaldo breaks the thread of talking poetry with me and stares at her in utter homage. I tell him I hope to be faithful to Becky as I travel, and Osvaldo looks at me as if I’m speaking some extremely odd language. “Women!” he says. “For the poet, there are two kinds of women. La puta, the whore, and la patrona, the boss. She’s the one who makes the soup.”

What about the peer, the compañera, I ask. Osvaldo shrugs. “Sure, in fact I’m living with a great woman. But the dailiness, la convivencia, gives me problems. I like being with a lot of women. So what? And being Arab on top of that, olvidate vos, forget it.”

At the closing ceremony of the international poetry festival in Medellín, Colombia, before 5,000 people at the outdoor amphitheatre on the slopes of the Cerro Nutibara, most of the poets read from their published books, but when it was Osvaldo’s turn, he pulled a couple of sheets of paper from his back pocket and began reading a typed poem. When he finished the one page, he realized that what was on the other was something completely different, and he broke up. “I shat with laughter, me cagó de risa, y toda la gente se cagó de risa.” A woman came up to him afterward and said “Venite, come with me.” “It was that gesture that captivated her,” says Osvaldo. “My helplessness.”

“See, it’s not as if we created a utopia in Costa Rica on purpose,” Ana Istarú (born 1960) explains to me. “It happened by default. We’re a biological corridor, a land-bridge.” At the weakest extension of Aztec and Inca influences before the Conquest, in colonial times Costa Rica attracted the second sons of second sons, who had to roll up their sleeves and work, since there was no treasure. There were practically no Indians left, no slaves. The Black population on the Atlantic Coast came from Jamaica just a hundred years ago. Nicaragua was much richer, with its factional wars between the Conservatives in Granada and the liberals in León. “We heard about Independence by mail,” Ana laughs. “We showed the typical Tico reaction: do nothing, wait and see.”

Ana Istaru is glamorous, an actress as well as a poet, and her charisma is founded on a sense of entitlement that began very early. Ana started writing poetry when she was eight years old. Her father always loved poetry and self-published a chapbook of his own verses. Her mother was a strong character; she was diputada, then alcalde of San José, and gobernadora of the province.

Ana always had the sense that she could do whatever she set out to accomplish. When she started to publish her poems, her father told her that great poets, like Pablo Neruda, publish under pseudonyms, so she took Istarú, which is an indigenous place-name, and soon she was better known as Ana Istarú than Ana Soto. She published her first book when she was fifteen years old. Eventually she had to change her name legally so that she could receive registered mail addressed to Ana Istarú.

Ana was a member of the Communist Party for eight years, and she always felt she had to out–militant everybody and at the same time apologize continually, because she came from a comfortable background. If she had to do it over again, she’d still join the Party, but she says she’d dissent more.

As a feminist poet whose work is erotically alive to the masculine body, she’s been criticized by lesbian separatists. At thirty-six, which is a lot older for a woman in a Latin American context than it would be in California, she uses more makeup than she did ten years ago, more than she needs. It must be a lively dance, to simultaneously employ and avoid the public persona of herself.

Osvaldo introduced Ana at a big reading in San José in November, 1995. Here’s my take on the event:

There are four huge floral bouquets in front of the podium at the Mexican Cultural Center, the best venue in town. The Tico poetry scene has turned out en masse to give a warm welcome to its favorite daughter, Ana Istarú, and her new book, Verbo Madre, Mother Verb.

In Costa Rica they introduce poetry readings with grand formality. Sonia Marta Mora, a professor at the National University, leads off with a major academic essay, which she reads in its entirety, in a dry monotone. She purports to find in Ana’s work a designificación, crumbling the structure of the pronoun. My problem with this trendy deconstructive analysis is it’s one size fits all; if literature is inevitably about its own failure of meaning, any text is only a handy scaffolding for the academician. Profesora Mora knows how to reduce a verse to pixels, but she can’t see her nose in front of her face. Her pompous presentation pisses off poet Habib Succar so badly that he storms out of the hall.

Now Osvaldo Sauma comes to the podium, resplendent in a borrowed royal blue three-piece suit, to surrender on behalf of the male gender, to give up “our misogynistic prejudices, to stop defending the false hegemony” that distances us from women. Verbo Madre brings home to him the sterility of being male, “the emptiness of the tree that does not give fruit.” He quotes Nicaraguan poet Carlos Martínez Rivas: “Woman is anterior to life./ Woman is anterior to Adam./ Woman is anterior to woman.”

It was not women, he says, who constructed jails, torture chambers and concentration camps. Women never launched wars and inquisitions. Women are the first priestesses, nourishing children and lovers, and they defend us men “from our own steely insensitivity, from our sick banality.” If we reconcile ourselves with the woman who gives birth, we men will make the acquaintance of the hitherto repressed woman who lives inside us. At the edge of the millenium, Woman has become poet and names everything anew, “in a language of marine grottos among the bellowing of the sea, of the waxing and waning moon.” And when we have voyaged through the geography of Ana’s Verbo Madre, we can say, with Borges, that “only one woman has been born and only one woman has died on the earth. To argue the contrary is merely statistics.”

Verbo Madre takes on the whole double cycle of the death of Ana’s mother and the birth of her daughter. At the edge of the darkness, the powerful woman who once was mayor of San José, undiminished, becomes a little child again, lulled to sleep on the wings of the song.

I spoke with the fragment of my mother
that didn’t want to die that resisted
that was the colt that got spooked
the nerve amputated before death

she carried such a blade of fire
we had to tie her down to bury her

… and to that little bit of hearing
that pulsed like a sacred silk
like the last boat
like the final pulse of a flaming splinter

… to that flask of faith
the merciful desolate surgeons left me
I was able to speak
to tell her

goodbye little one
sleep now
there will be no ferocious animals in the darkness


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