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August 19, 2010 / johnoliversimon

Nicaragua: Poets and Watercolors

Nicaragua, país-poeta, the Poet-country. Nicaragua, with three and a half million people, three–quarters of them illiterate before the Revolution, has produced a galaxy of major poetry equal to that of México, with ninety-five million. Alfonso Cortés (1893–1969) may have been the best of the Nicaraguan poets. One day in 1927 he went permanently crazy, and they chained him to a window seat in the same house on the corner in León where Rubén Darío grew up. You can still see where he twisted the iron bars in his rage. “A fragment of blue has more/ intensity than the whole sky.” Seen from that window, it does indeed.

Or maybe the best poet was Salomón de la Selva (1893–1958), who volunteered to fight in the trenches in France during World War I and came back to write The Unknown Soldier, a series of poems of poignant clarity.

José Coronel Urtecho (1906–1993) lived in San Francisco for three years and brought back the fresh winds that were blowing through new North American poetry, translating (with later help from his young friend Ernesto Cardenal) a whole anthology of gringos: Walt Whitman, Emily Dickenson, Edgar Lee Masters, Robert Frost, Amy Lowell, Gertrude Stein, Vachel Lindsay, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams. In 1929, Coronel Urtecho founded a movement of poets in Granada and they named themselves La Vanguardia.

It was a strange moment of cultural amalgamation or schizophrenia: the Marines were occupying Nicaragua, looking for a pesky revolutionary named Augusto C. Sandino who was holed up in the mountains. All the kids in the street were playing baseball. And every bright young poet of La Vanguardia was reading Eliot and Pound along with “the divine Rubén.”

In those days there were two cousins in Granada named Joaquín and Pablo Antonio. They were thirteen and fifteen years old and they belonged to rival gangs, the Black Hand and the Scarlet Hand. This was an innocent time; Tom Sawyer rather than Zoot Suit. One day the Scarlet Hand raided the clubhouse of the Black Hand and stole their treasures. Pablo Antonio read Joaquín’s purloined private poetry notebook. He was so impressed by the younger boy’s journal that he started writing verses too. Two years later, they both joined the Vanguardia.

Pablo Antonio Cuadra (1912-2002) wrote poetry for seventy-five years. He is best known for editing the newspaper La Prensa, in which he courageously opposed the Somoza dictatorship, and in turn, with equal and inflexible dignity, opposed the Sandinistas. Although he came to be identified with the Nicaraguan Right, Cuadra is in no way a purist apolitical poet. Indeed, his work travels “by third class,” among the poor, celebrating “these faces that appear among the multitude”:

Under a little green stone
like María
my daughter, my graceful
hummingbird at dawn

Under a little red stone
lies María
my wife. In her clay pot
she kept the sun. She was
my warmth

Under a little white stone
lies María
my grandmother. She lulled
the night on her knees. She was
my roof

You who tear down the house:
disturb these stones
at your risk:

The little green stone
The little red stone
The little white stone

Pablo Antonio Cuadra’s cousin Joaquín Pasos (1914-1947) never travelled, so he wrote a series of travel poems under the title Poems of a Young Man Who Has Never Travelled. He wrote “Norway” when he was fifteen years old:

Oh! This is Norway,
soft as cotton,
with its earth like a biscuit
and its coastline nibbled by the sea.

Oh! This is Norway
with its metal trees
and young women brought up in refrigerators…

Joaquín’s playfulness was facilitated by the iconoclastic openness of the new futuristic poetry that swept the continent in the 1920’s. In Buenos Aires, a myopic young fellow named Jorge Luis Borges was cranking out manifestoes and little magazines under the banner of Ultraism. In Chile, Vicente Huidobro labelled his inspired ravings Creationism. The young Mexican poets called themselves Estridentistas and Contemporáneos. Since he was always in love, Joaquín gathered his love poems under the title of Poems of a Young Man Who Has Never Loved.P But his poems show more of a timeless, pre–adolescent joy in being alive than the presence of any specific beloved:

Here I am, smiling tall, very tall.
With the five fingers of my freedom I sum the accounts
of my journeys.
Here I am, trembling and jubilant as the heart of a child.
I love the laughter of words and I’m dressed like a tightrope–walker.
I look around smiling like the birds.

Joaquín never studied English, so the Poems of a Young Man Who Does Not Speak English are written in a glorious indefinable English that could never be achieved by a native speaker. The unmistakable political edge is sharpened as we hear the hostile voices of bored Marines rejecting the smiling young Nicaraguan who was hoping to practice his English on them:

1 p.m.

This hour sings obscenities
over a fat man’s belly on good digestion
and it belches the words

this is why I throw them in English

another quality of this after glut time
is to be special for roughness

so, we may spit the druggist’s shop of the sun

and say: What
do you want? and “Go to hell”
the minutes bite like mosquitoes

this is an Intervention time
this is an hour to be said by yankee trumpets
just up there in the Campo de Marte
O! the houses are groggy under the blows of heaven
you will never get for your hair a ribbon
or a star from the North-American banner!

Joaquín Pasos, my favorite Nicaraguan poet, smiles from the present moment of his past, forever innocent, forever A Young Man. He never grew up; he spent his health on wine and song. He was always going to become a lawyer but he never wrote his thesis. He was always going to get married but he never popped the question. He was always going to publish a book of poems but he was correcting galleys on his death–bed.

When news of the death of Joaquín Pasos in 1947 reached far-away Madrid where Carlos Martínez Rivas (1924-1998) was studying, the younger Nicaraguan stayed up all night writing until the voices of the dead were more present than the voices of the living.

Because the young poets who have died in the past are many.
they greet each other across the centuries and we hear
their voices kindle like distant roosters crowing
out of the depths of the night, calling and responding.

We know so little about the great poets who died young; they loved a girl, clung to that love so hard they forgot about the girl, and they wrote about that, made many corrections, and died. But you, Joaquín, we know so much about you!

Martínez Rivas, through an intense act of imaginative analysis, enters the process of becoming-poet in the child Joaquín from the moment, in the arms of his nanny, when he realized he existed, into the irreverent age of painting moustaches on the Mona Lisa. And then, darkly, the calling: as all beings come into the garden to be named, so the young poet realizes that everything he perceives can only be handled through words, “through which/ you never after might look at the earth freely. /A bad business, Joaquín…”

There is no direct way to apprehend all the world’s freshness. Everything is mediated through the resistance of language:

… the brillance of a lemon.
The deaf weight of an apple.
The pensive face of a man.
The two pale panting breathing breasts
under the blouse of a girl who’s been running;
the hand that reaches to touch her.
The very words themselves…

What a wonderful, painterly list! All of it is corrupt information, unreliable. It would have been a lot easier to be a painter; at least they give you brushes you can clean every day, and you can paint puppy-dogs. Or carve wood, and sculpt a dancing nymph so that the air makes her vestment actually tremble. But all the poet is handed to work with is “words,/ verbs and a few vague rules. Nothing tangible.”

What Martínez Rivas honors in Joaquín is his honorable surrender to the harsh task. Like a carpenter, touching the saw’s edge, he chooses the adjective. Like a criminal, he waits in ambush for the rhythmic footsteps of the line. “To make a poem was to plan the perfect crime.”
The final image of the elegy is sexual and eerily disturbing. The song perches like a great bird on the dead poet’s breast, and its beak wounds his lips sucking fire, its wings furiously beating and weaving an invisible crown.

As the bees of Thebes
drank honey from the lips of young Pindar,
may this song reach your pale head.

Carlos Martínez Rivas returned from studying in Europe to deal with the suicide of his mother. He published one book of poetry in 1953, La Insurrección Solitaria, The Solitary Insurrection, and then retreated to his house in a Managua suburb with many books and many bottles of Flor Negra rum.

Costa Rican poet Habib Succar tells me he was invited to a big poetry festival in Managua in 1989 at which Carlos Martínez Rivas was also scheduled to read. C.M.R.’s reading was cancelled without explanation. Next morning, Habib asked directions to the poet’s house and went out there. Nobody answered his knock. He stood in the street, shouting ¡Carlos! “making a big scandal.” Then the curtains barely parted. With a furtive gesture, Martínez Rivas motioned him inside. They drank all day. They talked brilliantly about poetry. They finished two bottles of rum. Of course, Habib’s forgotten everything they said. “Go see Carlos Martínez Rivas!” another Costa Rican friend, Osvaldo Sauma, tells me. “He’s the only true poet in Nicaragua! Everyone hates him! He hates everyone!”

Carlos Martínez Rivas was one of three important poets to come out of the “generation of the forties.” This making of a generation every ten years or so is a way of telling time in every Latin American country. The second was Ernesto Mejía Sánchez (1923–1988), a limpid philosophical poet who lived most of his adult life in exile in México. The third member of the generación de los 40, and probably the only Nicaraguan poet most of us have heard of in the United States, is Ernesto Cardenal (born 1925).

Born in Granada, first cousin — another first cousin — of Pablo Antonio Cuadra, Cardenal was a timid romantic youth with right-wing sympathies when he arrived in Paris in 1949. The Latin American poets on the Left Bank nicknamed him “the little fascist.” But the young Nicaraguan was on the brink of an epic political and spiritual journey. Cardenal went to New York to study at Columbia, where he memorized Ezra Pound’s poetics and rejected his politics. A blonde salesgirl shot a smile through his heart as he passed the open door of Woolworth’s at 102nd Street and Broadway. Might everything have been different? “I could have hung around outside for her until closing time./ I continued along Broadway. Down Broadway.”

By 1954 Cardenal was back in Nicaragua, conspiring in an abortive rebellion against the first Somoza. In 1957 he entered the Gethsemane Trappist monastery in Kentucky under the spiritual direction of poet-monk Thomas Merton; in 1965 he was ordained a priest. In 1966 he organized a revolutionary contemplative artistic community on the island archipelago of Solentiname in Lago Nicaragua. Cardenal was the one Nicaraguan poet who became an international star. By the mid-eighties, he was the most widely-read poet in the Spanish language. In long, epic lines, using the logopoeia he learned from Pound, he lamented the horrors of imperialism, and articulated a utopian vision of Communism which would be one and the same as the simplicity of the primitive Church.

Cardenal developed a poetics he called Exteriorismo, explaining that “Exteriorism is poetry created with images from the outside world which we see and touch… Exteriorism is objective poetry: narrative and anecdotal, made with elements of real life and concrete things, with proper names and precise details and exact data and figures and facts and acts.” With the Triumph of the Revolution in 1979, Cardenal was named Minister of Culture. Naturally, he hoped to apply on a national scale what had been done on a community level in Solentanime. Mayra Jiménez (born 1939), a Costa Rican poet who had worked with Cardenal on the islands, took over the task of organizing the talleres in neighborhoods throughout Nicaragua. By November 1982, sixty–seven workshops were functioning nationwide, working with a total of 627 poets, most of them young, recently alphabetized, working–class folks: farmers, bakers, nurses, soldiers.

To give some coherence to the poetics of the talleres, Cardenal wrote a handout entitled “Some Rules for Writing Poetry (Algunas Normas para Escribir Poesía).” It begins with the confident sentence: “It’s easy to write good poetry, and the rules for doing so are few and simple.” Cardenal came up with seven normas:

1. “Poetry doesn’t have to rhyme. If one line ends with Sandino, the next doesn’t have to end with destino.”

2. Use concrete terms instead of general ones. Better to say guayacán, guásimo or malinche than “tree.”

3. Use proper names of rivers, towns and people.

4. Use the senses rather than ideas. That the corrugated metal is “rusty,” that the iguana has “rough skin.” Try to describe the sound the guacamaya makes. The most important imagery is visual.

5. Use natural speech. Don’t invert the word–order to sound poetic. If we use the informal vos rather than tú in our speech in Nicaragua, we should use it in our poetry.

6. Avoid clichés. “Burning sun” or “heroic combatants.” Find a new way to say it.

7. Condense the language, omit the unnecessary.

Ernesto Cardenal will go down in history less as a great poet than as the cultural promoter who tried to impose these seven rules on Nicaraguan poetry. The congruence with his own poetics of exteriorismo is obvious, but in and of themselves, as a basis for a poet–teaching curriculum, these normas are hardly objectionable. Let go of rhyme, use natural speech, use the senses, be specific, avoid cliché, trim the fat: anybody got a problem with that?

Let’s give Padre Ernesto the benefit of the doubt, and say that he was thinking of these seven points as a loose, but helpful set of guidelines to give the timid beginning writer some structure. Well and good: but you’ve got sixty-seven workshops running simultaneously around the country. Cardenal delegates to Mayra Jiménez who delegates to poets out in the field, and how long before the seven rules become an unbreakable orthodoxy in the hands of zealous, insecure workshop leaders? Cardenal himself blurred the line between prescription and proscription with some glee. When a group of sympathetic leftist foreign poets sat in on a workshop, he proclaimed, “It is forbidden to write sonnets.” “But—but—but,” they burbled. “But what about Borges?”

“Yes indeed,” Cardenal agreed, as if there were no contradiction, “I have read some excellent sonnets by Borges lately.”

More troublesome than what’s in the seven Normas is what isn’t in them. Imagination isn’t mentioned. Metaphor isn’t a possibility. The randomly playful spirit of Joaquín Pasos is not evident. The best poems of the talleres achieve a naked, poignant testimonial, as in this one by Mario Olivas:

Listening to the rain dripping
on the zinc roof of my room
I remember your smile
and your olive-green uniform
(the one you brought back after
your last battle in León)
and your words
(the ones you used to say to me
when we’d meet on the streets
of our village).
Today the town seems empty.
I can’t believe you are dead.

When I found a poem by Mayra Jiménez in an anthology of Costa Rican women, something unfortunate in the pedagogy of the talleres clicked for me. Mayra addresses the Sandinista comandante Lumberto Campbell in these terms:

The night I saw you for the first time in Bluefields
I looked at you from a distance
because you were dancing among many others.
You wore a guerrilla commander’s uniform
and your 574175 pistol…
Now that I know what your work is in the Revolution
and that your wife Perla María fell in battle in the barrio
Monseñor Lezcano
I believe I understand better
your extraordinary way of dancing
as if you were weeping
and as if the music weren’t playing outside
but inside you
revolutionary and joyful…

We not only see the revolutionary warrior dancing in full combat gear -— and his English last name, and the locale of the scene, in Bluefields, would suggest to a Nicaraguan reader that Lumberto is a Black man -— but despite the perfectly orthodox Exteriorist compilation of details (the “574175 pistol” is a classic touch), we are somehow brought inside his dancing, where the movement expresses sorrow and joy and determined struggle. The death of Lumberto’s wife in combat not only lends motivation to his dance, but creates the expectation that it is right and proper for the observing poet to become, in turn, his lover, “as if love, under your appearance/ with your Browning 9-mm. and your camouflage suit/ was all that was real for me that night/ in Bluefields.”

Despite the arsenal of heavy weaponry, it’s a heck of a poem. And by the time I read it I had seen many earnest carbon copies of it in the publications of the Ministry of Culture. Assignment number eight, perhaps, in each of the sixty-seven talleres: read and discuss “Lumberto Campbell” by compañera Mayra Jiménez, and then write your own poem about how you met your boy-friend or girl-friend. Observe the seven Normas, please. This one is by Javier Cruz:

And when you came to school late
everyone thought you were watching
the twelve o’clock telenovela.
But I knew you were at a meeting
of the Sandinista Youth.
You are a revolutionary.
I love you.

Vidaluz Meneses (born 1944), who worked with Cardenal in the Ministry of Culture, explained to me that Padre Ernesto’s idea was simply that newly alphabetized people don’t have the depth of literary tradition to appreciate metaphor, and that the exterior is more accessible; it’s a way into poetry that deals with people’s lives. I had taught for fifteen years with California Poets In The Schools and I found something condescending in the notion that workers and soldiers and farmers -— any more than children -— just aren’t deep enough, complex enough, to appreciate and to write anything beyond the linear literal level. Poet and novelist Gioconda Belli agreed with me. While she was in exile, she said, she taught a workshop with third–graders in Costa Rica using Kenneth Koch’s Wishes, Lies and Dreams, and she thought children -— or the newly literate —- were perfectly capable of using metaphor, if encouraged to do so.

As I went around in the summer of 1985, asking Nicaraguan poets about the talleres, I was opening a can of worms. Jorge Eduardo Argüello said the talleres were creating poetry according to a formula. “How to make a poem, like making a chocolate cake. Describe this and that, don’t use metaphor. This exteriorismo, it’s just Cardenal’s idea. Nicaraguan poetry is not exteriorist — it’s Indian, it’s mystical, it’s religious, and it’s anti-imperialist. Exteriorismo will blow away on the wind.”

Donaldo Altamirano (born 1942), editor of the literary supplement to the Sandinista newspaper Barricada, said that it was a mistake to assume that the masses can become poets just like that. “Poetry is a vocation. You have to study the tradition and then go beyond it. You can’t treat the production of poetry as if it were the production of corn or coffee. Padre Ernesto analyzed his own development as a writer and tried to recapitulate it blindly as a method.” Ivan Uriarte (born 1942) told me bitterly, “Cardenal is a has-been. The talleres are a lavamanos, a washbasin, into which he put his own poetic failure. Describe from the outside: the sky is blue, the grass is green. Forbid metaphor, which is the key to poetic thought. All this populism. This rubbish. Poetry as pure political propaganda.”

Jorge Eduardo Argüello said the talleres were on their way out, but they weren’t a bad idea. “They were oral history. They recorded important experiences that otherwise would have been lost. But you have to remember that Nicaragua has always had a very high tradition of poetry. You showed your work to a master, to Coronel Urtecho or Pablo Antonio. They didn’t let any shit go by; they told you to go home and try again. Then, after twenty years, you began to be accepted as a poet. So all of a sudden there were all these thousands of people coming out of the talleres and announcing “I’m a poet…”

In any case, the talleres perished in advance of the death of the Revolution that created them. Under the pressure of economic necessity, in the face of the kind of criticism I was hearing from the poets, and in a thicket of political infighting, the Ministry of Culture was quietly shut down in 1988, two years before the Sandinistas lost power.

Back home at the Peluquerría Unisex, I drag a chair out into the sunny patio to read El Habla Nicaragüense, a book about Nicaraguan speech by Carlos Mantica, who argues that the national language is actually Nahuatl spoken with a Spanish vocabulary. Y la mujer jodiendo todo el día, jiqui, jiqui, hasta que se la encampanen. And that woman messing around all day, jiqui-jiqui, till they got on her case. Jiqui from Nahuatl Xiquinaca, to buzz around like a fly. Marta, Jaime’s eleven-year-old half–sister, is laughing and chattering with her six green wing-clipped parrots. The television, as always, is murmuring some telenovela. Don Beto, Marta’s father, complains from deep within the caverns of the rented rooms. “I’m an old man! I’m blind! I never wanted it to come to this!”

Beto went blind suddenly when he had a stroke three months ago. Surgery might help, but he’s on a long waiting list. Doris pauses in her furious mopping to confide that she has no sympathy for him. When Beto had his sight, he was always getting infatuated with some young chippie. He went through seven of them in the twelve years they’ve been together. Now that he’s blind, he wants Doris to take care of him. Well, she’ll do what has to be done when she gets around to it; meanwhile, let him complain! Doris’s voice rises from a whisper to a defiant shout. Marta must hear everything, but she never shows a reaction, only laughs lovingly with her parrots. The gilded actors on the screen simulate violent emotions. Doris and Beto sleep at opposite ends of the hall. Jaime, trained as an exterminator, sprays a neurotoxin down the cracks. Cockroaches waddle out disoriented, and we find them dead in the patio in the morning. Jaime speaks in an immensely fluid and onomatopoetic Nicaragüense, which he is not really capable of slowing down. As I get up to speed, I realize what a proportion of sound– syllables punctuates his syntax, ¡paf¡ ¡paf¡ ¡paf¡ and ¡flas! ¡flas! as gunshots echo or running feet go by in what he’s telling me. Ernesto Cardenal’s translator John Lyons does a fair job with the vernacular of the martyred Sandinista comandante Laureano, who talked like Jaime:

But you’d say to me in that poetic language of yours from
those masses
later translated into so many languages, even Japanese
(some job translating you)
“Son-of-a-bitch poet tell those fuckers my compañeros in
that the counter-revolutionaries killed me the sons of
fucking bitches
but I couldn’t give a fuck.”

Jaime is immensely gentle in the way of good men who are extremely dangerous, having dedicated two-thirds of his life to violent survival in an unforgiving human and natural environment. When he and his men were camped in the selva, they would forage for dinner with their AKas, their AK-47s. If they were lucky, they ate chango and guasupo -— monkey and armadillo. Or they’d hand-grenade a pool in the river to stun fish. If they didn’t kill anything, they didn’t eat.
Next door, one house toward the mountain, lives Oscar, a former Contra, or, as it is politically correct to say these days, an ex-resistente. He and Jaime, the former Sandinista militant, get along famously; Oscar comes over to watch TV and they both laugh cynically at the politicians and their promises.

We eat dinner at Doña Pilar’s, in a converted driveway two blocks down toward the lake, picking and choosing among refritas (grilled potato patties mixed with cheese), the inevitable gallopinto (white rice mixed with black beans), and maduro (fried plantain); there are goat–ribs, chicken, and white cabbage salad, all washed down with a couple of beers: it makes a terrific meal. Stout Pilar is assisted by some neighbor girls including lithe Yolanda, whom Jaime nearly eats up with our supper. Proud and intrigued, she flings her head and gives pert repartee. With all the teasing, Jaime gets away with about eight córdobas, little more than a dollar, while I’m paying nineteen. “I know how to order here,” he vaunts, but I notice the difference: he consumes less protein.
Unemployment in Nicaragua is running fifty, maybe seventy percent. Jaime, at thirty-two, with a distinguished military record, is helping out Mom back at the motel. Doris is happy with my fifty córdobas a day, but her bread and butter is the one–night Ticabus travellers, salesmen and couples from Guatemala and El Salvador who rise in the dark to catch the dawn bus on to the next capital.
They never fail to wake me in process. “DEAR, DID YOU PACK THE TISSUE?” The walls of the Peluquerría Unisex are 1/8” masonite. One night, at half past three, I politely ask some people to pipe down, and the woman, on the john, yells “WHAT DID HE WANT, DEAR?” and her husband bellows back, “HE WANTS US TO TALK IN LOWER VOICES.”

Finally one morning the back bathroom definitively refuses to flush. Jaime burps it to no avail, and then runs a metal snake down the toilet bowl, with Don Beto loudly criticizing and second–guessing his every move. “It’s the desagüe, man,” he exclaims, as if we didn’t know it was the drain that was the problem. “Stick that fucking thing all the way down the inodoro.”

Jaime’s soon covered with slime and sweat and exasperated with Don Beto’s sidewalk superintendent act. “I’d like to shoot that old hijueputa,” he hisses. I try to be as useful as I can without actually exposing any soft epidermis to the black fecal gunk choking the tubes; I move beds and shelves out of the path of the expanding excavation, and hand tools to Jaime. But it’s not until Beto decides to get physically involved that we make any progress. He lies down on his ample stomach and sticks his arm all the way to the shoulder down the hole where the laundry basin drains into the tube from the offending shitter. He tugs and wiggles and something begins to give. Finally there’s a fresh run of water under the patio grate: first gray, then clear.

Managua taxis are a case study in how much scrounging and tinkering will keep a car barely running for tens of thousands of kilometers past the junkyard. Taxistas circulate, picking up anyone who’s going in the same direction as their first fare; if they must tell a woman they can’t take her where she wants to go, particularly an old señora, they say “no, mi amor” or “no, mi reina,” so sweetly that your heart wants to burst into poetry. Jaime and I and the cabbie have to ask a crowd of street kids how to find the Mala Nota bar, hidden deep in the far eastern suburbs of Managua on a grassy acre that must have been a Somocista estate; a candle-lit gazebo fills up with a poetry audience.

Juan Chow, poet and master of ceremonies, cracks them up with Tío Coyote stories that were told around a campfire a thousand years ago. By the late 17th Century, in the oldest surviving Nicaraguan text, the animal mask is transformed into the leering snout of the Güegüence, who mocks the Spanish Governor with outrageous wordplay delving deep from Spanish into Nahuatl for quadruple meanings. But the only animals reading tonight are the Four Hundred Elephants.
Los Cuatrocientos Elefantes (the phrase is from a line by Rubén Darío) are the most vital group of young poets in town. Carola Brantome (born 1961), a bouncy little person, hair shagged short except for a rat-tail, reads an luminously impenetrable poem:

The rising flesh gives off its guarded heat
of skin that grows lemons that do not weigh anchors.
Incomprehensible the blood like an anima of sand
drains out of
ancient, charged, vast sails
with the signs of disaster’s identity.

Say what, Carola? Who ordered the lemons? was that with or without anchors? Where do we stash those vast drained sails? Where is all this heating and rising and growth and drainage and charging and floating supposed to take place? Between the sheets? Somewhere within, someplace interior? Even if the signs of disaster’s identity are nearly illegible, and even if Carola’s finally generating more heat than light, there must be a certain satisfaction in writing a poem that breaks every one of Padre Ernesto’s rules at once.

There is an air of experimentation among the Elefantes, of working out beginnings. As if the Revolution, which was programmed as a poetic door to the future, was in its own way a dead end. The only approved path was exteriorismo and the poetics of the talleres, and these young poets are refusing to go down that road. So now they are starting over, inventing poetry from scratch. Their little magazine, of which they proudly give me a full archive, is neatly laid out, modestly xeroxed, saddle-stapled, irreverent and uneven. Carola Brantome’s introduction to issue number 3 cops to the uncertainty of the whole enterprise, and couldn’t be more different in tone from the militant slogans in vogue a decade back:

I’d be lying if I said I was sure of myself, now that words are the intangible food of poetry which oscillates between what’s written and what’s unsaid. Like music filling up the silence. Like the blank poems nobody feels the effects of having written. The stubborn, hair–raising delirium of going outside again: that leads to a door, exposed to the elements, poems thrown to the wind, although this can’t change the world…

Juan Sobalvarro (born 1966) was a Sandinista soldier on the northern front in the late eighties, by which time the whole country was sick to death both of the unending Contra war and the government’s “heroic combatants” rhetoric. Sobalvarro’s troubled authenticity may make us uncomfortable. His anti-war poems read like the best work of Vietnam veterans such as Yusef Komunyakaa and Doug Anderson. But hold on a second: wasn’t this soldier boy fighting on the side we were supposed to be cheering for?

I didn’t kill anyone in that war
and if I did, I was innocent and ignorant.

I never heard anyone’s heart beating to shoot at.
We fired into the fearful noise of the dark mountain,
into the mist continually bathing those hills.

I say we didn’t kill anyone.
We’re all innocent.

I will run naked so you can see.

The hottest poet among the Elefantes, at least for my money, is Marta Leonor González (born 1972), who’s the forerunner of a decidedly post-revolutionary generation. Marta Leonor was just seven years old at the blinding moment of the Triunfo. In grade school in Boaco, in southern Nicaragua near the Costa Rican border, her teacher made her memorize Rubén Darío and she hated it. By the time she came to Managua to study journalism at the Universidad Centroamericana at the age of eighteen, the Sandinistas had already lost power. Marta Leonor felt lonely in the big city, so she started going to poetry readings, where she met Carola Brantome. They decided to form a group, which they called IMAGEN, acrostic for Inmadura generación de escritores nocivos — Immature generation of obnoxious writers.

Gioconda Belli made it to a reading of IMAGEN and wrote that the poets were a little immature all right, but something was happening here, a different kind of poetry, erotic, ritual, brutal, unafraid: “a sign of new times in Nicaraguan poetry.” Already there were tensions within the group, a power struggle. Marta Leonor wanted to take on more leadership and Carola, a decade older, was resistant, already having been singled out by la Gioconda as one of the distinctive new women’s voices of the eighties, along with Tania Montenegro (born 1969) for whose poetry, says Marta Leonor with a little snarl, “I wouldn’t pay one peso.” IMAGEN was dissolving, so the young poets decided to publish a magazine instead. Some of them weren’t sure, everything is so expensive, but Marta Leonor insisted. “Even if it’s only one page!” she cried. “Even if I have to do it myself!” So they smashed some ants and photocopied them and pasted them up on the page between the poems, and that was the first issue.

Marco Morelli, a young Latino poet from New York who worked as a volunteer in Nicaragua in the late nineties, has recently edited Ruben’s Orphans, an anthology of the poets centered around the 400 Elefantes. He writes:

…these are Nicaraguan poets — they share a historical experience, a common landscape, a set of culturally defined signs and symbols; they’ve walked the same city streets, rode the same rackety buses… But these poets aren’t concerned with “consolidating a Nicaraguan identity.” This poetry is a result of a caring (though not uncritical) attitude born precisely of a deep compassion — not for the abstract concept of a nation or a “people” — but for the real human beings whom one sees, whom one knows, who inhabited one’s days, and who undergo the traumas of those days.

The poems of Marta Leonor González exude anger at an abusive father, “the silly playful way you call me Little Girl/ and when you pat my head don’t you paw me/ with a dying father’s breath.” She wants larger answers for the whole national and cosmic mess, which her poetry intimately details and resolutely refuses to resolve:

December’s dusty Xmas trees and cotton candy,
honey-apples for show and all the kids are happy
when their mother lies to hide their hidden deaths:
the cockroachy bread from breakfast, her three sons
killed in the war…

It doesn’t even occur to Marta Leonor to tell us which side the three sons were fighting on. In an epoch where Oscar the ex-Contra and Jaime the ex-Sandinista jeer together at the politicians, the question may no longer be relevant. Picking up where we left off:

... orphan grandson, daughter whore,
the coldness of that dying man who calls on sons and
mother, can’t find a glass or plate, only the unmade bed
with shit and piss, the mother dying, children, the world
is burning…

In the poems of Marta Leonor González I hear Don Beto complaining in his darkness and Doris hopelessly mopping. Nicaraguan poetry at the turn of the millenium is precisely located in this domestic debris, and who knows where it’s headed.


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