Skip to content
November 4, 2010 / johnoliversimon

Looking For Poetry in La Candelaria

Bogotá from the mountain of Monserrat

“La Candelaria?” the cabbie bringing me from the Bogotá airport slits his hand across his throat. “You want to go there? Very dangerous. Muchos ladrones. Plenty of thieves.” He wants to sell me the security system of the four-star Hotel Tequendama for $175 a night. And he’s right: the entire country of Colombia has a homicide rate seven times that of the city of Oakland. But out of this ongoing holocaust is emerging a miraculous flowering of poetry. “You have to go to Colombia! That’s where the poetry is!” the poets were telling me from Mexico to Costa Rica, and I hadn’t been planning to go, I knew it was too dangerous, but anyway here I am.

I do not end up in the armored Tequendama, but in the Hotel Platypus in the heart of La Candelaria at six dollars a night. We’re four degrees north of the equator, but at 8,600 feet a chill drizzle falls ceaselessly. I dry my travel-filthy socks and underwear by draping them above the crackling wood-stove, and head down the street to the Teatro de la Ciudad to mingle with my first Colombian poetry crowd. Poets have such fascinating faces: in past lives these folks were seacaptains and witches and talmudic scholars and visionary maidens.

“There is a constant presence in this country,” a woman my age named Angela tells me. “El miedo. Fear. It accompanies us in each moment.” Two years ago, a paramilitary death squad disappeared her brother. “One doesn’t know why one is still alive. And this has been going on for half a century.”

“Colombian culture,” Angela sighs. “It is not simple. We used to look to Europe for everything. Now we are discovering the indigenous and African roots of who we are.” Angela’s writing a book about her grandparents. They were Basque, and they came to Colombia as miners. But, damn it, it was her brother who knew more of the stories about the village they came from.

Angela’s bright-eyed daughter Claudia Delgado is being awarded first prize in the Premiación de la Ciudad de Bogotá. Her poetry makes its way down into childhood, sailing a paper boat across a mappamundi, excusing itself for opening doors behind that corner “when I was eight years old curled up all cozy” (cuando tuve ocho acurrucados años), but there are men who have lain thirty years  murdered back there, “and behind them is water, and further back, more water.” Unfolding out of childhood, the voice becomes that of a woman whose lover has been disappeared, “and through all this country to seek for you.” ¡Ay de mí en mis derrotas! What will become of me, defeated? What’s left? Dejándome escribir sin boca. Dejándome escribir. Letting me write without a mouth. Letting me write.

I pull a Colombian five thousand peso bill (worth about five dollars) from my pocket. On the front, where it says 5000 BANCO DE LA REPUBLICA CINCO MIL PESOS, a bearded gentleman gazes dreamily from among lush hallucinogenic jungle flowers. Surely a president, a general, a captain of commerce? Not at all. This is José Asunción Silva, born 1865, committed suicide May 24, 1896, the first major Colombian poet.

Why did Silva ask a doctor friend to mark an X on his left breast where the heart is, and then go home and lie down and put a bullet from his pearl-handled revolver through the spot? Was it the bankruptcy of his tile-baking factory and his creditors dunning him day after day?

Was it the way people called him a maricón on the streets of Bogotá after he returned from studying — from hanging out in cafés — in Paris, with his tags of français, his black cravat, his Egyptian cigarettes? Was it the shipwreck coming back from Venezuela, when all hands were saved but his poetry manuscripts were lost? Or was it the death five years earlier of his kid sister and soulmate Elvira, who liked to slip out at dawn to watch Venus rise from behind the mountains of Monserrate overhanging La Candelaria, the oldest section of Bogotá, and one cold morning she caught a chill, which turned to pneumonia, and the doctors said nothing could be done?

We’ll never know. Flip over the bill. Between art-nouveau flowers, a row of dark foliage extends deep into the rising circle of the full moon. A girl — Elvira? — looks sidewise at us, tiptoeing down a moonlit lane. On an ornate monument in the foreground, there appears to be an inscription, but the print is too tiny to read. We’ll need a powerful hand lens here, squinting, trust me:
































The colonial house in La Candelaria where José Asunción Silva killed himself is now the Casa de Poesía Silva, the most vital and active poetry center in Latin America. It’s odd, as I pause here on the threshold of Colombian poetry, to reflect that Silva is practically unknown outside Colombia. In fact, the only Colombian writer who has achieved the stature of the great Nicaraguan or Chilean or Mexican poets is the novelist who gave the world A Hundred Years of Solitude. But then, how thin is the line, at this end of the millenium,  between poetry and prose?

In a few days the Casa will close for a month-long Christmas break, an extended holiday season in which Colombia grinds to a halt as everybody who can afford to goes to the beach. I get a five-minute audience with the savvy directora, María Mercedes Carranza, herself the daughter of Eduardo Carranza, an important mid-20th century poet. She introduces me to Doris, the perky administrative assistant, and Mónica, the sweet librarian, and I hunker down in the quiet library of the Casa, hoping to find out what’s been going on in Colombia since the dawn of poetic time.

It begins with songlines chanted by the U’wa, who named their land by the flight of migratory birds: “Shishara, Shakira, Tirira, Karouwa, Tha Kuma, Bekana, Raiayana, O’runa, Beragdira, Th’thumbria, Yokumbria, Akatra…” A contemporary anthropologist has used these songs to retrace a route outlined by standing megalithic stones; today the U’wa are locked in a battle with Occidental Petroleum for the rights to the territory originally defined by song.

A deep look into indigenous languages reveals a richly different way of perceiving the world. In Desana, for example, tulari means an insect bite, but also a person with a penetrating stare; the power of penetrating what is hidden has a sexual dimension, but also refers to the shaman who can leave this biosphere and enter another existential plane. This trance is akin to death, so that death itself is a transformation through penetration. “Thus do these people perceive the world,” writes Colombian poet William Ospina: “not as a plethora of isolated substantive things, but as a continuity in which a mosquito bite is like sex, and that in turn is like the magical ecstasy which allows the shaman to understand the secret workings of the world; in many distinct things, one self-same palpitation of the earth.”

Then the Spaniards came. Juan de Castellanos was born in a village near Seville, and found himself in South America by the age of fifteen. He spent the next two decades fighting and treasure–hunting in the jungles and mountains of what is now Colombia and Venezuela. He was ordained a priest in 1557, defended himself successfully from the Inquisition, and spent the next forty years writing Elegías de Varones Ilustres de Indias (Elegies of Illustrious Men of the Indies), a poem 120,000 lines long (fifteen thousand eight-line stanzas), recounting what he had witnessed. Juan de Castellanos had terrible tales to tell of jaguars and huge anacondas, the taste of raw meat and thirst on dry desert ridges, chronicles of ambush and betrayal, “whole armies, shivering with fear and fatigue, precipitating savage massacres because of some misunderstanding,” villages abandoned in terror with punji-stakes planted everywhere, even to pointed slivers in the fruit on the trees. His poem is a documentary featuring the invaders with their high intentions and sadistic brutality, and the sometimes trusting, sometimes greedy natives; it is a report from the front.

The soldier-priest from Seville was a plain-spoken man, who disdained the machinery of classical mythology enthusiastically imported by such contemporaries as the Portuguese Camoens in his epic Luisadas.


I will go on with hurried footsteps

Without any fringe of poetic tresses

That make sweet verses more sonorous

To those accustomed to reading them,

But as I must tell of painful events

Which so many among us have suffered

It seems better to me to tell the plain truth

Without using fiction or arrangement.


For this exteriorism, Juan de Castellanos has been ignored by four centuries of Colombian critics who confused poetry with ornamentation. William Ospina writes, “Don Juan’s language was difficult because our poetry was not accustomed to an intense commerce with what we call reality.” And the language of the Elegías becomes American through this intimate bloody commerce; indigenous words that saw print for the first time in this poem include hammock and hurricane.

A young widower from Caracas, who had seen Napoleon crown himself Emperor in Nôtre Dame, caught up with Alexander Von Humboldt in Rome and asked the peripatetic scientist if he thought Spain’s Latin American colonies were ready for independence. “They are,” replied Von Humboldt. “All that is lacking is the man to lead the struggle.” The young Venezuelan, whose name was Simón Bolívar, thanked him and set sail for home. A few years later, the English Romantic poet George Gordon, Lord Byron, decided to consecrate his life upon the sacred flames of the revolutionary struggle for liberty. His first thought was to go to South America and join Bolívar. But it was a logistical nightmare to find a ship that would take him from London to Cartagena, and so Byron died in Greece instead.

By 1828, Bolívar, together with José San Martín and Bernardo O’Higgins, had effectively thrown off the yoke of Spanish rule throughout South America, and returned in triumph to Bogotá, investing himself with dictatorial powers. Fearing a tyranny, some of his old supporters conspired to assassinate the Liberator in his house in La Candelaria. The fiercest fireeater among them was a young poet named Luis Vargas Tejada. Bolívar scrambled out the back window while his fiery mistress Manuela Sáenz delayed the assassins at the front door. The conspirators were arrested, and fourteen of them were executed; Vargas Tejada escaped. The poet fled to a remote hacienda and lived for months in a cave in the forest. Convinced that his enemies were still on his trail, he fled further into the jungle. As he attempted to cross a rain-swollen river, the current swept him away.

Might Luis Vargas Tejada have been the poet to find a new American style in Spanish, the declaration of independence that within a few years Walt Whitman launched in the North? William Ospina thinks so. Vargas Tejada “was advancing toward a personal language, richly authentic, combining classical culture and popular speech; his criticism reflects the enlightened spirit and intellectual curiosity of those years; his elegant irony and precise images continually stimulate the reader… he lacks the marmoreal heaviness of the nineteenth century poets who came after him, and preceded Silva.”  For the young revolutionaries of the early nineteenth century, politics itself was a kind of romantic poetry, as it would be again for those of us who were young in the 1960’s. Bolívar swept up the continent in a whirlwind of idealistic language, and men abandoned their ordinary existence to destroy the tyranny of the past. This unfinishable process, in a final excessive spasm, caught up Luis Vargas Tejada and smashed him like a fly.

The streets of La Candelaria, Bogotá

La Candelaria by twilight is a cobblestone fantasy of colonial balconies with geraniums, windowed lofts, antique doors and beautiful graffiti. Standardized political slogans are routinely spray-painted on the public walls of every Latin American city, but the graffiti in Bogotá are pure poetry:














In the Café Rosita, the nineteenth-century family photographs shining on the wall somehow seem very deep to us, and Hugo, a skinny, cynical mulatto poet, points to a vibrant young woman in one of them and says “my future wife.”

“She’s dust!” Mónica tells him.

“Polvo serás,” Hugo brilliantly ripostes, quoting Francisco de Quevodo of the Siglo de Oro in Spain, “¡pero polvo enamorado! Dust you shall be, but dust in love!”

We walk up the hill to the Plazuelita del Chorro, the secret heart of Bogotá, with its little fountain and an archway and a couple of cafés and a tiny church, where the city was founded in 1536, and where a street festival’s going on, with bands playing and mimes. Rosy and Heloisa are teaching me Colombian slang: Parche means turf, while parchero is a homeboy. Pegar en el perrito, to hit the little dog, is to hit the bull’s eye, and sonar la flauta, to play the flute, means the same thing. A tall blond guy with whiteface on his cheeks, a street actor I don’t know from anywhere, comes up and greets me, exclaiming “¡Poeta!” “¡De pura chirripa al parchero le sonó la flauta!” Heloisa applauds. He hit the bull’s eye by pure chance!

Darkness has fallen by the time we drift away from the Plazuelita del Chorro. Colombian headbangers shake their fists to a throbbing beat behind a yelping girl singer in platinum-spiked hair and a dog collar. On my street, a bunch of young artists have kindled fires in trash-cans, and people are drawing on the street with chalk and charcoal, while the video Quest For Fire plays on an old black and white TV plugged into an extension cord. “Es un happening,” they explain to me. I buzz myself into the common room of the Platypus; none of these self-absorbed international travellers has any notion that this is going on in our neighborhood.

Tom, a cadaverous Englishman who hangs out at the Platypus, is living with a young poet named María Teresa Pinzón. Tom’s in love, supporting them both, teaching English in three different schools around Bogotá. Maybe talking to me will be her big break. As we’re chatting in their tiny dark flat half a block below the perilous urban river of la Séptima, the landlady, a friendly old soul, comes in to announce that the water and the power will be out all day tomorrow, better do your laundry now.

María Teresa tells me she had a violently conflictive relationship with her wealthy adoptive family, made suicide attempts, left home when she was nineteen, and lived on the street. She hung out with people who were shooting basuco, which is the dregs left over from the manufacture of cocaine, mixed with brick dust; she looks damaged. She writes cryptic little fortune poems on index cards, each one different, glues wildflower petals to them, signs them Shalom, and sells them on the street for 3,000 pesos. She shows me her long poems; my eyes blur. Interior labyrinths, metaphor upon metaphor. It would be far more interesting if she wrote from the life experiences she’s telling me.

María Teresa does the rounds of the open readings, and she set up a feature for herself with percussion and sax at a café in La Candelaria, hand-coloring the flyers. María Mercedes Carranza doesn’t give her the time of day. I know how tough it is for a street poet to break into the high culture circuit. A few days later, Tom asks me if I want to talk to María Teresa some more, and I say no, not really. The hurt winces in his face. He takes back the poems she gave me.

The fake tourist police try their street theatre on me. The first guy buttonholes me to ask where to encounter the Biblioteca. The second guy cuts in on cue to ask the first guy where he’s from. “Bolivia,” he claims. From here, the script is supposed to go like this: the second guy’s from immigration police, they’re checking the documents and cash of foreign travellers for bills marked for a drug-sting operation. The ersatz Bolivian will show him his passport and money; the false cop will approve and hand everything back. Then it would be my turn, but I frustrate their scenario by walking on so briskly the scam never has a chance to develop.

I am twenty-five years older than anybody else at the Platypus, and I’m ready to hit the hay by ten, just when it’s party time down the hall. Too tired and wired to sleep, I listen to them yak for hours. By one-thirty, I stumble into the dormitory where all the young folks are drinking beer and smoking cigarettes and discovering life and each other, and I plead with them to tone it down. They do hush a little, between huffs of conspiratorial laughter, but I still can’t sleep, and at two-thirty I burst into their room again and launch an incoherent discourse the point of which is SHUT THE FUCK UP! That does it pretty good, but now I’ve created a whole contingent that won’t speak to me. The Israeli guy I split a couple of games of chess with won’t play me any more. Toby, an elfin-faced English kid, writes a poem about me in the log–book:


He bursts into your room at 1/2 past 10

“Just keep quiet, I won’t ask again

There’s too much noise (though you can hardly hear it)

I’m really not joking—I honestly mean it.”

A young traveler’s birthday was the night in question,

No music or screaming, t’was simply a session.

With 30-odd people & one complaint,

The elderly traveler stands out like a saint.

With this little ditty in Bogotá city

I really mean no offense,

But going around like the chief of police

Does not make a whole lot of sense!


In San Agustín, in southern Colombia, there are monumental stone sculptures of an eagle clutching a serpent like the Mexican flag, and an ursine figure playing a flute. The nagual or animal double rides on the back of the human form. The jaguar is the east, the morning. The serpent is the west and death. The little frog, the sun’s first wife, represents rain. The sun is an ugly little man, clothed in gold. Only the ugliest runt among the Mexican gods had the courage to sacrifice himself at Teotihuacán and so became the Fifth Sun. Waterbirds perch in black on a white-rimmed clay bowl. The bat is the night sun of darkness. Ciudad Perdida, on the ridges of the Sierra Santa Marta, is built on oval montículos. The chiefs wore gold masks to make them look like jaguars. Or masks with two heads to represent a dualistic world-view. Tulari: penetrating the other reality.

We poets love to idealize the harmonious vision of the Native Americans. The Europeans had a similar vision, thousands of years ago, at the time of the goddess religion and the Druids; they — we — gave it up for technology and law and exploitation. If this continent had been allowed to develop on its own, would México and Perú — and the Pomo, Pequot, Natchez, Chibcha and Mapuche — have avoided the familiar mistakes of Greece, Rome, England, Germany and Japan?

At this end of this millenium, in the jungle, indigenous minds wearing tee shirts and baseball caps build a common house, which they visualize as the womb of the great mother. An ark sails upriver, crewed by animal spirits carrying shotguns. The sacred plants, yagé and yobo and datura, plumed with black and yellow feathers, still take the shaman wherever he needs to go. An Australian girl named Rosslyn took yagé with a curandero in the selva. For three nights she saw great snakes among the night leaves and stars. The last night she saw suburbs and malls. The god inside the plant, the curandero explained, was showing her her own future.

After the Conquest, they painted angels and virgins and Christs and stern viceroys. Alexander Von Humboldt shines as a laughing blond Nordic sun-god. Simón Bolívar has the face of a revolutionary genius who would have been at home in 1968; as the portraits age him he grows more desperate and pissed-off as he saw how badly it was turning out. A century of eminently forgettable senators and presidents. Some mild landscapes in the European manner. A few timid impressionists found their way to France forty years late. Costumbristas painting smiling campesinas like an echo of the WPA. Finally, a throwaway international style, geometries and slashes I forget as soon as I turn my eyes away. The most important living Colombian artist is Fernando Botero. The affectation of his fat figures. What are they stuffed with? Drug money?

At the poetry evening in a nineteenth-century mansion that is the Casa Cultural of the southern state of Huila, the guest of honor is Lolita Durán (born 1910), a tiny lady with a wizened smile and her hair dyed an improbable roan-red. In her day she was a concert pianist and she once published a book of sonnets, which come from a very dear far-away world:


And how shall I complain if in my life I’ve had

The finest perfumes and most beautiful loves?


But Lolita’s claim to fame is that seventy years ago she was engaged to be married to the famous Colombian novelist and Modernist poet, José Eustacio Rivera. Rivera’s one book was La Vorágine (The Vortex), a Conradian tale of the moral disintegration of an idealist among bandits, naked Indians, and exploited caucheros, rubber-collectors, in the Colombian Amazon. La Vorágine became a continent-wide best–seller, and initiated a successful genre of muckraking novels.

Everyone’s eager for gossip about her romance with Rivera. It all happened in Neiva, the sleepy provincial capital of Huila. Lolita was sixteen, still at high school with the nuns, in the colegio de monjas; she was five feet two, with blazing auburn hair. One day her father told her: “I’ve met a fine fellow, a writer.” Lolita said, “Oh, Papá, if he’s a poet, bring him home!” because ever since she was a little girl she had loved verses.

José Eustacio Rivera came to dine at the estate and Lolita played the piano for him; he read his sonnets to her. She was an ardent horsewoman; they rode to the hunt and shot deer and foxes. Naturally, they fell in love and became engaged, comprometidos. “Then we went to Bogotá—”

“Just the two of you?” interrupts an old banker with a great grin on his face, and the whole room flowers with laughter at his implication. “No, cómo cree usted,” Lolita replies indignantly, “how can you think such a thing? My whole family came along.”

In the fall of 1928, José Eustacio travelled to the United States, full of plans; he and Lolita would be married in the spring. He had another novel in the works, Mancha de Aceite (Oil Stain), which would continue raking muck, this time taking on Colombia’s petroleum industry. Rivera was working to get La Vorágine translated into English, and at the same time he was setting up a Spanish-language press in New York, Editorial Andes. The stock market was booming; anything seemed possible.

When definitive editions of La Vorágine rolled off the presses up north, Rivera made headlines by sending two copies — one for the President of the Republic, one for the National Library — on the first airplane ever to fly from New York to Bogotá. And then, in New York City, at the age of forty, at the height of his fame, José Eustacio Rivera, the most famous Colombian writer of his time, dropped dead of a cerebral aneurysm.

Lolita was desolate. It took her seven years to marry someone else after all. “When you know a man like José Eustacio Rivera, you can’t settle for just anyone.” And were you happy in your marriage afterward? “Oh, yes, we were happy.” And was José Eustacio a jealous man? Lolita flutters her fingers like a fan. “¡Ay, sí…!”


One Comment

Leave a Comment
  1. JoAnn Anglin / Nov 27 2010 8:39 pm

    These paintings add so much to your wonderful stories. I just spent many days in Belize, in the countryside mostly. I kind of saw them as if they were watercolor paintings like yours.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: