by John Kotula
I am well aware, as I put this photo essay together, that the conversation about Nicaragua is totally dominated by the political conflicts that have shaken the country for the last month. I think that now is a good time to write about Rubén Darío, and his image in Nicaragua, and Nicaragua’s love of poetry as a way of saying there is no “single story” about this country. Of course it is important to pay close attention to what is going on, but it is also important to remember that Nicaragua is so much more than just the current, tragic events.
One of the interesting things about being an artist in Nicaragua is that there is a very well established iconography of national heroes. There must be a dozen historical and political figures whose public portraits are instantly recognizable to everyone. Often these are painted on walls or appear as posters in a kind of visual shorthand. I explore these images in my own artwork and I’m interested in how they function in Nicaragua. It is my hunch that they are an important part of creating a national identity, a sense of community, and a consensus on shared values.
One of the most prominent of these iconic figures is Rubén Darío. The prevalence of his image is perhaps second only to Sandino’s. There are two standard ways of portraying him. In one, his fingers rests on his cheek and he has a kind, pensive expression on his face. If he is in this pose, it doesn’t have to be a great likeness to be identifiable as this most important of Nicaraguan poets. The second way he is depicted is in a very regal, full length stance, decked out in a gold brocaded waistcoat. Portraits in this style seem to reference his career as a diplomat more than as a poet.
It was a divine hour for the human race.
Before, the Swan sang only at its death.
But when the Wagnerian swan began to sing,
there was a new dawning, and a new life.
The song of the Swan is heard above the storms
of the human sea; its aria never ceases;
it dominates the hammering of old Thor,
and the trumpets hailing the sword of Argentir.
Oh Swan! Oh sacred bird!
If once white Helen,
immortal princess of Beauty’s realms,
emerged all grace from Leda’s sky-blue egg,
beneath the white of your wings,
the new Poetry,
here in a splendor of music and light,
conceives the pure,
eternal Helen who is the Ideal.
From “The Swan”
[All translations by Lysander Kemp]
“Every Nicaraguan is a poet until proven otherwise”
José Coronel Urtecho, The great poet from Granada.
This quote is repeated frequently and held as a firm belief about the Nicaraguan character. It may be that pride in Darió’s fame was the source of this national self-identity. Or the other way around, it might have been that Nicaraguans already saw themselves as a poetic people and this allowed them to elevate Darió to the status of national hero. It is not an exaggeration to say that today, just past the 150th anniversary of his birth, he is the face of Nicaragua.
Darió is not well known in the English speaking world. However, he is widely credited with creating a revolution in written Spanish that continues to reverberate today. “The great Spanish language poets of the 20th century, including immortals such as Mexican Octavio Paz, Chilean Pablo Neruda and Spaniard Federico García Lorca all paid tribute to Rubén Darío. Nobel Laureate Octavio Paz wrote in his 1964 essay on Darío “The Seashell and the Siren” that in his poems Darío “seeks a beauty that is beyond beauty; that words can evoke but can never state”. (http://nicaragua-photographer.com/tale-two-poets/ This link leads to a really fine essay called A TALE OF TWO POETS – Nicaragua’s Passion for Poetry, by Richard Leonardi that is worth reading.) Darío’s reputation is even more impressive for having been established by a man from a tiny, impoverished former colony, that at the time had a total population of less than half a million people.
You with the light, give me my own.
It’s like I’m blind. I grope around in the darkness,
I’m stuck beneath tempests and storms,
blinded by dreams and crazy with harmony.
That’s my curse, to dream. Poetry
is an iron straitjacket with thousands of spikes
that I wrap around my soul. Drops of melancholy
fall from the bloody spines.
Darió’s relative lack of recognition outside of the Spanish speaking world may be due to his being difficult to translate. Stuart Cooke, a Darió scholar says, “Many translators have insisted on attempting to translate something of Darío’s carefully constructed rhyming schemes.” However, rhyme can occur more easily in Spanish than in English and therefore is far less obtrusive. Some English translations sound “almost like an extract from a children’s nursery rhyme”. Darío’s poems, which have a darker, more brooding atmosphere are poorly served by this approach to rendering them in English.
It also bears saying that a conversational level of Spanish isn’t sufficient for a deep reading of the complexities of Darió’s writing. However, there are great rewards to reading this poet either in imperfect translation or in struggling through in Spanish if you are less than fluent. I have a suggestion of where to start: Songs of Life and Hope/Cantos de vida y esperanza, a bilingual edition that you can read on your Kindle.
Out on the sea a swift boat rowing,
rowing: the lover with his beloved,
flying to the land of dreams.
In the sunset light and the million glints
that flashed on the sea, those streaming oars
seemed made of burnished gold.
And, in that graceful boat, still rowing,
rowing, the lover and his beloved,
flying to the land of dreams.
Their fate? I do not know. I remember
that after a pallid twilight, the sky
darkened and the sea grew rough.
The great poet’s biography is florid, a bit soap opera-ish, and finally tragic. He was left to his maternal aunt and uncle to raise when his mother found a new husband and started a new family. He seldom saw her after that. His father had little presence in his life. He had taught himself to read by the age of three. By the time he was 13 he was publishing his verse in newspapers, first in Nicaragua then across Central America. He became famous as “El Poeta Niño” (The Child Poet). Rubén Darío’s first book of collected poems was published a year later. The country seemed to be very aware they had someone special on their hands. There was talk that he should be educated in Europe at the expense of the state. Throughout his life he was given government sponsored positions that allowed him to travel, work as a journalist, and write his poetry. By the age of 15, he had left his native León and was working at the National Library in Managua. His travels may have been kicked off when he fell in love with an eleven year old girl, Rosario Emelina Murillo, who he wanted to marry. He was sent to El Salvador in hopes of delaying his marriage plans. (They eventually married and it didn’t go well!) Trips to Chile, Costa Rica, Havana, Argentina, Paris, Madrid, New York, Panama, and Mexico as journalist or diplomat followed. He returned only sporadically to Nicaragua. Despite being a prolific journalist and publishing several books of poetry and stories that established his importance as a major voice in Spanish literature, he seldom had enough money. Everywhere, he lived a bohemian life and associated with all the important writers of his day. And he drank. By the time he was thirty his alcoholism was quite advanced. With the outbreak of World War I, he returned to his birthplace of León, Nicaragua. He died shortly after his return, on February 16, 1916. He was 49 years old. His funeral lasted several days. He was buried in León cathedral, under a marble sculpture of a lion that school children and tourist still flock to see. (This brief sketch of the poet’s life is based on a number of internet biographies. There are several full biographies in Spanish, but I can’t find any in English.)
At some point every Nicaraguan kid memorizes and recites a Darío poem. They stand under a poster or mural of this national hero and “declama” their selected verse with verve and all the appropriate gestures and facial expressions. I imagine the kid filling with pride and saying to his/her self, “Sure, I’m a poet! After all, I’m Nicaraguan.”
- The Nicaraguan Bishops Conference on May 14 released an announcement saying that “After listening to the clamor of the vast majority of society and conscious of the gravity of the situation in the country and even though the circumstances for a dialogue are not the best, we announce the beginning of dialogue this Wednesday May 16 at 10:00 am.” Managua Archbishop Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes stated, “The church will be mediator and witness in this dialogue. We want to make clear that the church does not have solutions for all the particular questions, but together with the different social forces, we will accompany those proposals that best respond to human dignity and the common good, so that they can be translated into public policy.” He bemoaned the continuing confrontations, including one in progress in Sebaco, and called for an end to the acts of violence. (Informe Pastran, May 14; El Nuevo Diario, May 14)
- It is unclear whether the student group known as the University Coalition will participate in the dialogue called for Wednesday by the Catholic Bishops Conference. Coalition spokesman Victor Cuadras released two videos, in one of which he expressed reluctance to join and in the other he said that the students were ready to participate. Since last Friday, the student coalition had been urging the bishops to begin the dialogue saying that they were prepared to take part. (El Nuevo Diario, May 14)
- The Nicaraguan Foreign Ministry on May 13 invited the Inter-American Human Rights Commission (IAHRC) to visit Nicaragua “as soon as possible with the objective of observing on site the human rights situation in Nicaragua.” The Foreign Ministry expressed its firm commitment to provide all necessary assistance to the Commission while it is in Nicaragua. It is hoped that the visit will lead to a clarification of the facts surrounding violations of human rights that have been reported. The visiting members of the IAHRC will meet with bodies created by the government such as the Human Rights Ombudsman, the Public Ministry, and the Truth, Justice and Peace Commission created by the National Assembly along with other organizations including Nicaraguan human rights organizations. Myrna Cunningham and Cairo Amador said that the National Assembly’s commission had called for inviting the IAHRC as well as the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. (Informe Pastran, May 14; El Nuevo Diario, May 14)