“Ahora contemplo / el mar en que La Habana se examina la cara. ”

I carried a pocket notebook with me when I was in El Salvador and tried to write sketches of moments and places whenever I could. One such place was the shoreline of Lake Güija in the village of Azacualpa, a short drive outside Metapán. During a lull in the torrential rain that day (from tropical storm Alma), I had a chance to sit on some rocks by the water and write the following page:

Again, the mist covers
the hills and ripples
from the lake lap
against black stones
voices echo across the
shoreline, Christian
music broadcasts on
a distant speaker –
canoes (“pirogues” as
in Omeros) with small
outboard motors on
the shore, only one out
in the lake beneath
the heavy soak, to the
right you can get to
Guatemala in about
45 minutes by boat –
Wordsworth’s “spots
of time,” this is a
district I could walk
but the rain has
returned to close the book

When I would pause from writing, I could watch the rain moving steadily across the lake towards me. The heavy mist floating over the landscape seemed to spark the union of intense, dark green from the earth and the dim grey of the skies. The only sounds I noticed were the small waves lapping against the rocky shore below, the Christian songs blasting from a loudspeaker somewhere behind me (it was Sunday) and, eventually, a stray dog who came by to bark at me from a distance.

A few days earlier I had finished reading Roque Dalton’s long collage poem “Los hongos” [Mushrooms], which as far as I know hasn’t been translated into English. It’s a masterful poem, written in Havana, Paris and Prague between 1966 and 1971. The text is dedicated to his friend Ernesto Cardenal and deals partly with Dalton’s conflicted allegiance to both Catholicism and Marxism. At this point in his career, Dalton had moved beyond his seemingly effortless talent for lyrical poems, instead creating pieces that were filtered through his eclectic research interests. “Los hongos” was composed during the fertile period that saw the appearance of his famous long piece “Taberna” [Tavern], which also employed the collage method. Reading both poems side by side, one notices the more conflicted and meditative tone of the former in contrast to the gregarious, drunken hi-jinks of the latter.

In “Los hongos” Dalton seems to be trying to evoke, or inhabit, the notion of Christian mysticism in relation to poetic thought. When he looks out into the sea from his apartment in Havana, he notices a mirror:

“Ahora contemplo
el mar en que La Habana se examina la cara.
Ahora sé que de él venimos gateando como penitentes,
y que a él volveremos cuando sobre la tierra
hasta nuestros contemporáneos protozoarios hayan
organizado su cultura y su libertad.”

[Now I contemplate
the sea in which Havana examines its face.
Now I know that we come from it crawling like penitents,
and that we will return to it when on earth
even our contemporaries the protozoa will have
organized their culture and their freedom.]

I had been reading his poems from the Visor anthology published in Madrid in 2000, which has a pretty comprehensive selection edited by Mario Benedetti. At the airport in San Salvador, I found the second volume of Dalton’s complete poems, which is being published in excellent paperback editions by the Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y el Arte: No pronuncies mi nombre: Poesía completa II (San Salvador: CONCULTURA, 2008). This edition covers one of the most productive periods in Dalton’s career, 1964-1973. One can only look forward to a third volume in the future.

Among the first things I read upon my return was Your Country is Great: Afghanistan–Guyana (New York: Futurepoem, 2008) by Ara Shirinyan. These are two very different types of poets. But a thread that aligns them, at least in my reading, is the concern for how individuals maneuver through a shrinking globe, where cities and cultures bleed into one another, usually by means of unforgiving market forces. In an introductory note, Shirinyan describes his method of composition – another commonality between these poets being the use of collage:

“Using Google, I would type “[country] is great” and search. [...] For those countries that brought up very few results I have done my best to use everything that came up. For those countries that gave hundreds of page results, there came a moment when I thought that I had enough to work with.”

I read Your Country is Great in one sitting, frequently laughing out loud at Shirinyan’s eye for absurdities, the tragicomedy of everyday life. His line breaks often emphasize the frivolity or ignorance of certain evocations of particular countries. At times, the reader gasps at the insights these poems reveal about our age, when countries are reduced to web sites and tourism serves as an updated form of conquest. The poem about El Salvador is among the best in the book, for its accuracy as well as its hilarious images. It seems a good antidote to any visionary pretensions a poet might develop while traveling. I also think Dalton would recognize the poem’s irresistible wit:

El Salvador is Great


el salvador is great for shopping
they have good malls
and their currency is the
US dollar.

El Salvador is great.
Cant wait to go back!

The seafood in El Salvador is great,
but you do have to take care
if your system is not used to it.
They eat a lot of ceviche
(raw fish ‘cooked’ in lime),

We ate a couple meals at Pollo Campero and pizza hut.
I was happy to eat platanos every day while we were there.

concern for El Salvador is great
in Iowa.

El Salvador is great,
but that does not stop.
a group of
opthalmologists, optometrists,.
nurses and technicians
from making the trek
each winter.

El Salvador is great, and
you are really adventurous to go there!
You are going to discover so many undiscovered
places that are pure gems.

El Salvador is great, but
I think I’m ready to go
back to the states.

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