October 2010

Jesse Tangen-Mills

Latin Lit Lover

Backyard Post-Apocalyptic Romanticism

A recent issue of The Economist featured a map of the Americas upside down with the title: No One’s Backyard. How dare they speak to Canadians that way, I thought -- before figuring out that they were referring to Latin America. I thought Latin America had said that they were no one’s backyard 200 years ago in the wars of independence. But the editors of The Economist meant something different: the projected economic growth south of the border in coming years is high, accompanied by low inflation. Oliver Stone’s recent documentary South of the Border -- which I haven’t seen, as it hasn’t been shown in Colombia -- from what I understand, sustains that Latin America is the future too. Unfortunately, from the other side of the fence, or walls, or drone planes, the future doesn’t look so cool, not to mention the fact that the only viable option -- that of modern capitalism -- doesn’t seem to be doing much good for the United States right now. So what’s to celebrate about being the great former “backyard”?  

Homero Aridjis has been openly rejecting being anyone’s backyard for some time. Mexican ambassador to France, former president of International PEN, friend of Pablo Neruda, Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Homero Aridjis is as much a subject of history as he is its scribe. Like his brothers in spirit, he has refused to take what others call “development” passively. Mexico’s most famous living poet is nearly as renowned for his activism as he is for his verse. Indeed, it is his passion for protest that forces his poetry onto the page. His latest book to be translated to English, Solar Poems, is a collection of earnest free-verse reflections, requiems, and recollections of a world on the brink of ecological cataclysm. 

Aridjis opens the collection bowing humbly before the “yellow seed” in the sky. But this is not just old-fashioned Aztec sun-worshiping, there’s something eerily apocalyptic about it. On the surface, the “Solar Poems” are honest, childishly simple, romantic even. In “Solar Images,” Aridjis cleverly calls out: “Sun, / O yellow syllable.” Later he writes, “Light’s history / is an archeology of the eyes.” However, when juxtaposed with “The Jaguar” -- full of grievances like “his solar pelt is a rug” -- his twenty-first century sun-worshiping sounds more like a warning: this is what awaits us if drastic climate change continues unhindered. 

“Vermeer” turns from environmental genuflection to self-reflection. Aridjis muses: “This feeling of eternity / in bodies and things / This nameless longing / in the moment outside time / that melancholy / in the eye’s memory.” Just as Vermeer painted “melancholy,” so does Aridjis, plucking from his “eye’s memory” to describe the disappearing natural world of his past. In fact, these poems emphasize Aridjis as a witness grown sour, although not unfeeling.  

A country stroll -- for the Romantics a time to reflect on nature -- becomes a blank canvas in “The hunt for the red jaguar.” Open air is now meant to be painted with the big money plans of modernity. The pedestrian recalls: “We raved out loud, / we had projects on hand, / a hotel to be built here, a golf course there, / a road, a discotheque.” In these poems humans are not nature’s observers -- instead they are simultaneously its inheritor and destroyer, as active and destructive as any wandering cloud. 

This venture into depth, however, doesn’t last as long as I would have liked. The second group of poems, “Night Dreams,” is just that: dreams rendered in verse. These dreams are so ordinary and unsurprising that it’s hard to believe they were really dreamt. In one poem, Aridjis’s lost dog Rufus returns from the dead; in another, the late Rufus delivers a soliloquy about his life. His unconscious even casts Aridjis as the “spirit of the Smoking Mountain,” a wondering soul floating between a couple of living volcanoes. Even if these are true records of nocturnal thoughts, the collection would do better without them.  

The next section, “Poems of Light,” is a mish-mash of light-hearted word games and mournful longings. The first poem, “Dreaming,” reads “a sky of white water / a sea of blue light.” If only the dream poems were so effortlessly paradoxical. Arijidis totters between amazement and horror, with traditional folksy odes to cactus juxtaposed with bleak visions of a cataclysm. “Earthquake” rings eerily true to recent devastating seismic activity: “Dust clouds danced around the shattered virgin, / who had performed the miracle of saving no one.” 

Toward the end of the book, elegies begin to sound like dirges. What starts as a remembrance of a young tree ends, “when I take hold of it in dreams / escapes through the wall / into indistinct silence.” Even Rufus shows up again to grieve.  

Aridjis, 70, remembers the Beat Generation, who -- except for a few healthy survivors like Gary Snyder and Lawrence Ferlinghetti -- are all deceased. The last poem in the book, “Ballad of friends now gone,” reads:  

Maria, tell me in what money changer’s
old age home, insurance salesmen’s
office, jail or whaling ship,
those lucid lunatics are,
who, barefoot or in cheap sandals,
prowled the streets in the sixties,
dressed in Technicolor clothes,
in quest of diamond dawns. 

The allusion to “Howl” -- particularly the “diamond dawns” that never came -- is painful. Of course, we know where those kids “dressed in Technicolor” are. Like the jaguars, they too are gone, or going. Maybe that is why Aridjis is sure that “For us rebels of back then / only the fight for nature is left.” He’s one of the last of his generation left to keep up the fights; he continues to work with his organization El Grupo de Cien in Mexico, which has won several environmental battles in the two decades since its inception, most recently stopping the construction of a Walmart atop Aztec ruins.

Being sincere has its risks, chief among them: sappiness. Although most of these poems communicate our modern bewilderment in an erupting, shaking, melting Earth, often with spine-tingling accuracy, there are a few poems that fall flat into the realm of melodrama. As one Mexican critic has pointed out, it seems that the older Aridjis gets the younger his poems become. If Romanticism was about sincerity, and Modernity about authenticity, as Lionel Trilling once wrote, Homero Aridjis is one of the most romantically modern poets we have left. And for what it's worth, he has certainly been ahead of the curve.