Deep translation and subversive formalism: the case of Salomon de la Selva's Tropical Town, and other poems (1918). (2022)

Link/Page Citation

Although better known in the world of Spanish letters, Salomon dela Selva is a shadowy figure in the history of U.S. poetry. He was bornon March 20, 1893, to be the eldest of ten siblings, in Leon,Nicaragua--a rare fact in the dearth of information we have about hisearly life. (1) According to Edgardo Buitrago and Carlos Tunerman, de laSelva lived in Nicaragua until the age of eleven, when he left hisfamily and took a scholarship to live and study in the Northeastern U.S.We don't know for sure where he lived in the U.S. from the age ofeleven to twenty-one, when, in 1914, he served as Ruben Dario'stranslator in New York, and the record becomes clearer. In 1915, de laSelva collaborated, with the American poet Thomas Walsh, to publish atranslation of Eleven Poems of Ruben Dario, and henceforth hisreputation grew. He was mentored by his compatriot Dario and theDominican poet Pedro Enriquez Urena, and in 1916 de la Selva wasappointed to the faculty of Williams College, to teach Spanish andFrench. He soon befriended Edna St. Vincent Millay, at the time a seniorat Vassar, and sowed the seed of a profound, if short-lived,relationship between the two poets. (2) Like Millay, de la Selvapreferred formal verse in English (3)--especially the sonnet, iambic meter, and rhyme--which explains in part why contemporary Anglophonecritics now place him as a marginal figure. By the measure ofexperimentation, his English poems seem flaccid compared to those ofavant-garde contemporaries like Pound, Williams, or Cummings.

Today poets and scholars find it easy to regard formal verse fromthe early twentieth century as intellectually and stylisticallyretrograde, but to truly understand de la Selva's work we need toreconsider norms of artistic radicalism, and for two related reasons: hewas far more aesthetically challenging when writing poems in Spanish,and English verse forms were alien to him. When dealing with a poet whoendeavors to escape the restraints of "the Tradition"--andhere nationality does play a part in the implicit sense ofentitlement--we see the deconstruction of forms, and thus beauty failsthe new aesthetic, replaced with what Eliot famously described asintensity. (4) But when that poet is entering "the Tradition,"he swims against the wave of the avant-garde to do something quitedifferent: to dialogue for the sake of establishing legitimacy. De laSelva, as a native Nicaraguan living and writing in the U.S., enterednot only an alien literary tradition, but also an alien language, andgiven all the cultural spheres this process generates, de laSelva's achievement should be regarded with these politicalimplications in mind.

Steven White, writing on de la Selva's work in both Englishand Spanish, considers de la Selva as "a Nicaraguan poet who wrotehis first book, Tropical Town & Other Poems, in very traditionalEnglish verse forms, then rejected the English language entirely toproduce, in Spanish, El soldado desconocido, an experimental,testimonial work that combines a variety of genres (the chronicle, thediary, the letter, and the ballad) to produce a multi-faceteddescription of a microcosmic experience of history that, ultimately,becomes universal." (5) In fact, Tropical Town (1918) is both de laSelva's first book of verse and his first book in English. Althoughit is rumored that he published a second book of English verse, ASoldier Sings (1919), in England, no extant copy of the book is known toexist. (6) Of A Soldier Sings, White has noted that its "allegedexistence is the result of Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Mejia Sanchez sendingthe bibliographical information (London: The Bodley Head, 1919) to[Nicaraguan critic] Jorge Eduardo Arellano, who at the time wascompiling an extensive bibliography of books and articles by and aboutde la Selva for the fundamental publication Homenaje a Salomon de laSelva: 1959-1969" and that Arellano himself believed A SoldierSings is "a legend, one more myth in our literature rich inmyths." (7) As for writing in his native tongue, De la Selva wouldpublish many books of poems in Spanish, and for this Arellanocharacterizes de la Selva as an important link in the poetic traditionof Nicaragua during the experimental years of vanguardismo. (8) To seede la Selva's Spanish sensibility as a contemporary Modernist, takefor example "Sobre una fotografia de la Quinta Avenida"('On a Photograph of Fifth Avenue'), published in El soldadodesconocido (1922), in which an Imagist operation permeates the poem:

 ?Ves todas las banderas que adornan la Avenida? Las barras y las estrellas formidables, el tricolor de Francia, el pabellon de Flandes, los colores de Italia, las equis de Inglaterra, el sol japones, la estrella solitaria de Cuba, el elefante de Siam, el azul y blanco de mi Nicaragua ... !tantas y tantas banderas! !Son harapos! Bajo esa capa raida repara en la carne flaca de los pueblos. (9) 'See all the flags that adorn the Avenue? The mighty stars and stripes, the tricolor of France, the flag of Flanders, the colors of Italy, the exes of England, the Japanese sun, the sole star of Cuba, the elephant of Siam, the blue and white of my Nicaragua ... so many, many flags! They are rags! Underneath that scraped cape reflects the lean flesh of the people.' [trans. mine]

The various national flags are listed in an ideogrammic manner,there is no superfluous language, the tone is contemporary, and thesubtext is politically subversive. Renato Poggioli, in The Theory of theAvant-Garde (1968), reminds us that politics is the root of theavant-garde: "before being applied figuratively to the art of ourtime, the metaphor had already been adopted by another ... therevolutionary and radical, as its own emblem." In France, in theyears before 1848, "the avant-garde image originally remainedsubordinate, even within the sphere of art, to the ideals of aradicalism which was not cultural but political." (10)"Avant-garde" was a military term, and every avant-gardemovement in art wages violence, so to speak, against an establishment.One should consider de la Selva on these terms. In Spanish, he wouldeventually adopt the style and manner of a contemporary poet, composingfree verse and exploring cosmopolitan themes, but his truly noteworthycontribution to innovations in modern American poetics was in fact moreindirect and surprising. De la Selva's Tropical Town, as a book offormalist English verse published in 1918 by a U.S. immigrant native toanother language, illustrates how politically inverted the aesthetics ofradicalism can get when the contexts of nationality, multilingualism,and cultural entitlement are called into question. De la Selva in effecttranslated his radical, Spanish-speaking, immigrant imaginary into thelanguage of traditional, conservative, establishment English verse. Theact of doing so, its effects, and its legacy constituted an avant-gardeevent. Reading Tropical Town makes one want to revert to form-contentdichotomies, as his sentiments and his style seem so disparate as to beincongruous. De la Selva offers a model for contemporary U.S. Latinopoets who are comfortable inhabiting surprising or unmodish voices--suchas Rhina Espaillat, Rafael Campo, or Urayoan Noel--while affirming theirHispanic perspectives on literature, politics, and identity.

De la Selva's politics were far from conservative. In hisfirst year on the faculty at Williams, de la Selva earned a reputationas a politically controversial speaker, (11) and on February 17, 1917,at the National Arts Club in New York, de la Selva gave a speech to anaudience that included former president Theodore Roosevelt, whom hereportedly offended with his tacit admonition, "No truePan-Americanism can exist until there is justice for the weaknations." (12) But de la Selva was more than just talk. That year,in spite of his objections to the U.S. imperialist presence inNicaragua, (13) he enlisted in the U.S. Army and trained on campus atWilliams in preparation for service, as a lieutenant, in the war. To hisdismay, the U.S. Army ultimately rejected his application for deploymentas he refused to renounce his Nicaraguan citizenship. After repeatedfailed petitions, de la Selva gave up his cause to serve in the U.S.Army and instead, by means of his grandmother having been a Britishsubject, joined the British Army and fought with its forces in Flanders.(14)

Before he left for England, de la Selva published Tropical Town andOther Poems. As obscure as this title may sound, Silvio Sirias, in hisintroduction to the 1999 reprint of de la Selva's volume, claimsthat "Tropical Town represents the first English-languagecollection of poetry by a Hispanic [i.e. Latin American] writer in theUnited States." (15) As such, Tropical Town's importance iscertain, not only for the demographics of cultural studies, but alsobecause the poetry exhibits such a rich dynamic: a voice that is at oncedisenfranchised and authoritarian--disenfranchised by the alienation ofimmigration, and authoritarian in its conservative style. De la Selvawas surely avant-garde in his politics, but this claim is less obviousto make about Tropical Town and its aesthetic. One way is through thepoint about the poet who breaks into "the Tradition"-anotheris to regard de la Selva's own perspective on the role of the poet.In a piece entitled, "Ruben Dario," printed in an issue ofPoetry in 1916, de la Selva said this about Dario's revered staturein Latin America: "To realize fully what this means we mustconsider the poet's position in all Latin, and especially in theSpanish-American countries. The poet there is a prophet, an inspired,God-anointed leader of the people. He is for us the treasurer of hope,the master of the tomorrow." (16)

These last two images are very telling. When any poet attempts todefine the role of "the Poet," this is invariably an exercisein projection. De la Selva describes the poet as both a"treasurer," in essence, a guardian, as well as a visionary, a"master of the tomorrow." The poet saves our hopes forposterity, a curious conflation of past and future. And this is what dela Selva's English poetry is. De la Selva preserves inheritedforms, and at times antiquated tones and diction, while narrating thedepth of his angst as a "Pan-American," a revolutionary, a NewWorld man. This dualism is the seed of de la Selva's poetics, forthe poet lived a life perpetually framed by profoundly incongruousexperiences. As White has noted, de la Selva was "the onlyHispanic-American poet to experience the unprecedented technologicalhorror of mass-produced death during World War I." (17) He was thefirst Latin American to publish a volume of English poetry in the U.S.El soldado desconocido, which was published not in his native Nicaraguabut in Mexico when he lived there from 1920 to 1925, cast his reputationin Latin American circles as a literary interloper. He volunteered toserve in the U.S. Army, the same army that occupied his native countryin order to protect the construction of the Panama Canal. But less thana decade later, he returned to Nicaragua, in 1925, to eventually become"the leading Nicaraguan intellectual supporter of General AugustoCesar Sandino," (18) the original Sandinista, who was executed in1934 for heading the rebel army that resisted U.S. occupation. From 1930to 1955, de la Selva lived in political exile, in Costa Rica, Panama,and Mexico--only to return to Nicaragua and serve as a Europeanambassador for the Somoza government until his death, in Paris, in 1959.

De la Selva lived a vigorous and conflicted political life, oftenfinding himself uniquely qualified to issue judgment on sad states ofaffairs, and this persona permeates the poems of Tropical Town: a voicethat is judicious, not simply confessional, or experiential. It issubjective yet detached, a layer removed from the sheer articulation ofcorresponding images. In the poems of Tropical Town, de la Selva oftentakes the reader to a place where he has been, that he remembers acertain way, and ruminates not simply on the place itself but on hismemory of the place, elevating his vantage, one step beyond image andtestimony. In Tropical Town, politics and aesthetics intertwine inuncommon ways. The moralizing nature of his political sensibility seemsto inhabit his poetic voice, revealing an aesthetic in pursuit not ofthe perfect image, like Pound, nor of the perfect correlative, likeEliot, but of the perfect disposition-the state of mind that could bestmake sense of the traumas of immigration, warfare, and exile de la Selvawould face. In this vein, de la Selva projects not a poetics ofexperience but a poetics of co-experience, an ideal haven in which toregard the harshness of experience with sobriety and propriety:essentially, the poetics of an outsider.

De la Selva's inescapable position as a cultural outsidercustomized his poetic voice. Tropical Town and Other Poems is dividedinto four parts, and the first section, "My Nicaragua," beginswith the title poem of the collection, "Tropical Town," whichintroduces us to de la Selva's overarching quest for repose:

 Blue, pink and yellow and, afar, The cemetery, where the green trees are. Sometimes you see a hungry dog pass by, And there are always buzzards in the sky, Sometimes you hear the big cathedral bell, A blindman rings it; and sometimes you hear A rumbling ox-cart that brings wood to sell. Else nothing ever breaks the ancient spell That holds the town asleep, save, once a year, The Easter festival ... I come from there, And when I tire of hoping, and despair Is heavy over me, my thoughts go far, Beyond that length of lazy street, to where The lonely green trees and the white graves are. (19)

The poem's tripartite structure-opening couplet, middle octet,and final stanza-clearly separates the layers of abstraction. Theopening couplet presents the reader with a scene: the tropical colorsthat adorn a cemetery. There is no subject, no purpose, no persona yet,just a passive landscape. Then the middle stanza begins with"Sometimes you," a phrase that appears twice more in thestanza, the "Sometimes" setting the lightness of the tone, andthe "you" establishing a subject, a witness, the mind thatbegins to take it all in and issue judgment on the importance ofdetails. "You" see the scene and hear its sounds but you arealso made privy to less obvious truths: the Quasimodic character in thebell tower, the social climax of the Easter festival. This middle stanzaintroduces a self to the poem,your self, that perceives enough ofTropical Town's landscape to conclude that it is a society underthe dominion of a particularly Latin American culture of death. With theimagery of scavenging animals and encompassing bleakness, you aretransported to a place that is hot and lazy and docile and notable forits cemetery. The Easter festival, or La Semana Santa, is traditionallyobserved with processions commemorating the death and resurrection ofJesus Christ, so its mention in the last line of the middle stanzaforegrounds the importance of the cemetery in the poem.

This line ends with an ellipsis, punctuating the line break andindentation that come before the first line of the final stanza, the onethat introduces the next level of awareness: the "I." It is anabrupt break--a whole new perspective enters the poem. "I come fromthere" is a charged expression; by virtue of its present tense, itinvokes an immigrant idiom, suggesting that while "You" mightbe in Tropical Town taking a walk to the cemetery, "I" am farfrom there--an inversion of perspectives. This turn redirects thereader, with nostalgic overtones, through another series ofextrapolation. There are times in the psychic life of this "I"when he "tires of hoping" and despairs, implying a life ofexperience that actively makes sense of the world. But at the onset ofthese pains, this "I" retreats to yet another vantage,symbolized by the cemetery: a place of final rest, where the mind is nolonger burdened, where the cycle of life is clear as day. The cemeteryin this poem, as a monument to death- or life--is an image thatresonates on dual registers: on the level of the poet seeking repose,and on the level of ancestral, ethnic, and national pride. (20)

This cultural implication, within the context of "MyNicaragua," written by a Latino poet living in the U.S., I wouldsay is readily obvious, but the form in which de la Selva presents hislitany of revelations is more subtle. In its three parts, ascending thesteps of abstraction, the poem "Tropical Town" crystallizesaround a form that has been articulated in theory, by, among others,Julia Kristeva and Edmund Husserl. Both theorists taxonomize poeticlanguage by identifying three crucial elements. Husserl posits thatdiscourse, and hence consciousness, emerges through the layers of doxa,that latent force that presupposes articulation; position, the assertionof an expressive form; and thesis, a proposition, the act ofsignification. (21) Kristeva parallels Husserl's model with acomparable schema: the drives, the chora, and the thetic. She definesthe drive as an "energy" that leaves a trace, which in turnarticulates a chora, "an essentially mobile and extremelyprovisional articulation" that "precedes and underlies"speculation. (22) The final phase for Kristeva is the thetic, aderivation of 'thesis,' which she explains as "the'deepest structure' of the possibility of enunciation, inother words, of signification and the proposition." (23) For bothHusserl and Kristeva, the phenomenology of language is a study inmaturation: the process into the semiotic and then the symbolic, or, inDerridean terms, of "structure, sign, and play." (24)

The poem "Tropical Town" is an embodiment of thesephenomena, which gives it an appeal that transcends its appeal toancestral or ethnic pride. The opening couplet, "Blue, pink andyellow and, afar,/The cemetery, where the green trees are" has noconsciousness, no quantifiable subject, but, through its sparse imagery,it establishes the tropical culture of death as its drive, its element.In the second stanza, a position takes form, imposed upon"you," your vicarious experience of the place. The finalstanza enacts the poem's thetic phase. It introduces a conscious"I" and hence judgment, a thesis: a proud declaration, "Icome from there," followed by the heartfelt explanation of how thismetaphysical location, this image in the speaker's mind, areconstruction of Leon, Nicaragua, will be the beacon of his life whenin its toughest times. Not only does the voice "come fromthere," but it goes back there whenever it suffers and finds ahaven: a place to comfort in the familiar and gather thoughts.

The cemetery is really the key to this poem. In its connotation ofland literally invested with souls, it serves as a pointed motif in dela Selva's poetics of co-experience. The cemetery is the place offinal rest, but, as a monument, quite a part of the reality of theliving--especially in Latin American cultures- and thus it signifies dela Selva's idealization of repose: a sanctuary from experience.Ground is a potent image in de la Selva's poems; it often feelslike a boundary as much as it does a place. In the poem "TropicalTown," the ground, the burial ground, is a boundary between theliving and the dead. In the poem "Tropical Park," the groundis portrayed as a boundary between reality and fantasy. De la Selvaportrays the manicured grounds of "Tropical Park" with thefollowing stanzas:

 The paths are made of sand so fine That they are always smooth and neat, Sunlight and moonlight make them shine, And so one's feet Seem ever to tread on magic ground That glistens and whispers curiously, For sand, when you tread it, has the sound Of the sea. (25)

The two stanzas together complete the image, linked by theenjambment that spans the line break, and, in its progression throughthree different subjects-the landscape, "one's feet," and"you," its logic is close to that of "TropicalTown." By shifting through three perspectives, we feel the presenceof co-experience, the thetic phase. But here, in this poem, thisprogression's vehicle is a magical experience. "TropicalPark" is an ethereal realm: a conjured place, idealized,romanticized--rendered better than the real world. A place where wisdomis right beneath your feet. The ground, as de la Selva puts it, ismagic, which by connotation is sovereign and powerful and outside ourcontrol. This is the cornerstone of these two stanzas; the poem'simagery, the fineness of the sand and the smoothness and neatness of thepaths, brightened by light day and night, seem to be so by someunderlying act of magic.

Which, by extension, is a furtive gloss of the poetry. Like the"paths" in the park, de la Selva's lines are "smoothand neat"--and aware. These two stanzas, as they advance to theclimactic realization, keep a stiff iambic rhythm that finally gives wayto spondees, signaled by the commas and line break in the last couplet,a formal way to mirror the unexpected divergence: ground giving way to"the sea." As with the cemetery of "Tropical Town,"so the ground in "Tropical Park" is at once a metonym for dela Selva's Nicaraguan heritage and a metaphor for the tranquilitythat is every poet's native land. Ancestry aside, the voice ofthese stanzas strives for that point of rest, the sea, if you will, thatthe paths lead to-again expressing de la Selva's poetic drive tofind the perfect disposition, and reflect on reflection.

That is not to say that the political defers to the esoteric in allof de la Selva's poems. "De la Selva was perhaps one of themost politically-aware poets of his time," (26) and it is commonfor history to leap out of his pages. Nicaragua's contentiousrelationship with the U.S. has a long and bitter history, including theturbulent times of the mid-nineteenth century when expatriate U.S.Southerners fought as mercenaries in Latin American civil wars andsought to establish plantation colonies, supported by slaves, withinnumerous Latin American countries, including Nicaragua. (27) De la Selvacommemorated this history with his poem "The Haunted House of Leon(Burned by American Filibusters 1860)." The year is noteworthy; itwas the year the infamous William Walker, the Tennessee outlaw andleader of the rebel forces that conquered Nicaragua four years earlier,was executed. This image, the demise of the personification of U.S.imperialism by firing squad, reverberates through "The HauntedHouse of Leon." The first half of the poem describes the ruins, andhow they came to be:

 Shattered walls The rain has eaten, The earthquakes shaken, The swift storms beaten, No one owns them, No one would care To mend them and roof them And live there. They say that house Was burned down By the Yankee filibusters When they sacked the town: Sons of the Devil Who drank to the Devil All one night, and burned the house After the revel. (28)

Upon the background of William Walker's historic execution, dela Selva completes an inverted picture: he memorializes Walker'sdeath with a eulogy for the victims of his crimes. The image of"The Haunted House of Leon" first comes into focus asdilapidated, meaning long gone, a distant thing of the past. As acultural memory, it has slipped off of history into folklore, andremoves the voice a step further. By condemning this distant event, and,allegorically, the history of U.S. imperialism, the poem makes itspolitical statement. Leon is haunted, still feeling the lingeringeffects.

But through its expression of a voice that recalls not whathappened in that house but what "they say" happened in thathouse, this poem, too, has that depth of co-experience. Like"Tropical Town" and "Tropical Park," this poemlocates a place invested with spirit but abandoned, empty, and as suchripe for return. The voice longs to go back there; after the stanzasthat follow those I've quoted, the poem salutes the "Faithfulwives" and "la Juanita" who were apparently violated onthe grounds of the house--only to make a surprising announcement.Although "No one owns them,/No one would care/To mend them and roofthem/And live there," these walls beckon the poet, and the poemends with the couplet, "I will marry a Yankee girl/And we willdare!" (29) On political terms, this final statement undermines thedisapproving mood of the rest of the poem-in the spirit of Yanqui gohome, why would he want to return with a gringa? Because he seeks thatthird vantage, the new terms: to remedy the problems of that memory. Bymarrying an American and taking over the haunted house, as a historicalallegory, he can impose a more just political paradigm. (30)

"The Haunted House of Leon" is a fine example of how dela Selva's poetics of co-experience operate on both political andaesthetic levels. In building this haunted house, de la Selva adheres torigid constraints. The poem is long and thin, like the spire of a tower,composed in short, dyadic lines: "Shattered walls/The rain haseaten." The end rhymes are constant but vary in pattern, addingcontours to the rhythm. The undulating consonance and assonance in thelines, "No one owns them,/No one would care," is interruptedonly to complete the rhymes. The couplet, "By the Yankeefilibusters/When they sacked the town," with its three Ys and threeTHs, or "All one night, and burned the house/After the revel,"with its alliteration of As, consonance of Ns, and surprising rhyme with"Devil," creates a verbal topography to the sense of abuilding, a structure. The poem throughout maintains a complex, wroughtprosody, perhaps best described with Roman Jakobson's termparonomasia: literally, 'near-naming.' In his book, Languagein Literature (1987), Jakobson identifies the hallmark of prosody as thecorrespondence of same sounds for a musical purpose: "Paronomasia,a semantic confrontation of phonemically similar words irrespective ofany etymological connection." (31) Jakobson's prime example ofthis phenomenon is a phrase from Edgar Allan Poe's "TheRaven"--"the pallid bust of Pallas" (32) --in which thephonemic closeness of "pallid" and "Pallas" has aneffect akin to what de la Selva does with "Devil" and"revel." The paronomastic qualities of "The Haunted Houseof Leon" are ornate, almost Baroque. As such, the form of the poemhas a metalingual, or glossing, function, (33) just as the haunted househas its symbolic value, and the "Yankee girl" has herpolitical value, and the voice has its editorial value.

As evinced by "The Haunted House of Leon," de laSelva's political worldview as a U.S. Latino immigrant is deeplyambivalent. In the second section of the collection Tropical Town,entitled "In New England and Other Lyrics," he begins theopening poem "Deliverance" with the line: "What am Idoing, here, in New England?" (34) From the outset, the section ispremised on a questioning of his decision to enter the U.S. and live asone of its own; the implication of a thoughtful, measured action beingcalled into question; the experience and the co-experience of the naivedream of assimilation. In the poem "Drill," written atWilliams in April, 1917, de la Selva recounts his experience of militarytraining at a time when he had not yet been denied deployment on thebasis of his Nicaraguan citizenship, when he still feels inspired andworthy:

 One! two, three, four, One! two, three, four, One, two ... It is hard to keep in time Marching through The rutted slime With no drum to play for you. One! two, three, four! ... And the shuffle of six hundred feet Till the marching line is neat. Then the wet New England valley With the purple hills around Takes us gently, musically, With a kindly heart and willing, Thrilling, filling with the sound Of our drilling. Battle fields are far away. All the world about me seems The fulfillment of my dreams. (35)

His optimism notwithstanding, we know, in retrospect, that hisdreams won't be fulfilled. It would not be the country of NewEngland, the U.S., who would issue his fatigues. The army he trains withwon't take him in "gently," nor with a "kindlyheart," reducing this poem to a song of wishful thinking. Formally,the music of the poem takes us there, and we fall in to the marchinglines. But the tension between the voice's earnest desire to servethis country in war and the impending reality that this countrywon't allow him to--declining his offer of the ultimate personalsacrifice for the state--underlies de la Selva's culturalrelationship with the U.S. Daunting political realities are only fodderfor a burning ambition: to transcend provincial boundaries andparticipate in the burgeoning global society of the early twentiethcentury. De la Selva's poems alternate in praise and loathing ofthe U.S., and "Drill" is a poem that, in its text and itscontext, reveals de la Selva's struggle in a world full ofdiscrimination and injustice, to comfort in the strength of hispolitical convictions, and to "master ... the tomorrow."

But de la Selva was a deeply personal poet, too. For every poemlike "A Song for Wall Street" and "Ode to the WoolworthBuilding," there's a poem like "Tropical Afternoon"and "Tropical Life." A tie that binds all of de laSelva's poems is formal patterns of prosody, but his themes meanderthrough the political and the emotional. They are also bound by hispoetics of co-experience: the pursuit, and idealization, of thepoet's clear-minded disposition. In typical layered fashion, de laSelva voices this metaphysical concern in the poem "TropicalAfternoon." A fourteen-line sonnet, here is the opening octet:

 I used to watch the women going down With earthen jugs where water never fails, Summing the daily gossip of the town And making new remembrance of old tales. So suns might set and mornings rise, and flowers Blossom and fall: these never gave them care; To them the ceaseless toiling of the hours Was but a pretty thing to make them fair. (36)

Here I want to start at the end. The double-entendre of thestanza's final word, "fair," as both beautiful andrighteous, is hinted at by the incongruence of outdoor work in thetropical sun making anyone truly "fair." Tan and toned,perhaps, and thus beautiful, but the full connotations of"fair" outstretch the possible meaning here, and thuswe're nudged to look back to the nature of the women'sconversations, telling gossip and reminiscing: both inherentlymoralizing acts.

In terms of layering, that perspective of the talking, moralizingwomen echoes the same position of the poet, the one who also talks andmoralizes and makes "new remembrance of old tales." After all,poetry, as something meant "to teach and delight," is itself"but a pretty thing to make them fair." The image, and thecharacterization of the conceit's details, gives a clear form toroot the memory and its reflection. With all its consonance andalliteration ("watch the women" "where water neverfails"), the prosody of the poem is so tight, so paronomastic, thatit pulls its words together. There's an inward pull in the poem,siphoning the reader in, to a world where there's a poetry to thedaily routine-if you recall it correctly. The poem begins with thephrase "I used to watch the women," so it's arecollection, a memory, of an experience that in itself had its ownreflective import. He used to take the time to watch them do what theydo, presumably for enjoyment or out of boredom or maybe for a morepoignant purpose, and thus the speaker doubles his distance from theimage. On first glance, he took them in and, by virtue of making thisallowance, to regard them as a sign: so to create a poem that reflectson an experience of reflection is a means to a poetics of co-experience.

Then, of course, there's the life of the poem off the page,the life of the poet off the page, the unavoidable context in which thereader finds this poem. That doubled distance of the speaker isaugmented again by regarding de la Selva's cultural position, as aNicaraguan in the U. S. feeling nostalgia for the experiences of hisyouth. For de la Selva, every experience has its co-experience, withinthe poem and without. Experience has its effect, a shock of one type oranother, but the experience itself, the chora, if you will, precedes itsmeaning, or thetic significance.

This has the strongest emotional effect in the poems based in de laSelva's childhood. These poems are tempered with what I would calla profound nostalgia, profound because the emotion is so rightfullyearned. The language is so personal that the poems feel true, an aspectthat rarely comes to mind when regarding poetry. In the poem"Tropical Life," de la Selva reflects on the life of hisfather, who died in 1910, when Salomon was just seventeen:

 There's a grave where my father lies, But I mind me rather of a place Was as familiar to his eyes As his father's face. The street that's bounded by ancient houses Runs to the park, and there the sun Is like a golden flock that browses Until day is done. The light is heavy, and moves so slow, And sometimes huddles in a heap And seems to lift large heads and go To thoughtful sleep. I wonder if ever he saw the light This way. He must have thought strange things (And never told them, that I might), So fast there clings To my remembrance of his ways A memory of herds of sun Pasturing quietly through his days Until life was done. (37)

The poem is ethereal, dreamlike, and discontinuous, again groundedby a strong sense of place-like "Tropical Town" and"Tropical Park"-that reaches to the bottom of his memory. Thefirst stanza, in four short lines, spans three generations: the"I," his father, and his father's father. The affectionfor his ancestors implied in the voice evokes a history different, inkind, from the political. Co-experience still typifies this poem--wherea memory "clings" to a "remembrance"--but retracingthe steps of one's origins is human and thus universal. This isimportant to understand about de la Selva's English poems: whilethe collection Tropical Town is an important artifact for Latinocultural studies, it is equally important as an intellectualachievement. Octavio Paz, in The Labyrinth of Solitude (1950), wrotethat the "question of origins ... is the central secret of ouranxiety and anguish ... These feelings are common to all men and thereis nothing specifically Mexican in them." (38) Likewise, thepolitical de la Selva should not outshine de la Selva the humanist, ashe himself suggests in the final lines of the poem "Birds ofClay:" "When I am dead I want to lie/Where in the centuries tobe/Children shall utter song and cry/Through the winged dust ofme." (39)

Through this image, the poet transposes himself onto the concept ofplace: he aspires to be the very site of repose. The offering is an actof kindness, as is the offering de la Selva makes in his poem simplyentitled "Sonnet:"

 Are you awake, Beloved? Come and see My special garden, set and sown apart In the most secret corner of my heart. Never the butterfly, never the bee Has sucked a blossom there; no day too sunny Has dried a leaf; no wind has swept and bent A single careless branch: with fruit unspent The trees are heavy, and the flowers with honey. (40)

This stanza is perhaps the most doctrinaire of de la Selva'sverses; it almost belabors the ideal of co-experience. The personalnature of his gesture to his "Beloved," as well as the form ofthe sonnet, sets a romantic tone that reveals the psychic depth of de laSelva's love for repose and reflection. As an Eden, this"secret corner of my heart," pregnant with blooms anduntouched, invites you to play on its grounds, to enjoy the "freespontaneity and activity" of the curious mind and revel in an"insertion of will and action." (41) The "secretgarden" of this passage serves as yet another symbol of the virtuesof co-experience. It is an imagined space that is at once beautiful,fecund, and imminently safe-a realm with no umbilical tie to the realworld from which it was born.

The detachment inherent to a poetics of co-experience can oftenproduce a great sense of sadness. In certain instances, de laSelva's literary voice, as well as his virtual life betweennations-his alienation by the U.S. government, his ostracization by theNicaraguan government-can come across with streaks of melancholy.There's a poem toward the end of the collection Tropical Town,entitled "I Would Be Telling You," that renews de laSelva's search for a future rooted in his past. It is sad, framedby hopeless rhetorical questions, and takes a stance to his LatinAmerican heritage that is atypically askance:

 I would be telling you How the tamarind tree Is blue with blossoms now,-- But what is that to me? Or what the garden where Jasmine is glad abloom Though there is use for jasmine Only to deck her tomb? Rest to her soul, and peace To her heart! But I Will ease my heart of sorrow Under an alien sky. I have no wish to be Home again, now home To see is blind, and hidden To know, and to speak dumb. (42)

The conclusion is surprising. Within a collection written as atribute to the poet's native land, this poem stands apart. Thespeaker has lost his love for his tropical home. He grows bitter andinarticulate. The final stanza's syntax is disjointed andconfusing, an expression not only of disillusion but of frustration.This is foreshadowed by the poem's opening line, with itsconditional tense, which, at the moment of its articulation, promisesthe refusal that comes. The "tamarind" and "jasmine"suggest his native Nicaragua by metonymy, which grows into "hersoul" in the third stanza. The poem doesn't even really have atitle--it uses the antiquated convention of taking the opening line asits name. There's an undertone of lost respect here, or at least oflost affections: a sense that the emotional pressures of being far away,"Under an alien sky," have caved in his shelter from betrayal.He forsakes his home, has grown tired of it and the allegiance to it hehas borne while living as an immigrant. He insinuates-especially withthe final lines, "To see is blind, and hidden/To know, and to speakdumb"-that the very vocabulary of nationality and diaspora hasgrown so wearisome that he is ready to yield his disposition, hisfortitude of co-experience, and suffer the indignity of stereotype onemore time in order to put the whole discourse to rest.

With its bleak perspective on nationality, "I Would Be TellingYou" complicates de la Selva's oeuvre. But in a way it alsocompletes it. The poem is so reactionary in temper that it seems torespond to some of the cultural articulations that would eventuallyelide de la Selva from so many literary discussions. Endemic to a poetpolitically denied access to his ambitions by both his home country andhis host country, de la Selva remains today, almost universally, as ananthological omission. (43,44) The Mexican writer Jose Emilio Pacheco isone of the few Latin American critics who positions de la Selva as aseminal figure in the Latin American canon, (45) particularly for Elsoldado desconocido, in which de la Selva often loosens his forms,abandons rhyme, and utilizes free verse-more in his contemporaries'vernacular. De la Selva's Spanish persona was more aestheticallycurrent, perhaps symptomatic of the inherent sense of entitlement whenwriting in one's own language; but his English-speaking persona wasacquired, a construct, and as such his voice in English takes formrather than disperses it. Either way, de la Selva's glass hasremained half empty in both the Spanish canon and the English canon.

It seems more justifiable that de la Selva would be overlooked inEnglish. Of the some dozen books--mostly of poetry--that de la Selvawrote and published, Tropical Town was the only one in English. Imentioned earlier that White and Arellano consider A Soldier Sings aliterary "ghost," but perhaps it is better to call it a"myth," for "ghost" may be a term better suited todescribe Tropical Town. Standing apart from the rest of de laSelva's Spanish oeuvre, Tropical Town feels like a ghost of hislife in the U.S., a life that ended when he was still a young man. Ashis politics grew more ardently anti-imperialist and his life tookdeeper root in Latin America, de la Selva lost his ambition for Englishverse. We are lucky that Tropical Town even exists. Given thecircumstances of de la Selva's life, Tropical Town, in many ways,as a cultural production, was a fortunate accident: a reproduction ofexperiences garnered through immigration and cross-cultural exchangeinitiated in his childhood. Although heretofore a marginal work,Tropical Town, within our contemporary discourse of transnationalism andworld literature, articulates a position of New World"legitimation" that, to borrow another term from Jean-FrancoisLyotard, was "paralogic," (46) in the sense of being ahead ofits time yet destined for relevance.

What makes the book so relevant is de la Selva's poetics ofcoexperience and how it pertains equally to politics and aesthetics. AsFrantz Fanon described with the image of Black Skin, White Masks, or W.E. B. Du Bois theorized through the idea of"double-consciousness," (47) or Gloria Anzaldua expressed inthe assertion of Borderlands, authors of mixed American heritage, ifambitious, must accept as their charge the task of writing betweenworlds. This at first takes the form of dialogue, but, if sustained, ithardens into a presence that pulls the author from the oblivion of beingneither one kind nor the other. A third consciousness can be achieved, asynthesis that perpetually regards itself as such, calibrating its moralcompass by comparing separate codes of ethics, and in its prolongedarticulation inevitably takes on new, surprising forms. De laSelva's experiences in Nicaragua and the U.S., in Spanish andEnglish, alchemized into a purer substance: a voice that epitomizes anideal of the poet that has a worldwide appeal. As an inspiration forliving poets, the transcendence of co-experience is a means for theprovincial to evolve into the universal, echoed by the final line of dela Selva's book: "All days are somehow linked, all songs areone." (48)

David A. Colon, Texas Christian University

(1) Silvio Sirias, introduction to Tropical Town and Other Poems,by Salomon de la Selva, ed. Silvio Sirias (Houston: Arte Publico Press,1999), p.4.

(2) Salomon de la Selva, "Edna St. Vincent Millay,"America: Revista Antologica 62 (1950), pp. 7-32.

(3) Pedro Henriquez Urena, "Salomon de la Selva," ElFigaro, April 6, 1919, p. 289.

(4) T. S. Eliot, Selected Essays (London: Faber & Faber, 1951),p. 14.

(5) Steven White, Modern Nicaraguan Poetry: Dialogues with Franceand the United States (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1993), p.120.

(6) Ibid., pp. 124-126.

(7) Ibid., p. 125.

(8) Jorge Eduardo Arellano, Entre la tradicion y la modernidad: elmovimiento Nicaraguense de vanguardia (San Jose: Libro Libre, 1992), p.137.

(9) Salomon de la Selva, El soldado desconocido (Mexico City:Cultura, 1922), pp. 90-91.

(10) Renato Poggioli, The Theory of the Avant-Garde, trans. GeraldFitzgerald (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1968), p. 9.

(11) Steven White, ed., Poets of Nicaragua: A Bilingual Anthology,1918-1979 (Greensboro: Unicorn Press, 1982), p. 23.

(12) White, Modern Nicaraguan Poetry, p. 124.

(13) Arellano, Entre, p. 18.

(14) Sirias, introduction, p. 6.

(15) Ibid., p. 1.

(16) Salomon de la Selva, "Ruben Dario," Poetry: AMagazine of Verse 7 (1916), p. 202.

(17) White, Modern Nicaraguan Poetry, p. 119.

(18) Sirias, introduction, p. 7.

(19) Salomon de la Selva, Tropical Town and Other Poems, ed. SilvioSirias (Houston: Arte Publico Press, 1999), p. 61.

(20) Sirias, introduction, p. 10.

(21) Edmund Husserl, Ideas: General Introduction to PurePhenomenology, trans. W. R. Boyce Gibson (London: Allen & Unwin,1969), p. 342.

(22) Julia Kristeva, Revolution in Poetic Language, trans. MargaretWaller (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984), p. 25.

(23) Ibid., p. 44.

(24) Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), pp. 278-294.

(25) Selva, Tropical Town, p. 63.

(26) White, Modern Nicaraguan Poetry, p. 123.

(27) "Affairs in Nicaragua," The New York Times, November5, 1860, p. 2.

(28) Selva, Tropical Town, p. 73.

(29) Ibid., p. 74.

(30) Sirias, introduction, p. 25.

(31) L. G. Jones, et al., Language in Literature (Cambridge, MA:Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1987), p. 423.

(32) Edgar Allan Poe, The Raven and Other Poems (New York: Wiley& Putnam, 1845), p. 5.

(33) L. G. Jones, et al., Language in Literature, p. 69.

(34) Selva, Tropical Town, p. 91.

(35) Ibid., p. 112.

(36) Ibid., p. 76.

(37) Ibid., p. 77.

(38) Octavio Paz, The Labyrinth of Solitude, trans. Lysander Kemp,Yara Milos, and Rachel Belash (New York: Grove Press, 1985), p. 80.

(39) Selva, Tropical Town, p. 80.

(40) Ibid., p. 104.

(41) Husserl, Ideas, p. 342.

(42) Selva, Tropical Town, p. 148.

(43) Julian E. Gonzalez Suarez, introduction to Encuentro con elModernismo Literario en Nicaragua, ed. Julian E. Gonzalez Suarez(Managua: Ediciones Distribuidora Cultural, 2003), pp. v-xvii.

(44) Dinah Livingstone, introduction to Poets of the NicaraguanRevolution, trans. Dinah Livingstone (London: Katabasis, 1993), pp.1-16.

(45) White, Modern Nicaraguan Poetry, p. 119.

(46) Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report onKnowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis:University of Minnesota Press, 1993), pp. 8, 61.

(47) W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (New York: Libraryof America, 1986), pp. 8-9.

(48) Selva, Tropical Town, p. 161.

COPYRIGHT 2012 The Society for Philosophy and Literary Studies
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.

Copyright 2012 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Top Articles

Latest Posts

Article information

Author: Moshe Kshlerin

Last Updated: 12/17/2022

Views: 6016

Rating: 4.7 / 5 (57 voted)

Reviews: 80% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Moshe Kshlerin

Birthday: 1994-01-25

Address: Suite 609 315 Lupita Unions, Ronnieburgh, MI 62697

Phone: +2424755286529

Job: District Education Designer

Hobby: Yoga, Gunsmithing, Singing, 3D printing, Nordic skating, Soapmaking, Juggling

Introduction: My name is Moshe Kshlerin, I am a gleaming, attractive, outstanding, pleasant, delightful, outstanding, famous person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.