Chasing Pasos: On the Trail of Nicaragua’s Lost Modernist




IT’S JUST LESS than 100 kilometers down the Pan-American Highway from Nandaime to Rivas. The two-lane, tar-paved road is lined with alternating plots of corn and banana trees. Motorcycles, dirt bikes, bicycles, Indian-make three-wheeler taxis, ancient school buses, tractors, semis, and dump trucks share the road with passenger vehicles, which are forced to pass their slower road mates so frequently it feels like slalom. My Nicaraguan friend Eliecer and I make the trip in about an hour — good time — and drop off a few hitchhikers we’d picked up at the edge of town, near the hospital. Rivas, the capital of the eponymous municipality and isthmus designated, since the 1880s, as the course of the as yet unconstructed Nicaragua Canal, boasts a population of just under 30,000. Today humidity is at 96 percent.

I’m on my way to meet the son of a poet whose name is often mentioned by Latin American critics in the same breath as Vicente Huidobro and Eliot, but who remains almost entirely unknown beyond the confines of the Spanish-speaking world. Joaquín Pasos was born in Granada, Nicaragua, in 1914, and died in 1947, at the age of 32, without having seen a single book into print. Published posthumously, his verse is now an integral part of the Latin American literary tradition, its prophetic warnings of environmental, migratory, and war-fueled crises are timelier than ever.

I wait for Xavier Pasos at his suggested meeting place, the restaurant La Concha, adjacent to the town’s first Uno gas station. It’s been three minutes and I’m already sweating. The orthopedic physician is easy to spot. I’ve done the math — he’s got to be in his late 60s, and he looks his age. He’s short, maybe 5’4”, well fed but not fat, with neat white hair parted to the left. He wears a powder blue guayabera, and he has a notepad and a selection of pens in his breast pockets. He orders a lemon iced tea, and then we talk about his dad.

Xavier was born six months after his father’s death. His mother, Alma, Joaquín’s lover, attended the poet’s funeral three months pregnant. Xavier’s name, so far as he knows, was given him without his father’s input. Alma eventually married, but considered Pasos the love of her life. Xavier recalls her treasuring his love letters much later in life. Alma, it turns out, is still alive, in Managua. She’s 84. If Pasos were alive today, he would be 100 years old. His oeuvre, which was just maturing in his early 30s, would certainly have been among the greatest accomplishments of 20th-century Spanish-language literature.

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Pasos joined Nicaragua’s Vanguardia group when he was just 15, reading poems and discussing poetics with such contemporaries as José Coronel Urtecho and Pablo Antonio Cuadra in the bell tower of the cathedral in Granada, which had been destroyed at US military adventurer William Walker’s behest in 1856. The Vanguardia got its start with Coronel Urtecho’s composition of “Ode to Rubén Darío,” a clever skewering of the patron bard’s poeticized language, written in 1926 and first published in ’27. The group’s aesthetic was nativist, but their work drew on a vast range of new influences, from anthropology and psychoanalysis to cinema and contemporary European literature. In 1927, Coronel Urtecho returned from a three-year spell in San Francisco, where he had translated North American poets including Whitman, Pound, Moore, and Eliot, whose influence is evident in much of Vanguardia’s verse. In 1930, the movement formally established the Anti-Academy, which was opposed to any “spurious, bewitched, and sterile” manifestation of the past. It is impossible not to see a political stance in this aesthetic orientation. In the words of Ernesto Cardenal, “Nicaragua produced two important things during [the 1930s], the Vanguardia and Sandino. A single spirit animated both movements, and in some sense the two were one and the same.”

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Pasos’s masterpiece, “Anthem for the War of Things (El canto de guerra de las cosas),” opens with one of the most memorable strophes in all of 20th-century Latin-American poetry:

When you reach old age, you will respect stone,
if you reach old age,
if any stone is left.

In a hauntingly prophetic register, the long poem charts the destruction of both the natural world and of mankind’s place in it. A few dozen lines into “Anthem,” Pasos writes:

here is the future wrapped in tin-foil,
here is the human lot in the form of small coffins,
and the machine gun continues crackling with desire,
and the knife’s love for flesh remains faithful through the centuries.
And later, decide if the harvest of bullets has not been abundant,
if the fields are not sown with bayonets,
if grenades haven’t burst in their time…
[…]

decide if this flood of liquid fire
is not more beautiful and more terrible than Noah’s,
without a steel ark to resist it
or a plan to return with the olive branch!

The poem’s title, “Canto de guerra de las cosas,” is most often translated “Warsong of Things” or “Warsong of the Things.” But “warsong” conveys only the primary prepositional phrase of two ingeniously nested phrases — the poem is indeed a warsong, but it’s a warsong for a particular war, the “guerra de las cosas,” a phrase Pasos uses again late in the poem. In my own translation, I’ve opted for the title “Anthem for the War of Things.”

The poem is obviously grounded in imagery inspired by the two great wars that bookended Pasos’s life, but it also foreshadows our present ecological disaster. It is, in many ways, a Nicaraguan dialogue with both The Waste Land and Huidobro’s Altazor, modern epics that Pasos knew well. Its epigraph is drawn from the Vulgate Romans 8:18–23, and the whole is structured — as Pasos himself writes — like a sermon. Though this framework is obviously Christian — the poem charts the war-torn journey of a fallen mankind — it does not lead to redemption: “Everything remained in its time. Everything burned up far away.” Steven F. White, whose excellent criticism has influenced my thinking about the poet and his work, neatly summarizes the differences between this poem and The Waste Land: “whereas Eliot proposes an anachronistic recovery of lost values to create a contemporary spiritual wholeness, Pasos leaves the reader with the prophesied horror of the apocalypse brought on by warfare and the ultimate failure of humanity to survive as a species.”

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My personal obsession with Pasos, however, was not sparked by the “Anthem for the War of Things,” but by one of his lesser known poems, “To a Silent Poet.” I discovered it in a pamphlet bound in red construction paper, edited by the defeño poet Benjamín Morales and distributed gratis on Mexico City’s metro. The poem’s conversational tone and celebratory humor exemplify Pasos’s mastery of the vernacular. It might as well have been written today — and that timelessness, coupled with the timeliness of the eschatological vision displayed in the “Anthem” and in his other poems, inspired me to follow Pasos as far as he would take me.

There’s no doubt. The war has ended
because today the stores opened with the morning.
Make me a little poetry.
[…]

Don’t go to the dentist today. He got drunk too.
Forget your old cavities. Put on your new shoes
and make me a little poetry.

Pasos’s calligram “Cook Boat (Barco Cook),” inspired by Huidobro’s use of the voguish form, was the first of his poems I translated, working in InDesign to reproduce its pictographic structure. Many of the Vanguardists experimented with the calligram, but none of these — save perhaps Pablo Antonio Cuadra’s “Caballito de bamba” — is as ingeniously playful or lyrical as Pasos’s “Boat.” It is, again, startlingly contemporary, from the boat deck — “cook boat walks runs to bangkok loaded with coke,” to the “aguas de colonia” beneath it, the Spanish translation of eau de cologne and a play on the colonial occupation of Nicaragua by the yanqui, who sought to cut the Nicaragua Canal through the enormous lake that neighbored Pasos’s hometown of Granada.

Pasos’s range of subjects was remarkable — humanizing explorations of Central America’s indigenous population, erotic dialogues between Mary and Joseph, and more explicitly political poems, mostly with a Marxist bent. He often employed rhyme, both end stopped and internal, and many of his poems, especially the short ones, feature the pleasant sing-song quality and colloquialism of nursery rhymes. He titled poems in English and French, and gave them Latin epigraphs, all while maintaining a playfulness that counterpoints he prophetic authority of “Anthem.” With Coronel Urtecho, he wrote a poem mocking the upper strata of Nicaraguan culture, “Chinfonía Burguesa,” which deconstructs the dominant Spanish of the time with the same euphoria that Huidobro reaches toward the end of Altazor, but uses the device to launch a ruthlessly direct social critique of the bourgeoisie. The two adapted the poem into an absurdist play, which anticipated Eugène Ionesco’s innovations by at least 10 years. A frequent political commentator in several prominent newspapers and magazines, Pasos was briefly jailed in 1940 for publishing a humorous essay about the Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza García. He often published his political humor under the pseudonym Pedrito Ortiz, whose polemics were so effective that he too was once targeted for arrest by the local chief of police. Despite having only visited Costa Rica and El Salvador, Pasos composed a suite of travel poems, Poems by a Young Man who Has Never Traveled Anywhere (Poemas de un joven que no ha viajado nunca), set around the world, from Norway, with its “metal trees / and girls grown up in refrigerators,” to just up the 110 Freeway from my own Los Angeles home, in South Pasadena, where “life is fresh.”

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My Spanish-language collected edition of Pasos’s writings lists three heirs as holders of his copyright. I’m not sure who they are — Pasos never married. Were these his nephews or cousins? Could he have a son? I begin my search by looking for Xavier Pasos, the first listed heir. First, Facebook. There is one Xavier Pasos in Nicaragua, but without even a profile picture. Just a name, but the right one, so I message him.

Xavier responds the next day. He is Joaquin’s son, a surgeon by profession, “not at all literary” but admiring of poetry, like all Nicaraguans, children of Darío. He is enthusiastic about my translating his father’s poems. We agree to meet in two weeks, when I’ll next be in Nicaragua.

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Ernesto Cardenal said once that Pasos was born knowing English. An immensely gifted translator, though he never devoted himself seriously to the art, he did write a succinct suite of English-language poems, Poems by a Young Man who Does Not Know English (Poemas de un joven que no sabe inglés). Unfortunately, those poems are excluded from the most recent Spanish-language edition of his collected works. In his preface, editor Óscar Hahn explains their exclusion, dismissing them as the “exercises of a language learner” and reasoning that Pasos himself did not include them in the plan for Breve suma, his first — and posthumous — collection, which did include his other major suites. But the poems are much more than mere exercises, and I suspect Pasos excluded them simply because they didn’t fit in that particular volume. Pasos’s Spanish-language poems showcase his verbal ingenuity, and their most striking quality is the utter authority of their speaker, a powerful combination of confidence and wisdom. The English-language poems flip that formula on its head: by imposing the external limitations of his English idiolect, he emerges as utterly vulnerable, a truth-speaking fool. Poems by a Young Man who Does Not Know English are not failed Pasos — they are Pasos laid bare:

Let us hang violins from the highest branches,
let us forget the moon,
Love will come here riding on a bicycle
as softly as this quiet afternoon.

The Uruguayan critic Mario Benedetti wrote in 1967 that these English-language poems, “written in a strange English, run through with Nicaraguan inflections,” are without doubt the sloppiest of Pasos’s poems, but I find that an unconvincing description of anything written by a poet for whom “Making a poem,” his friend and contemporary Carlos Martínez Rivas recounted, “was planning the perfect crime.” To me, they are the spoils of a great raid on the English language.

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“No,” Xavier says, “I don’t have a first edition of my father’s poems. I don’t have any. I had one, but I lost it in the earthquake.” He refers to the Nicaraguan earthquake of 1972, more than 40 years ago. I ask him about his memories, about the stories he heard about his father growing up. Most of his anecdotes are things I’d read before, but one sticks out. As a boy, Joaquín Pasos’s love of adventure and literature converged in his passion for climbing trees, where he would perch for hours to read books. The young Pasos was so insistent on finishing whatever book he was reading that his family, worried about how long he would go without eating, would send up food in a bucket on a rope. That image captures the Pasos I encounter in his poems: an exuberant young man whose playfulness is undergirded by urgent concerns and intellectual rigor.

I bid Xavier Pasos farewell in the gas station parking lot, and we open the doors to the car to “let the devil out,” as Eliecer jokes each time we get back in his black sedan. As we wait for the heat to pour out of the vehicular oven, I recall the concluding stanzas of Ernesto Cardenal’s tribute to Xavier’s father, later put to music by Joan Manuel Serrat:

He never went abroad.
He was jailed.
Now he’s dead.
He has no monument.

But remember him when you get concrete bridges,
great turbines, tractors, silvered granaries,
good government.

Because in his poems he purified the language of his people,
which will one day be used to write trade agreements,
the Constitution, love letters,
and decrees.

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All translations by David Shook.

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David Shook is a poet and translator in Los Angeles, where he founded Phoneme Media, a nonprofit publishing house for literature in translation. He is currently at work on a translation of Joaquín Pasos’s Selected Poems.


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