Sunday Jan. 18, 2015

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The Guest

In the long July evenings,
the French woman
who came to stay every summer
for two weeks at my aunt’s inn
would row my brother and me
out to the middle of the mile-wide lake
so that the three of us
would be surrounded by the wild
extravagance of reds that had transformed
both lake and sky into fire.
It was the summer after our mother died.
I remember the dipping sound of the oars
and the sweet music of our voices as she led us
in the songs she had taught us to love.
“Blue Moon.” “Deep Purple.”
We sang as she rowed, not ever wondering
where she came from or why she was alone,
happy that she was willing to row us
out into all that beauty.

“The Guest” by Patricia Fargnoli, from Winter. © Hobblebush Books, 2013. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It's the birthday of children's writer A.A. Milne (books by this author), born in London (1882). He's the author of Winnie-the-Pooh (1926). He wrote, "Wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on the top of the Forest a little boy and his Bear will always be playing."

It's the birthday of the physician and lexicographer Peter Mark Roget (books by this author), born in London, England (1779). He was 61 years old, and had just retired from his medical practice, when he decided to devote his retirement to publishing a system of classifying words into groups, based on their meanings. And that became the Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases, published in 1852.

It's the birthday of poet Rubén Darío (books by this author), born in Metapa, Nicaragua (1867). He's one of the greatest poets in the Spanish language. Scholars say that there is not a single writer in English that's had as much effect on English literature as Rubén Darío has had on Spanish literature. He's a household name all over Latin America, but Darío is barely known in the English-speaking world because his poems are hard to translate into English.

He came from a remote rustic village in Nicaragua — a village now named Ciudad Darío — and he began publishing poems at the age of 12. His first poems had titles like "Faith," "Disillusionment," and "The Tear Drop." Some local politicians recognized his early genius, and they decided that he should be sent off to Europe for a proper classical education on the government's dime. Before it was finalized, he needed to travel to Managua and read his poems to the president of Nicaragua and others who would need to approve the study-abroad scholarship.

They decided the teenage Darío's ideas were too liberal and anti-religious, so they denied him the scholarship. But while he was there in Managua, he fell in love with a girl named Rosario, who was only 11 years old. He was determined to marry her. His friends decided this was a bad idea.

In order to distract him, they shuffled him off to El Salvador to study with El Salvador's most famous poet at the time, a man named Francisco Gavidia. The esteemed poet introduced young Darío to the works of contemporary French poets. Darío became obsessed with French poetry. He learned French well enough to write poems in French. Then, he used the rhythms and structure of French poetry to write poetry in Spanish. This would become a trademark of Darío's verse — and also the reason it's so difficult to translate his poetry into English.

At age 16, he left El Salvador, returned to Nicaragua, worked as a journalist, and began another career as a diplomat. He traveled around South America for work, participated in poetry competitions on the side, and then returned to El Salvador. There, he married a woman whose dad was a famous Honduran lecturer.

But on the day after their wedding, there was a political coup — which, as it turns out, had been orchestrated by one of their wedding guests. So they fled to Guatemala and then to Costa Rica, where they had a son. A couple of years later, when he was away traveling, his young wife died. He was heartbroken, and he became an alcoholic.

Darío went back to Nicaragua. There he re-encountered his ex-girlfriend, Rosario, the woman whom he'd wanted to marry when he was 15 and she was 11. They reunited. Rosario's brother caught them in the act. Dismayed at the demise of his sister's reputation, he demanded Darío restore her honor by marrying her. He made this demand at gunpoint. After getting the poet drunk and in bed with his sister again, Rosario's brother showed up with a pistol and an ultimatum for Darío: marriage or death. The poet chose marriage. A priest was waiting nearby so that the union would be officially sanctioned.

He stayed married but not at all faithful. He lived mostly with a mistress, had a reputation as a philanderer, and fathered children by several women. Soon after his shotgun wedding, he set off on a series of diplomatic posts overseas. He visited New York City, where he met Cuban poet José Martí, and he went to Paris, where he met his hero Paul Verlaine. At this point, Darío was still only in his mid-20s.

He worked as a war correspondent during the Spanish-American War and then lived in Paris, serving as Nicaragua's ambassador to France. He was a productive poet during his 30s and 40s, and in 1910 he wrote one of his most famous works, "Poem of Autumn." A couple of years later, he wrote an autobiography, came down with pneumonia, went bankrupt, returned to Nicaragua to be with his wife, Rosario, and died in bed, age 49.

New York Times journalist Stephen Kinzer spent more than a dozen years as a foreign correspondent in Nicaragua, covering the rise of the Sandinistas. But he said that through all of that the "most magical and most unexpected" adventure of Nicaragua was reading the poetry of Rubén Darío. More than a century after his death, Darío is revered as a folk hero around Central America. A massive portrait of him greets people in the arrivals area of Managua's international airport. There's an English edition of Darío's poems translated by Lysander Kemp, Selected Poems by Rubén Darío (1965).

He wrote:

"Pity for him who one day looks upon / his inward sphinx and questions it. He is lost."


Silence of the night, a sad, nocturnal
silence — Why does my soul tremble so?
I hear the humming of my blood,
and a soft storm passes through my brain.
Insomnia! Not to be able to sleep, and yet
to dream. I am the autospecimen
of spiritual dissection, the auto-Hamlet!
To dilute my sadness
in the wine of the night
in the marvelous crystal of the dark —
And I ask myself: When will the dawn come?
Someone has closed a door —
Someone has walked past —
The clock has rung three — If only it were She! —
(translated by Lysander Kemp)

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