From Countersong to Walt Whitman & Other Poems



The Countersong to Walt Whitman by the Dominican poet, Pedro Mir, was first published in Guatemala in 1952, not long before Colonel Castillo Armas overthrew the elected President, Jacobo Arbenz, and initiated that country's long and continuing agony. I was living in Guatemala at that time; it was there that I learned something of what it meant to be born and to live in Central America and the Caribbean. On the long boat-ride from Amsterdam, we had docked in Ciudad Trujillo, the then capital of the Dominican Republic. Fat rats climbed over the corrugated roofs of the scalding wharfs and Trujillo's police would not let us land because we were bound for "red" Guatemala.

In the then flourishing Casa de la Cultura of Guatemala City, I met exiles from all over the continent, from Trujillo's island, from Batista's Cuba, from Somoza's Nicaragua, from Rojas Pinilla's Colombia, from Pérez Jiménez's Venezuela. The grammatical possessive is, in this case, not simply a rhetorical device since these countries were fiefdoms whose dictators were usually maintained in power by U.S. support. Many of the exiles dreamed of an emancipated Latin America, as a place where a generous vision of social justice might eventually prevail. What in fact followed was the invasion of Guatemala (1954), of the Dominican Republic (1965), the Brazilian military coup (1964), the destabilization and overthrow of the Allende regime in Chile (1973), not to mention the more recent interventions in Grenada and Panama.

Ever since the Uruguayan critic, Enrique Rodó, published his Ariel in 1900, Latin Americans had tended to view the Mexican-American border as separating two rival versions of civilization. Two of Mir's great contemporaries, Pablo Neruda in his Canto General (1950) and Nicolás Guillén in West Indies Ltd. (1934), had also addressed themselves defiantly to the United States in order to affirm Latin American difference. The fact that Mir's work is less known than these has much to do with his place of birth, the Dominican Republic — whose literature still today is far less translated and disseminated than that of other Caribbean countries. It also has to do with his long exile from his homeland.

Pedro Mir was born in 1913 in San Pedro de Macorís which is better known for its baseball players than its poet; he was the son of a Puerto Rican mother and a Cuban father, who worked as a technician on a sugar plantation. Growing up during the long dictatorship of General Trujillo, he went into exile as a young man and returned definitively to live in his own country in 1968. His well-known poem, Hay un país en el mundo (There Is a Country in the World), was published in Cuba in 1949. Apart from his poetry, he is the author of several political essays, a treatise on aesthetics and a highly regarded novel, Cuando amaban las tierras comuneras (When They Loved the Communal Land). In the late sixties and early seventies, his poetry readings in the Dominican Republic — a country with a rich tradition of popular poetry — drew vast crowds. In Latin America, such readings, which Neruda was one of the first to practice, were seen as a way of overcoming the elitism of literature in countries with large semi-literate and illiterate populations.

Mir's dialogue with Whitman belongs to a longstanding tradition. Whitman had been an icon to Latin Americans ever since the Cuban poet, José Martí, heard him speak in 1887, at what would be his last public appearance in New York. Martí's description fixed his image as a poet-prophet far above mere mortals. He wrote, "He [Whitman] seemed like a god last night, seated on a throne of red velvet, with his white hair, his beard falling on his chest, his eyebrows thick as a forest, his hand resting on a cane." Whitman's words, according to Martí, resembled the murmur of planets. But perhaps what most attracted Latin Americans, even those like Nicaragua's Rubén Darío who believed democracy to be at odds with art, was his American idiom and his claim to represent a New World.

Mir's poem is both a celebration of Whitman and an assertion of difference — a celebration of the poet of the common people and a denunciation of the "manifest destiny" of the nation that Whitman had helped to build. Whitman had brought together all the peoples of the United States into one choral and prophetic voice, "orotund, sweeping and final," and now it is the turn of people from outside those borders, the anonymous, marginalized inhabitant of Quisqueya, the Caribbean island which is now divided between the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Thus Mir both follows Whitman and diverges. He follows Whitman across a pristine America and identifies with its founding spirit, even with the Whitmanian I which, like a Leibnitzian monad, is "the revolving of all mirrors / around a single image." It is this self-affirmation that has given birth to the United States.

But here the two poets must diverge. Something has come between pure self-affirmation and fulfillment and that something is money, the simulacrum that replaces reality and which alienates human beings from the self. Mir here comes closest to Ernesto Cardenal's vision of a fallen humanity as he traces the degeneration of the Whitmanian I and its resurrection as imperial egoism that has commodified Latin America and deprived the nations of the continent of their autonomy. Whitman's spirit can only be redeemed by a new pronoun, the we of all those nations and peoples that have been "othered."

With the possible exception of Cardenal, few poets today would see Latin America's future with such self-confidence. For the times are different and poetry once again seems to be withdrawing from a civic function. Can the translation of such a poem do more than offer us a missing element of Latin America's past? Or can it during this difficult fin de siècle restore a tenuous hope — that the triumph of cynical reason may only be temporary?

SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic (AP) — Pedro Mir, the poet laureate of the Dominican Republic whose words gave voice to the suffering of his impoverished nation and examined Latin America's tangled relations with the United States, died Tuesday [11 July 2000] of complications from emphysema. He was 87.

"Pedro Mir was, without a doubt, the vital voice of Dominican poetry of the 20th century and a universal poet: meditative, purifying," and able to surprise readers with his use of language, said Ylonka Nacidit-Perdomo, director of the Center for Literary Research of the National Library.

Mir died at the Plaza de la Salud, the hospital's spokesman, Victor Marmol, said. He had been hospitalized for weeks.

President Leonel Fernandez declared three days of national mourning and said Mir would live on through his works. "Today we are overcome with sadness … but we know that he will always be with us because his thinking was transcendent, and he truly fathomed the national Dominican soul."

President-elect Hipolito Mejia said: "The country has lost an extraordinary man."

[See obituary published in New York Times]

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