Like last week’s video for Nicanor Parra’s “El hombre imaginario,” this is a Moving Poems production in homage to a great, recently deceased Latin American poet. A post by poet-blogger Kristin Berkey-Abbot first alerted me to Claribel Alegría‘s death on January 25, drawing attention to the poem “Soy Espejo”:
In the 1990’s I taught that poem to classes that included very few Hispanic students. Then I moved to South Florida and taught that poem to people who had fled the Central American civil wars that Alegria wrote about. The poem worked well across a wide variety of boundaries.
I used a new translation by my friend Jean Morris. Rather than try to depict the horrors described in the poem directly, I wanted to focus on the speaker or speakers who’d witnessed them, so went looking for footage from asylums and the like. I found what I needed in the Prelinger Archives: a 1938 documentary about mental illness, for which patients were made to wear crude masks to protect their privacy. Shots of a woman repeatedly touching her face, other women standing or sitting frozen, and one, afflicted with echopraxia, mirroring the gestures of an interlocutor, provided points of connection with the text. I used some noise music by Stabbed Empath, the project of another friend, for the soundtrack.
To me, Alegría’s poem isn’t about war but trauma, and that’s where I tried to put the emphasis. I realize that the result may not make for pleasant viewing; it’s basically the complete opposite of the famous sequence from Good Morning, Vietnam where footage of the horrors of war is juxtaposed with Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World.” As great as that scene is, it doesn’t challenge the dominant conception of war as a tragic, horrific, but ultimately somehow inevitable, larger-than-life spectacle, nor does it really explore other perspectives than those of the soldiers. It’s part of a whole genre of “anti-war” filmmaking that focuses on the cost in terms of soldiers and veterans but rarely acknowledges, or actively downplays, the usually much greater cost in civilian casualties and wounds of all kinds. And as long as voters in the U.S. and other aggressor nations continue to ignore these impacts, the news media will be allowed to continue in their role as cheerleaders for the military-industrial complex, depicting war as a regrettable cost of doing business, from Afghanistan and Syria to Yemen and now, once again, Central America.
A poem by the late Nicaraguan poet Pablo Antonio Cuadra (1912-2002), as recited by various Nicaraguans in a video filmed, directed and edited by NYC-based artist Miah Artola, part of her “far away” multi-platform project on Nicaragua, which includes “installation, experimental documentary, drawing, and expanded cinema.”
Why Poetry? Despite Nicaragua’s travails, the quality and influence of its literature, and its poetic output in particular, has earned it the epithet ‘Land of the Poets.’ The poets of Nicaragua have created works that have influenced every facet of cultural, political and social life and is a center of creativity in the Spanish-speaking world. Poets have tremendous influence in Nicaragua as politicians, revolutionaries and cultural leaders.
Background: I am of Nicaraguan descent and visited relatives there for the first time in 2013. “far away” was conceived then, and I returned in November 2015 to shoot. It is my intention to raise funds for local education based Nicaraguan organizations and charities.
The music is by Ken Engel, and the actors include Harry Torrez Sandinez, Esmeralda Sos, Anita Arralano, the children of Puedo Leer Library, and school children in Granada Masayac.
Marc Neys AKA Swoon‘s latest videopoem uses a translation of my own, so it’s entirely possible I’m prejudiced here, but I really like his choice of footage to accompany this century-old poem by the great Nicaraguan innovator of Modernismo. He also made a version in the original Spanish.
We each shared some notes about the poem and the film in a blog post. Quoting oneself is weird, but here’s what Marc wrote, in part:
I probably fell for the poem because of the outspoken naivety in lines like
for there’s no greater pain than the pain of being alive,
no affliction more severe than consciousness.
I wanted to steer away from easy or obvious choices in imagery but I also wanted the footage to be clean and simple (unremarkable almost), yet beautiful in their elusiveness.
In the editing process the starting point was the poem. I put different title blocks along the length of the soundtrack (without the presence of images). Only then I looked for appropriate footage (some of it is mine, others came from archives or videezy, videoblocks and mazwai) and adjusted them (pace and length) to make them fit the title blocks with the lines of the poem. The choice of font and placement of the text on the selected images was the last thing to do.
I still enjoy this way of composing.
A piece produced for public TV in (I assume) Argentina. Darío, a Nicaraguan, was a seminal figure in the development of modern Spanish-language poetry, but his poetry has always struck me as a bit too lush and Baroque. The film mitigates this to a considerable extent, I think, in part by using only excerpts from a much longer text, but also of course by its reimagining of the poem in a modern context, where every little girl, it seems, wants to be a Disney princess. Here’s a quick-and-dirty English translation of the lines used in the film, followed by the complete poem in Spanish, with the excerpted parts in bold.
The princess is sad. What ails her?
Sighs escape her strawberry lips
that laughter has abandoned, that all color has fled.
The princess is pale on her golden throne,
her harpsichord’s sonorous keys are still,
the triumph of peacocks fills the garden.
Ah, the poor princess with her mouth of roses
longs to be a swallow, longs to be a butterfly
on weightless wings soaring up to the sky,
climbing toward the sun on a ladder of light,
greeting the lilies with May-time verses
or losing herself in the wind over thunderous seas.
Be still, be still, my princess! says the fairy godmother.
A winged horse is heading straight your way,
bearing a joyful knight, who adores you without ever having seen you,
travelling from afar with a sword at his belt and a hawk in his hand
to conquer death and ignite your lips with one amorous kiss.
La princesa está triste… qué tendrá la princesa?
Los suspiros se escapan de su boca de fresa,
que ha perdido la risa, que ha perdido el color.
La princesa está pálida en su silla de oro,
está mudo el teclado de su clave sonoro;
y en un vaso alvidada se desmaya una flor.
El jardín puebla el triumfo de los pavos-reales.
Palanchina, la dueña dice cosas banales,
Y, vestido de rojo, pirueta el bufón.
La princesa no ríe, la princess no siente;
La princesa persigue por el cielo de Oriente
La libélula vaga de una vaga ilusión.
Piensa acaso e el príncipe de Golconda o de China,
o en el que ha detenido su carroza argentina
para ver de sus ojos la dulzura de luz?
O en el rey de las Islas de las Rosa fragantes,
o en el que es soberano de los claros diamantes
o en dueno orgulloso de las perlas de Ormuz?
Ay! La probre princesa de la boca de rosa
quiere ser golondrina, quiere ser mariposa
tener alas ligeras, bajo el cielo volar,
ir al sol por la escala luminosa de un rayo,
Saludar a los lirios con los versos de mayo,
o perderse en el viento sobre el trueno del mar.
Ya no quiere el palacio, ni la rueca de plata,
ni el halcón encantado, ni el bufón escarlata,
ni los cisnes unánimes en el lago de azur.
Y están las flores por la flor de la corte;
los jaszmines de Oriente, los nelumbos del Norte,
de Occidente las dalias y las rosas del Sur.
Pobrecita princesa de los ojos azules!
Está presa en sus oros, está presa en sus tules,
en la jaula de mármol del palacio real,
el palacio soberbio que vigilan los guardas,
que custodian cien negros con sus cien alabardas
un lebrel que no duerme y un dragón colosal.
Oh quién fuera hipsipila que dejó la crisálida!
(La princesa está triste. La princesa está pálida)
Oh visión adorada de oro, rosa y marfil!
Quién volara a la tierra donde un príncipe existe
(La princesa está palida. La princesa está triste)
más brillante que el alba, más hermoso que abril!
—Calla, calla, princesa! — dice el hada madrina —,
e caballo con alas, hacia acá se encamina,
e el cinto la espada y en la mano el azor,
el feliz caballero que te adora sin verte,
y que llega de lejos, vencedor la Muerte,
a encenderte los labios con su beso de amor!