Poets Die

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The
dashing Heberto Padilla ( pronounced Pa-dee-ya ), a great Cuban
Libertarian poet of the “murdered generation” has died, himself
modest, leaving the world rich.

Poet
in Spanish still retains its original sense from Ancient Greek of
Poeiton, a doer. The US Government, faced with a Libertarian
poet such as Peter McWilliams, cannot understand why he won’t just
stick to harmless rhymes, and thus jails him, and the public, seeing
something amazing, yet having better things to do, sails calmly
on. In the US and Canada, much of our public poetry is entombed
in plain sight in our popular music. It speaks to many people and
is often of sublime quality, as evidenced by Joni Mitchell, startling
work by the B-52’s and Red Hot Chili Peppers, or the unexpected
and lyrical craft of a Shawn Phillips. Yet it has the problem of
being presented – and thus framed subconsciously – as
never being anything but “vulgar music” and ephemeral song by fashion-driven
teen idols, not the place where unexpected pearls are to be found.
One cannot entirely blame the covert snobbery, masked as love of
equality for the little people, of our pseudo-intellectuals. As
Confucius recognized the value of the songs of his day, and created
the enduring and evocative poetic classic The Book of Songs, so
some person of perception may bring this vast North American musical
output into startling focus. It needs such a person, like a coach
who can show we are better than we believed and should live up to
that. Meanwhile it is not always helped in being understood as anything
of significance by being interspersed with ritual cries of oh-wooah-baby,
and woo-woo-yeah.

So
we ignore the poets we jail.

POETS
OF ACTION

But
in Latin countries, a poet is expected to be training himself to
run dynamic enterprises; and inspiring people to do important things.
When the government misbehaves, people mutter to call in the army,
a device startling to the US but hallowed in many Latin constitutions.
But when the army misbehaves, no more fooling around – call
in the poets. I have known more than one US businessman who lost
a big deal in Latin America when it was discovered he knew nothing
of poetry. The Latin is not trusting of who would lead without a
rousing vision in his gut. Latin children still are told that when
the Iberians fell to the last man beside their Hungarian relatives
at Mohi plain, stopping the Mongol sneak-attack invasion, they fell
singing, rallying the other terrified European armies in the dark.
To jail poets is viewed as poisoning the land, robbing future generations,
the last kamikaze act of worthless rulers – or a self-treasonous
generation of vipers.

Thus
in Latin countries any conversation of the Spanish Civil War –
the one time a Communist army was decisively, totally and permanently
vanquished on the field by the nation that gave the world the first
marine infantry, the concept of guerilla war, and stopped Attila,
the Turks, the Arabs, the Mongols and the Amerindian sacrifice cults,
and then successfully healed the wounds to arise as a stable democracy
– soon turns, not to death tolls, politics, or battlefield
strategies, not to how it began to purge fanaticism from the Latin
soul, or even the sad contradictions of Iberian history. No: but
to the poet Lorca and his suspicious death. Civil wars after all
are bad enough, true. But people get crazy ideologies in their head,
someone insults somebody’s mama, and presto, you have a Civil War.
Tragic, but comprehensible. But to try and murder or censor the
arts – that is cultural self-degradation, an attack on freedom
itself anyone should be able to understand. A nation that jails
a poet jails itself and has lost its pride, and its right to survive,
and can only redeem itself by again singing its poetry and raising
its heart high. For as the Spanish saying goes, the man who seeks
victory had better have a song in his heart.

A
SONG FOR FREEDOM

Padilla
was this sort of man, this sort of doing-poet, from that mode of
sensibility. His was the sort of sardonic song for freedom that
drove a Fidel Castro and his military flunkies into spastic apoplexy,
to sputtering calls for mass arrests:

Out
Of The Game

The
Poet, get rid of him.
What the hell is he doing here?
Poets aren’t gameplayers,
Teamplayers,
Morons moved by
The miracles of the moment.

Castro heard the voice of the free proto-Libertarian Iberian communities
of old, where militias ruled and elected kings had to affirm that
the government had no right to tax anyone. Communism, under men
like Durruti and Fuente, had made an uneasy alliance with Old Libertarian
communalism but it was an unstable one. The key idea was that control
was always in the localities based on free associations. Indeed
the term Spain is thought to mean rabbit-warren, symbol of community
where people could work just fine independently like rabbits, banding
together at pleasure. Old timers refer to Latin countries still
as “spains” and even Spain itself has broken down consciously today
to its original confederacy of “The Spains” with calls for further
devolution. “A lord we can do without, a smiling poet, never,” goes
an old saying. Free community without poetry? Poets without freedom?
On this Padilla wrote this short poem composed for and with my brother.
My brother, Damon Bordenave de Lemos, an intimate of Kerouac who
died in 1986, traveled on his Harley as a university book-rebuyer,
spreading reading lists to startled academics on Libertarian and
Classical Liberal topics and encouraging them to set up courses.
I here place it before the public:

El
Cid

They
said of El Cid:
A noble man.
Shame he lives in time of
Ignoble rulers.
Shame where there are noble men,
Orphaned, searchers, of their noble land.
In a good country – writer’s block.
In a lost one – writer’s blockade.
Then: the sword.
Now : the pen.

And on Harleys shall come singing poetry
To the rescue great unsuspected and unexpected men
Bearing forgotten ideas and for the forgotten
Resurrected dreams, and responding to the mute cries
Of the parched aborted orphans thirsting, they
Riding Apollos
They bring:
Ice Cream.

The
young in hell unknowing mutely scream
For Ice Cream.

THE
LONG STRUGGLE

These
Ancient realities still resonate in the Latin soul, and the many
imitative European institutions they inspired. No matter what we
are told, something tells us there is another way. This is why Heberto
Padilla, perhaps echoing Dumont in a critique of Castro and American
problems in general, once said to my brother, “What we need is a
Libertarian caudillo (pathbreaker, leader) and in Cuba what
we got was a coco embarbudo, a bearded nut.” In each generation,
he believed, there is a self-appointed task to do what is right
and take old principles to deeper truth. Wrote Padilla:

Let
who suffers,
Starve. Or desire it:
His task is not to make love.
His task is to embody it.

THE
MURDERED GENERATION

Padilla
and my late brother ( who also founded the Cuban Libertarian Movimiento
now centered in Miami) were part of what Cubans have come to call
“The Murdered Generation” of brilliant artists and thinkers in Cuba.
Born in the 20’s and 30’s, they were by all logic destined to lead
the 3rd generation of Cubans to fulfill the promise of the revolution
of Marti, but were blindsided by history to write of aborted liberty
and seek to convey a vision of beautiful ideals never born. Playwright
M. Huidobro, poets and artists like Gustavo Firmat, Rene Touret
and V. Espinosa are honored throughout the Latin world. And the
actress Ninon Sevilla, who was recently still making guest appearances
on Mexican and US Hispanic TV, conveyed an ethereal beauty of the
fiery soul in her movies of some decades ago. Her “Sin’s Victims”
which was once de rigeur among US cineasts, is a case to point –
a beauty that once seen, is not forgotten, a haunting promise of
something more, yet half-remembered as if from Eden.

A
FALSE PROMISE

When
Castro arose, people tired by political struggles against extremes
of Left and Right understandably wanted to believe, and he certainly
said the right things in ringing tones as had not been heard for
some time. At first everything looked good. Organized crime was
kicked out, he dressed as a simple soldier (it must be remembered,
now that everyone imitates him in third world countries and does
the same, how electrifying it seemed that he did not suddenly adorn
himself with 20 medals no one had ever heard of, a tasseled uniform
with gold piping, or strange insignia ) and made promising predictions.
He called for a return to the old free communes would solve many
social problems, while calling for free play to the creativity of
the small businessman. He praised tax cuts and wondered publicly
if taxes were moral. He set up problem-solving citizen groups everywhere.
He toured out of Cuba, explaining his surprising program. I met
him at an Embassy function as a child in D.C., and he greeted me
as a distant cousin, said he saw a great future for me, told me
to study Lincoln and Jefferson, and produced candy. His Brian Blessed-type
let’s-do-it-and-hail-fellow-well-met charm was undeniable, punctuated
by a lofty and dignified reserve when asked to explain something.
The worst thing that could be said was he had an eye for the senoritas,
no big sin among Latins and practically a job requirement for a
red-blooded patriot.

Yet
before long it was the same-old same-old – only worse. Hitler
never claimed to be a champion of freedom, few Latin dictators will
quote Jefferson while burying him. Soon people were being called
out into mass meetings, standing stupefied for hours in disbelief
to listen to his harangues. A train of abuses began as the country
was bankrupted. Some fled. Some could not believe what was happening.
Some hoped beyond hope. Cuba became the dress rehearsal for the
Cambodian Holocaust, where people with glasses were taken and shot
because they were feared to be intelligent – not morons waiting
for miracles. Some tried to stick it out, or became exiles in their
own land. There is a concept in Spanish called duende, which
loosely translates to elf. It means being blessed for a mission,
having almost divine protection in crazed circumstances, a sober
sweet charm, a magical competence, a sort of genius. A bullfighter
had better have duende, for example. Ulysses had it. Joe
DiMaggio had flashes of it big-time. Exiles can use it.

Portrait
of the Artist as a Young Elf.

At
midnight, walk with dying men
…Be the watchman of stars till they shiver.
Men ripped of history
Enter new histories to them unknown.
…You attract unchosen forms:
Not of your blood.
Exiles.

ONE
MAN FORWARD

Padilla
stuck it out. Trying to speak for those who had no tongue, he defended
the undefendable and tried to right the unrightable. His prestige
as a poet who was a man’s man was great and allowed him to moderate
many things and try and rectify Cuban matters in a better direction.

“And
courage? What is it without a machine gun?”

…he
wrote wistfully, yet continued at every point to seek to persuade
the government to stop dallying around and get back on track. His
frustration may be gleaned from his famous poem on social conformism:

“We
must be correct…
One step forward,
Three steps back!”

At
last, Castro had enough. The marathon cigar-chomping speechmaker
and his pseudo-intellectual cronies could not abide one more little
verse. Padilla was jailed, tortured to make a Stalin-purge admission
of his errors, and in the ensuing worldwide denunciations of Castro,
after years of prevarication and political doubletalk (“Padilla
is voluntarily under arrest” ), suddenly booted out of the country.
Communist theorizers suddenly found themselves despised across Latin
countries, and the neo-Marxist double-talk entered a new phase of
the dialectical rococo. Fascists who still held on to their power
weren’t too happy either. It is said (an instructor at the De Lemos
academy in Argentina told me this, Latin America’s quasi-VMI ) that
when the waiter brought one of the Argentine generals a Padilla
poem instead of soup, he knew by this calm insolence it was time
to dust off the brochures on retirement homes in Italy. And thus
Padilla, who retired from public life to pursue his meditations
at Libertarian-friendly Auburn University, and tour to read his
poetry, saw his influence and admiration grow. True, he was perhaps
not a full exponent of the Libertarian philosophy as generally understood
in the US, but Libertarianism is primarily a method and search for
non-coercive alternatives, not the sort of lockstep philosophy that
makes those impertinent demands of artists and followers, now so
common today. But he had it all in his heart. And it was his heart
that sang. He understood the principle, the rest was inspiration,
as should be.

Padilla
talked freedom.

His
verses were loud and clear, encouraging and inspiring others to
find what was true in their experience for themselves. Soon many
of his lines became verses quoted as sayings on street corners from
Yucatan to Montevideo to Buenos Aires. He was an inspirational voice
among Latin Libertarians began to wake up to new possibilities.
Libertarian oriented Latin thinkers and writers such as Dr.
Rigoberto Stewart
, the spectacular group about Hernando
De Soto
, social critic Alvaro
Llosa
and many others found a new atmosphere. There arose a
re-oriented Libertarian discussion towards understanding the informal
economy that was generated under government regulation of the poor,
and focused world attention on how government regulations create,
not alleviate, poverty and injustice. There is now even talk of
Libertarian cultural areas and provinces. But Padilla’s Libertarian
message and inspiring personal struggle was not one of economic
theorems or policy proposals. In a confused world today where most
poets provide nightmare visions of hopelessness, or saccharine homilies
that all is well, Padilla had a different message.

Padilla
said wake up, get up, and fight for what’s right.

People
responded, and for once the critics were silent, or attempted to
nervously co-opt him to their own totalitarian views, but he would
have none of it. First in drops, then in a storm, Prizes and honors
rained from the skies: the Cervantes prize, the Cuban-American Spiny
Palm, scrolls and resolutions from the very governments whose existence
and bureaucracies of heartlessness he questioned. His first work,
written at 16, Rosas Audaces (Daring Roses) was re-released
to general applause. His works, published in English, found delighted
US audiences despite at best workmanlike translations, like Pope
translating Homer (the free translation excerpts above are mine).
His books
became readily available and the subject of study
. Indeed, everywhere
he went, he was called upon to speak. Rapt crowds came to hear,
not merely of the aspirations of Cubans, not merely of all Americans
from Nome to Patagonia, from Rio to Honolulu, but soon of all persons
for a little air, for a few wild, and youthful, and daring roses
to call their own. While history may judge he accomplished this,
in this life he would have given it all and his writing arm as well
for one step back, three steps forward – for all the Americas.
For the Americas that, sweating blood in his mortal, inspired heart,
and from his back tortured by mortal men, he so extravagantly and
truly loved.

November
6, 2000

Michael
Gilson De Lemos, known as MG (articles at www.gilson.uni.cc),
is Coordinator of the Libertarian
International Organization
. He believes with Jefferson that,
along with Gibbon, Cicero and Tacitus should be read by all grade-schoolers.
In Latin.

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