I was lucky to be present at the 26th Festival Internacional de Poesia de Medellin. I was doubly lucky to be there when the ceasefire accord was announced in Havana (on June 23) between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia or FARC, bringing an end to Latin America’s longest running civil conflict.
At the festival, poets from Latin America and the rest of the world — Greece, Libya, Iraq, Denmark, Poland, France, Slovenia, Australia — were present. India has, over the years, sent some distinguished poets — Ramakanta Rath, Ashok Vajpeyi, Usha Akella, and Satchidanandan. The festival was meticulously organised, with readings in numerous places, always well attended. On the inaugural and the final days at Casa da Música, there was a crowd of close to 7,000 people. One became aware of the boundlessness of poetry.
Said Freddy Yezzed of Colombia: “Reality is limited by the totality of poetry. Poetry does not have limits. Poetry is a garden: a garden that speaks of other gardens. Language is the flower, says Mallarmé. If that is so, then poetry is its flowering…”
Deeb of Egypt wrote, “I am travelling like a migratory bird/ conveying a message to the world just like a pigeon/ I am travelling free in the air with no chains.” Though I am unhappy at the scrambled metaphor, migratory bird in one line and pigeon in the next, he made his point — the freedom of the writer and the word to fly without chains, no matter what saturnine swamis say about restraint. In the next line, he talks of a “meeting with the clouds.” (If I had written those lines, I’d have added, “while our politicians are breaking wind in cloud cuckoo land.”)
Marianela Medrano (Dominican Republic) lives in New York with her Indian husband, a professor, Ralph Nazareth. The ache of moving from her land comes through in a moving poem which refers to “the sepia of remembering”, and how “I began to dress myself in goodbyes.” She adds, “could it be that every landscape starts in solitude?/ That belonging comes after we detach?”
You can’t keep nature from poetry, you can’t keep the mother from her child. Aicha Bassry of Morocco says, “Only the smell of the sea purifies contaminated souls/ Only the waves clean/ sins from man./ On the door place a half moon, a star and a cross/ so that the passer-by not doubt/ In calling at the door of the heart.”
However hard the times in Libya, Ashur Etwebi writes: “Open your mouth./ From the egg you will emerge./ From the hidden earth you will climb./ There is no fire in your house and no darkness before you./ You emerge from a flawed day/ Into a flawed day.” You can’t keep ancestors out either. Colombian poet (most Colombian poets were excellent) Albeiro Montoya says, “I will sleep while you return from childhood,/ grandfather…/ I will hear your pulse in my blood,/ the dogs will come to lick my dream, dark wound/ mistaking me for you.”
Medellin has had a very violent past. Drug cartels led by Pablo Escobar killed thousands. His motto was plata o plomo , silver or lead, meaning bribery or bullet. Colombia became known as La Violencia. They have put up a very hi-tech museum, Casa de la Memoria, on all the killings. You press a button and the families of victims come on the screen and speak. Escobar figured in Fortune magazine as one of the top 10 richest men of the world. He used to dump 16 tonnes of drugs a day on the Florida coast. But he was always on the run. His daughter felt cold one night. Lacking firewood, Escobar burnt two million dollar bills to keep her warm.
Fátima Vélez recalls the era thus: “We distanced the body/ from the dismembering of its limbs.” Pity I can’t quote the whole poem. She looks closer and finds it is not a stain but a body. Her roots “returned to life in his body”. The last lines are “it was/ not the earth that trembled/ but silence.” Silence, in the face of atrocities, takes a heavy toll on public conscience.
Colombian poets are not only splendid, they are also beautiful — Annabell Manjarrés, Fátima Vélez, Marisol Bohórquez come to mind. Judith Crispin from Australia, a conservatorium-trained composer who has lived in Paris and Berlin for several years, was a great draw with her poetry.
The highlight of the last day was a splendid oration from the old lion, Luis Eduardo Rendón, who spoke of peace and poetry and of the hope that there would be no further blood spilling in Colombia. A crowd of 5,000, which had stood in rain, gave him a thundering ovation.
Keki N. Daruwalla is a poet and short story writer.