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Made in Granada
Visual Poems from Nicaragua's 30s Vanguardia
translated from the Spanish and annotated by David Shook

Nicaragua’s Vanguardia, considered one of the first avant-garde movements in Latin America, got its start with José Coronel Urtecho’s composition of “Ode to Rubén Darío,” a clever skewering of the patron bard’s poeticized language, written in 1926 and first published in ’27. The group, which initially consisted of Coronel Urtecho, Pablo Antonio Cuadra, and Joaquín Pasos, embraced a nativist aesthetic, but their work drew on a vast range of new influences, from anthropology and psychoanalysis to cinema and contemporary European literature. In 1927, Coronel Urtecho returned from a three-year spell in San Francisco, where he had translated North American poets including Whitman, Pound, Moore, and Eliot, whose influence is evident in much of Vanguardia’s verse. In 1930, the movement formally established the Anti-Academy, which was opposed to any “spurious, bewitched, and sterile” manifestation of the past. It is impossible not to see a political stance in this aesthetic orientation. In the words of Ernesto Cardenal, “Nicaragua produced two important things during [the 1930s], the Vanguardia and Sandino. A single spirit animated both movements, and in some sense the two were one and the same.”
Following the lead of the French poets whose work they sought to converse with, several members of the group tried their respective hands at hispanicizing the calligram. Of these attempts, Joaquín Pasos’ “Cook Boat” stands out as the most mature attempt. In it, a boat captained by Pasos himself—not without the assistance of first mate Coronel Urtecho—floats on eau de cologne, which in Spanish (agua de colonia) suggests the anti-colonial elements of the Vanguardia’s poetics. In my initial translation, I failed to recognize the French-to-Spanish calque, rendering the term “colonial waters.” Upon realizing my mistake, I chose to partially embrace it, that I might somehow reflect the play of the original, embedding the eau de cologne that the English-language boat floats on with the reference to colonialism that I believe the original Spanish contains.
The other significant poem from this bunch is Pablo Antonio Cuadra’s “Caballito de bamba,” which goes:

un caballo volador para el amor
un caballo de luna para rodar fortuna
un caballo de poesía para la tierra mía

que ni come, ni bebe, ni anda

El Caballito de bamba

This calligram reflects the Vanguardia’s reverence for and rediscovery of folk and oral poetries, as well as their rootedness in the historical Spanish-language literature they sought both to defy, revitalize, and transcend. The phrase “caballito de bamba,” not at all common today, alludes to traditional Spanish comedies and picaresque novels. The lines “ni anda ni come ni bebe, / como el caballo de bamba,” which Cuadra here reorders, is how Pedro Calderón de la Barca (1600 – 81), considered to have initiated the second cycle of Spanish Golden Age theatre, refers to a character stupidly in love. The term has also been used to refer to those considered useless and stupid, and appears, in a variation that features the horse andando without ever eating or drinking, in La vida y hechos de Estebanillo González, hombre de buen humor [The life and facts of Estebanillo González, man of good humor] (1646).
A literal translation of the poem, beginning with the text composing its outer circle, followed by the text that forms the horse’s head, reads:

a flying horse for love / a horse of the moon to circle fortune / a horse of poetry for my land
it doesn’t eat, nor drink, nor go [anywhere]
El Caballito de bamba [The Little bamba horse, or The Bamba Pony]

My own free version, in which I’ve attempted, using rhyme, to replicate the orality of the original, reads:

a horse up above, for my love
a horse like a poem, for my home
a horse of the moon, to circle my stars

El Caballito de bamba

The form and playfulness of “Caballito de bamba” also suggests the influence of the Mexican orientalist and experimentalist José Juan Tablada’s handwritten calligrams in Li-Po y otros poemas (1920), a landmark in Latin American literature for its fusion and Americanization of both Eastern and European literatures; given that book’s limited print run in Caracas, Venezuela, it is likely that the similarities are mere coincidence, but the Vanguardia’s enthusiasm for collecting books from abroad was boundless, and it is probable that its members knew of Tablada by reputation at least.
These poems, though novelties among the Vanguardia’s vast output, do nonetheless demonstrate the transatlantic dialogue that characterized an avant-garde that embraced the paradox of being simultaneously cosmopolitan and nativist, a trend that can be traced through the subsequent history of Latin American poetry.

José Coronel Urtecho was a poet, translator, and critic who, having spent three years in the United States, introduced the work of Eliot, Poe, Pound, and Whitman to his Vanguardia peers.
Pablo Antonio Cuadra was a poet, essayist, and one of Nicaragua’s most important literary critics. In 1960 he founded the seminal magazine El pez y la serpiente (The Fish and the Snake), which he edited for more than 40 years.
Luis Downing Urtecho and Octavio Rocha were minor members of the Vanguardia; neither published any poetry after their early twenties.
Joaquín Pasos was a poet, political columnist, and rabble rouser who joined the Vanguardia at a precocious 15 years old. Though he died before seeing a book-length collection of his own work in print, he has become posthumously famous in Latin America, especially for his long poem “Canto de la guerra de las cosas.”
David Shook is a poet, essayist, and translator presently living in Iraqi Kurdistan, where he serves as Artist in Residence at Kashkul, an arts and culture collaborative based at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani. His most recent book-length translations include work by Jorge Eduardo Eielson and Pablo d'Ors, and his co-translation projects in Iraq include work by several contemporary Yazidi poets. Read more at
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Masterpiece, by José Coronel Urtecho

Impertinent Landscape, by Pablo Antonio Cuadra

The Psychasthenia of the Clock, by Luis Downing Urtecho

Windmill of Fear, by Octavio Rocha

Caballito de Bamba, by Pablo Antonio Cuadra

Cook Boat, by Joaquín Pasos