A radiant face driven mad with a rifle

Che in Verse is not just a collection of poetry about the world’s greatest revolutionary icon – it is a reminder


Che in Verse
Edited by Gavin O’Toole and Georgina Jiménez
2007, Aflame Books
344 pages

Reviewed by Luzette Strauss

PERHAPS in poetic terms no better description of Che Guevara can be found than in Allen Ginsberg’s epitaph referring to the fallen guerrilla as “one radiant face driven mad with a rifle”.

Ginsberg – like many of the poets whose work is included in the superb collection Che in Verse – was charmed by this handsome romantic, and even lured to Havana by his charisma, although there was almost certainly an element of lust in his obsession.

This book lays bare the eloquence of poets’ efforts to explain and articulate such complex attractions, and as a collection is in itself an eloquent testimony to the iconic status of a man who has arguably become Latin America’s most important cultural symbol. That importance has been underlined by the large volume of material published about Guevara in the last 40 years, but also by the high profile the 40th anniversary of his execution by the CIA-backed Bolivian army on October 9 has gained in a region that has swung defiantly to the left in recent years.

There is speculation, for example, that the publication by Planeta in Mexico of the poems handwritten by Guevara in the green notebook he carried in his backpack on that last, fateful mission, resulted from this being handed over from the Bolivian government’s archives by the country’s new leftwing president Evo Morales, himself an acolyte of el comandante.

Messianic martyr

As the introduction to Che in Verse suggests, the Guevara phenomenon is more than just one of the many hero cults from Latin America – from Bolívar to Marcos – that have entered western consciousness. In his introduction Gavin O’Toole suggests that,

as poets strain to find universal metaphors of sufficient potency with which to characterise this individual, more often than not they resort to comparisons with the figure of Christ as a self-sacrificing, messianic martyr who died for justice. One poet, Roque Dalton, himself the archetypal rebel who perished for his beliefs, even builds his poem around the character “Ché Jesus Christ”. This is not because in their imaginations Christ occupies a higher place in the pantheon of martyrdom, but because there is no one higher with whom to compare.

But Ginsberg’s poem also illuminates other, more nuanced and equally important aspects of the Guevara phenomenon. The US beat poet’s work is one of 19 by north Americans included in this book, carefully – and indeed subversively – selected by the editors to expose the continental appeal of this socialist revolutionary at a time of socio-cultural turmoil within the United States and the capitalist world it claimed leadership of. Many of these American poems were written in an era in which consensus had broken down within the US and were themselves regarded by the constipated establishment as dangerous subversives. Vietnam, the hippie counter-culture, a growing reaction against the power of Wall Street – and even a sense of self-hatred – permeate their work. The Guevara story provides a human catalyst for individuals who have just awoken from their comfortable mode of development to the injustice in their backyard and strain, painfully, to find ways to articulate their revelation. They are seeking through poetry to exorcise the ghostly US presence in Latin America – discredited through so many episodes of intervention, interference and incompetence.

A second and equally important aspect of this collection is that, in many cases, its contributors were themselves revolutionaries or sacrificed a great deal for their beliefs and – in some cases – for writing about Che Guevara. The examples highlighted by O’Toole of the Turkish poets Metin Demirtas and Arif Damar – arrested and prosecuted in Ankara in 1968 for the poems about Che Guevara that are reproduced in the anthology – are cases in point.

With some prescience, Damar said in his defence: “One day, history will search for the reactions of intellectuals from different nations to this unfortunate death of Che Guevara. If history says Turks gave no response to this event, then our children in the future will be put to shame. By writing this poem, let alone commiting a crime, I believe I have paid my duty to my own people by not staying indifferent to his death. I wrote my poem in such a feeling for my own people here in Turkey. It is no propaganda.” [p.18]

Che in Verse reminds us as we wander around arms outstretched, as market zombies pacified by toxic contentment, that there were once people who gave it all up for the ideal of a better world. Che in Verse is not just an anthology, it is a reminder.

O’Toole has done a good job of exploring the motives of these poets and also of tracing Guevara’s own literary development. With co-editor Georgina Jiménez – an accomplished translator – he has also expertly woven together a patchwork quilt of diverse contributions from 53 countries with great dexterity. The translated contributions from Korea, Japan, China, India, Africa and the Middle East are particularly welcome for highlighting the universal appeal of Guevara and, in so doing, for drawing attention to the many shared perspectives of poets from vastly different cultures and traditions.

Among those works that stand out are Klaus Hoeck’s Danish epic, its bile scalding the hypocritical European left, Anne Delana Reeves’ haunting verse about Che’s hands before they were severed, La Loca’s siege of the white liberals, André Benedetto’s highly original extra-terrestrial musings, and the quirky, detached and often humorous poetry from the UK and Ireland that recognise Che for what he has become in our sleeping wakefulness – a good bloke to share a pint with or someone to help you pull a bird. As the Irish poet Val Nolan writes, placing Che in a Limerick pub:

And Ché says back something quietly,
Just a few words in the Spanish which
Spur a nodding and a toasting glass –
His ease requires no literal translation.

Luzette Strauss is a freelance journalist