Exploring Poetry: Keiselim Montás and Norberto James

For Henry J. Richards

In this essay I contribute a critical reading of some of the main themes and literary strategies deployed by Keiselim Montás (1968) in Allá (diario del transtierro) and Norberto James Rawlings (1945-2021) in Patria portátil. It presents the first rigorous analysis of their poetry.[1] I analyze the authors’ artistic and philosophical preoccupation with memory, emigration, moral consciousness, and fraternal love. My reading also attends to the theme of writing and its interplay with pessimism and resignation on the one hand, and ideals of new humanistic relations imagined by these two authors in the context of phenomena such as Caribbean diasporas, recreation of the self, and conceptualizations of the native land, on the other.

Norberto James emerged as a young writer during the period of the 1965 Dominican civil war (known as Guerra de Abril). He published his first book[2] of poems, Sobre la marcha, in 1969. According to Miguel D. Mena, the book generated sustained national attention for its concise approach to socio-political issues and its distinctive use of rhythm in poetry. James’s craft in Sobre la marcha also stood out for its depiction of the cocolos, the community of African-descended workers from the English-speaking Antilles who since the beginning of the twentieth century had been migrating to the Dominican Republic to labor in the sugar industry. Political repression during the twelve-year regime of Joaquín Balaguer led Norberto James to emigrate to Cuba in 1972; he returned to the Dominican Republic in 1979. A few years later, in 1983, he left for the United States, where he established permanent residency.[3] Keiselim Montás situates himself and his writing within the linguistic, cultural and geographical dialectics of the Caribbean diaspora to the United States. People have described Montás’s essays and poetry as a contribution to migration studies and to the development of Dominican literary production in Spanish in the United States.[4] Indeed migration figures prominently in Allá (diario del transtierro) (2012), a book in which Montás’s spirited reflections can be appreciated in the oral quality of his poems and his use of scenic modes of narration. The book’s parenthetical title points to its narrative style.

The word “transtierro” denotes the concept invented by the Spaniard José Gaos, who used it in 1943 to formulate ideas about the experiences of Spaniards who lived in Mexico as exiles on the hills of the Spanish Civil War. Montás borrows the concept but gives it a new definition: “la presente condición de vida de quienes (como yo) emigraron de sus países y hacen vida o sobreviven, como inmigrantes, en otros países de cultura, sistema, lengua y costumbres distintas, mientras mantienen una conexión real o imaginaria con sus países de origen.”[5] Montás’s redefinition of the term is multipronged—it takes into account interconnectedness of transnational scale, flows of Caribbean cultures, alternative forms of knowledge, transculturation, imaginations that move back and forth and in variegated directions. At the same time, however, Montás’s formulation seems to represent “being a transterrado” as a fixed condition, with the person never overcoming the disruptions (sociocultural, psychological, economic) experienced in the context of emigration and whose life is assailed by feelings of not belonging in the adopted country. The poem titled “Condición”—to which Montás assigns the function of an “Epígrafe”—obliquely conveys the notion of a deterministic existence despite implying change through its play on words (particularly prepositions), which simultaneously states and negates (personal) transformation:

Estoy condenado al transtierro,
odio el presente que debo cambiar,
me desconecté del pasado…
Hay que emigrar del transtierro,
por el transtierro,
…al transtierro
. (IX)

Montás plays with different semantic uses of the word “transtierro”—as a set of circumstances from which the speaker cannot escape, as a distressful situation or state of mind from which he can and must free himself in order to realize his full potential, as a contradictory sequence of actions that lead to the achievement of a purposeful consciousness. The internal contradictions of the poem cited above relate to another text written by Montás titled De la emigración al transtierro. On one level, this phrase declares a transition from the difficulties and precariousness experienced by many with regard to migration. But the idea of moving toward or inhabiting a different and better state of things suggested in the title does not necessarily free Montás’s formulation from the sense of “transtierro” as a constant. The person (the “tranterrado”) often comes across as forever existing within the set boundaries of a memory—a writing—that keeps rearticulating life from the perspective of the tribulations of emigration. Keiselim Montás explains that for the “transterrados,” life becomes an “allá,” a place that the individual who settles in another country never inhabits or ever reaches. And yet Montás describes the poems in Allá (diario del transtierro) as a bridge that leads to that unreachable other side (“allá”, “el otro lado”, “la otra orilla”). What does it mean that the poems are a bridge to the other side? How do they perform that function? I argue that these poems, contrary to the discursive details that characterize them, communicate the impossibility of carrying out the illusion expressed by the metaphorical function that Montás attributes to this book. Indeed, the richness of the in-betweenness mentioned by Montás in his redefinition of the concept “transtierro” may support the image of the poems as a bridge to a place that cannot be reached. Nevertheless, the tension that permeates the book alludes to the conundrum of loss, anguish and longing in a writing and a memory that insist on returning to an idealized past as a way of surviving in the adopted country.

Dominican poet Keiselim Montás

Let us consider the demonstrative adverb that gives the book its title. “Allá” denotes place, destination; it also relates to time. The adverb figures in the title as a firm, strong verbal sound insinuating certainty of movement toward a concrete destination where, presumably, people would live in circumstances that allow for the cultivation of ethical responsibility as they develop their full potential. However, one cannot overlook the fact that “allá” also denotes an indefinite, distant place representing the arguably fixed condition of “being an immigrant.” A similar contradictory state of mind can be discerned in the poem “Allá,” in which cherished memories of the native land reinforce the conception of immigration as an immutable state of displacement. The speaker tries to find equilibrium as he moves in circles within the boundaries of the “allá,” and as he travels in and out the liminal spaces created by the realities of migration. Let us read the final lines from the poem “Allá,” (4) to illustrate this analysis and interpretation:

Y después de haber partido por primera vez,
regresar con todas las partidas posteriores
para la nueva partida;
pero siempre hay que volver a los guayabales
y a las calles de la infancia.

The technique of journal writing that Montás employs in his structuring of the book reflects the dynamic that I explore here. Several of the poems appear without a title; instead the author identifies them by day of the week, month, year, hour, city and country based on when and where he wrote the poems. It is as if Montás wanted the reader to find a secure anchor in the middle of the limitless, undefined, unattainable place referenced in the title of the book. Montás groups the poems into five sections (memories about the native land; writing; kinship in the context of family members, compatriots and people unknown to him; and connectedness with the world); each section, identified by an ornate heading, offers a description of the topics and an explanation of his approaches to writing. The contents of “Allá (diario del transtierro)” lists the poems only by referencing the journal-entry details mentioned earlier. Visually, this pattern gives the impression of precision, of a securely demarcated daily life. The act of reading the listing of dates and time, on the other hand, produces a burdensome effect, a sense of chaos, of being in a suffocating enclosure.

Such tight accumulation of temporal spaces (days, years, months, hours), together with the author’s use of circumlocution, might be viewed as Montás’s experimentation with capturing in writing the full range of human experience. This artistic effort would find echo in the abstract arc that we perceive between “pueblo” and “mundo,” two words identifying the first and the last sections of the book, respectively. But, alas, said writing strategy is no match for the fact that all knowledge, knowing and understanding is limited, provisional, and contextual.[6]

Writing as a manifestation of wrestling with ontological uncertainty, I argue, informs the circular movement, humorous self-deprecation, experimental use of language, melancholy and seeming determinism present in this collection. The predicament of never reaching or arriving at that imprecise external and internal place identified by the adverb “allá” is a central motif in Montás’s treatment of the speaker’s urge to return to the homeland. The untitled poem beginning with the speaker’s declaration “He vuelto (me transporto), / por sus caras, a sus sueños” (3) supports this premise. The poem recreates personal images of the Dominican Republic; the speaker’s declarative memory alternates between returning in the sense of visiting the native land and returning in the idealistic sense of movement toward progress and social equality on behalf of the Dominican people. Both meanings converge in the metaphorical rendition of the reasons for the speaker’s return visit to the island: to reunite with the dreams of relatives, neighbors, and friends; to reconnect with the stained faces of shoeshine youths; to inhabit again the gardens surrounding the park in his hometown; to rescue the aspirations of ordinary Dominicans from the wretched conditions they face in the island.

Nostalgia appears interwoven with actions (material and imagined) that allude to the speaker’s inner struggle for his own well-being in the “transtierro”:

A sus caras sucias (he vuelto)
por sus limpiabotas…
He vuelto; me transportan su sol,
–He vuelto–
anónimamente (a la glorieta del parque)
por el recuerdo.

Montás’s reaffirmation of returning to the island (“(he vuelto)”; “He vuelto”; “He vuelto (me transporto)”) insinuates a counter action to the ontological entanglement that pervades his conception of a liberating “allá.” The significance of this linguistic repetition comes into sharper focus in the lines that indicate to what and for whom the speaker visits the island again and again (“por sus caras, a sus sueños”, “Estarán ahí–sin nombre–”, “ a sus caras sucias”, “por sus limpiabotas”, “sus rostros: […] anónimamente”). Acquaintances as well as unknown individuals populate this nostalgic memory and the need to continue to relate with empathy to others. This apparently uplifting horizon is pierced by the opposing forces of being condemned as a transterrado discussed above. Words such as “anonimato,” “inmortalidad,” “anónimamente” come across as glimpses of the vicissitudes associated with migration and as the speaker’s fear of living—and dying—in isolation, unknown, unnamed, forgotten; a situation to which the speaker supposedly resigns himself: “pasar a la inmortalidad en el anonimato,” “inconsciente”, “Me transporto consciente a la inmortalidad” / de mi anonimato (igual)”, “–He vuelto– / anónimamente”, “por el recuerdo”).

Yearning to return to the homeland takes different modalities in Montás’s writing. In the untitled poem whose opening verse is the noun phrase “Primicia de viaje al sur” (6), Montás evokes the landing in playa Caracoles (southern part of the Dominican Republic) of a small guerrilla group led by Francisco Caamaño in February 1973 aimed at toppling Joaquín Balaguer’s dictatorial government. Balaguer’s armed forces executed Caamaño and his companions. This small guerrilla movement had been preceded by another rebellion in 1965 in which large segments of the Dominican population rose against the unconstitutional government installed after the overthrow of democratically elected president Juan Bosch. After thousands of Dominicans “had dared to indulge in democratic aspirations,” explains Torres-Saillant, they “had to give up their dreams of determining their own political future. Back in the National Palace, Balaguer would prolong his presidency to 12 consecutive years by resorting to graft, intimidation, police brutality, personal use of State resources, incarceration, electoral fraud, murder, and other unorthodox means. . .”.[7] Historical memory in “Primicia de viaje al sur” partakes of the conflict that the sentimental recreation of the transtierro exhibits. References to unsuccessful collective struggles for justice in Santo Domingo converge with and diverge from the country’s captivating topography (its coast, reefs, white waves, blue sea):

Primicia de viaje al sur:
viene la costa, el desierto, el azul.
Playa Caracoles, desembarco y muerte.
Neiba, Jimaní, Lago Enriquillo, sublevación y muerte.      

Montás’s bare-bones style in these lines brings into a dialogical frame political actions that have stifled struggles for the realization of social justice in the Dominican Republic. “Playa Caracoles, desembarco y muerte” conjures the execution of Francisco Caamaño’s liberation guerrilla while the line naming various geographic regions in the island take us further back—to the 1519 Taíno rebellion that occurred in Santo Domingo in the mountains of Bahoruco with Enriquillo, whose indigenous name was Guarocuya, as its leader: “Neiba, Jimaní, Lago Enriquillo, sublevación y muerte.”

Both la “sublevación” y el “desembarco” end in physical and symbolic death; the repetition of the word “muerte” conveys the annihilation of the possibility for the Dominican people to sow justice and democratic rule in their homeland. The speaker’s circuit of the island’s beautiful coasts cannot, in good conscience, exclude an awareness of the cruelty to which African-descendants were subjected in sugar plantations as the mentioning of “ingenios” suggests (“Seguiremos toda la costa, / pasaremos por varios ingenios. . .”). The joining of poetic images of the island with words denoting uprisings follows the same pattern; Montás’s rhetorical manipulation of this romanticized island-trip motif keeps the political failures of Dominican society front and center: “Mar azul, olas blancas, arrecifes, / costa, sol, sublevación, desembarque y muerte.” The noun “desembarque” does not carry the meaning of military operation as it is the case with the noun “desembarco”; thus by inserting this non-military connotation between two words that signify oppression and pain, the poem elicits a mood of despondency which applies to Dominican society as well as to the speaker in the “transtierro” of his wistful recollections of the past. His announcement of the visit to the homeland, his sentimental, picturesque imagery of the island’s geography, and the use of future-tense verbs communicating hope are no match for the ruinous human conditions that people in the country endure. The utterances that cheerfully describe an imaginary itinerary through the southern coast of the island illustrate this point. Time shifts from verbs in the present tense, third person singular to future tense, third person plural: “Seguiremos toda la costa, / pasaremos por varios ingenios, / […] / y regresaremos buscando la costa, por la costa, en la costa” (6). As the poem’s conclusion strongly signals with its recurrent mentioning of death (“costa, sol, sublevación, desembarque y muerte”), Montás’s treatment of the theme of returning to the homeland, to the hope of equality and democracy, cannot free itself from the idea of an emigration—or transtierro—embedded in historical and social failures.

Front cover of the book ‘Allá (diario del transtierro)’ by Keiselim Montás (2012)

“Land holds memory,” posits Jacqui Alexander in her meditations on the work of re-creating ourselves within community.[8] Reading Keiselim Montás’s Allá (diario del transtierro) in this light makes more visible the tension present in the author’s endeavor to harmonize the contradictions at play in his emigration. The poem “Último día” points to this dialectic beneath its celebratory and emotional connection to the native land. Constructed on ambivalence, “Último día” opens with the speaker cheerfully sharing experiences of kinship and fraternal exchanges with people in the island: “Hasta que vuelva no saludaré con un ‘¡Jeei!’ al levantar la mano derecha / […] / no más abrazos de ‘¡Cuánto tiempo muchacho!’/ Será ya hasta la próxima” (11). The ostensible rejoicing felt during his sojourn in the Dominican Republic will take place again only when he returns to his country of origin; until that time, his “transtierro” will be desolation. Therein lies the fear shaping the speaker’s articulation of his return, the child-like tone of the poem, and the harmony he says to have experienced, which supposedly exists only in the homeland. Said harmony is transient. A careful interpretation of this poem reveals the speaker as having to face the Dominican Republic’s socioeconomic ills and political failures. The last line marking the speaker’s announcement of his last day in the island signifies that what he desires is to elude the wretchedness of his home country.

The jolly farewell expressed in the first stanza shifts abruptly to somber recollections of economic, social, political calamities in Dominican society. In fact, hopelessness with regard to collective transformation of community is the sentiment that the poem’s ending communicates despite the happy attitude displayed on the surface. The ending is a single line, standing by itself, with the speaker at a distance curtly reiterating his farewell—as if he realized (or did not wish to continue) the fantasy implicit in his romanticized view of the country: “Salgo a ciudad Santo Domingo, me voy (último día).”

The triple confirmation of the departure—“Salgo,” “me voy,” “(último día)”—conveys disillusionment. Here is the speaker reflecting on the ills of Dominican society before he announces his departure: “El país sigue luchando a gritos. / […] / andan sordos los dueñitos de carros (o carritos) con música al tope; / se grita en el mercado, se grita en la guagua; / la gente está con el grito al cielo y el cielo ya no existe” (11).

If indeed everyday acts of sisterhood and fellowship intimate the possibility of constructing a better future for all (“La esperanza es lo único que nos queda pues: / todavía suben la bandera en la escuela y los estudiantes de primaria / entonan el Himno Nacional”), the statement about hope at once negates the confident expectation for a better present and future. Given that the statement about hope comes up as a common phrase uttered with skepticism, it underscores the speaker’s wide-eyed nostalgia. Nevertheless, he is forced to grapple with the hardships of ordinary compatriots, and example of which is his conjecture regarding the malnourishment suffered by the children singing the national anthem: “Se les oye, pero suenan a mal comidos / “en ayuna quizás (como en mis años)” (11).

Norberto James and his friend Miguel D. Mena, 2007

Keiselim Montás concludes the book with an untitled poem written in the United States. It can be read as a synthesis of the tensions and contradictions that are part of his conceptualization of transtierro. Observing the effect that severe cold weather has on his body, the speaker (the author) declares from New Hampshire, the spatial geography that has become his other hometown in the United States: “Hace tanto frío afuera que se me aguan los ojos / …y se me nubla la vista” (80). The poem establishes a playful sequence with references to facial features: cold weather makes his eyes watery, his watery eyes cause blurry vision, the blurry vision forces the speaker to blink, blinking makes his eyelashes freeze in the cold, with his eyelashes frozen his gaze gets blurry. Such humorous concatenation leads to the painful awareness of uprootedness, unabated despondency and loneliness; the speaker’s tears are not caused by the cold weather, but by the consciousness that his craft cannot transform the isolation and melancholia to which the “transterrado” seems to be condemned—and from which writing cannot redeem him. Here is the last verse, which Montás places markedly away from the previous lines in the poem: “Dirán que no tengo sentimientos, y que mis lágrimas son pequeños témpanos / de hielo” (80). This ending connotes a bitter, sarcastic reality, namely that the movement from emigration to “transtierro” is a condition that holds little promise. It is ironic not only that this poem is the last one in the collection, but also that Montás places it in the section titled “Concomitancia con el mundo,” a lofty phrase alluding to the abstract vision of human connections.

Montás’s use of journal-writing techniques in Allá (diario del transtierro) is linked to ideas of plurality, interconnectedness and transculturation. The reader can appreciate a pluralistic awareness of physical surroundings—cities, countries, neighborhoods, seacoast, towns, museums, streets, parks—whose social and historical dynamic he endeavors to represent from different angles of vision. This artistic focus on cross-cultural spatial relations calls to mind the theory advanced by Deleuze and Guattari of asymmetrical (metaphysical) connections and transversal thought that manifest themselves overtime and, in that process, can bring about ‘multiple becomings’.[9] Montás’s technique of engaging different physical places gives a rhizomatic quality to his observations of the human condition.

Writing as rhizome is a feature that the reader also encounters in Norberto James’s poetry. But if in Keiselim Montás references to specific locations abound, in Norberto James’s Patria portátil geography is depicted mainly via succinct allegorical representations of the natural environments corresponding to his Caribbean homeland. It is an approach that, I assert, functions as a literary vehicle for the utopian vision of a multifaceted confluence that leads to the ontological unity imagined by the author in and beyond the context of his emigration.

Having lived through important historical events in the Dominican Republic (Rafael L. Trujillo’s dictatorship, the Guerra de Abril de 1965, the 1965 United States’ military invasion of the Dominican Republic, Joaquín Balaguer’s repressive government), Norberto James Rawlings has been appropriately situated in Dominican letters as an author belonging to the “Generación del testimonio” of the 1960s and 1970s. Overall, his poetry is infused with tropes of historical circumstances faced by the Dominican people as well as reflections on the experience of exile and migration. Patria portátil deals with aspects of historical and personal experiences through the writing of highly emotive poems identified by, for example, old familiar sounds, images of a home life that nurture the speaker as his mind interacts with particular recollections of his native land, and exceedingly brief verbal portraits of weary comrades fighting for social justice and ruminating on words that authoritarian governments have made obsolete (40).

As the title adumbrates, memory of native land, love, affection, goodwill, devotion to family, and empathetic connections to fellow beings are salient thematic threads in this poetry book. The term “patria” is inexorably linked to Norberto James’s love for his son and wife, to solidarity with compatriots in their socialist struggles for justice in the Dominican Republic, to a spiritual connection with nature, and to the ideal of living in community with others. His verse “Soy sencillamente uno de ustedes” (I am sincerely one of you) from the book Sobre la marcha encapsulates James’s humanistic conscience as a poet. Talking about his poetry in an interview, Norberto James described himself as someone for whom love of people, community and country is fundamental.[10] The adjective “portátil” underlines James’s conceptualization of his stated sentiments and vision as inherent to his persona and his writing.

Patria portátil operates at another level of signification, namely, the idea of having lost one’s place of origin in the sense of birth place, but also of having lost one’s place in history. Norberto James’s treatment of the phenomenon of emigration and immigration and his bittersweet evocation of the native country’s past runs intertwined with his critique of the political ills of Dominican society. The short poem “Anécdota” exemplifies the author’s grappling with the sentiment of no longer having a patria and the sense of alienation that comes from that circumstance. The poem begins with an abstract statement that leads to the author’s reminiscence of generations of Dominicans who fought against the country’s authoritarian, corrupt and criminal governments (“Ya no hay ángeles / que habiten en la punta de los alfileres”). By the third line James shifts from abstraction to very specific language with respect to the legal status, physical health and psychological state of generations of his fellow citizens:

Sobreviven todos en el destierro
pendientes de las pantallas
de sus computadoras
aferrados a la esperanza
de recibir algún mensaje
que anuncie que en el país
                       algo ha cambiado (31)

Reading Norberto James’s stark evocation of exiled compatriots in contrast to the lyric poems in this book brings to mind the Cuban writer Nicolás Guillén (1902-1989) and his poem “Mi patria es dulce por fuera . . .,” in which Guillén denounces Cuba’s oppressive social and economic conditions in the 1940s through a series of antithesis (“Mi patria es dulce por fuera, / y muy amarga por dentro”). In “Anécdota,” the hope to which the exiled compatriots hold on sharply contrasts with the semantic weakness with which the indefinite pronoun and adjective “algo” and “algún,” respectively, infuse claims about real social change in Dominican Republic.

In Patria portátil ontological dispossession and symbolic orphanage account for the recurrent motif of the no-possibility of returning to the homeland and the nostalgic memory that insists upon that return. Suffice it these remarks about the poem “Repatriado,” whose lines describe the author’s solitude and quiet sorrow as he thinks about the fact of having left his place of birth:

Cuando declina el día
suelo salir a caminar silbando boleros
como quien en lo oscuro
camina próximo a cementerio
y procura espantar sus propios demonios
Regreso sin regresar

Patria portátil may be read as a meditation on such issues as the tribulations of migration, the author’s quest for deeper forms of self-knowledge and cultivation of community relations. From this point of view, James’s melancholic representations of his voluntary emigration in this book runs parallel to José Gaos’s theorization of exile as not necessarily a rupture, but a destination, a transit from the country where the person is born ( “patria de origen”) to the country where the person relocates (“patria de destino”) freely chosen by the “transterrado”.[11] It should be clear that establishing this conceptual parallel does not mean that Norberto James’s circumstances were the same as the political situation of the Spanish exiles who emigrated to Mexico in 1939 nor does it mean that political, economic and historical relations between the Dominican Republic and the United States have been the same as those between Spain and Mexico.

Another salient feature of Norberto James’s introspective narrative of dispossession and orphanhood is the deployment of leitmotifs from the natural world (water, wind, daylight, vegetation, the seasons); memories of trees (“hibisco”, “almendro”, “jabillo”), of the Caribbean sea, of rivers, rain, sugarcane, winter, and spring portray the author’s territorial location of his native land. Implied in the recurrence of these images is the conventional use of nostalgia as a tool to construct a romanticized past, although at times the sentimental recollections of daily life in the island prior to emigrating are interrogated by the author’s critique of social injustice in Dominican society.

“Patria portátil,” the poem, exhibits a romantic reconstruction of knowledge of the past and the vulnerabilities of the self in the present. This romantic view reinforces the idea of the speaker forever existing in liminality while attempting to overcome the limitations of dwelling on that kind of memory. The poem begins with the speaker enumerating the things which he was obliged to forget or replace in order to create a life for himself in a different culture. This kind of nostalgia suggests that the speaker’s understanding of his own ontology is incompatible with cultural geographies that are not those of his native land. Therefore the act of naming constitutive aspects of everyday life serves as a strategy to preserve his sense of origin and to remain connected to the experiences that inform his view of the world.

                      Había que olvidar las esquinas del barrio
la heladería del parque
las iglesias
la librería
los colmados
la playa
el sastre
el barbero
el zapatero remendón
                    Había que cultivar nuevos amores
nuevos amigos
había que acostumbrarse a un nuevo sol
a una nueva luna
Yo inventé los míos
Inventé para mí esta patria portátil
que me cuelga bien adentro
con sus ríos montañas valles
y héroes (32)

The first stanza begs a question about the almost exclusive memory of loss expressed in this poem: why does the speaker believe that, having emigrated, he must strip his mind from the experiences and knowledges that constitute his humanity? The second stanza continues the lament about having to adapt to a different reality (“a un nuevo sol / a una nueva luna”). Even though the second stanza enumerates the creative actions carried out by the speaker in a foreign country, the idea that surviving and thriving spiritually and producing other kinds of knowledge requires having to forget formative aspects of one’s life remains a defining paradox in James’s writing as a mode of overcoming alienation. Ironically, the speaker’s loneliness is made more visible by the warmth of the linguistic realm of friends, romance, mountains and valleys in which Norberto James anchors the “patria portátil” that he creates for himself (“Inventé para mí esta patria portátil”).

Front cover of the book ‘Patria portátil’, by Norberto James (2008)

Norberto James weaves together the meaning of “patria” as an inhabited territory with “patria” as a linguistic sign that stands for love, friendship, peace and inner light in his personal life. Combined with the absence of any type of punctuation in this poem, James portraits the ideal of transcending obstacles in order to herald new fraternal relations. Moreover, James’s use of literary devices such as anaphora, polysyndeton, synecdoche and enjambment converge to give the poem a solid visual structure that elicit images of the speaker and his loved ones being shielded from oppressive forces in the native land and society at large. Reading the poem with this dynamic in mind, “Patria portátil” echoes Edouard Glissant’s theory of “our common places” in the world: “it is through the imagination that we will ultimately conquer these derelictions that attack us, just as it already helps us, by shifting our sensibilities, to fight them.”[12]

“Sol,” “hibiscos,” “almendros,” “palmas” are some of the words that in “Patria portátil” become metaphors for love, compassion and human dignity.

                   Me busqué otra luna
seguí adorando el mismo sol
los hibiscos
los almendros
los callejones
y las palmas

This last stanza narrates a quest for personal liberation from the sorrow caused by the forgetting that the speaker believes he had to undergo in the adopted country. The verb phrase “Seguí adorando” controls the five images in the stanza and guides the poem’s reconceptualization of human potential. With each image the speaker reiterates the principles that fill his existence in the absence of the quotidian life he lived in his place of origin: luminosity, hope, unity. Love for his son and awe for his native land—evoked in the poem as flora imbued with ancestral spirits—represent in Norberto James’s writing the moorings that propel his alter ego to participate in the formation of communal relationships. But this imagery implying wholeness and renewal operates in tension with the unremitting feeling of spiritual uprootedness, isolation and dispossession. The speaker’s nostalgic recollection of nature and treasured experiences associated with particular neighborhoods in the homeland maintains its grip (as one can appreciate in the five lines that dominate the stanza cited earlier) while his melancholic recount of personal survival in the adopted country suggests isolation despite the forceful tone of the verb “buscar” in the line “Me busqué otra luna.”

In the final stanza of “Patria portátil” Norberto James introduces an element that broadens the enumeration that structures this poem: the son of the speaker (an allusion to Norberto James’s son, to whom he dedicates the book) in the symbolic role of priest of palm trees. Even though the son does not possess a vast knowledge of his father’s homeland nor his experiences, he stands steadfast as the one who, in writing, will restore the speaker’s sense of belonging, of origin. The son as an allegory of incommensurable hospitable spaces is the one who will redeem the speaker from the harsh facts of life and the vicissitudes of emigration. The son becomes the nucleus of the utopian world that the patria imagined and carried within by Norberto James (“Inventé para mí esta patria portátil / que me cuelga bien adentro”) represents. Therein resides the force behind the allegorical description of the son—“Mi hijo / … / es sacerdote de las palmeras”:

Mi hijo
aunque desconoce del sol sus ardores
y de la caña la dulzura
que veneran sus abuelos
la reverencia al pargo
a la ciguapa
la majestuosidad del framboyán
es sacerdote de las palmeras. (33)

Pure joy born of collective wisdom in service of human dignity is what this last stanza communicates.[13] The concessive clause “aunque desconoce” states the son’s limited cultural knowledge regarding his father’s country; on another level, it reinforces the speaker’s fighting against the required forgetting that he describes in the first stanza (“Había que olvidar las esquinas del barrio / la heladería el parque / las iglesias / la librería”). Moreover, this particular evocation of the son presiding over the Caribbean landscape answers another call from Norberto James’s writing—to honor the humanity of his ancestors as they migrated to the Dominican Republic and became integral members of that society. The image of the son as “sacerdote” is not exclusively religious; it also has to do with language; the symbolic representation of the son elicits the ancient function of priests as learned individuals in charge of interpreting sacred words as well as language in oral traditions.

The poem’s structure—each stanza succinctly narrating the stages of forgetting, remembering and recreating—resonates with the process of transculturation, particularly the stage that emphasizes rediscovery, theorized by Fernando Ortiz in the 1940s and expanded by Angel Rama in the 1980s. Rama identified four stages in transculturation, which take place simultaneously: loss, selectivity, rediscovery and incorporation.[14] With the moving allegory of the son, the poem shifts from the past (the first three stanzas) to the present (the last stanza). The only two verbs in the present tense are the ones that identify the son; they become the speaker’s refuge from the hidden weight of the continuous enumeration of forgetting and recalling. The tension between this final moment of symbolic liberation through the speaker’s son and the recurrent thought of no return to the native land seems to want to express a more expansive understanding of the self and the world in relationship with the sacred. To that extent, it is fitting to read “Patria portátil” in light of Jacqui Alexander’s meditation about pedagogies of freedom, of interconnectedness, of equilibrium: “in spiritual work inheres the lived capacity to initiate and sustain communication between spiritual and human consciousness, to align the inner self, the behavioral self and the invisible.”[15]

Norberto James’s lyrical rendition of real and imagined experiences lived abroad as well as in the Dominican Republic conjures rejoicing and collective alignment with spiritual energies, but also fear and a melancholic state of mind that keeps the speaker embedding in the present his reconstruction of the past. The following lines from different poems in Patria portátil call attention to this dialectic: “Observa hijo cómo rasguña / el mar las orillas de la playa” (“Lección”); “las orillas melladas de mis ríos” […] / “… vago sin prisa / doblo esquinas que a ratos no sé / si son ajenas o mías / y da igual” (“Da igual”); “Infancia de jabillo / de cañaveral y riachuelo” […] / Infancia que no quiero recordar” (“Casi biografía”); “En ti fundo mi hogar creo mi patria” / […] “invoco mis despojados cielos” /[…] / “mi luz / mi viento salobre / mi perenne primavera” (“Compañera”); los “árboles de mi infancia” / […] “al cañaveral de mi silencio” (“Opción”); “isla del latido de mis noches” / “caracola disuelta” / […] “caracola en cuyo silencio” / rielan mis ansias domeñadas” (“Canto diluido”). With these lines’ accumulation of distressing images linked to the speaker, Norberto James takes us into his contemplation of his own life and human society. A close reading reveals that several of the words come from verbs that describe a state of subjugation and dejection (rasguñar, mellar, despojar, rielar). The negative meanings expressed by these verbs are underscored by James’s extensive use of personification. The repetition of the word “silencio,” together with the verse stating that the speaker does not want to remember aspects of his childhood, highlights the theme of pessimism in Norberto James’s poetry.

In the poem “Destino final” the metaphor of the stone in motion suggests a movement toward a moral vision, albeit romantic and utopian. Additionally, the metaphor of a final destiny represents a variation of the theme of pain, of grief: “Nunca sabrá la piedra recién lanzada / que al completar su trayectoria / abrirá en los espejos del agua / heridas / e impondrá el caos” (43). The final poem of the book, “Puerta trasera,” traces the affection that fills the speaker’s inner world, for instance—quotidian family life, the sunlight coming through metallic doors into the house, scenes of postal service men circumventing poodles of rainwater, family pets playing with their shadows in the evening twilight. Beatitude, well-being, and peace define the mood in this poem and more generally in the entire book. “Puerta trasera” concludes with the statement ‘No todas las puertas clausuran / limitan.” This laconic utterance, read in conjunction with the dialectical aspects of the poems that I examine in this essay, casts doubt on its assurance of a transformative future. The tone of that last verse—plain, disheartened—shows the speaker (the author) striving to believe in the imagined promise of wholeness that functions as a cornerstone in Norberto James’s poetry.

Cultivating a conscience aligned with the act of love for fellow beings is a key theme in Norberto James’s Patria portátil. Also central in this book is James’s articulation of loss, dispossession, orphanhood, self-pity and alienation as ineluctable forces in the creation and recreation of the speaker’s existence and memory. Repetition emerges as a device to assuage a nostalgia that insists on recovering a certain past at the same time that it alludes to the future, asserting and nurturing the author’s humanity in relation with others and with nature. The three epigraphs that Norberto James uses at the beginning of Patria portátil focus on the notion of “patria” in a way that encapsulates all of the aforementioned thematic preoccupations. One of the epigraphs is from the poem “Refugee blues” (1939) by the English writer W. H. Auden. The poem depicts Jewish persecution and exiles from Europe on the eve of the Second World War; it also evokes Auden’s emigration to the United States in 1939. A recurrent idea in Auden’s poem is the impossibility of returning to the home country. (“We cannot go there, my dear, we cannot go there now.”) The melodic attitude in Auden’s poem contrasts with the real-life persecution and suffering that the speaker addresses in his dialogue with a loved one. As if trying to balance the grim representation of the future and present state of human society, Norberto James follows W. H. Auden’s verses with an epigraph taken from the Uruguayan writer Mario Benedetti and his poem “Noción de patria”: “Quizá mi única noción de patria / sea esta urgencia de decir Nosotros.” Actions in service of the common good seems to be where Norberto James wants to anchor his poetry, endeavoring to put into practice a conscience that materializes a better future for the Dominican people, for his loved ones and for humankind. Not an easy task given that the writing of said moral vision remains forever elusive.


[1] There is hardly anything written about these two authors that is thorough or rigorous.  The few articles, reviews and discussions that focus on their books consist of generalizations.  One monograph that includes an analysis of some poems by Noberto James is The Development of Literary Blackness in the Dominican Republic by Dawn Stinchcomb (University of Florida, 2004).

[2] Norberto James Rawlings: Poesía completa, ed. Miguel D. Mena, Santo Domingo, Ediciones Cielonaranja, 2020, p. 12.

[3] Norberto James Rawlings: Poesía completa, ed. Miguel D. Mena (Santo Domingo, Rep. Dom.: Ediciones Cielonaranja, 2020) p. 12.

[4] See Lourdes Guerrero’s prologue to De la emigración al transtierro by Keiselim Montás, p. 8.

[5]  Keiselim Montás: De la emigración al transtierro, Arte Poética Press Inc., 2015, p. 10.

[6] See Timothy F. Weiss, On the margins: the art of exile in V. S. Naipaul (Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1992) for a discussion of epistemology in relation to exile.

[7]  Silvio Torres-Saillant: Intellectual History of the Caribbean, Palgrave, Macmillan, New York, 2006, p. 69.

[8] M. Jacqui Alexander: Pedagogies of Crossing: Meditations on Feminism, Sexual Politics, Memory, and the Sacred, Duke University Press, Durham, 2005, pp. 283-284.

[9] See François Dosse: Guilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari: intersecting Lives, Columbia University Press, New York, 2010, p. 250.

[10] James Davis: “Entrevista con el dominicano Norberto James Rawlings,” Afro-Hispanic Review, Vol. 6, Num. 2, May, 1987, p. 18.

[11] Rafael Pérez: “Hospitalidad,  identidad y «transtierro» en el exilio español de 1939”, Revista Portuguesa de Filosofía, Vol. 78, Num. 4, 2023, p. 1654.

[12] Édoward Glissant, Poetics of Relation. Translated by Betsy Wing. (Ann Harbor: U of Michigan P, 1997), p. 9.

[13] See Pierre Hadot, The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1998, for a philosophical treatment of the concepts of joy and wisdom.

[14] See Diana Taylor: The Archive and the Repertoire, Duke University Press, Durham, 2003, pp. 105-106.

[15] Alexander, p. 328.

Aida L. Heredia was born in the Dominican Republic. She is professor of Spanish at Connecticut College.


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