In 2011, when I was on sabbatical in Uruguay, my son Max went to the Liceo Latinoamericano in Montevideo, Uruguay. It was a small school in our neighborhood that until then had never had a student who was not Uruguayan. One of the first writers he read for class was Walt Whitman. Up until then, in America, he had never had Whitman in a class. Indeed, in the rest of his time in high school and then university in America, as far as I know, he never read another word of Whitman. But Uruguayans, it turns out, read Whitman and know Leaves of Grass. Everyone seems to have a dog-eared paperback copy on their bookshelf. I just looked at Mercado Libre, the ebay of Uruguay and today in Montevideo alone, there are over 100 individual vendors with a used copy of Leaves of Grass/ Hojas de hierba from a symphony of different editions published there over the years for sale.
When I began editing the anthology América invertida: An Anthology of Emerging Uruguayan Poets (University of New Mexico Press, 2016), I was delighted to discover “along 18 de julio avenue” by Laura Chalar. I knew immediately I had to include it in the anthology. I asked Laura about the poem and she said: “I wrote this poem many years ago, when I was preparing myself, very reluctantly, to leave my hometown of Montevideo in Uruguay for Buenos Aires in Argentina. As I pondered all that I would be leaving behind, I knew I would miss not only my friends and family but also the hundreds of unknown people I had seen and still saw every day as I went about my business in downtown Montevideo. I felt that I loved all these strangers with a deep, inexpressible love, and at that point Whitman obviously came to mind—for, if there was a poet who loved his fellow humans with a great, all-encompassing love, that was undoubtedly him. So I placed him as a tutelary deity over me and the places and people I would be saying goodbye to”.
I love the idea in this poem of Whitman, or his spirit, walking down the street in Montevideo and of Whitman watching over us all.
along 18 de julio avenue
were walt whitman here, how he would sing to them, sing of them with his hoary street prophet’s voice, dedicating his long gray vigil hymn to this dark flock of tame poor, citizenry of ants, his hand touching she who waits at the bus stop, the cop, the garbage picker, the law clerk in weary shoes, the begging children, the begging old men, the fat salesgirls, the kids pouring out of the university building, the caramelized almond seller, watch strap seller, half-blind lottery ticket seller, supreme court judge running late again, man who bought the smartphone, woman who recites poetry on the bus, shoe-shine man, they who hand out leaflets for loan sharks or massage parlors, and me, who watch it all with the love of someone bound to leave, someone already leaving.
si estuviera walt whitman acá, cómo los cantaría y les cantaría con su ronca voz de augur callejero, dedicándole su himno de larga vigilia gris a la oscura grey de pobres mansos, ciudadanía de hormigas, tocando con su mano a la que espera en la parada, al policía, al hurgador, al procurador cansado en sus zapatos, a los niños que piden, a los viejos que piden, a las gordas de las expo, a los chiquilines que salen de facultad, al garrapiñero, al del puestito de correas de reloj, al quinielero medio ciego, al ministro de la suprema corte que llega tarde al acuerdo, al que se compró el smartphone, a la que recita poemas en el bondi, al lustrabotas, a las que reparten volantes de usureros o casas de masajes y a mí, que miro todo con el amor de quien se va, quien se está yendo.
translation from the Spanish by Erica Mena and the author