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36 the minnesota review Martín Espada The Blood that Keeps Singing: Clemente Soto Veìez The poet Clemente Soto Velez was born in January 1905, in Lares, Puerto Rico. Even his birthplace is noteworthy: Lares, in 1868, was the site of a major uprising against Spain, known as the Grito de Lares, an event still commemorated by Puerto Ricans every September 23rd. Soto Velez, born in Lares during the Ufetime of many who had a first-hand memory of the brief insurrection, thus provides a living link with more than a century of Puerto Rican resistance to colonial rule, a resistance he came to personify. In 1928, Soto Velez co-founded a Uterary movement: La Atalaya de los Dioses (The Watchtower of the Gods). As defined by Josefina Rivera de Alvarez in Literatura puertorriqueña, this was essentially a surrealist movement: innovative, experimental, devoted to a fragmentation and reconstruction of reality and language. Atalayismo quickly evolved into the most significant literary force of the day in Puerto Rico. Aside from its avant- garde elements, however, Atalayismo also featured a strong political sensibility. The rise of Atalayismo coincided with the rise of the militant Nationalist Party, likely the most important movement for independence in Puerto Rican history. Its brilliant and charismatic leader, Pedro Albizu Campos, influenced the Atalayistas, and Soto Velez eventuaUy became one of his top lieutenants. By 1936, Puerto Rico was nearing open revolution. Federal and island authorities engineered a crackdown on the Nationalist Party by indicting its,leadership on charges of seditious conspiracy. Albizu Campos, Soto Velez, the poet Juan Antonio Corretjer and several others were convicted in 1936 after two trials, the second of which featured a jury handpicked by the governor of Puerto^ico, the notorious General Blanton Winship. The "crimes" of Soto Velez included a statement: "Puerto Rican, the independence of Puerto Rico depends on the number of buUets in your belt." He served his sentence from 1936 to 1942 in the federal penitentiaries at Atlanta and Lewisburg, developing health problems which would plague him for Ufe. His poems were smuggled out of prison, and his first book, Escalio, a collection of phUosophical writings, appeared while he was still incarcerated. Following his release, Soto Velez settled in New York, where, according to critic Efrafn Barradas and other scholars, he became the founder of the Puerto Rican literary community, sponsoring and inspiring num- Espada 37 erous writers over the years. He established himself as a journalist and political organizer as well. He was at his most prolific as a poet in the 1950s, publishing Abrazo interno (Internal Embrace) in 1954, Arboles (Trees) in 1955, and Caballo depalo (The Wooden Horse) in 1959. A monumental work, La tierraprometida (The Promised Land), was published by the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture in 1979. His current manuscript, as yet unpubUshed, is caUed Mujer u ombre, ombre o mujer (Woman or Man, Man or Woman). In recent years, his verses have been set to music by the popular New Song folksinger, Roy Brown, and thus introduced to a new generation of Puerto Ricans. Aesthetically, Soto Velez is often reminiscent of the great Peruvian poet Cesar Vallejo, especially in terms of Vallejo's poems about the Spanish Civil War. Soto Velez' poems are revolutionary in form: a cascade of surreal images, thriving on duality and contradiction, characterized by a forceful use of rhythm, repetition and alliteration. His later works are without punctuation, overhauling traditional grammar and spelling, flavored with invented words; Soto Velez actually created his own phonetic Spanish alphabet so that, he insists, no one could ever misspell a word. Though the alphabet has never been fully implemented in book form, the poet always spells his own name as, "Klemente Soto Beles." The poems are also revolutionary in content: singing a hymn of praise to the international working class and its rebels, calling not only for the overthrow of those who hold political and economic power, but also for the demise of the words and ideas that cement oppression into place. He succeeds in placing the experience of the Puerto Rican laborer, and the quest for Puejto Rican independence, in a universal, even cosmic, context . Soto Velez has written...


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