'Wake of the first dead soldier, belonging to the San Nicolás National Guard battalion' by Cándido Lopez (1895).
(Translated from Spanish)
During the final battle of one of the Argentine Civil Wars (Ferbuary 3rd, 1852), the forces of the Big Army (Brazilians, Uruguayans, several Argentine provinces, and exiled Unitarians) seek possession of Buenos Aires, then under the power of Rosas (Federals). “The Pigeon House”, with its circular shape and the small holes that filled the walls, represented a key spot for the Federal resistance...
The day of the battle of Caseros, the famous Pigeon House was occupied by an infantry division, of which was part, as a surgeon, the medic and poet Mamerto Cuenca.
Dr. Cuenca was an amiable and rough man; dedicated to the science he professed, he had not mixed himself up in political events. He had marched to Caseros as he would have marched to Flanders, because the government had said so. And who would dare to disobey?
At the camp as he did at home, Dr. Cuenca distracted himself writing verses, favorite passion of the young surgeon, the one to which he has owed all his glory, for Cuenca is better known as a poet than as a medic.
He had great easiness for writing; his inspiration was inexhaustible, and the charming verses of special coloring sprang out of his quill with a magnificent eloquence.
Cuenca had with him a small suitcase from which he did not draw apart. Not for a moment. When knowing about his profession, anyone would have thought that this suitcase was a first aid kit or some surgical box. But it had nothing to do with his profession, for what the poet carried in the suitcase were the original manuscripts of his best cantos, and the ones he went on writing as the campaign extended.
And there was not an occasion of catching him separated of his dear suitcase. She served as a seat and as a pillow, as a table, as a tray, as nuisance: there were times when he did not know what to do with the suitcase to stay hands free for more important business.
His companions dropped on him the most friendly jokes, which he accepted smiling while turning back with some epigram or spicy roundstrophe.
The day of the battle arrived and the encounter of men began. Nobody thought Rosas would abandon the army, and everyone thought he was going to dispute in a bloody way the triumph of that day.
The night before, Cuenca had made a poetic composition and was determined to begin another one that morning, when, in the Pigeon House, cannon shots were felt.
The resistance was well organized there: they had put four artillery pieces that poked, with their formidable mouths, out between the holes of the ground floor. Four or six infantry companies held the entrance, and inside, there were some commanders, there were some outsiders to the division, and there was surgeon Dr. Cuenca.
The cannonry of the Pigeon House started to open fire over a column that approached (men that answered to the orders of the heroic Uruguayan leader, Colonel Pallejas). This column brought the order of attacking the Pigeon House and storming it in case it didn’t surrender.
The Colonel Pallejas was a rough and valiant chief, and you could not expect of him something different than the compliance of the received orders. Pallejas attacked with his usual gallantry, and in spite of the fierce fire with which he was welcomed, he was able to form his troops at the entrance of the Palomar.
“If the presence of the hawks does not impose on the pigeons,” he said joyfully, “it will be necessary to impose in another way”.
As Pallejas advanced, opening an impassioned fire with the artillery already close to the Pigeon House, the gunners abandoned their pieces and ran towards the higher rooms.
“It looks like everything is lost” said Cuenca, closing his suitcase and saving in it all of his papers: it is good to take the necessary measures in order to avoid losing anything in confusion.
“So it seems to me” answered the commander in the Pigeon House. “The enemy has won the battle and any resistance here is useless when out there everything is lost; I will capitulate”.
And with this purpose he went down, and sent to Colonel Pallejas an assistant stating they had surrendered. “No one will fire” he added, “the Colonel may enter with the most utter trust”.
Pallejas received with sympathy that message that prevented him from causing more damage than that already done. He called a company forward, which he put under the orders of his assistant, and sent him to pick up the guns of the Pigeon House, while he remained there with the rest of the forces; a little pause was required at this point.
That assistant was a young Uruguayan to whom the Colonel Pallejas had special care and estimation. He had been by his side since very little, and caressed the hope of making a soldier of merit and brillance out of him, given that his protégée counted with outstanding conditions.
This way the Colonel Pallejas sent him to unarm the surrendered enemy, and in the meantime ordered his troops to put their guns down in the pavilion.
The young assistant had barely diminished the front of his company and entered to the Pigeon House with the most utter trust, when a tremendous discharge was felt. Pallejas had not had time to return from his surprise when the thunder of a second discharge is felt and his assistant falls to the ground, riddled with bullets.
The infantry in the yard was firing in the most villainous manner. Only two soldiers sent to the unarming were standing: the rest laid down in an immense pool of blood.
Pallejas, to whom wrath was augmenting upon such a coward villainy, immediately formed his troops and fell down on the Pigeon House with an imperious bayonet charge. The infantries of the yard could not stand the push of those troops and fled in all directions available, leaving behind their guns. Officers and soldiers penetrated everywhere, killing and destroying to satiate the thirst of vengeance that encouraged them.
And there in the center he is standing, with his suitcase, the young poet Cuenca, frozen in terror, watching the inexplicable carnage.
Cuenca wears the uniform of Rosas’ officers, which is the one that corresponds to the surgeons of the army. And for such they took him those men who did not get tired of killing.
And the young poet is rushed with shots, with bayonets, with stabs.
He wants to defend himself, opposing as a breastplate his poor and powerless suitcase. But what good can it do against a group of enraged men that want to kill him at all cost?
Soon he falls, riddled by all kinds of wounds, on a ground blotched and full of dead bodies.
And those men passed over his inanimate body, not without first taking possession of the suitcase believing that it may, perhaps, be money. Shortly afterwards, in the Pigeon House, the most complete silence reigned: the silence of death.
The next day the Colonel Pallejas collected from the hands of his soldiers the famous suitcase, realizing with profound sorrow, that the inspired poet had died victim of a mistake. And they had took him, without a doubt, for an officer of Rosas.
And this suitcase, ripped off the hands of his deadbody, was the one that helped to print the volume of his most beautiful verses: the only poems that of him are known today.
In his book from 1886, Croquis y siluetas militares. Escenas contemporáneas de nuestros campamentos, Eduardo Gutiérrez enumerates all what he saw and lived in 10 years of military campaigns, and all he heard told from veteran memories during their gatherings by the late night fire. The book covers some of the most tragic episodes of the time: the internal wars, the revolutions, the “Conquest of the Desert”, and the war with Paraguay. The hierarchies are blurred by Gutiérrez, and cooks, medics, widows, captives, high rank soldiers, low rank soldiers, march before our eyes, all taking a part in this abominable fate of being pushed into the stage of war.
One of these episodes is that of Claudio Mamerto Cuenca, of whom I had no acquaintance in the moment of first reading. Be another case of a Soldier Poet, I thought, among all the rest who fill the shelves of our newborn continent, where those who did, wrote: history and literature were done by the same hand, first firing a pistol, then dipping the quill in the ink.
Some years later I came across an anthology of Latin American poets of the 19th century, volume of which precise paratexts I do not recall but the hint that they went such as Antología del verso americano del siglo XIX para el uso escolar. I remember too that it had been published somewhere near that small village of San Javier, in the valley of Traslasierra -beyond the mountain-,where I was enjoying my readings each morning at the feet of Mount Champaquí.
After going through these pages of verses (most of them, very memorable), from Mexico, Cuba, Guatemala, Panamá, etc. (the poems were arranged geographically, from North to South, which I found fairly curious), I finally got to Argentina, chapter which had, to my surprise, Cuenca as one of the exponents. Each poet, I forgot to add, had a brief paragraph under her or his name, with one or two facts as introduction. Cuenca’s biographical text was (again, my words depend on my recollection): ‘Professor of Anatomy and Physiology in the University of Buenos Aires: Doctor, teacher, and poet; forced by the tyrant Rosas to die in Caseros’.
Surely, the publisher put the elements that thought would be most didactic for the high school student, as the title remarks, and fortunately, thought it better to emphasize the fact that he dedicated his time mainly to teaching at school and university, as poetry may be worth just as a distraction, and war was not to be suggested as an entertainment for the young.
So, the reflection about the lives that do not enjoy the least remembrance of their merits came to my mind, and with it, Quixote’s discourse in Chapter XXXVIII (Ormsby’s translation):
Then, after all this, suppose the day and hour for taking his degree in his calling to have come ; suppose the day of battle to have arrived, when they invest him with the doctor's cap made of lint, to mend some bullet-hole, perhaps, that has gone through his temples, or left him with a crippled arm or leg. Or if this does not happen and merciful Heaven watches over him and keeps him safe and sound, it may be he will be in the same poverty he was in before, and he must go through more engagements and more battles, and come victorious out of all before he betters himself ; but miracles of that sort are seldom seen. For tell me, sirs, if you have ever reflected upon it, by how much do those who have gained by war fall short of the number of those who have perished in it? No doubt you will reply that there can be no comparison, that the dead can not be numbered, while the living who have been rewarded may be counted with three numeral figures. All which is the reverse in the case of men of letters ; for by skirts, to say nothing of sleeves, they all find means of support ; so that though the soldier has more to endure, his reward is much less. But against all this it may be urged that it is easier to reward two thousand men of letters than thirty thousand soldiers, for the former may be remunerated by giving them positions, which must perforce be conferred upon men of their calling, while the latter can only be recompensed out of the very property of the master they serve ; but this impossibility only strengthens my argument.
Cervantes wrote the Persiles…, the Quixote…, Galatea…, the Exemplary novels and the Journey to Parnassus, yet his biggest pride remained in taking part in the Battle of Lepanto, White for bliss and blind for sun and stunned for liberty. He knew, however, the miseries of it, as he lost with a shot the movement of the left hand for the glory of the right one (one hand would obtain through literature the glory he deserved for fighting), and was held captive in Argiels for five years. Quixote continues then
Happy the blest ages that knew not the dread fury of those devilish engines of artillery, whose inventor I am persuaded is in hell receiving the reward of his diabolical invention, by which he made it easy for a base and cowardly arm to take the life of a gallant gentleman ; and that, when he knows not how or whence, in the height of the ardor and enthusiasm that fire and animate brave hearts, there should come some random bullet, discharged perhaps by one who fled in terror at the flash when he fired off his accursed machine, which in an instant puts an end to the projects and cuts off the life of one who deserves to live for ages to come.
I have with me now the first edition of Cuenca’s poems, Obras poéticas de Claudio Mamerto Cuenca con una biografía del mismo, engraved with golden letters on the burgundy surface, printed by the Garnier brothers in Paris in 1889. It counts with a biography of the man, and a prologue to the author. What I find in these pages, which back in 1852 were a breastplate, is the spirit of someone who had a predilection for romantic poetry, and who wrote to ease his mind but had no time to apply the file to his work. This last thing is meant as something good, as it allows to see directly into his spirit: perhaps, the dreadful scenery that he witnessed every day in the campaign, the terrible times his homeland was going through in those conflicts, and maybe, maybe, the remembrance of a face that was missed, were the causes of such melancholic turns in his cantos. Any part of his work would convince us of this: the final stanzas of the last poem of the volume ('Epílogo'), translated by myself, say:
Prayers and efforts are looked at in vain
Fooled a thousand times, a thousand more, and a thousand again;
For, after the angel that is never met
Goes our Hope, always behind.
And then it is noticed that success fails.
When the angel stood not where expected,
Just then it is feared not to find him.
No doubt! We’ll never find him.
And then, when we are filled with science,
Of bitter experience and harsh truth,
(Which is when not missing is possible), it is late:
The fire doesn’t blaze at this age.
Now the soul is weak, no verve,
Now the chest is cold, now love is elusive;
Now, finally, beauty looks at us with yawn,
And it cannot be fixed: the mistake is done.
So it is a must:
That love finally quits the kind mission:
That someday, all merry dreams come to an end.
The poetry, the beautiful illusion.
There’s no TODAY, nor TOMORROW, AFTER, NOW, nor LATER,
Nor cold, nor fire, nor less, nor more,
Nor ALWAYS, nor THEN, nor cheerful lights.
Nor EVER, YESTERDAY, nor BEFORE; what there is: NEVERMORE!