Poetry, Politics, and the Mail; or, Fishing Without a License

Why does anyone want to be a poet, and what events of chance make it possible? “It’s more original being a postman,” Pablo advises Mario.

There’s something wrong with Mario. He’s a fisherman allergic to boats and the sea. So he takes a public servant job; he becomes a postman. But not just any postman. He’s the personal postman to Pablo Neruda at the time of the Chilean statesman-poet’s exile.

Mario comes to poetry by accident, inspired not by poetic works but by desire for the women he hopes to attract and impress by simply being a poet. This is not so unusual; men do all sorts of silly things for the same reason, and Mario has seen that most of Pablo’s letters are from women and concludes they are amorous admirers of the poet.

“It began as a mistake,” Bukowski’s Chinaski explains of his becoming a postman in the first line of Post Office, his novel about his experiences working postal jobs in the waning of post-WWII Los Angeles. Chinaski begins enthusiastically, thinking, like Mario, there might be women in his future.

“This is the job for me, oh yes yes yes,” chirps Chinaski. Except that things don’t work out as expected. Just like Mario, Chinaski “didn’t even have a uniform, just a cap,” perhaps the first sign Chinaski would reject postal grace. He comes and goes in a kind of anti-route, and one imagines him chucking the letters, bills, and adverts and delivering instead poems like fish lures to casually selected homes.

Indeed, “poets can do a lot of damage to people,” the politician Di Cosimo cautions Mario. Yes, and it’s no accident. The local politicians have been promising water for the island residents with every new election, only to renege once elected. The poet promises water, too.

“Mail, over any length of time,” poet Charles Olson said in his The Post Office: A Memoir of His Father, “will tell secrets a neighbor could not guess. Nor do I mean the reading of postcards or the ‘lamping’ of letters. Nor what a man hears over coffee. Or that a man’s mail does not always come to his house, or a woman’s either. It lies more in the manner in which people look for, ask for, receive their mail. And talk about it.” We begin to see where Olson got his penchant for writing poetry. The postal bosses disliked Olson’s father for his strong work ethic and his union activity, and they tormented him until the route inspector finished him off, and he dies like a dead letter his son spends a lifetime searching for.

Of the three, the only one who gets free is Chinaski, who wakes up alive to write a novel.

The brick that’s pulled from Mario’s wall and explains his fall is his ability to read, unusual on the dry island, and explains the accident that follows: his winning poem prized by the communists who invite him to read at the political rally that erupts into a riot where he’s trampled and killed, a poet of the people, his paper dissipated under panicked feet, for every poem is a fish caught without a license.

Plato, Pablo, and the Poetics of Health Care

Plato considered poets dangerous and banned them from his Republic, and Il Postino (1994) illustrates his point, yet also shows that we are all poets, all who use language – to love and berate, to tackle and persuade, to testify and exhort. The movie, from the book Burning Patience, by Antonio Skarmeta, a fiction set on an island of Pablo Neruda’s temporary exile, is about the democracy of language, how metaphor permeates our lives, and the consequences inherent in desiring more than our own voices can bear, even through poetry. 

Is contemporary poetry outside the margins of popular US culture? Maybe, but the creation of metaphor is still the heart of language and language the heart of culture. In the film, this is ironically dramatized by Aunt Rosa. During her hilarious visit to Pablo to complain of his contributing to the poetic delinquency of Beatrice, she lets loose with an invective that ably employs a fishnet of metaphors to describe Pablo’s bad influence on Mario and Mario’s hypnotizing effect on her niece. The blame falls on the poet for stirring the emotions of the tainted republic of the island. 

Poetry sleeps around, moving through Plato’s five regimes. Democracy gives way to tyranny; Plato should have banned lobbyists – then maybe the Republic, though awash in a bath of poetry, might at least have a decent health care system, not to mention an adequate water supply.