Mendez Bolivar is a fictional Beat Poet who I invented as part of a short story. This is his fictional biography, as taken from a fictional book of his poetry which was a key item in the story. Stories within stories within stories are fun. It’s also fun to create characters who feel real. None of what follows is true. The picture is a stock photo. Nevertheless Mendez feels entirely real to me. I have quite the crush on him.
Whilst firmly established in the Latin American poetic tradition alongside poets such as Pablo Neruda and Juan Gelman, Mendez Bolivar is distinguished by his involvement in the US beat scene.
After growing up as an only child in Buenos Aires in the care of a “Tia” or aunt, (most likely no relation), he traveled alone to America in 1944, via Mexico, at the age of 16. He found work as part of The Bracero Program which for a time welcomed Latin American immigrants to join the US War effort.
In 1949 his studies at The Reed College in San Francisco brought him into contact with Zen enthusiasts and beat poets Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsberg. They, with others would go on to found Beatitude magazine to which Bolivar became a prolific contributor. He spoke little in public, appearing at live events only to hide in the shadows. This reticence, perhaps in contrast to the more flamboyant characters on the San Francisco scene, and combined with his documented good looks served to make him irresistible to both sexes. His most famous (and scandalous) conquest was the wealthy socialite and painter Hester Bettencourt.
His spoken English never matched the precision of his written word and it was frequently assumed that he was embarrassed by his thick accent. In the preface to Manzana however, Bolivar describes himself as merely “socially awkward, bordering on antisocial.” He relates an episode when he was persuaded by Snyder to experiment with LSD in an effort to “loosen him up.” The experience was not successful and led to his subsequent criticism of artists who used mind altering substances as “weak.” This served to ostracise him from many of his contemporaries, although the poem The Men suggests he had never felt accepted by the movement, who saw him merely an exotic novelty.
His style was that of the dispossessed outsider; existential questionings frequently took the form of gentle love poems; their accessibility undeniably a key factor in his growing following. Whilst he experimented with surreal and absurdist forms it is for these earlier works, collected in this volume, for which he is best known.
In later years, following his increasing involvement in the Black Arts Movement, Bolivar publicly criticised the adoption of Buddhism and Zen philosophies by the campus students and poets describing it as “juvenile”; this led to public spats with Ginsberg who countered that Bolivar’s poetic themes were “without exception infantile” and the poet was “anal retentive.” Shortly afterwards Bolivar reverted to writing in Spanish, a decision he explained in New Yorker in 1970, in his last interview.
“As a young man, especially surrounded by these articulate American students my tongue felt like an obstacle. The older I become its absence becomes the obstacle. You could say perhaps, you see how it is, when everything is not.”
The success of these poems did not match his earlier work although still considered of high cultural importance. The full archive of manuscripts and many of Bolivar’s personal effects are held by the Latin American Institute at Columbia University, following Bolivar’s bequest prior to his return to Argentina in 1971. He intended to lend support to those resisting the encroaching Dirty War. Following the junta in 1972, like thousands of intellectual and liberal-thinkers, Mendez Bolivar became one of the disappeared. Despite the efforts over the next twenty years of many famous and influential aficionados, including Jorge Borges, and Alfonso García Robles, winner of the 1992 Nobel Peace prize, no trace of Mendez Bolivar has ever been found.
His legacy continues to resonate; in the handwritten manuscript of Allen Ginsberg’s last poem Thing’s I’ll Not Do (Nostalgias) (1997), where the poet lists regrets, the words “Nor find Bolivar in literary Argentina,” can be discerned.