Scholar Glenn Sheldon puts Beat poet Gregory Corso on trial in his book, South of Our Selves: Mexico in the poems of Williams, Kerouac, Corso, Ginsberg, Levertov, and Hayden, for the crime of cultural imperialism toward Mexico, and for preferring America to our southern neighbor. Among the few poems in which Corso describes Mexico are “Mexican Impressions” and “Puma in Chapultepec Zoo.” In the latter, he describes a puma as being similar to “Ulanova/ locked in some small furnished room in New York.” Sheldon thinks that Ulanova is a “friend” of Corso’s back in the Puerto Rican section of New York City. “What a long mental leap to think about a New York friend, Ulanova, who is dislocated in that city because of his Puerto Rican heritage” (my italics 86). This becomes the focus of Sheldon’s charge of cultural imperialism.
PUMA IN CHAPULTEPEC ZOO
Long smooth slow swift soft cat
What score, whose choreography did you dance to
when they pulled the final curtain down?
Can such ponderous grace remain
here, all alone, on this 9 x 10 stage?
Will they give you another chance
perhaps to dance the Sierras?
How sad you seem; looking at you
I think of Ulanova
locked in some small furnished room
in New York, on East 17th Street
in the Puerto Rican section.
Sheldon writes that Ulanova was “a Puerto Rican friend who evidently finds New York less than habitable” (83). However, Ulanova was the star of the Bolshoi Ballet and “he” was a “she.” Corso had visited the ballet during his brief sojourn in Mexico City in 1956, which is mentioned in his Selected Letters when he writes to the poet Randall Jarrell on November 23, 1956: “last night I went to the ballet” (18). He went with Allen Ginsberg and other members of the Beat entourage. “They … went to the national ballet where they sat in the high upper balcony for thirty-four cents each” (I Celebrate Myself: The Somewhat Private Life of Allen Ginsberg 227). The Mexican ballet was not a major ballet in world terms, but Corso references the Bolshoi, which was the most important ballet company in the world, and Ulanova was its most important star. The Bolshoi had made an enormous splash in London in October of 1956 (one month before), with critics competing to praise the work of Galina Ulanova, who was considered by many to be the greatest ballerina of the 20th century. While Corso had not seen the Bolshoi in Mexico (the Bolshoi did not visit Mexico), he did have Ulanova on his mind.
Sheldon writes, “Ulanova, the Puerto Rican, is ‘locked’ into his fate like the puma,” (86). He heaps mistake upon mistake, criticizing Corso for turning Ulanova (supposedly Puerto Rican), as a “person of color” (86), into something “feral” (86). Instead, in “Puma at Chapultepec Zoo,” Corso was thinking about the grace of an animal, and the puma, as a reference point, was also located in his immediate context. Corso wrote to Jarrell on November 16, 1956, that “Mexico City does have a zoo! It’s in Chapultepec Park where for days I have walked alone along the Calzados de Las Poetas. It is a good zoo – clean – spacious (except for the cats, they are in small cages)” (Accidental Autobiography 16).
While Sheldon puts Corso down repeatedly because of his mistreatment of Ulanova, he is right to argue that Corso was not happy about being in Mexico. Corso shortly returned to America to live with poet laureate Randall Jarrell.
In March, 1963, Corso wrote to Ginsberg from New York City: “America is the Second Coming because Christopher Columbus means Christ bearer, his ship Santa Maria meant same, angels in his dreams told him to find America” (Accidental Autobiography 351). Corso accepted that he was an American: “I don’t like communists,” he explained (Accidental Autobiography 355). He wrote to Ginsberg, urging him to come back from India and take upon himself America’s messianic mantle, something that Ginsberg did do, wrapping himself in the nation’s history as the lyrical hope of the world.
Some of the Beats spent long periods in India (covered in a book called The Blue Hand); in Mexico (in a Sheldon’s comparatively less accomplished account); in Cuba (see the volume Cubalogues, by Todd Tietchen); and in Morocco (as yet uncovered in book form); and spent much time in Paris, back when it was still relatively cheap after the second world war (The Beat Hotel). A few (especially Gary Snyder, Joanne Kyger, and Cid Corman) spent time in Japan. Corso remained either in America or in Europe and rarely left these areas, and he never visited Mexico again.
Mexican essayist Octavio Paz, in his book On Poets and Others, blames the backwardness of his country on the success of the Counter-Reformation. “There is a similarity – as yet little explored – between the Spanish and the Russian traditions: neither they nor we, the Latin Americans, have a critical tradition because neither they nor we had in fact anything which can be compared with the Enlightenment and the intellectual movement of the eighteenth century in Europe. Nor did we have anything to compare with the Protestant Reformation, that great seedbed of liberties and democracy in the modern world” (119).
Paz’s take on the difference between Mexico and America helps bridge the understanding between the two countries in a way that Corso never fully explores and which Sheldon merely denies. Mexico is incomprehensible to Corso, as it is to many Americans. Although the USA took almost half of their land, it remains the 14th largest country in the world in geographical terms, and it has the 11th largest population. After almost a century as a socialist backwater, they have made gains in terms of economic freedoms, and there is an independent judiciary. Beset, however, with massive crime cartels, they are lacking the “critical tradition” that Paz cites. Not having arisen from the “Protestant Reformation,” they are also experiencing a brain drain, as Mexican elites flee their corrupt country. In Corso’s other poem set in Mexico, entitled, “Mexican Impressions,” he wrote of a child sitting in the cab of a Ford truck that he was “doomed by his sombrero” (24). Sheldon seeks to use this image to indict Corso for “cultural imperialism” and spends three pages on the image of the boy’s sombrero, arguing that Corso fails to give the boy “agency.”
The collision between European and Native American societies that came about because of Columbus has many levels. There is the problem of imperialism. Many European countries attempted to colonize America: the French, the Swedes, the Danish, the Dutch, the Russians, and many others attempted to put down colonies in the New World. Corso’s poetry interacts with those histories, but at no time does he disparage Christopher Columbus. The older logic about Columbus held that the navigator was virtually a saint, and for a time many wanted to see him canonized. This lasted until Marxist historian Howard Zinn reinvented Columbus as a raging psychopath who chopped Indians up and raped them for fun. More balanced historians, such as Carol Delaney at Brown University, historicized this trend in her book Columbus and the Quest for Jerusalem, when she writes, “No longer is Columbus the man who was proposed for canonization in the nineteenth century; instead, he is an avaricious sinner who fomented genocide” (xii). Corso, a Catholic from birth, and also an Italian-American, saw Columbus as part of his own legacy. Delaney writes, “For Columbus and his milieu, the Christian way of life and view of the world was the one and only true way” (xiii) and throughout her book she exonerates Columbus for the many crimes with which he is charged. Delaney avers that no contemporary of Columbus ever said that Columbus attempted to commit genocide. He wanted to save Native Americans and bring to them a knowledge of God.
In a letter to a newspaper at Wellesley College, Delaney writes that, far from hurting Native Americans, “When he arrived in Hispaniola he became friends with the natives, especially the chief Guacanagari, saying they were the best people in the world” (https://theswellesleyreport.com/2021/02/letter-to-the-editor-concerns-about-denouncing-columbus/).
Corso’s writings in Mexico, and in his poems generally, depict him as a poet with a deep and long Christian heritage. His championing of Columbus, and his dismay with regard to what he encountered in Mexico, should not mean that he is relegated to the dustbin of history. Corso perhaps doesn’t deserve canonization within the Catholic church (there are no records of miracles), but he deserves to be thoughtfully considered as (at the very least) a footnote to an important heritage.
Corso, Gregory. An Accidental Autobiography (New York: New Directions, 2003)
–. Mindfield. (New York: Thunder’s Mouth, 1989).
Delaney, Carol. Columbus and the Quest for Jerusalem. (New York: Free Press, 2011).
Morgan, Bill. I Celebrate Myself: The Somewhat Private Life of Allen Ginsberg (New York: Penguin, 2006).
Paz, Octavio. On Poets and Others (New York: Arcade, 1991).
Sheldon, Glenn. South of Our Selves: Mexico in the Poems of Williams, Kerouac, Corso, Ginsberg, Levertov and Hayden (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2004).