UNEXPLICABLY, poetry has flourished in prisons for centuries. Peru's Cesar Vallejo wrote poems in his jail cell that do not betray a caged existence. Renaissance Italy's Torquato Tasso and Russia's Osip Mandelstam transformed their captors' cruelty into works that join wisdom to the loveliest diction.
In our own "dark times," jailed Cuban poet Ernesto Diaz Rodriguez continues the tradition of heroic captives who defy wardens and prison guards with works of unsparing lyricism and hopeful simplicity. The recent publication of a bilingual edition of Mr. Diaz's extraordinary collection of children's poems, The Bell of Dawn, will go unnoticed in fashionable literary circles. That is to be lamented for many reasons.
Ernesto Diaz Rodriguez has been one of Cuba's plantados -- prisoners who refuse to "reform" -- for more than 20 years. He is from a family of humble fishermen. Initially set at 15 years in prison, his term was extended to 40 years after he was charged in a surrealist indictment with "conspiring to overthrow the Cuban regime" -- from his dank, vile prison cell!
Mr. Diaz has been beaten and deprived of basic rights in all the Cuban jails that he has inhabited. PEN, an international group of writers, has taken up his cause. A Washington-based group, Of Human Rights, published the collection. His sons, whom he has not seen in years, live in Miami. Former political prisoner Julio Hernandez Rojo, now of Miami, illustrated the book.
Mr. Diaz wrote the The Bell of Dawn for his sons and for children everywhere. Wholly devoid of bitterness and anger, The Bell of Dawn is written in the key of hope. Images of life's renewal in Nature abound: "Oh, my son, if only I could/with a plough of frost/scratch furrows in the night/that holds my throat so tight/do you know what I would do? First/I'd plant white roses."
Astonishingly, these lines were smuggled on minuscule sheets of paper from one of Cuba's worst prisons. And Mr. Diaz has not stopped writing. The Cuban regime must free him. Surely it realizes by now that it will never break the spirit of a man who sings to children from his punishment cells. Cuba's jailers have succeeded only in making Ernesto Diaz Rodriguez's voice purer and his universal message deeper.
© 1996 The Miami Herald.