“You know Darío said this city was like his Rome or Paris,” said Eddy Kühl, an author of numerous books on history and Darío, who also runs Selva Negra, an ecolodge in the coffee highlands. Mr. Kühl, who could pass for a senior Indiana Jones, took me through Darío’s rise to prominence.
Darío taught himself to read at age 3 and wrote poetry not long after. He left Nicaragua for El Salvador at 15. At 19 he moved to Chile where, at age 21, he published “Azul,” a collection of poems and prose that came to define the Spanish Modernist movement and catapulted him into literary stardom. The book, which built on the work of other poets like José Martí, shattered the stodgy literary norms of the day and breathed new life into the language.
“Everything written in Spanish afterward has been affected in one way or another by that great renascence,” wrote the Mexican poet and Nobel laureate Octavio Paz in the prologue to “Selected Poems of Rubén Darío,” translated by Lysander Kemp. As Francisco Arellano Oviedo, the director of the Nicaraguan Language Academy, told me: “After so many centuries, Darío sent Columbus’s caravan back and freed Spanish literature from Spain.”
After a lunch of fried plantains, chicken and repollo salad at a place called Tan Rico, we headed to the house where Darío had moved in with his aunt when he was just 40 days old. Rosa Sarmiento, his mother, fleeing an abusive marriage, would later end up in Honduras and have no relationship with her son. The house of his aunt, Bernarda Sarmiento de Ramierez, sits on Rubén Darío Street, though back then it was Calle Real.
Half of the house is now a museum. A sofa given to Darío from Manuel Estrada Cabrera, the Guatemalan dictator, sat in a main room, along with Darío’s diplomatic suits from missions to Argentina and Spain. Two large doors opened to the city outside.
I lingered in the doorway and looked out at the street. A woman shredded cabbage into a red bowl. Her mobile phone rang. She looked up and caught me staring at her through the door. “Darío,” she mouthed, and took the call.
DARÍO ONLY RETURNED to Nicaragua five times over the course of his career. He spent the bulk of his time traveling on other people’s córdobas as a journalist, envoy and diplomat. He edited some of the day’s most esteemed literary journals while in Europe and wrote for newspapers in Spain and South America, and The New York Times. All in all he crossed the Atlantic 12 times and explored some 30 countries on three continents.
Perhaps Darío’s most famous trip was on Nov. 23, 1907, when, now famous, he returned to Nicaragua aboard a steamer that called at the Pacific port of Corinto where a crowd greeted him. More people — tens of thousands — lined the railroad tracks across the countryside to see him as he toured. Darío’s return still stands sure in the Nicaraguan consciousness today — there are books and plays about it — though I got the feeling the moment carries some wistfulness. “If one’s homeland is small, you dream it big,” Darío wrote in a poem about his trip, “Retorno,” and the refrain today still hangs over the Plaza de la Revolución in Managua.
I said goodbye to Gabe and Immanuel fetched me in León. We drove northward toward Chinandega, a sweltering town not far from Honduras, and on to Corinto. The 4,255-foot Momotombo volcano rose behind us, “lyrical and sovereign,” as Darío described it. “The return to the native land has been so / sentimental, and so mental, and so divine / that even the crystalline dawn drops are / in the jasmine of dream, of fragrance and song,” he wrote.
Corinto isn’t so sublime. It felt like what it is: Nicaragua’s deepest port town, with container yards and cranes and a gray beach lined with tin-roofed shacks. The United States has landed marines here numerous times and in 1983 President Ronald Reagan, fearing Nicaragua’s Communist rise, had the port mined, illegally. After that the president turned to more clandestine counterrevolutionary measures, and the Iran-contra affair was born.