At Home in the World

Against the Current No. 208, September/October 2020

Dan Georgakas

I Never Left Home
Poet, Feminist, Revolutionary
by Margaret Randall
Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2020,
336 pages, $29.95 cloth.

I NEVER LEFT Home is a passionate account of the perspectives of the radical generation of the 1960s as experienced by the extraordinary Margaret Randall. Active all her adult life as a poet, feminist and revolutionary, Randall writes candidly of her experiences in the political and artistic movements in New York (1958-61), Mexico (1961-68), Cuba (1969-1980), Nicaragua (1980-84), and the American Southwest (1984- ).

The book begins and ends in the Southwest. Its initial chapters are about her experiences as a restless youth, and later chapters, those of a returned expatriate.

Before considering those aspects of her life, it is useful to reflect on her comments on the radical and artistic movements in which she became involved. While she is critical of various shortcomings of those movements, her insightful judgments remind us of accomplishments we sometimes undervalue.

In the mid-1950s, after a brief courtship, Randall, just about to turn 20, married Sam Jacobs, who was a year older. They immediately embarked for Europe with a vague hope of finding a way to India.
Although their year and a half in Europe, mostly Spain, proved to be exciting, their life style was eccentric and economically perilous. She describes their relationship as “miserable,” capped by a troubled Jacobs burning all her poetry. Nonetheless, her chronicle captures a time when young American rebels ventured overseas, not to spend “a year abroad,” but as a cultural break from the American mainstream.

Upon returning to the United States, Randall attended the University of New Mexico where she befriended artist Elaine de Kooning, a visiting professor, who Randall considers her “first real mentor.”

When de Kooning returned to New York City, Randall decided to do likewise. Their friendship would bring Randall into the now famed circle of abstract expressionist painters who gathered nightly at the Cedar Bar to debate the visual revolutions they espoused. Her visits to de Kooning’s studio also resulted in “a rapid series of seven portraits of me.”

Randall does not indulge in behind-the-scenes gossip or comment much about the political mindsets of the artists, but she muses on how success affected different individuals. Vividly rendered are the dynamic artistic visions at play and the accompanying contempt for the images of a culture embodied in popular novels such as The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.

In New York, she also came into contact with some of the era’s leading political radicals, jazz musicians, and literary activists. These included poets such as William Carlos Williams, Allen Ginsberg, LeRoi Jones (not yet Amara Baraka) and Denise Levertov. She even spent an afternoon with Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe.

Arts and Radicalism

Working for Spanish Refugee Aid, the Fair Play for Cuba Committee and the ban-the-bomb movement, Randall interacted with a spectrum of radical thinkers that included Hannah Arendt, Paul Goodman, Mary McCarthy, Ammon Hennacy, and Dwight Macdonald.

Her first public protest involved a demonstration supporting Portuguese sailors seeking asylum after mutinying against the Portuguese dictatorship. McCarthyism had been so effective in dampening public protest that only a dozen demonstrators took part.

Randall considers her New York years as a cultural turning point in her life. Visual artists had profoundly affected her with “their conviction that art in and of itself — when it was good and goes all the way — can be life-changing.”

Her literary contacts solidified her artistic ambitions and gave her a new sense of confidence that, “I would someday be the writer I needed to be, and that I could learn to be her anywhere.”

Randall gave birth to her son Gregory in 1960. Without giving many details, Randall writes of wanting to be a mother but also wanting to raise the child on her own. Gregory’s father was poet Joel Oppenheimer, who wasn’t aware of her wishes. He only met his son decades later, but they formed a cordial relationship.

After a brief return to Albuquerque, in 1961, Randall, with Gregory in tow, decided to seriously explore the culture of Mexico which had always fascinated her.

She quickly became involved with American expatriates and Mexican poets in Mexico City. Wanting to create a bridge between English-language and Spanish-language writers, she and Mexican poet Sergio Mondragon launched a new magazine titled El Corno Emplumado (The Plumed Horn).

By publishing in two languages, El Corno sought to be a forum where writers could interact with one another on equal terms. During its eight-year existence, El Corno was the hemisphere’s most important bi-cultural literary publication.

In addition to its quarterly 200-page issue, El Corno published 20 literary collections in various languages. It survived financially on donations, subscriptions, and bookstore sales. The editors were unpaid.

A sense of El Corno’s outreach is reflected in the broad range of its contributors. Just a few of the better-known writers include Ernesto Cardenal, Thomas Merton, Pablo Neruda, Charles Bukowski, Julio Cortazar, Ezra Pound, Walter Lowenfels, and Octavio Paz. Randall whimsically recalls that among work not accepted were three anti-war poems by a boxer then named Cassius Clay and a poem by Norman Mailer.

Randall and Mondragon became romantically involved. They eventually wed and had two children: Sarah (1963) and Ximena (1964). As the years passed, Mondragon and Randall increasingly tilted in different literary directions. Mondragon became entranced with Buddhist thought while Randall became quite appreciative of political poets, some of whom were involved in armed struggle.

Their dissolving relationship ended when Mondragon’s views led him to join a group that believed nirvana could only be achieved by men. Randall more or less edited the journal solo until she developed a relationship with Robert Cohen, a highly political American poet who would father Randall’s fourth child Ana (1969) and would have a hand in editing the final issue of El Corno.

Dissent and Exile

As the 1968 Olympic Games approached, the Mexican government feared massive political dissent would mar the stable image the government wanted to project. A campaign against dissidents was launched that ultimately resulted in the armed forces firing on 10,000 university and high school students, killing hundreds.

Many radicals went into hiding or exile. A smaller number formed guerilla movements.

Even though Randall had married a Mexican, the authorities made it clear that they perceived her as a foreign agitator and considered El Corno a voice of dissent. The continued publication of the magazine became impossible and Randall began to fear for the safety of her family.

The United States considered her Mexican marriage to be a rejection of American citizenship, making her only legal travel document her Mexican passport which had been “lost” by the police. Judging Cuba to be the only dependable haven, Cohen turned to his political contacts and Randall to the Cuban writers she had published in El Corno.

Getting Randall’s children to Cuba proved relatively easy and Cohen could use his American passport to travel. Randall, however, spent a harrowing and dangerous six months getting out of Mexico and navigating her way through various nations to reach Cuba.

Given that Randall has written extensively of her 11 years in Cuba, the current memoir is mostly oriented to dealing with the refugee community and her sense of the growing authoritarian nature of the government. Randall reminds radicals who have been disheartened by Cuba’s present conditions that during what she calls “the Glory Years,” Cuba was the indispensable haven for revolutionary socialists, especially those from Latin America.

She recounts how Cuba provided political revolutionaries with medical treatment, military training and sanctuary from oppressive regimes. Many of those she interacted with would return to revolutionary struggles in their native lands. She recalls how Daniel Ortega used her mimeograph machine to print agitational Sandinista literature.

During her Cuba years, Randall wrote, edited, or translated a hundred books of prose and poetry of varying lengths. She became well known for her writing about grassroots organizations, particularly those of women. Readers wanting more specifics regarding her own daily life can consult the complete bibliography of her works included at the end of her memoir.

To Nicaragua and Home

Despite her support of the Castro regime, Randall earned the ire of party-line Fidelistas by writing critically on topics such as the suppression of Cuban gays.

Randall also was increasingly disturbed as Cuban governance became more top-down and rigid. A detailed account of this process can be found in Gregory Randall’s To Have Been There Then: Memories of Cuba.

For reasons Randall never fully fathomed, she found her contacts and commissions with the government diminishing. This led her to conclude her time in Cuba was no longer as fruitful as she wanted it to be. In 1980, she decided to go to Nicaragua to be part of the Sandinista revolution.

The Nicaraguan leadership welcomed Randall. Just as she had had written the landmark Women of Cuba, she now wrote Sandino’s Daughters about women in Nicaragua. Her enthusiasm for the revolution, however, was greatly dampened by what she felt was the dismissive treatment of the numerous female Sandinista leaders, including military commanders and national organizers.

She painfully recounts how over a four-year period she saw the sexism of Ortega feeding the transformation of the Sandinista government into an authoritarian regime. She had written speeches for Tomas Borge, a legendary founder of the Sandinista movement, but laments how his misogyny distorted his political integrity.

As the Contra offensive heated up, she felt exhausted and felt a need to return home to retrieve her own culture. She consulted a therapist who gave her “permission” to make the move even though her comrades were still in struggle.

Although allowed entry to the United States, Randall was soon faced with a deportation order. Invoking the McCarran-Walter Act, the government accused her of writing that went beyond “mere dissent” to a realm “beyond the good order and happiness of the United States.”

Her resistance to this characterization of her work quickly evoked overwhelming support from the nation’s leading writers accompanied by many well-known political voices such as those of Barney Frank, Ron Dellums, Howard Zinn and Jessica Mitford. More than twenty-six defense committees were formed on her behalf.

Her five-year struggle in the courts, led by the Center for Constitutional Rights, ended with the deportation order rescinded and her American citizenship fully restored. A second attempt to deport her quickly fizzled, but Randall chronicles the severe threatening actions and pressures with which she had to cope.

The Long Struggle

Concurrent with her legal struggles, Randall worked with a therapist to help her re-adjust to being in the United States after a quarter century’s absence. During those sessions, Randall recovered memory of how as a child, she had been sexually abused by her grandfather, with the knowledge of her grandmother.

She only writes briefly about this psychological breakthrough other than to link it to a life-long mushroom phobia and how her recovered memory caused tensions with her parents.
During the early years of her return, she became involved with and married Floyce Alexander, a poet. Their marriage lasted one year. She notes wistfully that, “As with so many men in my life, we would have been better served by remaining friends rather than becoming romantically involved.”

Such was not the case when Randall met Barbara Beyers, who proved to be the love of her life. Randall’s description of their relationship is engaging and detailed.

This was not a case of coming out of the closet, but finding and accepting the love of another woman by someone who had always been a feminist. Randall writes about how her new sexual identity led her to rethink the status of women in the movements in which she’d been active.

Her concluding chapters also deal with her relationship with her children, which she notes, “hasn’t always been smooth.” She reflects on the unusual strains her life choices placed on them and regrets not spending more time tending their needs.

She is comforted, however, that all four have prospered. Sarah and Ximena reside in Mexico, Gregory in Uruguay, and Ana in Brooklyn. The details conveyed about how each related to their various fathers and her lesbian identity is fascinating, but too involved for this review to take up.

Since her return to the United States, Randall has added to her artistic endeavors by working as a serious photographer specializing in images of her beloved Southwest. She has remained active in literary, political and feminist circles.

At age 83, the frail health of Barbara, whom she has married, and her own fragility caused by a fall, limit her activism to literary projects. Her present political orientation may be reflected in the three authors she chose to use as front pieces: Bertolt Brecht, Victor Serge, and Rosa Luxemburg.

Randall has included her own poetry at various points in her narrative. Closely tied to her experiences, the poems take on a universal dimension difficult to express in conventional history. They often echo her intent to offer a “memoir of time and place.”

The powerful unifying thread in her chron­icle is her conviction that artistic and political visions are inseparable. Randall suggests that daring to dream improbable dreams is the start of the process that can make those dreams materialize. (See an interview at

September-October 2020, ATC 208