Pura López Colomé Opens the 2013 Awards Ceremony
The Present’s Present
The day I realized that those words my mother would repeat in my brother’s ears and my own when we went into that dark church – not when we attended mass – were actually part of a sonnet written by Miguel de Guevara, a friar who lived during the early days of the Colonia, and were considered the very first “dignified text” written in what was then called Nueva España, I knew there was an absolute link between poetry and prayer. No wonder later on, when the act of reading transcended the home endeavour and began to be a school subject, I felt a strange disturbance at seeing such a made-of-words entity included in the field of “literature”. Now I know – even though many might not share my views – that it doesn’t belong there. Not only because of its direct and immovable relationship with the spiritual, the depths of being connected to the otherworldly, but because of the simple fact that it doesn’t embody fiction. You do not look for poetry. Poetry looks for you. Poetry happens to whoever is writing it. And then it is rewritten inside the reader, whose vision will remain forever transformed.
Thus, a panoramic view of contemporary Latin American literature does not necessarily include contemporary Latin American poetry, even though it can lodge them both as artistic creations signifying continuity. Governments, regimes, come and go; societies are formed, deformed, reformed: the only permanent thing among us is culture. When I first attended the National University of Mexico in the ’70s, my undergraduate studies had the pompous title of “Letras Españolas” (Spanish Letters or Literature). Things have changed a lot since then. Today it is known as “Letras Hispanoamericanas” or “Letras Iberoamericanas”, and it does not begin with the works of lyrical Galician-Portuguese poets and troubadours, Cervantes or Saint John of the Cross: however, one gets rapidly and inevitably to them through Borges, Fuentes, Neruda, Machado de Assis, Drummond de Andrade, Paz, or García Márquez. Our novelists and poets have proved they belong to that great nation called language; they have fed on its tradition, enriching it with a whole variety of realizations. Each and every great writer we have had in Latin America is considered such, not because he or she comes from Argentina, Mexico, Brazil, Chile, or Colombia, but because he or she is part of the marvelous linguistic cosmos of Spanish and Portuguese.
Modern Latin American novels and poetry have existed not as European mirrors governed by a set of rules dictated on the other side of the Atlantic, but as separate bodies per se, only since the second half of the 19th century. After a lot of realistic and naturalistic European imitations, a generation emerged, rather desperately, and was baptized with the most appropriate name of Boom Generation, projecting a pressing need to say what had not been said so far, to write about what had happened before: its members represented a powerful voice with which to recover the past by putting into practice a sense of cultural obligation. Such an unusual and marvellous horizon opened up for these writers! One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Death of Artemio Cruz, The Green House or Pedro Páramo were born, to a great extent, to save, to recover the past. Cortázar’s Rayuela had the unique task of building a bridge towards modernity: in its efforts to recuperate the relationship Europe-Argentina, it ended the prior narrative tendency, offering opened ground to a new generation of fiction writers, who, by contrast, would not belong together as a clan. Their motto now seems to be: “Let’s talk of the moment. If we need to be pulverized to do it, so be it.”
Paradoxically, this multifarious global immediacy so characteristic of the new novel, this Aleph, was not invented by Borges, but by Machado de Assis and his Posthumous Novels of Blas Cubas (that Borges may have read), about a character on a hill (not a Fool) who imagines all eras and places in the world simultaneously … As a result, fiction writers in Latin America today linger on thousands of themes; these may be historical, yes, but they should rely on a minimum of currentness: how we live today; what it means to live in a city like Rio, Mexico City, or Santiago; why the individual becomes relevant in a social texture that has been destroyed by war against drugs, or to what extent lives of non-existent desperation are apparently led. According to the late Carlos Fuentes, who was a sort of godfather figure to novelists today, this literature is healthier, more normal, more similar to the European, and less attached to concepts of “national literature”; although their plots may unfold in Chile or Argentina, they go further, and anyone who has read the work of Roberto Bolaño could attest to it. What counts is the instant, or the past seen from it. Naturally, I should add, within the framework of huge commercial interests, as well as cybernetic and ephemeral components, also very characteristic of this reality.
The panorama of Latin American poetry, according to my point of view, is different, even though its direction towards modernity may coincide with that of fiction. In its world there have been changes of impulse, maybe, but never a thunderous boom, a generation whose members represented their country, just like Vargas Llosa has done with Peru, or Carpentier with Cuba. Neruda was Chilean, nevertheless always considered a universal poet, the same case being that of Vallejo, Huidobro, Borges, who have been much more than a nation, embodying poetic art as a wholeness. Albeit history of Spanish speaking American countries – that not being the case of Brazil – has the destruction of the native at the basis, and reconstruction by means of a language alien to its people, poetry in both languages has converged, creating a language of its own, speaking in tongues. Here lies the central separation from fictional prose. Poetry does not only tell stories; without having to chose between recovery and discovery, it is inside them both at the same time. Within a traditional conduit, it manages to cover the whole spectrum of verbal possibilities in a renewed vehicle of expression, with very special and spicy subtleties. Latin American metaphor hosts Portuguese and Spanish, as well as the many indigenous languages that are very much alive. Its nucleus is an enlightened, indestructible sort of blank eternal space, inside a tower of syllables and declensions. The being of poetry is analogous to a return to the original condition. As Octavio Paz never tired of repeating, it creates a nation inside language. Just like the Anglo Saxon poetic realm would need a lobotomy to get rid of W.B. Yeats’ line, we would also need it to uproot Neruda’s hendecasyllabic verse, or Brazilians and Portuguese alike would, in order to do without the permanently born mosaic of Fernando Pessoa, his incredible subdivided, and subdividing, music.
Pessoa was born on a day like this, 13th of June. So was W.B. Yeats. It’s a pity that neither Alberto Caeiro, nor Ricardo Reis, nor Álvaro de Campos arrived in this world on such a date. I am not surprised in the least, knowing that, “The poet is a faker./ He fakes it so completely/ that he even fakes as pain/ the real pain he’s feeling. / And those who read his writings/ in the pain they read do feel/ not the pain the poet has/ but just the one they lack.” [my translation] However, it is true that in every poet the destiny of a real verbalized pain takes place, right there, at arm’s length. Possessing power at times terrifying, the poetic word can cause it. Pessoa places it in front of us by looking at himself, carrying out a “Selfpsychography”. Adélia Prado, one of Brazil’s finest poets, inevitable follower of Pessoa’s footsteps, goes further: by placing herself before the fragmentation of man and woman today, she creates a counter-language, redefining beauty mixed with misery, from the core of what is said in her “Poetic Licence”:
“But what I feel, I write.
I accomplish my fate.
I inaugurate lineages, I found kingdoms.
Pain is not bitterness.” [my translation]
Right from her null insertion on schools and tendencies, though owning an aesthetic independence enviably Brazilian; from the pure burning bush of her memory, she grants the place of honor to poetry in its epiphanic quality, revealing the being of things inside the absolute Being. She establishes the foundation of dialogue with the current, present world. She invites us to decentralize in order to find the center in God, admitting that human condition is a radical orphanhood. Once this is acknowledged, she seems to say, it’s easy to let yourself be seduced, seriously seduced, by a real sadness. No one that I know of in the world of Lusitanian Latin American poetry today has gone that deep.
On the other side of the completely spiritual search of poetry, we have sceptics in Spanish speaking Latin America, that by stressing what they hate, reveal what they love; that by stripping poetic language of any recognizable form, they create new ones. Here’s José Emilio Pacheco’s inspiration in “High Treason”: “I do not love my country. /Such abstract splendor is beyond my grasp. / But (even though it sounds bad,) I would give my life / for ten places in it, for certain people,/ seaports, pinewoods, fortresses,/ a run-down city, gray, grotesque,/ various figures from its history, / mountains /(and three or four rivers).” *
Despite Robert Frost’s unforgettable statement about poetry being lost in translation, I believe in Walter Benjamin’s also unforgettable truth about pure language being found in poetry translation. I know, I am convinced, that all great works of poetry are meant to be translated. Here’s an example, that marks, perhaps, the wished-for music and right timing it implies:
“Ha tejido a mano la genealogía, tan bello encaje de seda,
Engels a Bird trenzado, Claudia Jones y Monk en ribetes,
Rosa Luxemburgo y Coltrane a gancho;
en lo que a ella toca, estos nombres dieron nueva forma al tiempo,
si bien el tiempo parece haberse establecido solo
en el tiempo…” **
This is a fragment of Ossuaries, by the great Canadian poet, Dionne Brand, in my humble Mexican Spanish.
* (“Alta traición”: No amo a mi patria. /Su fulgor abstracto es inasible./ Pero aunque suene mal, daría la vida/ por diez lugares suyos, ciertas gentes,/ puertos, bosques de pinos, fortalezas,/ una ciudad deshecha, gris, monstruosa,/ varias figuras de su historia,/ montañas, y tres o cuatro ríos.
**(Ossuaries VI / this genealogy she’s made by hand, this good silk lace/Engels plaited to Bird, Claudia Jones edgestitched/ to Monk, Rosa Luxemburg braids Coltrane/ as far as she’s concerned these names reshaped time/ itself though time seems somehow set itself, in time)