Category Archives: Poetry

Piedra negra sobre una piedra blanca

Me moriré en París con aguacero,
un día del cual tengo ya el recuerdo.
Me moriré en París —y no me corro—
tal vez un jueves, como es hoy, de otoño.

Jueves será, porque hoy, jueves, que proso
estos versos, los húmeros me he puesto
a la mala y, jamás como hoy, me he vuelto,
con todo mi camino, a verme solo.

César Vallejo ha muerto, le pegaban
todos sin que él les haga nada;
le daban duro con un palo y duro

también con una soga; son testigos
los días jueves y los huesos húmeros,
la soledad, la lluvia, los caminos…

–C.V.

García Márquez died today, and José Emilio Pacheco earlier this year, and there have been others.

Axé.

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Los pasos lejanos

Mi padre duerme. Su semblante augusto
figura un apacible corazón;
está ahora tan dulce…
si hay algo en él de amargo, seré yo.

Hay soledad en el hogar; se reza;
y no hay noticias de los hijos hoy.
Mi padre se despierta, ausculta
la huida a Egipto, el restañante adiós.

Está ahora tan cerca;
si hay algo en él de lejos, seré yo.
Y mi madre pasea allá en los huertos,
saboreando un sabor ya sin sabor.
Está ahora tan suave,
tan ala, tan salida, tan amor.

Hay soledad en el hogar sin bulla,
sin noticias, sin verde, sin niñez.
Y si hay algo quebrado en esta tarde,
y que baja y que cruje,
son dos viejos caminos blancos, curvos.
Por ellos va mi corazón a pie.

–C.V.

Axé.

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Raza y vanguardia. El sujeto “mestizo” en César Vallejo

Abstracto

La ambigüedad y el misterio, la insistencia en la raíz doble, el yo dividido, la sensación de ser otro, juntos con cierto indigenismo visible en Los heraldos negros y el creciente interés en la cultura autóctona de los años treinta, han motivado lecturas “mestizas” de Vallejo desde Mariátegui (1928) hasta Jorge Guzmán (1991). Al invocar el mestizaje, estos estudios vinculan la obra del poeta con los proyectos sobre raza y palabra, identidad y nación que se elaboraron en el período de “reajuste cultural” (Osorio 1982) que fue la vanguardia. Vallejo no se une de manera inequívoca a proyectos monumentales de identidad cultural pero sí considera la cuestión. El presente trabajo intentará desenredar algunas de sus posiciones a la luz de la crítica que ha aparecido en el siglo actual, considerando entre otros estudios el de Tace Hedrick sobre género (Mestizo Modernism, 2003).

Axé.

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Vallejo, el extranjero

…it seemed that if we could only decide who Vallejo was we might know what his poems mean.

Was this so and if it was, were we just falling prey to some form of the intentional fallacy?

Not necessarily.

It was that these poems were coming from a uneven, multi-leveled and multilayered collage of contexts, only some of them familiar.

It was that the speaker, the subject of discourse, was split, doubled, decentered and on the move.

Axé.

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Amor de ciudad grande III

O si se tiene sed, se alarga el brazo
¡Y a la copa que pasa se la apura!
Luego, la copa turbia al polvo rueda,
Y el hábil catador -manchado el pecho
De una sangre invisible- sigue alegre
Coronado de mirtos, su camino!
¡No son los cuerpos ya sino desechos,
Y fosas, y jirones! Y las almas
No son como en el árbol fruta rica
En cuya blanda piel la almíbar dulce
En su sazón de madurez rebosa,
¡Sino fruta de plaza que a brutales
Golpes el rudo labrador madura!
–JM

Axé.

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Amor de ciudad grande II

Se ama de pie, en las calles, entre el polvo
De los salones y las plazas; muere
La flor el día en que nace. Aquella virgen
Trémula que antes a la muerte daba
La mano pura que a ignorado mozo;
El goce de temer; aquel salirse
Del pecho el corazón; el inefable
Placer de merecer; el grato susto
De caminar de prisa en derechura
Del hogar de la amada, y a sus puertas
Como un niño feliz romper en llanto;
Y aquel mirar, de nuestro amor al fuego,
Irse tiñendo de color las rosas,
¡Ea, que son patrañas! Pues ¿quién tiene
Tiempo de ser hidalgo? ¡Bien que sienta,
Cual áureo vaso o lienzo suntuoso,
Dama gentil en casa de magnate!
–J.M.

It is an odd poem from that strange and transitional period I like.

Axé.

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The Telling of the Tale

Verbal distinctions should be valued, since they stand for mental – intellectual – distinctions. Yet one feels it is somehow a pity that the word “poet” should have been split asunder. For nowadays when we speak of a poet, we think only of the utterer of such lyric, birdlike notes as “With ships the sea was sprinkled far and nigh, / Like stars in heaven” (Wordsworth), or “Music to hear, why hear’st thou music sadly? / Sweets with sweets war not, joy delights in joy.” Whereas the ancients, when they spoke of a poet – a “maker” – thought of him not only as the utterer of those high lyric notes, but also as the teller of a tale. A tale wherein all the voices of mankind might be found – not only the lyric, the wistful, the melancholy, but also the voices of courage and of hope. This means that I am speaking of what I suppose is the oldest form of poetry: the epic. Let us consider a few of them.

Perhaps the first which comes to mind is the one that Andrew Lang, who so finely translated it, called The Tale of Troy. We will look into it for that very ancient telling of a tale. In the very first line, we have something like: “Tell me, muse, of the anger of Achilles.” Or as Professor Rouse, I think, has translated it: “An angry man – that is my subject.” Perhaps Homer, or the man we call Homer (for that is an old question, of course), thought he was writing his poem about an angry man, and this somehow disconnects us. For we think of anger as the Latins did: “ira furor brevis” – anger is a brief madness, a fit of madness. The plot of the Iliad is really, in itself, not a charming one – the idea of the hero sulking in his tent, feeling that the king has dealt unjustly with him, and then taking up the war as a private feud because his friend has been killed, and afterwards selling the dead man he has killed to the man’s father.

But perhaps (I may have said this before; I am sure I have), perhaps the intentions of the poet are not that important. What is important nowadays is that although Homer might have thought he was telling that story, he was actually telling something far finer: the story of a man, a hero, who knows he will die before [the city] falls; and the still more stirring tale of men defending a city whose doom is already known to them, a city that is already in flames. I think this is the real subject of the Iliad. And, in fact, men have always felt that the Trojans were the real heroes. We think of Virgil, but we many also think of Snorri Sturluson, who, in his younger era, wrote that Odin – the Odin of the Saxons, the god – was the son of Priam and the brother of Hector. Men have sought kinship with the defeated Trojans, and not with the victorious Greeks. This is perhaps because there is a dignity in defeat that hardly belongs to victory.

Let us take a second epic, the Odyssey. The Odyssey may be read in two ways. I suppose the man (or the woman, as Samuel Butler thought) who had written it felt that there were really two stories: the homecoming of Ulysses, and the marvels and perils of the sea. If we take the Odyssey in the first sense, then we have the idea of homecoming, the idea that we are in banishment, that our true home is in the past or in heaven or somewhere else, that we are never at home. But of course the seafaring and the homecoming had to be made interesting. so the many marvels were worked in. And already, when we come to the Arabian Nights, we find the Arabian version of the Odyssey, the Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor, is not a story of homecoming but a story of adventure; and I think we read it thus. When we read the Odyssey, I think that what we feel is the glamour, the magic of the sea; what we feel is what we find in the seafarer. For example, he has no heart for the harp, nor for the giving of rings, nor for the delight of a woman, nor for the greatness of the world. He thinks only of the long sea salt streams. So that we have both stories in one: we can read it as a homecoming, and we can read it as a tale of adventure – perhaps the finest that has ever been written or sung.

We come now to a third “poem” that looms far above them: the four Gospels. the Gospels may also be read in two ways. By the believer, they are read as the strange story of a man, of a god, who atones for the sins of mankind. A god who condescends to suffering – to death on the “bitter cross,” as Shakespeare has it. There is a still stranger interpretation, which I found in Langland: the idea that God wanted to know all about human suffering, and that it was not enough for Him to know it intellectually, as a god might; he wanted to suffer as a man, and with the limitations of a man. However, if you are an unbeliever (many of us are) then you can read the story in a different way. You can think of a man of genius, of a man who thought he was a god and who at the end found out that he was merely a man, and that god – his god – had forsaken him.

It might be said that for many centuries, those three stories – the tale of Troy, the tale of Ulysses, the tale of Jesus – have been sufficient for mankind. People have been telling and retelling them over and over again; they have been set to music; they have been painted. People have told them many times over, yet the stories are still there, illimitable. You might think of somebody, in a thousand years of ten thousand years, writing them over again. But in the case of the Gospels, there is a difference: the story of Christ, I think, cannot be told better. It has been told many times over, yet I think the few verses where we read, for example, of Christ being tempted by Satan are stronger than all four books of Paradise Regained. One feels that Milton perhaps had no inkling as to what kind of a man Christ was.

Well, we have these stories and we have the fact that men did not need many stories. I don’t suppose Chaucer ever thought of inventing a story. I don’t think people were less inventive in those days than they are today. I think they felt that the new shadings brought into the story – the fine shadings brought into it – were enough. Besides, it made things easier for the poet. His hearers or his readers knew what he was going to say. And so they could take in all the differences.

Now, in the epic – and we might think of the Gospels as a kind of divine epic – all things could be found. But poetry, as I said, has fallen asunder; or rather, on the one hand we have the lyrical poem and the elegy, and on the other we have the telling of a tale – we have the novel. One is almost tempted to think of the novel as a degeneration of the epic, in spite of such writers as Joseph Conrad or Herman Melville. For the novel goes back to the dignity of the epic.

If we think about the novel and the epic, we are tempted to fall into thinking that the chief difference lies in the difference between verse and prose, in the difference between singing something and stating something. But I think there is a greater difference. The difference lies in the fact that the important thing about the epic is a hero – a man who is a pattern for all men. While, as Mencken pointed out, the essence of most novels lies in the breaking down of a man, in the degeneration of character.

The brings us to another question: What do we think of happiness? What do we think of defeat, and of victory? Nowadays when people talk of a happy ending, they think of it as a mere pandering to the public, or they think of it as a commercial device; they think of it as artificial. Yet for centuries men could very sincerely believe in happiness and in victory, though they felt the essential dignity of defeat. For example, when people wrote about the Golden Fleece (one of the ancient stories of mankind), readers and hearers werer made to feel from the beginning that the treasure would be found at the end.

Well, nowadays if an adventure is attempted, we know that it will end in failure. When we read – I think of an example I admire – The Aspern Papers, we know that the papers will never be found. When we read Franz Kafka’s The Castle, we know that the man will never get inside the castle. That is to say, we cannot really believe in happiness and success. And this may be one of the poverties of our time. I suppose Kafka felt much the same when he wanted his books to be destroyed: he really wanted to write a happy and victorious book, and he felt that he could not do it. He might have written it, of course, but people would have felt that he was not telling the truth. Not truth of facts but the truth of his dreams.

At the end of the eighteenth of the beginning of the nineteenth century, let’s say (we need hardly go into a discussion of dates), man began to invent stories. Perhaps one might say that the attempt began with Hawthorne and with Edgar Allan Poe, but of course there are always forerunners. As Rubén Darío has pointed out, nobody is the literary Adam. Still, it was Poe who wrote that a story should be written for the sake of the last sentence, and a poem for the sake of the last line. This degenerated into the trick story, and in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries people have invented all kinds of plots. Those plots are sometimes very clever. Those plots, if merely told, are cleverer than the plots of the epics. Yet somehow we feel that there is something artificial about them – or rather, that there is something trivial about them. If we take two cases – let us suppose the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, then a novel or a film like Psycho – perhaps the plot of the second is cleverer, but we feel that there is something more behind Stevenson’s plot.

Regarding the idea I spoke about in the beginning, the idea about there being only a few plots: perhaps we should mention those books where the interest lies not in the plot but in the shifting, in the changing, of many plots. I am thinking of the Arabian Nights, of Orlando Furioso, and so on. One might also add the idea of an evil treasure. we get that in the Völsunga Saga, and perhaps at the end of Beowulf - the idea of a treasure bringing evil to the people who find it. Here we may come to the idea that I tried to work out in my last lecture, on metaphor – the idea that perhaps all plots belong to only a few patterns. Of course, nowadays people are inventing so many plots that we are blinded by them. But perhaps this fit of inventiveness may flicker, and then we may find that those many plots are but appearances of a few essential plots. This, however, is not for me to discuss.

There is another fact to be noticed: poets seem to forget that, at one time, the telling of a tale was essential, and the telling of the tale and the uttering of the verse were not thought of as different things. A man told a tale; he sang it; and his hearers did not think of him as a man attempting two tasks, but rather as a man attempting one task that had two sides to it. Or perhaps they did not feel that there were two sides to it, but rather thought of the whole thing as one essential thing.

We come now to our own time, and we find this very strange circumstance: we have had two world wars, yet somehow no epic has come from them – except perhaps the Seven Pillars of Wisdom. In the Seven Pillars of Wisdom I find many epic qualities. But the book is hampered by the fact that the hero is the teller, and so sometimes he has to belittle himself, he has to make himself human, he has to make himself far too believable. In fact, he has to fall into the trickery of a novelist.

There is another book, quite forgotten now, which I read, I think, in 1915 – a novel called Le Feu, by Henri Barbusse. “The author was a pacifist; it was a book written against war. Yet somehow epic thrust itself through the book (I remember a very fine bayonet charge in it). Another writer who had the epic sense was Kipling. We get this in such a wonderful story as “A Sahib’s War.” But in the same way that Kipling never attempted the sonnet, because he thought that this might estrange him from his readers, he never attempted the epic, though he might have done it. I am also reminded of Chesterton who wrote “The Ballad of the White Horse,” a poem about King Alfred’s wars with the Danes. Therein we find very strange metaphors (I wonder how I forgot to quote them last time!) – for example, “marble like solid moonlight,” “gold like frozen fire,” where marble and gold are compared to two things that are even more elementary. They are compared to moonlight and to fire – and not to fire itself, but to a magic frozen fire.

In a way, people are hungering and thirsting for epic. I feel that epic is one of the things that men need. Of all places (and this may come as a kind of anticlimax, but the fact is there), it has been Hollywood that has furnished epic to the world. All over the globe, when people see a Western – beholding the mythology of a rider, and the desert, and justice, and the sheriff, and the shooting, and so on – I think they get the epic feeling from it, whether they know it or not. After all, knowing the thing is not important.

Now, I do not want to prophesy, because such things are dangerous (though they may come true in the long run), but I think that if the telling of a tale and the singing of a verse could come together again, then a very important thing might happen. Perhaps this will come from America – since, as you all know, America has an ethical sense of a thing being right or wrong. It may be felt in other countries, but I do not think it can be found in such an obvious way as I find it here. If this could be achieved, if we could go back to the epic, then something very great would have been accomplished. When Chesterton wrote “The Ballad of the White Horse,” it got good reviews and so on, but readers did not take kindly to it. In fact, when we think of Chesterton, we think of the Father Brown saga and not of that poem.

I have been thinking about the subject only rather late in life; and besides, I do not think I could attempt the epic (though I might have worked in two or three lines of epic). This is for younger men to do. And I hope they will do it, because of course we all feel that the novel is somehow breaking down. Think of the chief novels of our time – say, Joyce’s Ulysses. We are told thousands of things about the two characters, yet we do not know them. We have a better knowledge of characters in Dante or Shakespeare, who come to us – who live and die – in a few sentences. We do not know thousands of circumstances about them, but we know them intimately. That, of course, is far more important.

I think that the novel is breaking down. I think that all those very daring and interesting experiments with the novel – for example, the idea of shifting time, the idea of the story being told by different characters – all those are leading to the moment when we shall feel that the novel is no longer with us.

But there is something about a tale, a story that will always be going on. I do not believe men will ever tire of telling or hearing stories. And if along with the pleasure of being told a story we get the additional pleasure of the dignity of verse, then something great will have happened. Maybe I am an old-fashioned man from the nineteenth century, but I have optimism, I have hope; and as the future holds many things – as the future, perhaps, holds all things – I think the epic will come back to us. I believe that the poet shall once again be a maker. I mean, he will tell a story and he will also sing it. And we will not think of those two things as different, even as we do not think they are different in Homer or in Virgil.

–J.L.B., Harvard lecture, AY 1967-1968

#OccupyHE

Axé.

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Amor de ciudad grande 1

De gorja son y rapidez los tiempos.
Corre cual luz la voz; en alta aguja,
Cual nave despeñada en sirte horrenda,
Húndese el rayo, y en ligera barca
El hombre, como alado, el aire hiende.
¡Así el amor, sin pompa ni misterio
Muere, apenas nacido, de saciado!
Jaula es la villa de palomas muertas
Y ávidos cazadores! Si los pechos
Se rompen de los hombres, y las carnes
Rotas por tierra ruedan, no han de verse
Dentro más que frutillas estrujadas!

–Martí, Versos sencillos

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A novella in pictures: Lives of Passion

I never wrote anything like this before, but now I have, and I do not like it much, but I liked the book, and the text exists.

Gene McCormick’s Lives of Passion: Edward and Antoinette (Rockford, Illinois: RWG Press, 2013), the author’s thirteenth book, is a series of interlocking prose poems that tell, in seventeen short pieces, the story of an ordinary couple–mid-century figures whose lives have run together–from childhood on. The meanings of “passion” here include a strong connection to life through physical experience and contact with things: the sensations of childhood, when everything touched is an experiment or discovery and time seems long, or the sensuality that persists in the characters even when only manifested through Edward’s mild voyeurism or Antoinette’s taste for wine. Passion also signals the slow erosion of their bond and their bodies as they struggle against, but also toward death.

The bright and impersonal light that bursts on the characters when, as children, they come up from play in a darkened basement, “back up the stairs, through the empty kitchen into the wide sunny yard” (II) is not mentioned directly but appears to break again after Antoinette’s lonely death in a dim apartment—

It is a broad avenue of young cars, of people of an age to possess them, of dusty dreams long ago set aside. Antoinette lived on this passageway, and so did Edward, but they don’t anymore.

(XVII)

These changes in light are also the indices of time that structure this collection in a complex rhythm. Between youth and middle age decades flash by, and we only catch glimpses of the couple’s lives. Sections of days, on the other hand, are slow and richly drawn, with a painterly emphasis on lines and dimensions, color, shadow, and luminosity:

On a straight-back wooden chair alone in her bedroom, Antoinette lifts her bare leg as high as it will go—not straight like a horizon line but bent sharply, knee-to-ankle hanging vertically as a faded orange swath painted on air.

                        …

The room is enveloped in dusk-gray, with dim white lights bordering the mirror. Focusing, she draws a Band-Aid on her right wrist with a mascara brush, rendering it not at all life-like.

(VII)

Painterly as well is the weight given physical objects, and the treatment of the characters as figures in a visual field. Textures are thrown into relief as our eye is drawn in close, while tableaux like photographs come into view as we step back. Subtle shifts in perspective work to create a thickly layered realism:

On Tuesday mornings the elderly lady shops for discounted fruits and vegetables, near-rotted and priced at a dollar a box. Other shoppers bump her ankles with their carts and reach and grab items from in front of her. It is terrifying.

(XVI)

Things have as much substance as people, and are granted equal weight. Visual tension is tight and the characters’ struggle with the material world (or the inanimate, or what comes before words and lies beyond them) is closely framed

. . . do you remember the primordial days of school . . . when teachers awarded gold stars for accomplishments and they had glue on the back you had to lick anyway and fell off . . . and when you tried to pick them off the ground . . . or even the top of your shoe, the corners would get bent because your stubby fingers weren’t adroit?

(I)

There are conversations in this book but we do not hear the characters reflect, or speak to themselves except, perhaps, in this passage, where Edward contemplates the Taiwanese girl he hired the night before:

A half-empty wine glass sits on the edge of the nightstand, her underwear is beside the bed and other clothes scattered about. Christ, he says to himself, running a hand through matted hair, Christ.

(XIII)

Instead we see them act and dissimulate. The scenes they set as mirrors in which to form themselves and later, to keep up appearances are also spaces of investigation, or frames for a kind of quest. Passion is this search, purposeful even if not explained as these complicit, isolated, only apparently aimless characters contemplate first each other, then the dark.

Edward disappears from the narrative before Antoinette, whom we last perceive in a precarious old age. The soup can in her cabinet is now the only object in the house etched clearly. The narrow dank of this life at its end makes the series’ last shot, of the avenue of “young cars” where Antoinette and Edward once lived, but “don’t anymore,” seem almost a spiritual revelation. It may not be news that the world is made of small lives and draws its depth from this, but the vista still startles.

These characters are not interesting or even particularly likeable as people, and there are sordid undercurrents in their life together from early on. Unlike Antoinette’s family friends (III) they do not entirely avoid interaction, do not keep things under control; this is why their wavering path through the world becomes an addition to it.

McCormick’s poetic prose hits no false notes, and he sketches the story out as quickly as we can follow it. Read straight through the narrative is heady, taking us in just a few minutes from the “primordial days” of childhood to the world as it appears after death. Each piece also stands on its own and entices the reader to look long and look again, as with a set of installations, souls built word by word.

Axé.

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Better?

Gene McCormick’s Lives of Passion: Edward and Antoinette (Rockford, Illinois: RWG Press, 2013), the author’s thirteenth book, is a series of interlocking prose poems that tell, in seventeen short pieces, the story of an ordinary couple–mid-century figures whose lives have run together–from childhood on. The meanings of “passion” here include a strong sense of physicality in life: the sensations of childhood, when everything touched is an experiment or discovery and time seems long, or the sensuality that persists in the characters even when only manifested through Edward’s mild voyeurism or Antoinette’s taste for wine. Passion also signals the slow erosion of their bond and their bodies as they struggle against, but also toward death.

Axé.

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