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High-Stakes Surrealism
by Ricardo Sternberg

Serendipity: in 1951, on a trip to Brazil, the poet Elizabeth Bishop suffered an allergic reaction to the cashew fruit; while recovering she fell in love with a Brazilian and so remained in Brazil, where she learned Portuguese; years later, some poems of the Brazilian poets Carlos Drummond de Andrade and Vinicius de Moraes were made available to English readers through her translations. Still later, she edited the first significant anthology of Brazilian poetry translated into English. Bless that cashew.
Translation of Brazilian poetry, however, remains sporadic, ruled by such chance encounters. In contrast, poetry in the other language of the continent has fared better. Spanish American poetry is more consistently and, it seems, more systematically translated. Nicanor Parra and Pablo Neruda from Chile, Jorge Luis Borges from Argentina, Octavio Paz from Mexico, and Cesar Vallejo from Peru have been widely translated and, more important, remain available in easily found editions. But the English reader still knows these poets as isolated incidents, texts largely bereft of context.
The Invisible Presence, an anthology of sixteen Spanish American poets selected by Ludwig Zeller and translated by his daughter, Beatriz Zeller, redresses this situation for the surrealist poets of the continent. As she says in her introduction, "All along Ludwig insisted on how important it would be to bring to light the contribution made by so many poets long obscured in Latin America, and that there was a need to set the record straight, as it were, to bring some balance in people's understanding of contemporary Spanish American poetry." The anthology reveals to North American readers the bedrock of surrealism that underlies much of the important poetry of Latin America. Surrealism and surrealist tendencies have played a much greater role in Latin America that they have done in Anglo-American poetry.
The sixteen poets (nine from Chile, three from Argentina, and one each from Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia) have strong, though differing, links to surrealism. Some were members of surrealist groups such as the Chilean poets of Mandrágora. Others, though perhaps less "orthodox", are still surrealists. Their international allegiance can be easily discerned by their dedications ("to Max Ernst", "to Antonin Artaud") and their titles ("The Ghost of René Magritte", "Douanier Rousseau", "To André Breton's Health", and "Jean-Arthur Rimbaud"). The ghosts of France haunt the imagination of the southern hemisphere.
In the passage I just quoted, Beatriz Zeller suggests that the project was aimed as much at Latin Americans as at English readers. Even in Latin America the presence and importance of the surrealists have been obscured. The critical fate of Latin American surrealism has been highly uneven, dictated as much by literary or political feuds as by aesthetic considerations. The first surrealist anthology, for instance, was published in Mexico only in 1974.
Surrealism is both a style or literary technique and a philosophy or world-view. As a style, surrealism changed the poetic language of the continent. It is impossible to think of Neruda, for example-who both attacked and was attacked by the surrealists-without surrealism. As Octavio Paz points out, surrealism "has powerfully contributed to shape the sensibility of our time; furthermore, that sensibility itself is to a great extent its own creation." As a philosophy, surrealism has fewer followers, but among them are the poets represented in The Invisible Presence. (The title, borrowed from one of Zeller's poems, no doubt refers to this as well to the critical invisibility that the introduction alludes to.)
Born out of Dada, surrealism is heady stuff. Its revolution was to be achieved by the uncensored self-in alliance with dreams and extreme mental states-expressing itself through uncensored (or pre-censored) language: chance, the use of what in American poetry is sometimes called "the deep image", and various degrees of automatic writing. And humour. If like the symbolists, the surrealists aim at some absolute, unlike the symbolists they know the corrosive power of humour. Freud and Marx (Karl and the brothers).
What makes the poetry difficult and even hermetic at times is the absence of the endless oppositions by which we, properly polarized, orient ourselves: reality/imagination, subject/object, etc. In "surreal" landscapes, for instance, the demarcation between self and landscape blurs until one is indistinguishable from another:

When nuptial winds lift her solar breasts
a kiss holds the white-skinned star inside her
(Humberto Diaz-Casanueva)

or Olga Orozco's:

I do not look for you in the volcano under this deceitful tongue.

Surrealists one and all, the poets in The Invisible Presence nevertheless offer sixteen quite distinct voices.
Arguedas, for instance, who spent most of his childhood among Quechua-speaking Natives, evokes in his work their myths and legends. In doing so, his poetry confirms Paz's belief that being more than a historically situated movement, surrealism, like realism or romanticism, embodies one of the basic attitudes of the human spirit. This is from "Katatay" (in Quechua: to tremble):

They say that the shadow of my people trembles,
it trembles because it is touching the sad shadow
in the hearts of women.
Do not tremble, pain, pain!
The shadows of the condors are fast approaching!
-What brings the shadow here?
Is it here on a visit in the name of the sacred mountains?
Does it come in the name of the blood of Jesus
-Tremble no more, do not stand there trembling.
This is not blood and these are not mountains:
it is the sun shining as it approaches riding on the
feathers of the condors.

Or Ludwig Zeller, whose poems often work like a poetic kaleidoscope, their images continually reconfiguring themselves at the click of a line. This is from the "The Gears of Enchantment":

Blood and semen, vinegar. On the bed we spin and hounds
Howl in the rigging of our sheets our dizzying thirst
Mockery breaks the light of the bee swarm
flooding from the white
Into the black the eye leaps and is a die spotted by acid
I shout questions circling pounding on walls of ice
Deciphering names engraved by beings I have forgotten.

The poems that did not work for me were those that too readily yield to those French ghosts. "The Great Life", for instance, by Enrique Molina, though well translated, cannot sail away from Rimbaud's "Le Bateau Ivre" :

An obscure slave of the ocean
chained to a ship's red sun
I polished the plate of the night
and scrubbed the storeys of masts.

I lived in my violent cavern
thundercaps over the mainsail
I polished the steel of the ship
labouring without hope.
But the same Molina is also represented by a wonderful, funny poem on Robinson Crusoe that reads in part:

More forlorn than a god
untamed like a child
more resistant than the mountains to the sky that
competes for your legendary food
Oh Robinson helpless fearless and without remorse!
Traces of your solitary soul reach the threshold of your house in York while your
iodine steps ignore all heirlooms

This is a partisan surrealist anthology, and no bones about it. In discussing the "invisibility" of these poets, Beatriz Zeller writes of the political differences that existed in Latin American literary circles: "Many of the Latin American writers who attained international recognition chose to align themselves with a political party. Generally, although not exclusively, it was certain factions of the Left which benefited from the promotion of poets like Pablo Neruda, or Ernesto Cardenal." Beatriz Zeller's reading of surrealism in Latin America, however, raises a few questions. It is unclear from her statement, for instance, who is the beneficiary: the Left? Neruda? Whatever lift Neruda received from the Left or the Left received from its affiliation with Neruda is, ultimately, of minor importance considering the reach of both party and poetry. In the specific case of the relative "invisibility" of the poets represented in this anthology, one could argue as well that "orthodox", "hardcore", "call-it-what-you-will" surrealism is simply not as accessible as the poetry of a Neruda or a Cardenal. In the case of Neruda this is specially pertinent because one can trace his movement away from the surrealism of Residencia en La Tierra to the style that indeed made him accessible to a larger public in Estravagario or Odas Elementales. And of course, the political argument fails to account for the popularity, both at home and abroad, of the decidedly non-Leftist Borges. More dangerous, the argument seem to suggest that these surrealists shied away from politics. The poems in this anthology show this not to be true. Here are a few lines from Cesar Davila Andrade's "Bulletin-Elegy for the Mitas" (in Quechua, Mitas is the tribute paid by the Indians to a landlord):

In sweatshops for the making of fabrics, twills, capes, ponchos,
I, naked, sunken into my cell, I worked
a year forty days,
hardly a fistful of corn for the pulse
thinner still than the thread I was weaving.

Still, in making the argument, Zeller reminds us of two important points: that going back to Aragon and Breton, political rifts are part and parcel of the surrealist tradition and, secondly, that Latin American literature is intrinsically political.
This is as it should be. After all, this is a continent where presidents and generals are often ensconced as immortals in their country's Academies of Letters, while writers from those same countries have been known to spend considerable time in their jails.
These poems have been quite successfully re-invented in English. Though the lion's share were translated by Beatriz Zeller, a few were translated, in various collaborative combinations of translators, by Robin Skelton, Al Moritz, Theresa Moritz, Susana Wald, and John Robert Colombo.
Surrealist poetry is a high-stake game. When it works, the reader, in something like a delicious psychic free-fall is transposed to a different dimension. At such moments, other poetry seems over-determined and pedestrian. When surrealist poetry fails, it tends to fail miserably. In the absence of orienting signposts or narrative scaffolding, the reader is lost, floating in words words words. In The Invisible Presence the poets are playing for these high stakes. And consistently winning.

Ricardo Sternberg is the author of Map of Dreams (Signal). He teaches comparative literature at the University of Toronto.


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