JOHN M. BENNETT Reviews
Poetry Comes Out of My Mouth: Selected Poems by Mario Santiago Papasquiaro
Translated by Arturo Mantecón; Introduction by Ilan Stavans; Artwork by Maceo Montoya
(Diálogos Books, 2018)
Going back to long before the European invasion, there is a history of major literature and poetry in Mexico, much older than such history in the United States. Readers may be familiar with the poetry of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, and of Octavio Paz. But there is now available in English a generous selection of a very different kind of poet from Mexico, Mario Santiago Papasquiaro, 1953-1998. Readers who have read the Chilean/Mexican novelist and poet Roberto Bolaño's great novel, The Savage Detectives, have met him as the character Ulises Lima. Papasquiaro and Bolaño were close friends.
Papasquiaro's poetry has echoes of César Vallejo and Bolaño, but he is a unique poet, with a strong, authentic, and complex voice. His work, full of rapidly shifting references, languages, and tones, is so rich and multi-voiced that readers will each encounter a different poet, a poet that seems to be speaking to you quite specifically. It is, however, you as if you were both coming apart and coming together, as if you were in a rapidly moving mirror:
A Mural of alcoholics the day
Explosion: the night eternal
The wind incarnate in flowering woman bone
In slothfulness of children behind the dreams of the flautist
The rest is death in life
Cohabitation of rats & scorpions
/ at different times & different spaces /
But tethered to the stench the rainbow traces from 1 oven to another
Translator Arturo Mantecón's large selection (229 pages) includes some of the poet's most striking poems, and is everything a translation should be: for starters, the translations themselves are excellent. I tend to believe that it is impossible to translate poetry at all, since it is so deeply embedded in the particularities of a language and a particular personality using that language, which is very much the case with Papasquiaro, but these translations are an exception. They really do get much of the voice, or voices, of Papasquiaro, and I would even say that they sound like the poet might have written them this way if he had written in English. Quite a feat: Mantecón, a poet himself, is to be congratulated. In addition, the book includes the Spanish originals (always essential for translated poetry), an excellent introduction by Ilan Stavans, a bibliography, notes, a biography of the poet, and great paintings by Maceo Montoya. The book is a model of what a collection of translated poetry should be.
Papasquiaro's voice swarms with multi-cultural and international references (Stéphane Mallarmé and Leopoldo Panero, for example), many of them referring to USA culture (William S. Burroughs, Frank Zappa, Ezra Pound, Kenneth Rexroth, and many others), more so than any other Mexican poetry before him (except perhaps for the Estridentistas, an early 20th-century avant-garde group). But his poetry is deeply Mexican; full of multiple references to Mexican culture and history, Mexican words, expressions, and slang, and words in Nahuatl (the most wide-spread indigenous language). It also uses metaphor in a manner very reminiscent of metaphorical structures in indigenous works such as The Books of Chilam Balam, in which metaphor is not just a way to make things sound pretty, but to add layers of unexpected and enriching meaning to the things referred to: “Our tongue has been a sharp barb / it is a watermelon...” (from Already Far from the Main Road) Of course these kinds of associations are also found in much 20th-century surrealist writing from Europe and Latin America. His poetry will at first seem chaotic, darting off in multiple directions, but it is actually carefully constructed to find the perfect voice and structure for a complex and fleeting experience. A complete experience of life and consciousness in fact, and not at all the kind of narrow, moralizing posturing so frequent in North American poetry.
For example, consider the following passage:
Some filthy pants & death in one's breast
We'll see each other at the wall
/ crossing the ford /
the winds crystallizing to the left
fins of dust : your fins
an oasis harpooning dry land for us
In the daughter of your eye / the cemetery
: Peyote button shoots out flowers :
The Earth & its opposite : deer as hushed as noises in their weddings
You shouldn't go / but you must go
- from “Already Far from the Main Road”
On the surface, this passage is quite clear as an invocation of a voyage toward a border, from a condition of “filthy pants” and desperation, and from a position of consciousness of the vastness of reality and life, of sea and land, of wind and water, of “The Earth & its opposite”. But this universal point of view or consciousness says that “the wall” is not just a border, but the limit or culmination (the ambiguity is deliberate) of life and consciousness itself. These are in no way chaotic ramblings, but a deliberately constructed recreation (through revision and condensation) of a kind of visionary experience emotionally perceived. Thus a phrase like “deer as hushed as noises in their weddings”, which combines life (deer) with the joining (weddings) of opposites (hushed as noises). This is the kind of totalizing experience that can only be understood, or partially understood, through the careful positioning of metaphor and indirect allusion.
In the book's first poem, an auto-descriptive text titled “Carte d'Identité”, Papasquiaro refers to himself as an “Antipoet & incorruptible idler / fugitive from Nothingness / giant salamander in a cascade of wind.” That phrase is constructed on contradictions: assertive “antipoet” and “idler”, “fugitive from nothingness”, “salamander [ajolote] in wind”. (In the original, “salamander” was “ajolote” or axolotl, the unique Mexican acquatic salamander with external gills). This makes perfect sense, as Papasquiaro is in a tradition of mold-breaking poets that includes the likes of Vallejo, Rimbaud, Antonin Artaud, and Nicanor Parra – the latter being the poet most identified with the term “antipoet”. Papasquiaro was certainly not part of the rather stuffy atmosphere (as Stavans points out in his introduction) that had developed in Mexican poetry during the poet's lifetime. He, Bolaño, and a few others formed a group they called Infrarealism, as a challenge to the literary establishment. (“...infrarealist from the very start...he let out his Swan's Howl in Mexico City...” speaking of his birth by incorporating references to Allen Ginsberg's Howl, and to a famous poem by Mexican poet Enrique González Martínez, “La Muerte del Cisne” (Death of the Swan), which announced a rebellion against what had become the stagnant preciousness of late Modernismo, a late 19th-early 20th century aesthetic style in literature, that was revolutionary in its own time.) I should point out that there are and have been other non-establishment poets in Mexico during Papasquiaro's life; for example the dynamic work by César Espinosa and Araceli Zúñiga in the areas of visual and experimental poetry, including the numerous international literary biennials they organized in Mexico. Or the experimental writer and artist Ulises Carrión, 1941-1989, who lived much of his life in Amsterdam.
Stavans' introduction gets at an important paradox regarding Papasquiaro's work: that perhaps he is best served by being left as an underground, mythical poet, maybe as the poet Ulises Lima in Bolaño's work. Papasquiaro is so protean, so complex and intense, so resistive of definitive interpretation that putting him in a “canon” would tend to severely limit how he is experienced by readers. This is a conundrum: for he is without doubt one of Latin America's - or the Spanish language's – or the world's – most compelling and necessary poets. He is not to be ignored.
& I grew up a Toltec / even though dazedly
beset by slow cemeteries
May fog no longer be
may my eyes be reborn
The moon harpooned we will row at intervals
never mind the twisting course / the scorpion of wrath
Where magic flows the droplet falls standing on end
dew hums in the rags
& if there are opposing paths / the magnet of the dawn unites them
- from "The Moon Harpooned"
John M. Bennett has published over 400 books and chapbooks of poetry and other materials. He has published, exhibited and performed his word art worldwide in thousands of publications and venues. He was editor and publisher of LOST AND FOUND TIMES (1975-2005), and is Founding Curator of the Avant Writing Collection at The Ohio State University Libraries. Richard Kostelanetz has called him “the seminal American poet of my generation”. His work, publications, and papers are collected in several major institutions, including Washington University (St. Louis), SUNY Buffalo, The Ohio State University, The Museum of Modern Art, and other major libraries. His PhD (UCLA 1970) is in Latin American Literature. His latest books are Select Poems, Poetry Hotel Press/Luna Bisonte Prods, 2016; The World of Burning, Luna Bisonte Prods, 2017; Poemas visuales, con movimientos con ruidos con combinaciones (with Osvaldo Cibils), Deep White Sound, 2017; and The Sweating Lake, Luna Bisonte Prods, 2017.