Mario Santiago Papasquiaro
Poetry Comes Out of My Mouth: Selected Poems
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 echos 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
& 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
Dr. John M. Bennett
Jules Vasylenko, saxophone, FUMPH!
A Distro Album from [Pro]-[Anti] Press,
2018. 80 minutes!
$10 + $3 s/h.
The variety of sounds created by Jules Vasylenko using a saxophone, often as if it
were a voice, is truly incredible: whispering, fluttering, grunting, buzzing,
vocalizations, talkative, percussive, moaning, fog horning, barking, muttering,
chirping, bees swarming, wind, trumpeting, squealing, wavering, quacking,
squeaking, loud, soft and everything in between, plus many indescribable sounds.
What makes this recording great is that all of this coheres into a single voice, a
voice of an enhanced human consciousness telling a complex and deeply
emotional and understood story. I've never heard anything quite like it. Recorded
live at Roanoke's Art Rat Studio, the recording, by Tomislav Butcovic, is up front,
clear, fully professional, and with none of the deficits of live recording. Released
in a limited edition, you better get this while you can!
John M. Bennett
Christina Vantzou & John Also Bennett
ZIN TAYLOR'S “THOUGHTS OF A DOT AS IT TRAVELS A SURFACE”
LP from Forced Exposure
Download from Bandcamp
More than just an example of blatant nepotism, I have to express my pleasure in this beautiful new recording by Christina Vantzou and my son, John Also Bennett. It consists of a sounding or interpretation of a visual work, a drawing by Zin Taylor on the walls of a gallery. Unlike Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, which is a suite of pieces, Vantzou and Bennett's work is a single long piece, (though several tracks are listed), evolving through numerous changes. It owes something to ambient music, but is much more developed and meaty than most such work, perhaps due to its grounding in a large visual artwork. The music involves the use of electronics, flute, and piano, and is, amazingly, a recording of a single live collaborative performance, a performance which fully engages one's attention, and rewards repeated listenings.
This work is a prime example of the interconnectivity and collaborative nature of the arts; for example, the fact that much sound poetry derives from asemic or visual poetry texts, which are sounded or performed as if they were scores, a practice much engaged in today in avant-garde literary, Fluxus, and performance venues today.
“Thoughts of a Dot as it Travels a Surface” is a beautifully produced high-quality LP with a large fold-out print of the art on which the performance is based, and ample textual discussions on the inner sleeve. Don't pass this one up!
Editor's Note: this article on Thoughts of a Dot as it Travels a Surface was originally published at EC on April 12, 2018 in the now obsolete/discontinued REVIEWS section. I have re-published it here on John's page by his request.
JOHN M. BENNETT