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A Poetic Order of Excess: Essays on Poets and Poetry

José Lezama Lima

Translated from the Spanish, Edited, and Introduced by James Irby and Jorge Brioso

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José Lezama Lima
A Poetic Order of Excess: Essays on Poets and Poetry
Series No.: 209
ISBN: 9781892295989, Pages: 354
Cuban Literature, Poetry

José Lezama Lima (1910–1976) was one of the most influential writers in Latin American Literature. Born in Havana, Cuba, he lived through turbulent times in his country’s history. He was mainly a poet but gained attention with the publication of his autobiographical novel Paradiso (1966), which the press characterized as decadent and pornographic due to its homoeroticism, but which was soon recognized as a major work of the 20th century.

A Poetic Order of Excess collects Lezama Lima’s essays on poets of world literature such as Stéphane Mallarmé, Paul Valéry, and Luis de Góngora. Also included are his essays on poetics and a selection of his own poems.

James Irby is a professor at Princeton University where he has taught Spanish, Portuguese, Spanish American Literature, Brazilian Literature, and Comparative Modern Fiction. He was a founding member of the Latin American Studies program and its Director from 1978 to 1981.

Jorge Brioso is a Professor of Spanish and Director of Latin American Studies at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota.

Book Review(s)

BOOK RELEASE at Beyond Baroque, Venice, CA, December 12, 2019

by Néstor Díaz de Villegas

"The Golden Shower"

We celebrate today the publication of a book of translations by James Irby and Jorge Brioso. Any attempt to translate Lezama Lima, regardless of the results, should secure a place in literary heaven for the daredevil philologist.

The translations by Irby and Brioso stand as pieces of admirable writing on their own merits. They provide the reader with a portable Lezama, at times remarkable and foreign, and at times convoluted and common place, but always captivating. Lezama's ironic use of "bad poetry" as well as his experiments with "purple prose" pose insurmountable challenges for the translator, who risks transforming the master into a "bruised turtle" (o tortugón amoratado) as Lezama was fond of calling the consecrated poetasters of his time.

Allow me to exhibit here one example of the intractable, rarefied Lezama:

De la tortuga el agua en la papada,
empavesa farolada nao de esqueletos,
al saludar jovial la mona encaramada
en el monitor chillón, sus dos pequeños disertos.

From the turtle the water in the jowls, etc... Beautiful and vicious! And, how can we possible solve that "monitor chillón", the gaudy monitor? Perusing the Green Integer anthology, I realized, furthermore, that Lezama makes more sense in English than in the original.

Mind you: I'm not saying that Lezama doesn't make sense in Spanish. God forbid! What I am saying is that Lezama's literature is not amenable to the commonsensical. Sense and sensibility in Lezama are Neo-rococo rather than Baroque, and we could speak here, as Lezama does in his essay on Luis de Góngora, of a "sierpe".

Sierpe, the snake, is the conveyor of accursed meaning, as the pursuit of meaning is the Cuban way of pledging allegiance to his nation. The manner in which Lezama Lima distorts and reassigns sense and nonsense is the nightmare on Trocadero Street for the translator.

An aside: The name of the street where Lezama resided most of his adult life means equivocation, quibble or ambiguity. There is a nearby road in the same district called Blanco (blank), and when someone loses his train of thought, Cubans like to say that such a person got stuck at the intersection of Blanco y Trocadero: blank and equivocation. As you can see, Lezama Lima is a crossroad in more sense than one.

About his prose, others could have written the perfectly transparent “Diary Entries on Descartes and Valéry” (p.217) where Lezama contrasts the Thomist notion of "pure act" to Valéry's idea of "pure event". Lezama pointedly remarks that a "pure event seems to have been made to be swallowed up by time, like some journalistic event", but without identifying the very act of poiesis, or poetic creation, as the supreme instance of the "pure event", whose cosmological counterpart must be the Big Bang. Cuban letters had to wait for the arrival of Severo Sarduy in order to gain this is important insight. The "pure event" is nothing more than the quantum of action, or the nomenclature of De Broglie rendered in Thomist jargon.

But Lezama's grand prose style is best showcased in pieces like “Serpent of Don Luis de Góngora” (p.220), where the master, liberated from the impromtu style of the journal entry or the magazine vignette, makes a full display of his lavish orchestrations. Both the supple arabesques and the opaque overtures, are rendered in painstaking detail by Irby and Brioso.

I hold in very high regard the newfangled Lezama Lima made accessible to American readers by Green Integer. One caveat: Lezama Lima is as multifarious as God himself, and as many splendored as a Tibetan deity. We, worshipers of Lezama Lima, have each our personal image of the godhead. Let's say that Lezama Lima is to Cubans what Idaho is to Americans. Inevitably, I will speak tonight about my own private Lezama Lima.

I read many if not all of the essays collected in A Poetic Order of Excess more than 40 years ago. They made an impression on my youthful mind, and a number of the more fortunate phrases and hypothesis have stayed with me over the years.

To the poetry itself (of which the volume by Green Integer, offers a delicious sample in “Thoughts in Havana” and the “Ode to Julian del Casal”) I return daily. Regarding Lezama's thought, or what has been dubbed his "System", I certainly have internalized some of its lingo and almost all of its standard imagery.

The manner in which key ideas are articulated by Lezama are important for any lyric poet whose aim is the reversal of the poetic order. And yet, those very ideas and their peculiar mode of expression have established an unbreakable bond with the ideals of a corrupted form of nationalism: they've become an ideology.

Lezama, the inscrutable and unmanageable, is now the canon. Lezama is as inescapable as the ocean that surrounds the island, an oceanic presence himself —or rather, as Virgilio Piñera, the second banana to this proverbial straight man puts it: as unavoidable as "the accursed circumstance of the water everywhere" (la maldita circunstancia del agua por todas partes).

The double act simile is not unwarranted, for Lezama is first and foremost, a comic poet—although, ocasionally, in a reversal of roles, Virgilio has played the straight man to our oversized and overidealized banana. Virgilio sneers at Lezama's overblown encyclopedism, at his petit-bourgeois smoking-room aestheticism. It was James Joyce who told us that "music-hall not poetry is the criticism of life", and both our major writers of the XX century seem to concur.

The alternative title for Lezama Lima's novel Paradiso could very well be The Comedy, albeit divine. The preposterous "d" in the title reads as a subtle, cultured wink-wink. Lezama, the devout Catholic, was concerned with the comedic possibilities of the sacred; Virgilio, with the desacralization of all things holier-than-thou. In Virgilio's first novel Rene's Flesh, published in Buenos Aires in 1952, Jesus Christ is a laughing ventriloquist doll.

Lezama Lima said: When my thoughts are obscure I write poetry; when I am more lucid I write prose—as stated in the Introduction of A Poetic Order of Excess, by Irby and Brioso.

But rather the opposite is true. Lezama is a lucid poet and an obscure prose writer. The transparency of his poetry derives from the purity of his premise. He starts from nothing and fiercely commits himself to this basic principle, a sort of primitive axiom which from his earliest poem (“Death of Narciso,” 1937) becomes the center of gravity of his rhetoric. Lezama probes deeper into the void with each new work. The Spanish Baroque fascination with emptiness merges in him with the vertigo of claustrophobic insularity.

His affinity with Valéry and Mallarmé stems from the same source. Woe to those who assign a meaning, a feeling, or even a sense of the picturesque to Lezama's verses. At his most evocative, Lezama's writing is about nothing. “Death of Narciso” crashed the 20th century as the aesthetic manifesto of the new solipsistic school: Narciso, the crasher, was concerned with the act of reflection in and of itself. Neither is Lezama’s poetics ordinary art for art's sake; Lezama Lima's poetry is Wille als Vorstellung: Will as representation. In other words: Creation from Nothing.

He's not alone in this. José Martí, his heroic forerunner, attained—also at the earliest stages of his career—the perfect poetic vacuum. Martí was exalted to the position of national apostle not by way of politicking but of saintly sacrifice to the Void.

Martí, the writer, became a martyr long before his fall at the Dos Ríos incident during the Cuban-Spanish War. Even at that juncture, Martí refused to die as a hero and to produce meaning. In Dos Ríos he is the casualty of chance: he is Narciso, the preemptive Lezamian trope.

In Ismaelillo (published in New York, 1882) Martí kills meaning (literally: kills the thing he loves), for his great poem is not about a lost child, nor about a love child as they taught us in grammar school, but about the birth of Art as the offspring of the Will, or the advent of imagination in exile.

Because it is impossible to comprehend the inapprehensible, José Martí is, much like Lezama Lima, very difficult to translate, as stated by professor Roberto González Echeverría: "Martí doesn't travel well". When we translate Martí into English or into any other language, we give meaning to the meaningless, and add an extra dimension to his words.

The same goes for Lezama. A secondary operation could make him intelligible but uninteresting. Martí and Lezama are closed systems: the poet as incommunicado. When we speak of Lezama's hermeticism we don't take that notion seriously: but one does not become a follower of Hermes unless there is the promise not to make plain the radically arcane. There is a sacred oath that obliges the bard to withhold his secret.

Ismaelillo is Martí's homunculus, not a real person, and much like “Death of Narciso”, the foundational poem of Modernism is a hermetic text. Martí and Lezama are practitioners of the the gay science, or fröhlicke Wissenshaft. Many if not all of Lezama's essays are alchemical treatises and require a foreknowledge of the mysteries, membership to the ancient brotherhood of the Ermine (La Habana was founded in 1519, exactly 500 hundred years ago, under the patronage of St. Christopher, Chrisophorous and Chrisophos, transmuter of lead into gold, the living Sulphur). Lezama's abode at Trocadero Street is a Philosopher's Dwelling, the Aleph in Borgean fashion. In short: Lezama's hermeticism must be taken in earnest or not taken up at all.

Which amounts to say that Lezama is not for everybody, that he is an aristocratic writer, and that all his subsequent popularity and popularization amounts to very little and add nothing to his understanding. The surest road to Lezama is Tradition—the occult Tradition, that is— and that path requires qualifications that go beyond the literary. The New Age aficionado, not the semiotician, is the ideal reader for Lezama Opus magnum.

But we are gather here tonight to talk about Lezama Lima as literary phenomenon, and we could even go as far as to associate his work with those of the writers of the so-called Latin American boom. But, as an artist, Lezama is closer to Sir George Ripley and Nicholas Flamel, to Michael Maier and Paracelsus, than to Mario Vargas Llosa. Lezama condescended to such a kinship out of abject necessity.

When Lezama does history, particularly Cuban history, he is not interested in play-acting the part of the historian, but that of the initiated, the adept: this is how he points his cigar to a passage in Christopher Columbus Diaries in which the Admiral sees a burning branch in the skies above Cuba, or when—in the introduction to the Anthology of Cuban Poetry (1965)—he recounts the episode of the jeweler polishing his gold coins and creating a golden tree as a foundational image (Creators by imago, he calls the key characters and antiheroes of his "imaginary eras").

Through the above mentioned and many other passages of his writings Lezama seems to be telling us: It's the Alchemy, amigos! And yet we don’t take him at his word: on the contrary, we insist in making of him a purely literary phenomenon. And he resigned himself to be one, to become Cortazar's freak and the darling of the Latin boomers. But he was confident that some future member of the secret cabala would engage in dialogue with the obscure Lezama, Artist and Imperator, and that a prospective interpreter would realize that it was no fluke that the name of his favorite haunt in the occultist city of La Habana was The Golden Shower.

Venice, December/2019


by Rolando Pérez - Hunter College, CUNY

"Book Review: A Poetic Order of Excess"

Translations of important literary texts need no justification. They extend literary works beyond their native and linguistic borders, and make them part of the greater world. The story has been told that on the day that the Japanese writer Yukio Mishima received a copy of the English translation of Confessions of a Mask (1958), is the day that Mishima, by his own account, declared himself to have achieved international notoriety. Whether the story is true or not, it is understandable. After all, the so-called “canonical” works of literature have been deemed so mainly through translations, from The Epic of Gilgamesh to The Divine Comedy and Don Quijote to Waiting for Godot, and beyond. Yet some writers, whose works have been masterfully translated, as in the case of José Lezama Lima, and his magnum opus, Paradiso, have nevertheless not managed to escape the field of gravity of their native soil. I believe that one of the contributing reasons for this is that such works like Paradiso demand a vast amount of knowledge in order to understand the poetics that architectonically informs them. This applies to the works of writers like Joyce, Beckett, Stein, Sarduy, and Pynchon, to name a handful that immediately come to mind. And here is where A Poetic Order of Excess, James Irby’s and Jorge Brioso’s annotated translation of Lezama’s essays on poets, poetry, and poetics makes a significant contribution. These essays, beautifully translated for the first time into English, will help both the reader and the critic to understand the Cuban writer’s Poetic “system,” and thereby his hermetic poetry and novels, and essays.

One important characteristic of hermetic texts that often goes unnoticed, not so because of its subtlety, but rather because, on the contrary, it hides in plain sight is that the hermetic text is of a poetic statement itself—an ars poetics. In other words, the hermetic aesthetic object (poem or novel) is the author’s poetics, for it is the form that speaks. “La obra esta en la obra,” Severn Sarduy used to say. Take for example, the case of César Vallejo’s Trilce, a book whose very title—let alone its text—resists facile metonymic interpretations, and then, further consider the much discussed, interpreted, and debated first poem of the book, “Trilce I.” However, what is “Trilce I” if not the poetics of the entire book? “But what does it ‘mean’ beyond that?” someone will surely ask. To which one might answer: “what does it have to mean beyond that?” Does it necessarily have to refer to the poet’s incarceration in Trujillo, or can it also mean something like what “jabberwocky” meant to Lewis Carroll or “quark” meant to James Joyce—a way of pushing language beyond its signifying limits? Which, in turn, will either “mean” a lot or no-thing (non-sense) to some reader x.

In any case, these are some of the questions and problems posed by Lezama’s writings, and what gives unity to the essays collected and translated in this volume. Lezama was a writer in constant conversation with the hermetic tradition that preceded and influenced, but particularly with Gongora, the author of the Soledades (The Solitudes) and Fabula de Polifemo y Galatea and with Stéphane Mallarmé, author of the experimental Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard. These writers invented literary worlds by experimenting with images and syntax in ways that had never been done before. In the case of Gongora, for example, the “natural” objects of his forest (soledades), were unlike any described before: made of unusual combinations of words to create new objects (images and metaphors) reminiscent of Cezanne’s famous painterly apples.

The connection between Gôngora’s poetics and Cezanne’s paintings is neither coincidental nor arbitrary. For when Lezama refers to Gôngora’s writing in “Serpent of Don Luis de Gongora” (217-258), he does so in terms of light and luminosity. He writes: “Gôngora’s light is a lifting up of objects... A light that absorbs the objects and then produces an irradiation. Objects in Gongora are lifted up in proportion to the light of seizure they receive” (222). In short, if Gôngora’s aesthetic objects are like precious stones, the light that falls upon them doesn’t necessarily set them free but rather fixes them as textual objects resembling showcased diamonds, rubies, and sapphires. This clearly explains Lezama’s great admiration for the “neo-barroquismo,” or more accurately, neo-Mannerism of Julián del Casal’s writings (see “Ode to Julián del Casal,” 259-266) with their countless references to glittering precious stones. But because Lezama was also a writer of neo-Baroque (chiaroscuro) counterpoints: of serpentine becomings, and “fijeza” (Being or fixity), he understood that the “moon” had a dark side inaccessible to the gaze—that often the objects created by the author of the hermetic text remained concealed by the very combination of the words that created them. And in an enigmatic passage that simultaneously alludes to the end of Paradiso and to Góngora’s sonnet, “To Jupiter,” Lezama writes: “All those who cling to the calm infancy of a poetic scission must find the presence of this hermetic minstrel as irritating as the discharge of an urticant vesicle, this minstrel who follows the customs of Delphos, neither saying nor concealing, but instead making signs” (224).

“This minstrel” who could very well be the minstrel of Góngora’s sonnet; Góngora, the poet; the character of Oppiano Licario, who dedicates a sonnet to José Gemí in Paradiso; or Lezama himself, is the “hermetic or esoteric minstrel” of trabar clus troubadour poetics. But perhaps even more than that, the “minstrel” is a sort of “dark precursor,” an elusive sign wherein resides the mystery of poetry. In an interview with Armando Alvarez Bravo, Lezama declared: “My friend, I’ve always believed my poetic system is something beautiful in itself, but I’ve never been so arrogant as to believe it is something unique. Above it I place poetry, poetry as the most transparent of mysteries or, if you wish, as mysterious transparency” (82).

The problem with Lezama’s will to poetic transcendence, where the sign is equated with Being itself, is that this sort of transcendence culminates in pure immanence—an immanence that is not luminescent, but rather a dark room of metaphors, a linguistic cul de sac where the mystery after a while ceases to be mysterious. Vallejo understood this after publishing Trilce, and that is perhaps why he never wrote another book like Trilce again. Lezama, on the other hand, like a modern day Tertullian understood this, and that is why he continued to write hermetic texts. Brioso addresses this crucial issue in the Introduction:

The question that sustains Lezama’s reflections about Gongora centers around the weight that form has with respect to mystery and whether a mystery that holds itself up only through form, and that is divorced from collective beliefs, is sustainable. Can the poetic work propose its mysteries, its enigmas, only as formal problems, or does it need a philosophical substratum...? (19)

For Lezama the dead-end of meaning or sense was the beginning of a poetic order of excess, of an explosive circulation of signs without any particular signified. Not the logos of nous, of reason and understanding, but the linguistic logos spermatikos that creates worlds and constellations like Malllarmé’s sea in A Throw of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance. Not surprisingly, then, Lezama ends his essay “New Mallarmé” (157-169) with such hyperbolic words as: “I think at times, as at the end of a Greek chorus or in a new epiphany, that his pages and the murmurs of his timbres will one day be lifted up, as on polyhedral lectern, to be read by the gods” (169).

One can only imagine the challenges faced by the translator of Lezama.. As an example, here is a passage from Lezama’s “Coronation of Forlmessness” (108-111) where Lezama accuses certain critics of excluding formlessness from Classical aesthetics; or to put it in Nietzschean terms, the Dionysian from the Apolonian, whereas he thinks that “perhaps those outlines of classical countenances may turn out to be for us like a glove with a hole in it, bitten by fish in a nightmare, on the other side of which we may find only a few truths” (108). And thus write Irby and Brioso in their “Translators’ Notes: In Praise of Fidelity and Hospitality”: “To make Lezama’s prose and verse suitable to English is not an easy feat. Nor is it easy to force English to fit this writer who makes his own mother tongue sound like a foreign language.” “In their unpredictability,” his writings, they say, “resemble surrealist texts, but their vocabulary is far more varied, and their notion of the oneiric emerges as radically different” (28). As to Lezama’s particular literary “notion of the oneiric” the passage just cited above is a fitting example. In fact, even despite their generous sense of fidelity and hospitality, they recognize that Lezama’s “originality forces us to question what the limits that separate innovation from error are, the discovery from the nonsensical” (29). And lastly, they inquire: “Is the unintelligible translatable?” (29). If the answer is yes, then they have answered their own question, and if the answer is no, then they have achieved the “impossible”: to be faithful and treasonous at the same time; traduttore, traditore—“the ironic destiny of translators,” as they say (30). Yet, whatever the case may be—loyal servant or traitor—of the 15 essays, poems, and interviews that appear in A Poetic Order of Excess, 11 are new translations never before published, making this book an indispensable source for anyone interested in literary criticism, Hispanic cultural studies, modern poetics, and twentieth century Latin American literature.

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