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Book Review

A Poetic Order of Excess: Essays on Poets and Poetry

by José Lezama Lima 


Reviewed 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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