“I am captivated by the language of the mystics, especially of course the Spanish mystics. They have the gift of coining indelible expressions to communicate to us a kind of knowing which, in the final instance, is rather a not knowing.” With this phrase, drawn from Notes on Saint John of the Cross and Mysticism (1998), Rafael Cadenas reveals an essential aspect of the pursuit he has undertaken throughout his poetic work: to attain an ever more serene and composed language, beneath which we can feel the heartbeat of a state of grace, of a vital wisdom in which the inner being enters into full contact with the real.
His tenacity in this pursuit, obsessive and reiterated, after more than half a century from his first books to the present, seems to leave behind the prints of a poetic path that we might also read as a sort of bildungspoesie, in the way of so-called novels of learning or formation (bildungsroman), in which the poetic subject makes periodical revisions of itself in successive phases of its work, revisions that lead to varied forms of self-contestation and dispossession, until it placates the hubris of a primordial I and the enchanting powers of the word, provider of bewitchments and deceits that distract our attention from that which the poetic subject desires: that which, in certain verses of his work, might be: to “set fire to false witness” and adopt “the direct form” (“Recognition,” False Maneuvers, 1966), to cultivate “a voice / without tricks” (“He who barely,” Lover, 1983), to desire not “style, / but honesty” (“I’ve never know all I wanted / about words,” Dealings, 1992), and to cultivate a way of speaking with “none of the garnishes of rhetoric” (“Marriage,” Dealings).
Such predicaments will surprise the reader who inadvertently explores this body of work in chronological order, from the initial verses of his first published book, The Exile Notebooks (1960), in which a an overflowing and multiple I, masked in various ways, tells tales about (and from) a cursed space, inhabited by ancestral stigmas and atavisms:
“I belonged to a people of great eaters of serpents, sensual, vehement, silent, and prone to losing their minds out of love.
But my race was of a different lineage. It is written and it is known—or supposed—by those who spend their time reading signs, not expressly manifested, that their austerity is of a proverbial character. It was feasible to make it known, delving a little into the history of human collapses, in the gateways of their houses, in their suits, in their words. From it comes my taste for somber bedrooms, half-shut doors, elegantly carved furniture, plastered cellars, tiring caves, playing cards on which the face of a king grows frustrated as if in exile.”
Nonetheless, the reader will soon come across what we could call the traces of the “transformation” of the conscience of this poetic subject that runs through all of Cadenas’s work, which is made fully patent starting with the books Memoranda and Exposure, both from 1977. Even before, from the first poem of his earlier book False Maneuvers (1966), he would start writing the goodbyes of that poetic speaker, granted the pomp of a character, who has declared himself the victim of loss:
“Some time ago, I used to divide myself into more people that I could count. I was, in a succession and without one getting in the way of the other, a saint, a traveler, a tightrope walker.
To please others and myself, I’ve preserved a double image. I’ve been here and elsewhere. I´ve bred sickly specters.
Whenever I had a quiet moment, I was assailed by the images of my transformations, which pushed me into isolation. Multiplicity threw itself on me. I exorcised it.”
Until, perhaps, the reader comes across the first evidence of this new pursuit that will profile the rest of his work, that pursuit which aspires toward another form of reconciliation with reality, word, and life, in the final lines of that same poem, which read: “Perhaps the secret of placidity is there, between the lines, like a nameless shining, and my unjustified pride will give way to great peace, a sober joy, an immediate honesty. Until then.”
Which, in truth, is no less deceitful, since if Cadenas’s poetic work is indeed presented to us at first sight as a sometimes unruly effort, marked by ruptures, in which a diverse range of modulations, registers, and poetic forms have accumulated and overlapped over time (Bible verses, prose poems, aphorisms, epigrams, notes, brief verses, etc.), his entire body of work rests upon the same pillars, the few matters that always cling to its thematics: the I as an obstacle or impediment to reaching a state of rapport with reality; otherness in its multiple derivations (the continuous and menacing unfoldings and maskings of the I, but also the possibility of communion and spiritual complementarity with the beloved, body and soul joined to mystic desire); inquiry into the experience of the real, into the essential mystery, not as ideation but as an imperative of the sensitive dimension of being; language as paradox: an artifice that isolates us from said experience, but within which lies latent, immanently, the possibility to connect with it; attention, to pause over an instant, a happening, the celebration of that which is revealed after the acceptance of a state of fundamental ignorance; or exile and uprooting as inherent conditions of the unease of existing, and nostalgia for a primitive state of elemental unity, sometimes transmuted into an isolated geography in which sensual and enigmatic nature serves as a correlate to such a state of mind.
And so, behind this poetic subject ever more isolated from the domain of verbal artifice, we come face to face with the poet Rafael Cadenas, who pays ever less notice to the “natural” implications of the literary field in which his work is framed. This fact should amaze us, considering the important impact on Venezuelan poetry made by the appearance of his verse collection The Exile Notebooks, whose “introit,” to which we referred before (“I belonged to a people of great eaters of serpents”), “every learned Venezuelan knows by heart,” a sentiment we share with Ana Nuño; since, instead of continuing down the path his readers would have expected—and, beforehand, celebrated—and that would surely have meant, for Cadenas, an immediate increase in the “symbolic capital” he had already begun to harvest, on the contrary, as a result of an untarnished critical conscience, he preferred to opt for a direction dictated by the “cleanliness of perception,” as Guillermo Sucre has indicated, and the revelation of immediacy. From this perspective, his choice of a path that, on first impression, implied a “radical” rupture is all the more admirable: a rupture that, over time, has left us as its legacy the fruits of the unwavering exercise of a very rare fidelity to intellectual honesty. “Now—as José Balza has pointed out—we can better understand the strange unity of this poetry: from the intuition of puberty to the light of adulthood, from blindness to instinct and flexible intelligence.”
The same intellectual honesty, whose “flexibility” is certainly one of its substantive attributes, has allowed for the full exercise of a vigilant self-criticism, able to refute or mark distances between the apparent achievements of his own work. This is what happens, for example, in a text as emblematic and celebrated as the poem “Defeat,” which, after its publication in 1963, became a sort of standard for the frustrations of a whole generation of young Venezuelans who, at the beginning of the sixties, found in armed conflict a true possibility of achieving the concretion of a more just and sovereign society. A poem in which, among other things, the speaker affirms:
“I who have never had a trade
Who before any competitor have felt weak
Who have lost the best qualifications for life
Who keep a lid all day on my rebellion
Who haven’t gone to join the guerrillas
Who have done nothing for my people
Who don’t belong to the FALN and despair over all these things
And others it would take forever to enumerate”
Today, Cadenas himself feels quite distant from this poem and the presumptions it implies, just as he might feel distant from many of the suppositions that captivated him, in politics and poetics, during the years of his youth. Consistent with an attitude attuned to the risks of turning the word into impostation and submission to all forms of enchantment—among which is power—life has taught him to double down his precautions against dogmas and ideologies, which pridefully seek to impose themselves as solutions, always erected upon the conviction of their ownership of truth.
Just the same, after having defined his poetic work, already consolidated, today we can appreciate it apart from trends, from experimental zeal, from innovative pretensions that allow it to display new signs in the brotherhood of literary -isms, since its effort belongs in a field that stays out of such struggles. With no vocation for scandal, he doubts his own condition as a poet, claiming that “people who are a little distracted […] take him for a writer.” For the same reason, he also states:
“When I see most of the poetry that is published in the world, I feel that I’m far from it. I can’t write like that, it’s a feeling. Beside that, I see myself as clumsy. I admire the poets whose hands, as soon as they sit down to write, begin to fill with sparkling light. […] I sustain myself on my weakness. I speak from my deficiencies. I am simply a man who doesn’t breathe well, and poetry helps a little.”
This statement coincides with many of his texts, such as when he affirms in the verses of a brief little poem in Memoranda: “These lines / are not poems. / Air shafts…”. His search is framed, therefore, in other fields, refusing to fall into either antipoetry or counterpoetry. Distant also from nationalistic invocations and from a perspective that surpasses the narrowness of the regional, rather than taking an interest in his role as a poet, his inquiry, as a guardian of language, perhaps consists of reconciling word and silence, not with aesthetic ends but, above all, as an ontological undertaking. Distant as well from any Orphic disposition, more than song, music, and embellishment, he searches in the word for resonance with its original gravity. His task, or his trade, is to delve into language in search of those signs that continue to speak to us from the silence, that remind us of the fullness of that first contact with the world, when the task of the word was to (dis)cover, to pull back veils: to make experience, to experiment on the essential mystery of existence with (and from) the word.
In this combat and this paradox is hidden the religious impulse that, disconnected from orthodoxies and institutions, is made manifest in an inconcealable verbal devotion that obliges him on the one hand to say, in an emblematic “Ars Poetica,” the last poem of the book Exposure: “Let each word carry what it says. / Let it be like the tremor that sustains it. / Let it maintain itself like a heartbeat,” and, on the other hand, to affirm in one of the many aphorisms that echo through the pages of Memoranda: “The Word is not the site of the splendor, but we insist, we insist, no one knows why.” This inevitability and this insistence are consequences of an urgent need to question wonder, to demand that life reveal its meaning. With this purpose, his thought has found its course in his poetic expression as well as his essayistic work. And although poetry and thought are truly inseparable terms in his work, it would be limiting and insufficient to read it from the exclusive viewpoint of the latter. So, we might say, making use of a comparison: if in the case of the poetry of Saint John of the Cross, the poet himself attempted to explain the reach and meaning of his texts to the reader (luckily unluckily); Cadenas, on the contrary, contends with words, conscious of the impossibility of submitting them to restrictions that confine them to the role of mere channels for the transmission of the ideas conglomerated around the poem at the moment of its writing. In spite of his effort to make words “carry what they say,” he knows, in reality, that it is useless to try to domesticate his impulses; he knows they only “say” anything precisely because they live in a constant struggle to safeguard the degree of freedom granted to them by the poem. In one of them, titled “Las paces” [The peaces], belonging to his verse collection Sobre abierto [Open envelope] (2012), he shows us a poetic speaker who is conscious of this conflict. There he says: “Let’s come to an agreement, poem. / I won’t make you to say what you don’t want / and you won’t be so reluctant to do what I wish. / We’ve wrestled a lot.” This text, on the other hand, serves as a testament to the arduous, self-reflexive vigilance that has tensed the “thread of discourse” woven by the speaker of this poetic work, who over time has chosen to make his way from the overflowing words and hallucinatory imagination present, as we have noted, in The Exile Notebooks, to the verbal asceticism, dominant and persistent, that we find starting in Exposure and Memoranda, and that through diverse modulations is kept alive even in his most recent verse collection, Sobre abierto.
Perhaps the divergences we have pointed out between the poetic registers that are found in part of this work and the unity of thought that it sustains can find, in a figure such as that of the British poet John Keats, the symbolization of this apparent and occasional duality between speech and thought. In his book of essays Realidad y literatura [Reality and literature], published in 1979, Cadenas turns to a famous letter written by the English poet Richard Woodhouse to express the opposition between the “chameleon poet” who crashes into the “virtuous philosopher” and who “lacks identity from the moment in which he finds himself continuously in need of occupying the body of another,” and the other species of poets, the “sublime egotist” represented by Wordsworth. Cadenas prefers the option of Keats, as it implies the poet’s acceptance of the annulment of the ego, with the goal of making oneself in and with others. This quality leads Keats to admit that: “no word that I pronounce can be considered an opinion originating from my identity; how could it be so, if I have no nature?” Such a desire for the annulment of the “I” implies not only the longing for “nothing” (“I know / that if don’t become nobody / I’ll have wasted my life,” Cadenas tells us in a text from Memoranda), but also the danger of mimetic adaptation to the empire of the other, where poetic diction also plays a part. And indeed, in a survey of the books and loose poems that make up the first part of his work (The Exile Notebooks, 1960; “Defeat,” 1963; and False Maneuvers, 1966), we find a language and a symbolic universe that, while governed by the weight of the stamp of what we might call the “verbal gravity” of all the poetry of Cadenas, we also find the clear influence of voices like those of Rimbaud, Ramos Sucre, Pessoa, and Michaux, readings that were near and dear to him in their time. Nonetheless, his greatest affiliations are found—as he has expressed—more than in poetry, in the vital postures and worldviews of poets and writers like Rilke, Whitman, D.H. Lawrence, and Aldous Huxley, artists in whom he perceives a search—through literature—“that transcends literature” and that he somehow links to what has been his own postulate: “the labor of learning to be no one” (“For you the learning…”, Memoranda).
This permanent strategy of placing life before literature is the strategy that will define, to a great extent, the course of his poetic work: a journey from verbal overflow to asceticism; from the catharsis and bewitchment of the word to longed-for silence and dispossession. A trajectory between crash and calm that reminds us of what is now preached by modern physics, which has long lain in the religious knowledge of our ancestral cultures: before all there is, there was the mystery of nothingness. Cadenas himself, in his book on Saint John of the Cross, cited at the beginning of these pages, gives us this warning by pointing out the fits that scientificism has provoked in the human being and that science has “returned to him amply,” reinvindicating this state of fundamental ignorance that emerges from the claim that “the more you know, the greater your perplexity.” Perhaps an analogous stance has determined his vision of life in relation to literature, taking interest in the latter only as a commitment to the search for enlightenment, for revelations that help us to inhabit the mystery of existence.
Arturo Gutiérrez Plaza
Universidad Simón Bolívar
Translated by Arthur Dixon