miasma of fulguration
Julio Herrera y Reissig
Mephistopheles missed the citation;
I, Mephistophela, write it
Cristian Peri Rossi
Observing Uruguay’s literary history from a certain perspective, we might consider three waves of change and fissure in the nation’s prevailing literary paradigms. Three tsunamis propelled by the writing of three women at three different historical moments. While each was received to a different degree by critics and the general reading public, and while each had her own way of expanding her “novelty” into the rest of the regional and Hispano-American literary field, we can nonetheless identify an element in common between the “transgressive” publications of Delmira Agustini, Armonía Somers, and Cristina Peri Rossi: the surprise and amazement they generated from a horizon of expectations unprepared, and perhaps not entirely competent, to assimilate and interpret the writing they were up against. I refer specifically to Los cálices vacíos (1913), La mujer desnuda (1950), and Evohé: Poemas eróticos (1971). Incredulity and puzzlement, rejection or prohibition, marginalization or misunderstanding. With varying fates, these three books written by three Uruguayan women and published in Montevideo in relatively marginal editions (especially in the cases of Somers—hidden, what’s more, behind a pseudonym—and Peri Rossi) generated adverse, contradictory, censorial reactions: this disturbance made the apparently stable and more-or-less harmonious beams of Uruguayan literature creak. These three books doused Uruguayan letters in writing with an eroticism difficult to take in and process: insurgent writing, critical of the prevailing canon.
Unrestricted desire pronounced in feminine voices, the evident (homo)eroticism of these writings, and the “nerve” with which they told the saga of the woman’s body, the act of lovemaking, and topical sexuality all went well beyond the reading ability of local audiences and the critical aparati active in their eras. Desire, passion, the body, and eros were pronounced in male voices, in poetry as well as fiction, and the risks of their results were in male hands. Paraphrasing the line by Juana de Ibarbourou, Delmira, Armonía, and Cristina seem to say, “Men, I shall be an outrage on your boat.” With historical perspective, and aware of the comings and goings of each of the three author’s literatures, we can mark these three creative milestones as true ruptures in the Uruguayan literary field, with reach into regional literature and all literature written in Spanish.
It is well known, in the case of Cristina Peri Rossi, that her writerly rebelliousness (“with her defiance, her transgression, her lyricism, and her irony,” as the author writes in the prologue to the second edition of Evohé, which opens the volume Poesía reunida, published in 2005) cost her, in the short term, critical silence, rejection from readers, and various misunderstandings. This was followed by prohibition of her work and personal exile, all in a political context of repression, persecution, and censorship.
Today, the vast poetic, narrative, journalistic, and essayistic body of work of the winner of the 2021 Cervantes Prize is widely established. It contains books that are true cult objects, and it has maintained its transgressive freshness, its compositional quality, and its communicational cogency on all points. On top of the themes and motifs that recur in much of her production (desire, eroticism, love, art, exile, the deterioration of the environment, the city, language, creation, etc.), there exists in Peri Rossi’s work a special sense of rhythm, of music, and a clear consciousness of the elements needed to achieve a certain prosody, a cadence, a sense of breathing in the composition of her prose and, in particular, of her poetry in verse.
It is no coincidence that, several years before she published her first book of poems, even just before the publication of her first collection of short stories, titled Viviendo (1963), the author of Diáspora (1976) premiered her essay “Ritmo en los poemas de amor de Idea Vilariño” in the eighth issue of Aquí Poesía, a then-fledgling journal directed by fellow poet Rubén Yacovsko and dedicated to disseminating poetry, as its director wrote in his letter to the reader, titled “Al lector.” In this text, he lays out editorial intentions and ushers readers in to the first issue of the journal, published in spring 1962, in the hopes that “an essential respect for poetry should develop in our midst, literary creation should be perceived as separate from the exchange of cheap inclusions of friends, and a positive and fair esteem for poetic talent should be achieved.” The body of this journal was made up, for several years, of poems by his Uruguayan and foreign contemporaries and, to a lesser degree, of essays reflecting on, appreciating, and analyzing the poetic phenomenon, as well as, eventually, a few short stories. There, Perirossian writing “debuted” in a genre that does not “characterize” the overall panorama of her work.
The immediate precursor to this work by Peri Rossi, which she mentions within the body of her essay, is precisely Grupos simétricos en poesía (Montevideo, Universidad de la República, 1958), by Idea Vilariño. There, the author of Poemas de amor presents a sort of demand to be met by all those who mean to write poetry: “the need for a technique of the lyric—comparable to the technique of other arts—and for deep knowledge of its problems on the writer’s part. This knowledge must begin with the fundamental: rhythm, since if this fails the rest has no structure, it cannot be held up, it ceases to be in artistic terrain.” And, later, she adds that knowledge of technique and its possible mastery “does not serve to give recipes for poetry, much less to pull poets out of thin air; it allows the poet, rather, to hold in her hands an instrument at peak performance.”
This is the “school” in which Cristina Peri Rossi was educated as a young writer: one built on knowledge of the writing process, of technique and self-exigency when utilizing the instrument to configure the work of verbal art, to achieve “the unfinished and surely perfect verse,” as she says in the first part of her long poem “Correspondencias con Ana María Moix,” written in Barcelona not long after she started her own journey into exile (Estado de exilio, 2003).
Studying and reflecting on rhythm in poetry became an axiality around which our poet’s creative work was concentrated. She indicated in the aforementioned essay from 1963:
Rhythm is pleasure, it brings delight because it satisfies the expectations it provokes. […] Rhythmic effects are born of unconscious anticipation: that is to say, there is preparation, an expectant tension for what is to come. There is a wait. Rhythm, then, is a complex of expectations, satisfactions, disappointments, surprises.
There is a qualitative aspect to rhythm, a “je ne sais quoi” produced as an effect of the reading, a “tension” between what readers expect and what they dutifully read and “hear.” From early on, Peri Rossi has assumed this reflection on poetic rhythm, which, according to the author, differs “from the measurable, countable cadence of verse, that is, from meter,” since “metrical cadence can be the same while rhythm—the special tension and inner vibration—is different.” At the same time, the essayist recognizes that, along with rhythm and other formal and verbal elements of the poem as a “combination of words,” there exists a series of intangible qualities that contribute to the poem’s beauty: “to beauty / always to beauty,” says the poem “Mujer de principios” from the book Aquella noche (1996).
Within this order of things, poem XXII from Lingüística general (1979) becomes a very significant ars poetica with which to read Peri Rossi’s poetry in this key:
The poem is a combination of words, yes,
but its harmony does not depend
on the nature of sound and its timbres
or on the empty space its shifts,
it depends, too,
on the nostalgia for the infinite that it awakens
and on what sort of revelation it suggests.
Half a century after publishing her essay on rhythm in the poetry of Idea Vilariño, Peri Rossi suggests in her poem “De la poesía como música” (La noche y su artificio, 2014) that in the “task of harmonizing words” and “ordering words,” in the “sonic plot” of the poem (a syntagma I adopt from Idea’s essay), “words are sounds / and sounds are / emotions of the gut.” The visceral dialogue of the word in its poetic function: here we find what is perhaps an intrinsic trait of all Peri Rossi’s poetic production. This viscerality, entailing the hard nucleus of the word shared in the poem, while said word is not yet selected to take part in the syntagmatics of the poetic text, represents the possibility of a creative “magic,” a providence as potential as it is phantasmatic emerging from the traditions of language and literature. We read as much in the poem titled “Poética” from the book Otra vez eros (1994):
Words are spectres
that jump the seals
of ancient memory
On the other hand, and as the structuralist current has established since the lessons of Ferdinand de Saussure, language and, in our case, poetry, are not matters of “the things” of the world: “The poet writes not about things / but about the names of things,” says the poem, laid out as a distich, that opens Lingüística general. There is a hiatus between the object in the world and the object referenced in the poetic utterance. The word has a strong evocative power, but it is still a linguistic sign, a quasi-abstract device with which to designate, more or less obliquely, the world. This designation does not necessarily comport with the truth; as is pronounced in the poem “Estrategias del deseo” from the book of the same title, “words cannot speak the truth / the truth is not speakable.”
This aesthetic phenomena, which we could provisionally call “the thickness of the word,” empowers the poem’s results. Rhythm (“music”) and allusion (“evocation”) are at the center of the poetic act. In poem VII of the first part of Lingüística general, we read:
poetry separates us from things
through the word’s ability
to be music and evocation,
besides meanings, which allows us to love the unhappy word
and not the state of misfortune.
In this sense, the poetry of the author of Playstation (2009) is a poetry of language, centered on the word (“the nighttime hunt for words,” expounds the lyric speaker in “Alejandra entre las lilas” from Diáspora) and its effects (“I babble words from Babel,” says the poem “Las leyes de la hospitalidad” from Babel bárbara, 1991), on rhythm, metapoetic reflection, and the attention granted to the moment of reading during the moment of the text’s production. Concretely, as we read in the poem “Lectura” (Inmovilidad de los barcos, 1997):
You cross a book
like you ford a river
are the stones to cling to
To keep from drowning
Mephistophela, Cassandra, a rampant bacchante, an insurgent woman and unrepentant rebel, a poet “addicted to intensity,” as she writes in a poem from Estrategias del deseo (2004), Cristina Peri Rossi has constructed a poetic oeuvre bolstered by rhythm, by the evocative power of the word, by the rigor of her reading and writing, and by her transgressive willfulness, going against the grain of any comfort zone dictated or imposed by any age or fashion, far from the clichés and agendas of any dominant discourse.