Miguel James was born in Puerto España, Trinidad in 1953 but lived in Venezuela from the age of six. His poetic world is rooted in the coastal Antilles; it is the chaotic synthesis of cultural syncretism that defines the Caribbean, and it is this very feature that makes James’ work an exceptional case within contemporary Venezuelan poetry. It is not common for our poetry to express its Caribbean links, although traces of this inescapable geographic reality can be found. James’ distinct voice emerged in the 1980s, when the aesthetics of Tráfico and Guaire—two Venezuelan literary groups that emerged at the start of the 1980s—set the trend for exteriorismo, the outdoors, the streets, and the everyday in lyrical poetry, rejecting the nocturnality that Vicente Gerbasi had crystallized in this verse from “Mi padre, el inmigrante” (1945): “Venimos de la noche y hacia la noche vamos” [From the night we came and towards the night we go].
His first book, Mi novia Ítala come flores was written in 1988; the latest, Kentakes, poemas para la reina y otras obras maestras, in 2003. Bookended between his first and last books are: Albanela, Tuttifrutti, Blanca y las otras (1990), La casa caramelo de la bruja (1993), Nena, quiero ser tu hombre y otras confesiones (1996), A las diosas del mar (1999), Tiziana amor mío (1999), and Oda a Naomi (2001). His complete works of poetry were published in 2007 under the title Mi novia Ítala come flores. James is also the author of the novel Sarita, Sarita, tu eres bien bonita (2004). Then, after he traveled to Trinidad at the end of the 2000s, nothing more was known about him. In what follows, some of the characteristic features of his poetic writing will be brought out, such as the formal and thematic contradictions that harmonize within the space of the poem and allowed him to create a body of work that stands out through its uniqueness and boldness.
While it may be true that the aforementioned groups share a vision of the poetry of the streets and the everyday, there are also English-language influences: his imaginary is fueled by pop culture, beatniks and the denseness of the sacred, influences of Black African culture, rhythms, songs, and the working class. His breaking down of barriers between the cultured and the popular comes across as spontaneous, close, easy.
Clear poetic awareness, lyrical experience, and literary knowledge are the scaffolding behind this apparent carefreeness. His poems walk the streets, with music of multiple registers. In the simplest ones, those closest to orality, a knowledge of shapes and themes running through Western and African culture and history lies beneath. This is not naïve writing; his words inherit the knowledge that precedes them.
The everyday and the sacred—the friction between the ordinary and the exotic—ignites the idea of a certain way of talking and living, and keeps this idea alive. We read slang words for human anatomy—“totona,” “caracola,” “culito,” “mirlo”—a mix of times and aesthetics, a fusion. The litany, the sacred and profane tone, the irreverent reverence, the rough everyday and the imagined, ideal world, the poetic and the colloquial are opposites and contradictions all in harmony, all within the Caribbean flavor, Eastern and African sumptuousness, rhythm and eroticism.
James’ themes were defined from his first published book: erotic discourse and the idealization of women, socio-critical discourse, African and Caribbean themes. Religious feelings, inseparable from eroticism, are not subject to a place of worship, but a genuine, unconventional spirituality. He sings about and celebrates women using different tones and rhythms, using biblical recollections and reggae. From his amorous discourse flow exuberant, copious, and opulent images that expand and overflow and, in this way, the women he sings about are glorified without being objectified.
He discusses the values of Eurocentric culture and African culture: the historic past with the personal present. The woman, individualized under many names, is, at the same time, universalized: distanced from stereotypes, she is elevated to queen and goddess. The aim: to overthrow order, to escape the traditional. Aggression and provocation help to transform and question reality. The underground and marginal character of his work is brought face to face with a world idealized by the desire to recover an ancient brilliance: a king for his racial origin.
In contemporary Caribbean poetry, the search for roots is significant. The traces of colonization lead to the pursuit and magnification of an identity that was or is repressed and devalued by the same people who have also been suppressed by the imposition of another culture. James’ poem “Trini” clearly reveals his ancestry. The first verse, “Yo nací en una isla,” takes us to the first verse of the text by the so-called Prince of Antillean poets, Daniel Thaly (Martinique, 1879-1950): “I was born on an island in love with the wind.” And if Thaly describes the Caribbean as a landscape, he shows the same intention of belonging and reaffirmation of identity that James demonstrates. This can be perceived through the use of the “yo”: “yo nací, yo vi, yo respiré” [I was born, I saw, I breathed].
“Trini” is based on a poetic manifestation of an “I” found and rooted in time, space and history. The diverse images that continue to bind together to develop the vision of the island are a product of the cultural fusion that makes up the complex and blended Caribbean world. It is the establishment of his ancestry and legacy—“Yo nací en Port of Spain/ Hijo de Lillian/ Primogénito de Michael/ Nieto de Edna/ Bisnieto de Du” [I was born in Port of Spain/ Son of Lillian/ Firstborn of Michael/ Grandson of Edna/ Great-grandson of Du]—but it is also the expression of the dark side of this legacy: violence, destruction and domination. What’s more, in “Salve Inglaterra,” this dark side and the emotional ambivalence caused is recognized, only to then be negated in “Sólo me importa que tú estés conmigo,” the poem that comes after “Salve Inglaterra.” The world of Rastafarianism and reggae—which has become fashionable and, consequently, has been stripped of its cultural and religious significance—is poeticized in “Reggae para Marilyn,” for example.
There is play between the important and the trivial in the recurring motifs of Miguel James’ poetry, leaving readers in doubt: “contra lo profundo canciones leves” [use gentle songs to face the profound], is a line which expresses his ars poetica, allowing him to conceal his stripped-back position and re-establish his place in the world. The poetic “I” calls itself king, god, and it presides over everything, rejoicing in itself and singing its own praises. Examples of this expression are “Yo me amo,” which allows for an ironic and critical reading of narcissism, and “Victoria,” which follows the form but opposes the content of “Derrota,” the most famous poem by Rafael Cadenas.
In each poem, we find an ironic, critical, and dissatisfied lens, with variations only in the extent to which they incorporate mythical or cosmogonic elements. History and myth in tense coexistence. The world of the African gods, a world oppressed by colonization, emerges as a reaffirmation of identity, encounter, and recognition of an oppressed heritage. The Great Mother (Earth) emerges, not only as “female-mother-earth” but also as an existential paradigm opposed to the patriarchal rationalism of Western society. A native island is likened to a mother. “Yo nací en una isla que es el útero del mundo/ Allí vuelvo otra vez a nacer” [I was born on an island that is the womb of the world/ There I am born again]. The action of returning and being reborn refers to the myth of the eternal return; it speaks of exile, of banishment. When the poet incorporates Jah, Oshun, and other deities into his verbal universe, or when he turns the African into a model of Western beauty, he incorporates values previously repressed by Greco-Latin and Judeo-Christian culture. Not only that, but this matriarchal principle also serves as a creative guideline. Said principle connects with the irrational, with intuition, with revelation; all traits that can be glimpsed in James’ poetry.
The eroticism that runs through his writing is not transgressive but constructive, and it creates room for tenderness. The fragility of the insignificant event that seeks to express love in “Era para ti mi rosa” moves even the silence. Nostalgia for love lost but not forgotten shines out in “Magnífica estrella,” and the longing for love’s return is prevalent in “Dime que volviste.” Varying degrees of love and heartbreak serve as an axis for much of the author’s work, around which revolve the themes of family heritage, friendships, memories, and societal norms.
Deeply cherished love is redeemed like an ancient ceremony and ritual. It is kind, it is pure reminiscence. Our memory becomes present in the place that brings absence to light, the closed space of a bedroom and a place of contemplation. A poetic expression that celebrates and expresses gratitude for the things we experience in life: “Gracias Sara/ Gracias/ Muchas gracias/ Miguel James/ Agradecido” [Thank you Sara/ Thank you/ Thank you very much/ Miguel James/ Grateful]. It is no coincidence that he titled one of his poems “Caminando con Walt por el parque,” or that in another poem, riddled with questions, there is a direct reference to Leaves of Grass, as it is one of the influences that allowed him to merge the aforementioned characteristics into lyrical discourse.
A poetic-erotic “you” surfaces repeatedly in his poetry and is occasionally revealed under the name of Sara, the poet’s wife, in reference to a real person. Thus, the poet follows a tradition which, as I have pointed out elsewhere, can be found in the works of Catullus, Petrarch, and Dante. He does not shy away from expressing admiration for and glorifying the female form as a desirable subject, as is typical in many erotic poems written by men. He also sings praises to his own body, to his penis, to his manhood. Naming and praising the body within an erotic lexicon is a characteristic that demonstrates the influence of Whitman’s celebrated poetry, which has been further developed by women poets. Embracing one’s own body in poetry, through language, is an act of recovery that allows for referring to the other—in this case, the woman—in a more complete and integrated way. Naming the body gives it a sense of presence and illumination, overcoming the depersonalization of the “ideal” body imposed by society. This is yet another illustration of a poet’s discursive and existential rebellion as he recognizes himself on the margins of his society.
Oda a Naomi reveals echoes of the Song of Songs, a clear influence in his love poetry, and opens a way towards the essential by tapping into the all-encompassing rhythm of the universe. From there, he celebrates femininity with few words and rich images in evocative repetition. Litany is recurrent in his work and gives it the aforementioned sacred tone. His connector is rhythm, the first, feminine rhythm: the pulsing of a heart that marks and reiterates the cadence of a greater and primordial womb, that of the universe. The poem pursues it, senses it, and achieves harmony when it reaches correspondence. For this reason, Oda a Naomi does not yield to the intellectual or the introspective, but rather to the supreme forces of the cosmos. The elemental is a place we reach from a particular type of illumination. Due to the relationship it maintains with a higher order, the musicality of the words and their repetitions produces a chain effect, sounds that detach themselves from some and fall into others, to achieve verbal alchemy, transmutation.
Naomi Campbell, an icon in our media culture, thus becomes the archetypal representative of women and is freed from the grips of consumption and the stereotyped. By endowing her with value, the poet transforms her into a female myth, an idealized and revered universal woman. She is redeemed as a sacred object—and an object of desire—due to the attributes granted by his lyric poetry; his aesthetic proposal is defined by a path of praise and celebration of the feminine.
Faithful to the ancestral and literary tradition, the poetry of Miguel James, who is also an essayist, narrator, translator, and painter, makes simplicity, love, the street, and the everyday into the site of his kingdom and the land that roots him in words and life.
The secret of Miguel James’ poetry is revealed to us in its authenticity. Through his collections of poems, he has taken his most personal experiences and made them universal, transcending them with the playful and bold action of poetic expression that merges various tones. Fragmented unity characterizes his work; the texts break unity. The world intervenes just like chance and chaos. The unique time of the poem integrates past moments and experiences into a cohesive whole. His poem “Otras confesiones” begins with the well-known formula: “Yo pecador/ Me confieso a Ti” [I am a sinner/ I confess to You], followed by a long list of images and events ordered by a semi-conscious flow and a discourse that defies the cultural norms of what is deemed politically correct.
Many of the aspects discussed here may not arouse astonishment in light of current aesthetics; it is important to remember that, in the realm of Venezuelan poetry, Miguel James’ approach played a role in achieving the freedom that poetic expression enjoys today, particularly during the 1990s and the first decade of the twenty-first century.
Translated by Amy Vincent and Natalia Dawson