carlos german and team
In Praise of Carlos Germán Belli
“Belli is a puzzling writer: he challenges readers of poetry on the right and on the left, who might wish to hem him within a spiritualist or crudely materialist ideology”
The entire body of work of Carlos Germán Belli—a Peruvian poet, fifty-six years old—is contained in a sparse few titles, almost all of which are personal anthologies or recompilations of previous books: Poemas (1958), Dentro & fuera (1960), ¡Oh Hada Cibernética! (1961), El pie sobre el cuello (1964), Sextinas y otros poemas (1970), ¡Oh Hada Cibernética! (Monte Ávila Editores, Caracas, 1971, an anthology of all his precious volumes), and En alabanza del bolo alimenticio (Mexico, Premia, 1979). Sextinas y otros poemas was published in Chile thanks to Pedro Lastra, who has directed Editorial Universitaria’s Letras de América collection for the past fifteen years. For a decade now, Chile has known nothing of these Letters, secluded in its editorial indigence, its censorship and dearth of books. There are still copies of these Sextinas on offer; some bookseller might still import some copies of the latest edition published in Mexico. And there is news from abroad; Elitropia Edizioni, in its “In forma di Parole” collection, published in 1983 a splendid bilingual anthology: O fata cibernética.
I don’t know what space Belli currently holds in his own country. At one time, I had the impression his fellow Peruvian writers and critics only appreciated him halfway. A survey conducted among them by the journal Hueso Húmero two or three years ago gave him no place or honor in the Peruvian Parnassus. This was, I hope, a random mistake on the part of those surveyed. In fact, for the past twenty years, many have held Belli in high regard both within and outside Peru, despite—or because of—the “feeble human figure that prevails in this poetry; an image drafted, within the framework of learned language, with coarse words of popular parlance.” So wrote Sebastián Salazar Bondy, author of Lima la horrible, in 1964.
The naive reader will always identify the subject who speaks in poems—their character—with the flesh-and-blood individual who writes them; they can indeed be hard to tell apart in certain cases (Belli’s is one for readers skilled at telling the difference). This is a matter of thoroughly analyzing the texts and holding firm to an idea that, in turn, distinguishes poetry from all other forms of communication. I would suggest that critics take good care with many aspects of Bellian poetry: with considering it “personal,” in view of its singularity, which borders on eccentricity; and with misunderstanding, furthermore, his faith in form, “not out of the risk of emptiness, but out of the pure pleasure of savoring it,” as the poet himself says in the prologue to the anthology Asir la forma que se va.
“BELLI INVENTS THIS TRADITIONAL PARLANCE BY MIXING ANTIQUATED PHRASEOLOGY WITH PERUVIANISMS, ADHERING TO METER, TO MYTHOLOGY, AND TO THE ICONS OF MANNERISM”
It is easy to commit the error of referring to a sort of formalism, to the rigor with which Belli turns to meter, to the genres of medieval, mannerist, and baroque poetry. Belli’s tropes also originate, sometimes negatively, from these eras (where the indolent soul of Fray Luis de León awakens to rise into transcendence, “a minimal light from the firmament” shines for Belli’s character, “and I settle into peace with myself and with the world / as I look upon this unreachable luster / be it even on the faces of my daughters”). The references to myth, the lexicon—crutches of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Spanish, says Salazar Bondy—and the syntax are, as we shall see, mannerist, challenging those who now seek what they once found in Belli: a historical point of reference in the relationship between dominators and the dominated, from the stance of the latter. I will choose a random example of formal complication on the syntactic level—one of Belli’s long strophes, fitted into the frame of a single sentence:
Que muy pronto mañana, y no más ya,
volar suelto por el etéreo claustro,
y al ras del agua y del voraz fuego,
bajo el gran albedrío deleitoso
de las cien mil partículas ocultas,
y deste bulto al fin sin nudo alguno,
liberado de litros,
metros y kilos viles,
que tras de tales cosas sólo hay, como
aferrado a las entrañas hondas,
atroz infierno o insondable abismo.*
[To fly early tomorrow and no more
loose through the ethereal cloister
and flush with voracious fire and water
underneath the great delightful will
of one hundred thousand hidden particles
and from this finally knotless parcel
free of knavish liters,
meters, and kilograms,
for behind such things there is only, as if
fettered to the inmost guts,
atrocious hell or bottomless abyss.]
Perhaps this strophe is poorly chosen—it is not his most syntactically abstruse—but it does show that to interpret a text according to what its speaker says directly is the wrong path; in such a case, we would see this as an idealizing poetry, along Platonic and Christian lines. The ideologues of oppression, which Belli takes such pains to verbally configure, are quite capable of exploiting the rudimentary myth of the eternal values of the spirit and the value of the other life—in the case, for example, of justifying the death penalty. I am writing in Chile.
Belli is a puzzling writer: he challenges readers of poetry on the right and on the left, who might wish to hem him within a spiritualist or crudely materialist ideology. The politics of his poetry—“to cling to the form that leaves,” and not an empty form—presupposes the bodily or material precarity of these scales of salvation. I would say his constant appeals to the beyond, more than proof of the existence of a celestial pole, that unreachable luster “where fatness begins” with its garments, rather points toward a hope achieved “in [his] head,” at a utopian pole: the desire without object of which Lacan spoke. The here—the benigh, as opposed to the beyond—in contrast to the heavens (“the ethereal cloister”): this is what the poet insistently delimits. A place constituted as the negative of the locus amoenus, the pleasant place, the paradisiac trope of the Golden Age; his is instead the lugar horrible, from which all aspirations and fulfillment—of the romantic variety, especially—are frustrated, as in La boda de la pluma y de la letra: the encounter of “the elegant, coveted letter” and “the black pen,” “both antipodes / on the horizon of the earthly world.”
The “horrible place” is the “bofedal”—the peatbog—of the Sextina El Bofedal: “…painful place / where the peat falls by the ton.” “Here the peatbog, place of peat / where life is no longer so, it is not day / but time claimed in advance of death.” The significance here is simply the path of the impossible, on which “the sputtering irremediable motor” “neither reverses nor advances.”
Some of Belli’s first poems ached with orphanhood and oppression, as poetry with an unequivocally social message would, or even political poetry itself. Like “a poor amanuensis of Peru,” the character of these verses finds himself clamped in “the trap of Lima,” a victim of “El Fisco” and other recognizable oppressors. He has not abandoned this subject: read “Usted bocaza” or “la faz ad hoc” from En alabanza…. This latter poem fits in with the historical-social motif of racial discrimination, but it is nonetheless in the theology and, I believe, in the very language of his poetry where Belli makes the speaker speak and suffer his insufficiency and the “atrocious hell or bottomless abyss,” “a lesson for a life lived dreaming.”
How is it possible, then, to redeem Belli for the realist tradition that “takes up a good measure of Peruvian poetry”? In the words of Julio Ortega: “His work invalidates the rift between a realist poetry and another imaginary poetry”; “he invents a sort of traditional parlance, ironically learned and baroque, with which to capture and imagine reality.” Belli invents this traditional parlance by mixing antiquated phraseology with Peruvianisms, adhering to meter, to mythology, and to the icons of mannerism, into which he assimilates—anachronistically—the football pitch, “the antibiotic tablet,” or the honks of a bus “called ‘Long Live the Heavens!’” This parlance is born of the differential imitation of canonical models, and reveals the oppressor in the voice of the oppressed and the “triumph” of the oppressed who invents said voice, to find within it his identity.
The idea of differential imitation comes from Claude Gilbert Dubois, and is explained as “parody” or “hyperbolization of the masterly manner in an unexpected sense.” Structural (not historical) mannerism, which can be repeated in any era, is the response to a “weakness engendered by strong regimes and a runaway pursuit of identity.” The regime of the conquerors’ language is indeed—having been devised in an unexpected sense—a story of all the oppressions suffered by Hispano-American man, testifying to his tragic passage through history, from the conquest to caudillos and military dictatorships. Having made sense of the manner of writing, as much or more than what is written; having employed forms that fit; having encountered reality in the exploration of language and its invention, makes Belli a “realist” who practices—as José María Eguren, the great Peruvian symbolist poet, says himself—the abstentionism of everyday reality, “a sort of comprehensive aesthetic mysticism, with which he succeeds in saving himself from social recruitment, uncoupling himself from the materiality of days, and making of art the flesh of his flesh.”
Latin American political poetry has been, more often than not, rhetorical, success-obsessed, and also unrealistic, as the obstinate facts always rob it of reason. It has been propagandist and overly circumstantial. It has employed transparent, foreseeable, easily codified language. In Peru, César Vallejo wrote—from a pose of defeat and agony, and in favor of the republicans—his unforgettable and “dark” human poems. Now Belli, inventing the traditional parlance of the poor amanuensis of Peru, refined but with an elegance that knows how to fall short; learned but popular; almost impenetrable but rich in sense; Belli holds one of the keys—and not only in poetry—to the place where we find ourselves: to the perpetuation of our errors. In the Bofedal.
Translated by Arthur Malcolm Dixon