“The Cybernetic Fairy is offered to us as an emblematic figure of our times. We could not see her as such when we first read these poems more than fifty years ago, when the speaker invoked her as the re-founder of a longed-for human plenitude”
Ever since Carlos Germán Belli emerged into the panorama of Peruvian poetry, and following his work’s rapid circulation throughout Hispano-America in the late fifties and early sixties, we have borne witness to ever-growing interest from his readers and, along with it, the astonished attraction inflamed by his writing. The first notes to earn its esteem were its originality and rigor; then a finer-tuned perception led readers to follow certain descriptive or defining lines of this poetry: the happy alliance—so personally and effectively processed as to be almost always unexpected—between the legacy of Golden Age and baroque poetic tradition and the will to renewal and rupture of modernity. The poet fully grasped the manifestations of this modernity, whose epitome was the superrealist dictate, inciting the most resolute expressions of the principles and practices of creative freedom. There was room for much more in this latter dimension, of course, and Bellian poetry amply illustrates these varied dimensions.
The critical corpus on his writing is already of considerable length: books dedicated to the analysis and commentary of an unending body of work, numerous articles, notes, and reviews, appearing constantly in journals and periodicals, and anthologies published in various places all reveal the interest with which his poetry—singular and unique—has been and continues to be received.
As the record of this vast bibliography is within our reach, there is no need to review its most significant contributions: no reader of Hispano-American poetry is unaware of them. But it does seem fitting to recognize that the sketch of these characterizing lines of his work is also insinuated, as if in blueprint, in certain brief texts by the poet himself, such as “Asir la forma que se va,” “El pesapalabras,” and the introductory notes to El pie sobre el cuello, from 1967.
In this latter text, Javier Sologuren recognized a sort of “spiritual autobiography” of Carlos Germán Belli. I believe this is a fair estimation, especially in relation to the aforementioned notes of alliance between tradition and modernity manifested in his poetry, based on his conception of art in general as “experience, adventure, and pursuit,” notions he aptly clarifies in the following explanation:
I try to make myself the master of a timeless syntax, which is not of this time, based on hyperbaton and ellipsis, like the one flaunted by Góngora, Medrano, and Carrillo y Sotomayor. I purposefully inflect my lexicon with archaisms or poetic voices now in disuse… In brief, I am reaching for an apparently involuntary consolidation of contrasts; and, without realizing it, I believe I have interlocked in my verses something of tradition and something of revolution.
These notes precisely describe a goal achieved with extraordinary lucidity, despite observing that he has reached this achievement “without realizing it.” Truly, it is not unusual for aesthetic discoveries to be made in mysterious ways and, for this reason, to be foreign to calculated, conscious designs. It is enough for the underlying conception that forms their foundation to be built of deeply-held conviction, like that made manifest by Carlos Germán Belli as “experience, adventure, and pursuit.”
“THIS CREATIVE BOLDNESS, WHICH IS HIS MARKER AND HIS LOT, ALLOWS BELLI TO EMBRACE THE MOST DIVERSE OF MATTERS, THEMES, AND POETIC FIGURATIONS, OMITTING OR SETTING ASIDE NONE OF WHAT COMES TO HIS SENSIBILITY AND IMAGINATION AS PROPER TO HUMAN REALITY”
In another of his reflections, the indispensable “El pesapalabras,” we find an invisible mental instrument born of what he calls “the good news of the Pese-Nerfs” of Antonin Artaud, published in 1927, in curious coincidence with the year of our poet’s birth—an instrument conceived of by Artaud as “making patent the unsayable and unleashing the liberation of the human spirit.” This imagined pesapalabras, this word-scale, suggested to Belli that writing is, as he says, “like weighing every sound, every sense.”
These are very powerful suggestions; they allow us to imagine a tapestry containing both “the liberating unsayable” and anticipations of the most diverse order, like the one composing one of Belli’s most singular and boldest poetic configurations—that of ¡Oh Hada Cibernética!—as a fantastical manifestation we might understand as embodying the powers that characterize and govern our age. I have always been astonished by this occurrence, which can be read early on in a poem with that very title, “Oh Hada Cibernética,” published in the chapbook Dentro & fuera in 1960:
Oh Hada Cibernética
cuándo harás que los huesos de mis manos
se muevan alegremente
para escribir al fin lo que yo desee
a la hora que me venga en gana
y los encajes de mis órganos secretos
tengan facciones sosegadas
en las últimas horas del día
mientras la sangre circule como un bálsamo a lo largo de mi cuerpo.
[Oh Cybernetic Fairy
when will you fix it so that the bones of my hands
to write at last what I desire
whenever it should please me to do so
and the casings of my secret organs
have smooth and peaceful features
in the final hours of the day
while blood circulates like a balm through the length of my body.
(tr. Rose Shapiro)]
I believe it is important to pause over these verses, in which Belli’s speaker asks his most modern of muses to grant him, someday, the faculty of moving his hands “joyfully / to finally write whatever I desire / whenever the mood should strike,” because they announce the revolutionary practice of automation that came, as is indicated in studies of these matters, “hand in hand with personal computers only in 1980.”
The year after the publication of Dentro & fuera, in 1961, ¡Oh Hada Cibernética! appeared, endowed with new powers, giving rise to a fundamental current in what we might call poetic “science fiction.” While, in the old literatures, the fairy was a fantastic concretion with the figure of a woman, possessing magical powers capable of bending reality towards the fortunate or the malignant, Belli’s “Cybernetic Fairy” unfurls as a characteristic image of our own age, the cybernetic age, open to cyberspace and inhabited by the cybernauts whom all of us—or almost all of us—cannot help but personify. This is, I believe, one of the most innovative and significant contents of Carlos Germán Belli’s poetic world, in its anticipation of what is now entirely everyday and familiar: the Cybernetic Fairy is offered to us as an emblematic figure of our times. We could not see her as such when we first read these poems more than fifty years ago, when the speaker invoked her as the re-founder of a longed-for human plenitude.
At first, such poems—like many others from his books published in the sixties—came to readers as bold and singular juxtapositions of devaluation alongside the implicit or manifest pursuit of essential values: an ever-illuminating juxtaposition in this poetry, whose significant reach we can appreciate ever better as characteristic of an age. In the sphere of rejected reality or devaluations, it is enough to recall verses and sequences as memorable as those I will briefly cite below, although they are found in various different poems: “How much less existence over time! / …as in every lineage / decadence asserts its dominion / at fault of private property, / which I watch and abhor”; or the petition: “free us / from the horrid human function”; or “In this valley of endable dung / I see I am the rearguard”; or the intense poem “Cepo de Lima.”
Decadence, horrid functions, dung, traps, voices of a series of signs judged as the same or of a similar sort; and their opposites—the desiderata, spoken or implied—mark Belli’s work with a greater sign of creative boldness, which as I see and read it has no antecedent in modern Hispanic poetry besides that of César Vallejo.
This creative boldness, which is his marker and his lot, allows Belli to embrace the most diverse of matters, themes, and poetic figurations, omitting or setting aside none of what comes to his sensibility and imagination as proper to human reality, in an attitude I think could be represented not only as that of a “hindmost Adam” (as it was called in an early poem from 1958), but also as that of an original Adam naming what must be named with no fear of dissonance, of the rupture of established speech, animated only by his will to “take hold of the leaving form,” with everything this formulation implies.
A record and account of the repertoire of themes and subjects of Bellian poetry has been undertaken on several occasions. Roberto Paoli, for example, has laid them out, emphasizing the linguistic aspect. He mentions Belli’s recurrence to technological, chemical, and industrial terminology: robot, cybernetic, hydraulic, supersonic, plexiglass, cellophane, vitamins, antibiotics, and other specialized lexica like that of anatomy and physiology (bolus, gland, umbilical cord, subcutaneous), that of cuisine (meatballs, tortilla), that of economics and administration, etc.
Along with the other anatomical and physiological terms mentioned above, we must add “bofes” (“coughs” or “heaves” but also the characteristic geographical feature of Andean peat bogs) and their all-encompassing derivative “El Bofedal,” his pointed representation of the real world of injustices, oppressions, and outrages. There are, of course, other voices in this lexicon that express the unexpected and singular thematic spectrum of Belli’s poetry. It is tempting to pause and map them out entirely, but my purpose here is simply to stress their novelty, now recognized and celebrated by all.
I cannot emphasize enough Carlos Germán Belli’s skill at the practice of expressive and thematic movement, which is illustrative of my points thus far. Notable in his poetry is the importance of the praise of the alimentary bolus, which, while seemingly an apoetic element of a physiological process, in his poetry awakens questions and celebrations as an essential requisite of life and death. The subject debuts in ¡Oh Hada Cibernética! (1961-1962), reappears in Por el monte abajo (1966), is expanded upon as praise in the 1979 volume, and is invoked again in “La canción inculta,” from 1982. It is fascinating to study this practice of thematic shifts and references as a sort of migration, opening up various spaces in its passage from poem to poem.
By way of conclusion, I should like to mention the experience and expression of the marginal, which is a constant in Belli’s writing. This thematic concern, while not novel in literature (this constant is profoundly related to manifestations of solitude and noncommunication), is novel in the case of Carlos Germán Belli in the particularity of its treatment. In his poems, this experience points toward not only the absolute exile of the human condition, but also the individual’s own reality in his social and community bonds: those at the margins are foreign or feel separate from their community because this community rejects them or isolates them, one way or another; they are thereby oppressed, mistreated, or negated. Such is the “amanuensis,” an iconic presence that moves through these poems, or the artist whose efforts are misunderstood, minimized, and finally condemned to oblivion, as in the case of the masterful poem “Al pintor Giovanni Donato da Montorfano (1440-1510).” In the configuration of these marginal characters we see the other central valence of Belli’s poetry: the novelty of his approach to this theme and the admirable precision with which he makes it manifest.