Antología inventada. Rafael Courtoisie. Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2020. 76 pages.
What a treat it would be to reach the grand summits of the heteronym (established by the Portuguese poet, the great Pessoa, outdone by no one). And the same summit in this language, in Spanish, whose names always seem to meld together into one: the “apocryphal” universe of Antonio Machado. The firmament laid by the Sevillian poet opened a fruitful door in the Latin American poetry of the twentieth century; raising our hand to pick the ripe fruit, we brush against the examples of Álvaro Mutis, Eugenio Montejo, and José Emilio Pacheco, among others. Not the poets themselves, but rather the “others” whom they invented and furnished with lives and bodies of work.
I offer this brief tally in order to add to it a very new case, at least in the scope of the pandemic twenty-first century thus far. I’m referring to an author, the Uruguayan poet Rafael Courtoisie, and to his most recent publication: the Antología inventada [Made-up anthology] (Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2020). Here, we come across a wide repertoire of poems, all “signed” by a different author. These authors include poets, fiction writers, critics, politicians, personalities, and artists who really lived, along with others whose existence cannot be corroborated. They differ in nationality and time period (some are from days past, some from the present, and some from centuries still to come). Reading these poems, I was impressed: they are inventive, creative, daring, metatextual, ludic, and unexpected. Thinking more clearly, it is not entirely correct to call this a case of the heteronym. Courtoisie acts as the compiler of a fictitious selection, put together as a sort of personal album or sampler, with intentions similar, differences aside, to those of the personal library of Borges (“a closed collection, chosen by himself”—that is, by the Argentine author himself, as is stated in the introductory text to that book of prologues).
I try to come up with well-known names for the reader’s perfect tense, and the only ones that come to me are names from other worlds, the metamorphous beings of the Marvel Universe: Mystique, Morph, and the Skrull. We find a similar case in the literary endeavor of Rafael Courtoisie: the intent to transform oneself, to copy the other, to be the other, to take his place. In the Marvel comics, the fictitious species of the Skrull does this almost perfectly, copying the appearance, the voice, and even the genetic code, while remaining unable to hack into the registers of colloquial speech of those they impersonate. Rafael tries to copy these ways: the ways of those authors who only exist because the poet himself wanted them to exist.
I have always thought it dangerous to adopt other voices. It is a very habitual problem—or, rather, technique—in the work of novelists and short story writers. They are experts at creating those other beings we conventionally call characters, and they have hundreds of pages in which to move them about, to inject them with a vitality that seeps through into the reader thanks to narrative atmospheres, dialogues, the landscapes described, and their direct interaction with other characters. But doing the same thing in poetry has, in my opinion, other connotations. In the first place, the poet would have to kill Narcissus, to shatter the mirror (or ignore the pond) in order to ensure the finished product is not simply some artful replica. The poet has at his disposal only a few verses in which to display the peculiarities of those who speak through the poems, a few lines that reflect not the biographical visions of the poet but rather the representation of the “made-up” character, or of the poet who supposedly speaks in the texts. Are these two differentiated lines of creativity, or a single path that forks along the way?
I’ll give an example, taking the chance to mention my own demonym: I’ll talk a little about the poem “IV. Místico” [IV. Mystic], signed by the Caracan poet María Luisa Bunge (1951). Breaking with the title, or going against its grain, the female poet speaks not of mysticism, but of the purest erotic impulse (the erotic impulse we read as a feminine eroticism). But there is one detail that cuts the thread, and that other Venezuelan readers will doubtless perceive as they approach this text. Let’s take a look at the first three verses: ““De rodillas, de rodillas / hubiera subido el Monte / Ávila si me lo pedías” [On my knees, on my knees / I would have climbed Monte / Ávila is you asked me]. Saying “Monte Ávila” represents a deliberate use of literary language, since in the day-to-day speech of Caracans and those who travel to Caracas, in general, it would be normal to say “Cerro El Ávila” (recall the great Ilan Chester and his anthemic song), or simply “El Ávila.” It is a vice among us readers, I know, to try to lay blame on the author, whether they be a man or a woman—which, of course, neither limits nor devalues the poem.
This book is an artefact of inventions. It works because the author delegates certain licenses to his characters, allowing them to move as poets or people who once lived (like Lao Tsu, Sylvia Plath, Alfonsina Storni, Ferreira Gullar, Bob Dylan, and Rubén Darío, who live still (like the discourteous Donald Trump), or who “will live” in the coming years or centuries (Juan Carlos Arens, Francisco Cántaro, Itzel Xochitzin, Françoise Bram, Zun Lien Lee). It is difficult, and somewhat fruitless, to trace styles, referents, influences. What I do notice, especially in those texts in which the Uruguayan poet combines verse and prose, is the presence of certain narrative works or contemporary writers of narrative. I have this impression again when I reread one of the last poems in the Antología inventada, the text “l. Apócrifo de Rafael Courtoisie: East rain, de Edward Hopper” [l. Apocryphal by Rafael Courtoisie: East rain, by Edward Hopper], as close as it comes to the beginning of a novel by César Aira, Los misterios de Rosario [The mysteries of Rosario]. They share the same strength of the narrative voice, the same frozen scenery in which both voices struggle (Courtoisie’s and Aira’s), and the same efficacy in displaying the tensions or vicissitudes of the characters who drift through wintery cities.
If we read with preconceptions (we readers live in the realm of preconceptions), we won’t realize that many of these poems grow from a parodic, grotesque root that extols or deforms or exacerbates the characters’ attributes and defects. We have, for example, the critical fragment by Tzvetan Todorov and the translation of a Biblical piece by Raymond Carver (and, with greater emphasis, the explanatory note found at the end of the text itself).
Courtoisie does not invent a heteronym for himself, to take the place of his own name on the book’s front cover; he continues to be himself, we think, and those who change or seem to change are the selected poems themselves. All of this is ambiguous, and I want to clarify it. The poet bases his work on a conscious, deliberate act. He doesn’t play just to play; rather, he plays with linguistic intentions. Two paths are laid out in this poetry, paths that intertwine and complement each other: the desire to concede to each heteronym a life of its own (an abrupt autobiography), and the effort to dust off and scrutinize the semantic bones of the words. For this reason, this Antología invisible lives up to its name. We believe there could be no other.
Translated by Arthur Malcolm Dixon
Néstor Mendoza (Mariara, Venezuela, 1985) earned his undergraduate degree in Education, specializing in Language and Literature, at the University of Carabobo. He has published three verse collections: Andamios [Scaffolds] (Equinoccio, Caracas, 2012), winner of the Fourth National University Literature Prize in 2011; Pasajero [Passenger] (Dcir Ediciones, Caracas, 2015), and Ojiva [Ogive] (El Taller Blanco Ediciones, Bogotá, 2019). He was a finalist in the First National Rafael Cadenas Young Poetry Contest in 2016. His poetic work has appeared in collections both inside and outside his home country. He is part of the editorial board of Poesía magazine and a frequent contributor to Latin American Literature Today. His poems have been translated to English, French, German, and Italian. He currently lives in Bogotá and forms part of the editorial team of El Taller Blanco Ediciones.
Arthur Malcolm Dixon is co-founder, lead translator, and Managing Editor of Latin American Literature Today. He has translated the novels Immigration: The Contest by Carlos Gámez Pérez and There Are Not So Many Stars by Isaí Moreno (Katakana Editores), as well as the verse collection Intensive Care by Arturo Gutiérrez Plaza (Alliteratïon). He also works as a community interpreter in Tulsa, Oklahoma and is a 2020-2021 Tulsa Artist Fellow.