Bilingual edition, translation by John Burns. Monona, USA: Ediciones Norteadas. 2023. 249 pages.
In January 1970, a publication called “Hora Zero. Materiales para una nueva época” (“Zero Hour: Tools for a New Era”) shook what was then known as the foundation of Peruvian poetry to its core. In effect, the original manifesto, titled “Palabras urgentes” (“Urgent Words”), radically questioned all of Peruvian poetry prior to the rise of that generation, from then on known as Generation 70. That manifesto, signed by Jorge Pimentel and Juan Ramírez Ruíz, dismissed all Peruvian poetry prior to “Hora Zero” as emerging poetic forms (they spared only César Vallejo and the guerilla poet Javier Heraud), proposing a new and revolutionary form: integral poetry.
By that time, Lima had ceased to be a small colonial Spanish villa, instead becoming a monstrous urban center populated by millions who originated almost entirely from the Andean migratory avalanche that transformed the old viceregal mansions and republics in the center of the city, spilling out over the urban limits into the city’s periphery. That is the new Lima to which the integral poems of Hora Zero sought to respond: a Reality that—according to their critical point of view—didn’t exist in previous Peruvian poetry, subsequently labeled emerging poetic forms. Said Reality manifests in the emblematic books of those initial horazeriano authors: En los extramuros del mundo (1971) by Enrique Verástegui, Un par de vueltas por la realidad (1971) by Juan Ramírez Ruíz, and Kenacort y valium 10 (1970) by Jorge Pimentel.
For our purposes, after the testimonial realism—of radical conversationalism—that Pimentel exhibits in his first book, he moved on to a more chiseled poetic elaboration: this was Ave Soul, originally published in Madrid by Colección El Rinoceronte in 1973. Now we have before us the definitive version of this collection, reorganized by its author and translated into English—in an excellent interpretation—by John Burns. It consists of six sections and one epilogue. The first section reproduces, almost in its totality, the original Spanish edition of Ave Soul, and it includes two poems that were excluded in 1973: “Rimbaud in Blue Powders” which first appeared in the magazine Eros # 1 in 1973; and “Stony Road,” published in the magazine Posdata # 1 in 1974. These are two very significant poems. The first stages an imaginary visit of the genie from A Season in Hell to Lima (on the exact street that appears in the title), where we see him, as we might expect, “handing out flyers / in support of teachers’ / strike and in a pitiful march of shoe / workers from / El Diamante and Moraveco Inc.” It’s interesting to note that the firm Moraveco S.A. was one of the leading companies in the reform process known as the Velasco Revolution in Peru, circa 1970, in its aim to consolidate a national bourgeoisie, though here the inherent conflicting interests within that process are made clear.
“AVE SOUL, IN REMARKABLE HARMONY WITH CONTEMPORARY LATIN AMERICAN LYRIC, IS AN ELEVATED SONG IN DEFENSE OF POETRY—AND OF THE HUMAN CONDITION—IN THE FACE OF A DECAYING WORLD”
The other poem exhibits exactly the contradictions and difficulties that the poet confronts: “Stony road you rise up before my life I don’t know / what to do without you you’re part of the snowbreaks of the / abysses”; we can observe something similar in “Ballad for a Horse” (one of the most beautiful texts in Latin American poetry), in which we read: “I trot and everyone tries / to fence me in, they throw stones at me, they throw ropes / around my neck, ropes around my legs, they set up / all sort of traps”; but the poet ultimately prevails, as is clear in “The Ballad of Unending Lightning”: “comprehend that these moments we are living are blessed struggling / loving each other / building our unbreakable being.” Notably, near the end of this first section, we find “The Lament of the Sergeant of Aguas Verdes,” a remarkable poem of witness in which the poet cedes the voice and words to the character recounting his dramatic life of abandonment, misfortune, and oppression (like many millions of Peruvians), forming a poignant and moving impression of a profound poetic dimension. I’d also like to draw attention to a pair of poems in this first section: “The Ballad of Alain and Maria” and “Blowgun,” both tributes to what we could call “hippie ideology”—very much in the spirit of the era—which, in a way, allow Ave Soul to approach Contra Natura by Rodolfo Hinostroza.
The second part of the book, composed solely of the poem “Scarlett City Dog,” approximates “Ballad for a Horse” in terms of its identification with the animal kingdom, and is followed by a third section (“Sistrum”). This section is upheld by six fragments united under the name “Castaway,” whose verbal pillar constitutes a steadfast defense of creation and poetic being, which could be read as a conclusive response to the attempts of the system to enclose and/or ensnare the creator (even with trickery), as we see in the lines quoted above. The fourth and fifth parts function in this same mode, putting the element of love—an unconventional ingredient—up against an urban despair that far exceeds city limits: “And I saw my shadow / bursting with listless and sluggish life / on the walls of this city like / a brutal and undying memory,” read the final lines of “Scenes from a Painting by N. Poussin L’inspiration du poete.”
The book concludes with “14 Brief Installments of Love and Uprooting for a Wandering Musician with Guitar / Ballad.” Composed of fragments that address the abandonment of a city, such as Lima or Madrid, at an existential junction, this sixth part is resolved through emotion; this is made apparent in the “Epilogue” with the poem “Dulzaina”: “And we will walk love / taking care of your sleep your warmth / in the whiteness of a Japanese plum.” Incidentally, the 14 Installments have been musicalized by a young rock band in present-day Lima. In sum, Ave Soul, in remarkable harmony with contemporary Latin American lyric, is an elevated song in defense of poetry—and of the human condition—in the face of a decaying world, like that of the savage capitalism of our time.
Translated by Rachel Whalen