Estrategias de combate. E.S. Ortiz González. San Juan: Instituto de Cultura. 2017. 80 pages.
Poems of internal tension that do not let go of the reader. Poems about violence and poems about tenderness. Poems that account for a personal and international era of annihilation. Poems that echo —and are marked from their inception by— the embodied philosophy of the combatant. Poems about the defeated soldier: the one that awaits death without flinching. Poems cloaked in the Greek mythological ethos of the warrior who does not stop waging war and dies with honor. Poems that are also about parental fear and silence: the tremor in the father’s eyes as he keeps his struggles secret from his infant son. Poems that are manifested as pointed images and, in their compilation, agglomeration, and reiteration, function as the imaginary screenplay of an acheronian movie about samurais, bandits, or mercenaries within an apocalyptic vision of History.
In Estrategias de combate (San Juan: Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña, 2017) E. S. Ortiz-González forges poems that are brilliant and precise. Poems so ephemeral that they dissolve at the jagged edge of the poetic speaker’s voice. The suffering poetic voice wills itself —in silence— towards personal annihilation. Simultaneously, he (as the poetic voice is masculine) is constrained by his son’s presence, which makes him postpone self-inflicted horrors just so that his son maintains a sense of hope, wonder, and beauty in the world. Ortiz-González’s poems are succinct. Every single one of their words has a purpose inside the structure of the poem. His brief poems are about secret harms, responsibility, and the assumed duty of the poet/warrior. In the very brief “Al final del acero…”, for example, a set of Levinian couplings take shape. The sword’s blade (la hoja de la espada) and the tree leaf (la hoja del árbol) gash and wound, and start the aging and death processes:
una gota de sangre.
Hoja que al árbol
The fourth line of the poem is striking. It becomes the central axis and threshold between two conceptual planes that become metaphorically integrated through it. The parallels between the two parts of the poem configure a type of mental combat that imbues the poem with depth and tension. “Caer” becomes ambiguous and serves as an indicative statement, an exhortation, and a command that describes and encloses a surgical overlap of images. Who or what falls? Who or what has to fall? The persona that mirrors himself in the poem as an enemy within?
Ortiz-González’s ars poetica is obviously martial. It is the poetic incorporation of hand-to-hand combat as mental battlefield or as a barren, post-war territory. The poems included in Estrategias de combate are short, premeditated jabs, concise, that hit the reader/opponent square in the chin, makes them collapse, but do not knock them out. The poet’s strategy is to battle the blank page. His combats are always personal even when they refer to Nagasaki, Berlin or Auschwitz. The poems are also referential winks to Kant, Heidegger and a Western philosophical tradition as red by the poet. The book is traversed by what may be assumed as an orientalist aesthetics, although Ortiz-González craft is indebted more to the works of Borges and Georges Bataille than to medieval Japanese poets. Estrategias de combate is permeated by testosterone, what is silenced and what is not said, and an atmosphere of assumed, all-encompassing ruin. The gesture towards failure in the poems follows mechanisms that the poet successfully created to bind poetry and defeat. The mechanism of brevity and philosophical war-waging underscore the book’s artesanal character.
The internal distribution of the poems and the need to link each of them show great care and concern about the book as a reading project. The table of contents gives us clues about certain reading strategies advocated by the poet. It becomes a directional map: each section of the book should be read as a whole from start to finish. The book is divided into three interdependent sections: “Desplazamiento. Meditaciones del ronïn Hiroshi Akatagawa”, “II, I. Desplazamiento. Penumbra” and “III, I. Envío. Segundo Puente”. It is important to note that these sections are preceded by “Plataforma. Investiduras” which is in itself a declaration of martial and aesthetic purposes. Here starts the extended metaphor of the poet as samurai and later in the book as soldier, western bandit, and mercenary. The reader should also note that the second section of the book includes a sort of sub-section that links it to the next: “Envío. Primer puente”.
Ortiz-González writes poems about provocation. It starts with the titles of the poems. The poems in the second section, “Desplazamiento. Penumbra”, are named after objects (that after reading become abject), dates, and sites of the Nazi Horror during the Second World War as “lieux de memoire.” The titles push the poetic voice towards a poetic and aesthetic overturning of violence, ruin, and the act of writing. The poetic persona seeks to situate itself amidst the horror and an aesthetic drive to showcase the warrior’s paradox: The joy of combat as an acceptance of death.
The poems bridges violence and excess as a means to drive the poetic voice towards a blurred destination: the spectral figure of his own father. In “Cocaine”, the fortuitous encounter with drug paraphernalia turn the posthumous discovery into a muted evocative object:
entre las cosas
después de muerto.
The poems serves to recall the unspoken secrets of the poetic persona’s father and the lack of awareness of the son. It should not surprise the reader that the poem that precedes this one is a portrait of the poetic voice as child. “Cuando pequeño…”, is divided into three numbered sections. It ends with the possibility of the shared death of the father and the son who could have been between 10 and 15. Here the couplings constitute forms of nostalgia and the dissolution of active time. They also function as warning.
In “Juego con mi hijo…” (which, for the sake of brevity, I will not quote) contained in the book’s last section, the poetic voice realizes its own monstrosity and fears his own child’s power for poetic speech. The children’s game that gives way to the poem reveals the father’s fear and the aesthetic potentialities of violence as both wound and scar. There is also another layer to the short text: an intertextual reference to one of Homer’s epic poems.
There is also a contradictory use of violent images to highlight tenderness towards the son. “Bookstore Driver” emphasizes the use of violence as a signifier of totality enclosing both book and the author’s warrior-driven ars poetica. The poem hides the poetic voice’s appetite for self-destruction (as what is not said) and engages the speaker in affective and ludic interactions with his son. The first two lines summarize the persona’s secret desire: “Hijo, te pido perdón / por lo que callo.” The possibility of suicide infects the reading of the poem until a breaking point: the desire to protect the child makes the poetic persona hide his base impulse to harm himself. The poem reveals the poet’s prefered strategy: to battle inner demons even when exhausted, when strength escapes him, when there is no will to continue to struggle. The book seems to return once and again to these dicta: there is no law but to always protect what is loved. That defeat is embodied in silence. That life is worth sacrificing for the one you love.
Ortiz-González serves as a milestone in Puerto Rican letters. Estrategias de combate is an expression of metatextual experimentation, the possibility of an active aestheticization of pain, violence or self-harm, and the capacity of redemption through loving a son. And poetry.
Ángel Díaz Miranda