Ojiva. Néstor Mendoza. Bogotá: El Taller Blanco Ediciones. 2019. 52 pages.
With its undeniably prophetic inflection and jarring symbols, this long-form poem will surprise (as in shock and awe) readers. The poet has positioned each piece of this delicate mechanism with a mathematician’s rigor. As is true with all poetry, Ojiva’s [Ogive] meaning, images, and form exceed a sole interpretation. Yet complex analysis isn’t necessary either, as the contours of this poem come into view rather intuitively. What follows are the brief words of an astonished reader.
I’m astonished, in particular, by the poem’s images. Unmistakable and exact, they appear in multiple and varied forms just as no reality has but one face; poetry’s true charge is to show multiple or at least its most intense. Struck by the poet’s tools for creating meaning and giving visible and audible form to this poem, I’ll note two I hear reading out loud or not. The first is a ceaseless persistence of form: the reappearance of the color white, the rounded nose of the missile (the ogive), and the drawn-out representation of its fall. Such determination triggers an urgency and fear.
As such, the tone of the poem divulges the poetic voice’s knowledge of its very end—a feeling of suspense narrated a posteriori—like a prophet after-the-fact. Indeed, prophets show a vision of the future they know has already happened (it’s no coincidence the Latin word for poet and prophet is one and the same). This urgency overwhelms the voice that already knows about the looming atrocity, desperately dealing with the impossibility of communicating this ultimate reality on time—the poet can’t save anyone from this future, he can simply settle for documenting the catastrophe. It seems a useless and ineffective prophecy, bound as we are to a linear conceptualization of time and our suspicions regarding fortunetelling. Instead, the poem’s purpose (if we accept the notion) is that found in the book of Ezequiel or Isaiah: to point out a colossal error, to lay blame and, why not, to call us to amend our ways.
The second controls the poem’s other components: its rhythm. An almost imperceptible progression toward an oncoming collision doles out its ultimate effects without drifting into any possible ramifications. There is but one endpoint, a continuous movement forward, a final inevitable missile-strike described from an undetermined dimension. Only through the poet’s notable command of the use of rhythm is such a lengthy description that doesn’t stop moving forward—not for a second—possible.
The color white and its multiple alternatives in the poem represent absence. What has been erased—what is no longer—appears in images from the houses robbed of their color, to the poem’s final ashes. White normally represents the color of light and purity or connotes some other positive value—but not in this poem. Each metaphor has been carefully weighed and measured to function without intrusions of this sort so that the color white in this poem (at times tenuously dyed in greens and other tones) instead becomes—as well as a sign of the poet’s precision—a vacuum.
No matter how one reads it, particularly for those among us who have been cultivating short and intimate poetry, this poem is unique. There is (if I’m allowed the overindulgence) an epic element interlaced among the others in the poem that, rather than eclipse its delicate lyricism, slips a touch of irony into a few brief audacious moments. I’ve never liked comparing poets—either to compliment or condemn—because each comparison does an injustice to one of the parties. However, this poem calls to mind Rafael Cadenas’ earliest poems—the only memorable ones, in my view. Not for their structure, metaphor, or themes, but for their essence of a prolonged and deeply felt elegy, at once quiet and alarming: obligatory reading (I could’ve mentioned Allen Ginsberg or Walt Whitman here as well).
In my review of Pasajero [Passenger], I lauded Néstor Mendoza as one of the most important voices in contemporary Venezuelan poetry. Ojiva utterly, and I’d say objectively for lack of a more appropriate word, corroborates that intuition.
When I first arrived to Valencia, Venezuela, more than forty years ago, I met the now deceased Eduardo Taborda, one of the many forgotten artists of this sometimes thankless city. Sitting in Plaza Sucre, with an enthusiasm only possible during adolescence, we sat and read Tanmatra and Elegos, by Pérez Só and Montejo, respectively. I remember the aesthetic impact and being profoundly moved reading these poets. And I think, thirty or forty years from now, in some plaza in our city (hoping there will still be a beautiful plaza in front of the university’s Law School), similarly curious adolescents will read this poem and will speak of this poet with the same naïve yet very real and very true admiration we had for them.
Translated by Barbara D. Riess
Guillermo Cerceau is an Argentine writer and speaker (San Luis, 1957). He has lived in Venezuela since 1973. His published novels include Sólo en cuanto mortales [Only while mortal] (Author’s Edition, 2002), También el humo tiene su forma [The smoke too has its shape] (Author’s Edition, 2000), Muere el elefante [The elephant dies] (Author’s Edition, 2007), Teoría de las despedidas [Theory of goodbyes] (University of Carabobo, 2007) and Oculta tu rostro [Hide your face] (Editorial El Perro y la Rana, 2009). He has published articles and reviews of books in Tiempo Universitario (University of Carabobo, UC) and Laberinto de Papel (UC), and has collaborated with Venezuelan social media.
Barbara D. Riess, Professor of Spanish at Allegheny College, curated and translated An Address in Habana / Domicilio habanero (a collection of short fiction by María Elena Llana) published by Cubanabooks and awarded the International Latino Book Award for Best Translation of Fiction (Spanish to English) in 2016. She received her PhD in Latin American Literature and Translation from Arizona State University in 1999 and has co-translated (with Trino Sandoval) the Chicano novels Puppet (2000) and Sanctuaries of the Heart (2004) by Margarita Cota-Cárdenas and was the translation editor for Postmodernity in the Periphery: Latin America Writes Back. An Interdisciplinary Cultural Focus. (2002). Other translations appear in Spain: A Traveler’s Literary Companion (2003), Cuba On the Edge (2007) and in Cuba Counterpoints (2017). Her research on Cuban women’s fiction has been published in Confluencia, Latin American Literary Review and Cuban Studies/Estudios Cubanos.