Primavera Indiana. Juan Vitulli. Buenos Aires: Tren instantáneo. 2020. 84 pages.
Primavera Indiana [Indian spring] (2020) is the first poetry collection by Juan Vitulli. While spring is commonly associated with an aura of youth and the emergence of life, bounding, playful, free of antagonisms, the spring climate is not this collection’s central motif. There is, rather, something autumnal at its heart—cold, white, though not of winter. In Vitulli’s poetry we find a network of contrasts; an observer at once apart from and immersed in the events described. Examples of this contrast can be found in the very first poem, “Daisy Chains”, which perfectly captures the overall tone of the collection. “Se eligen siempre las flores / con más vida” [We always choose the flowers / with most life], we read, at the start of the poem. These lines may seem life-affirming, but as they unfold, contrasting images intrude. The poem’s title alludes to a symbol of connectedness, the linking of lives, those with most energy, “with most life”. But this affirmative act involves a painful, even violent process. Linking these lives together means “aplastar el tallo / contra la mesa” [squashing the stem / against the table], but “sin romperlo del todo” [without breaking it entirely]. This process does harm to the life chosen, but then vitality is itself wounding; life’s journey may be coarse, but we could not feel it otherwise.
In The Psychical and Social Roots of Hate, the philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis refers to the rejection of “that which is not the self” as a condition of the human psyche. We find it hard to accept anything different to that which we ourselves have constructed, assimilated. Doing so is a painful process, one we try to avoid, although this pain also stems from an attempt to protect ourselves from harm. In the collection, the eventual outcome of these tensions, like the daisy chains, is one of union. But to reach their final form, they must first settle in the wind. There is a sense of unease, however, which seems to unsettle these newly embodied forms of life, warning us that the journey is not yet at its end. The closing lines of “Daisy Chains” present us with a final point of tension, as if the outcome of this painful journey were more anguished still.
The speaker in these poems is usually foreign. Yet there is one element that always accompanies him: loneliness. We sense this in the second poem, where the speaker recognises his own “otherness”.
qué hacía ahí
en ese patio de una universidad ajena,
en un país,
en otro país
casi también para él
[what was I doing there,
in the courtyard of a foreign university,
in a country,
in another country
for him too almost
The outcome of the journey that has made him a foreigner is him revealing himself, presenting his poetic voice to his “favourite poet”. The author does not let slip the motive for his trip, and searches for the “precise words” for his revelation. He searches for a form of truth that can be retained in the words of others, while his own more personal truth remains hidden, demonstrating the impossibility of revealing oneself through words. A second reading invites us to think that the poet he is revealing himself to is in fact himself, that he is speaking to himself, that he has travelled all this way in search of himself. His is a voice tired of articulating its own failure to find itself, a poetic voice “sin ánimo de escuela ni de mármol” [driven by neither school nor marble] ready to be born again. It might be said that he has recognised himself for what he is. Poetry has revealed his essence, but only in part: the subject remains hidden from us; he speaks of states, but we do not know what they are. The poetry, then, plays out this tension between the concealed and the revealed; that which appears hidden, and yet can be felt within its own language.
The foreignness and loneliness of the speaker are perhaps most notable in the poem “Zamboni”. Here, the author reiterates the idea of the speaker as both intruder and participant, a contrast between happiness and its inverse. His view fixes on the mundane, giving us new perspectives on his appreciation of life. It is the foreigner’s privilege to look with fresh eyes, bringing into view what has been rendered invisible to the inhabitants of a place through being looked upon so often. Thus, under the poet’s gaze, even ice takes on new meaning. In “Zamboni”, people skate happily on an ice rink, leaving trails behind them in the ice. For the person watching, the foreigner, which we are as readers, happiness leaves its marks, its scars, but every scar begins as a wound. We read:
van dejando marcas en la superficie,
secas señales sobre el hielo,
o heridas que cicatrizan al instante
[they leave their signs on the surface,
dry marks on the ice,
or wounds that scar in an instant]
In these lines, Vitulli draws together two opposites: the happiness of a walk in the park and sadness, two contrasting feelings, in a setting seemingly destined only for pleasure (an ice rink). However, these scars are erased to make way for new moments of happiness, which will in turn leave their own marks. Take the following scene:
Son, creemos, señales
que nos empeñamos
en leer, en buscarles
un sentido que, quizás de lejos,
tengan, pero que no se muestra
desde la oblicua
orilla en que miramos
[They are, we think, signs
that we insist
on reading, on scouring
for a meaning that might be seen
from afar, but not from here
on the sloping
As a foreigner, the speaker’s gaze is distinct, but not indifferent. So he searches for meaning in the ice rink, a canvass for memories, wiped clean and then ready to be filled once more. The ice, in this sense, is not an eternal or frozen sadness—life, after all, is an Indiana spring, its journey goes on.
This new collection by Vitulli cannot be reduced to a single theme, which is why I have instead discussed two of its recurrent motifs: contrasts interacting to create something new, and the speaker as foreign observer, which is at the same time the condition of the poet. The spring of this collection is a demystification of the monochrome, of the transparent, which, like Eliot’s cruellest month, reveals to us its darkest depths. Vitulli invites us to sink into his chiaroscuro world, a world inhabited by tensions, the essence of all poetry.
Martín Carrasco Peña
Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos
Translated by Robin Munby