Lima: Peisa & Instituto Nicaragüense de Cultura, 2022. 61 pages.
In recent Peruvian poetry, there are few verse collections written as smartly and sensitively as Un reloj derramado en el desierto, which won the 2020 Rubén Darío International Poetry Prize, awarded by the Instituto Nicaragüense de Cultura. Paintings inspire Alejandro Susti’s work, and in his poems, metaphors traveling between the sonorous (the verses evidence an accomplished musicality) and the visual abound. Charles Baudelaire said that a poetic text could be a commentary on a painting; that is, a form of creative criticism differing from a mathematical critique that tries to explain everything, as evidenced in The Flowers of Evil. This is the tradition of ekphrasis, in which the poem enters into a rich dialogue with the canvas. Not in vain did Octavio Paz, heir to Baudelaire, stress that modern literature uses the sharp dart of criticism.
The two opening poems of Un reloj derramado en el desierto are a tribute to pictorial art. In “Visit to the Museum” we read: “To look is to forget names/ to tear the aged gold of color/ to look is a rumor of silks/ that know not of the explosion of light.” “Pintura” celebrates the petrified (or motionless) images in a painting, while the poet evokes windmills (associated with the Knight of the Sorrowful Figure) and life as theater, an idea dear to baroque aesthetics.
All of Susti’s texts reveal meticulous research. Characters populate a canvas, their familiar relationships branching out. In addition, the poet carefully reviews specialized criticism on paintings. For example, “Gioconda” bears an epigraph by Leonardo da Vinci (“La pittura è cosa mentale”), which (as Guillermo Sucre pointed out) is a precursor to Vicente Huidobro’s idea that “True vigor/ resides in the head.” Susti penetrates the labyrinths of Mona Lisa’s life: Francesco, the bourgeois husband; the Arno River; Florence; and Trasimeno, the lake. Nominalization plays a pivotal role, as it allows the poet to enter into what he unambiguously calls “the map of time,” which remains unchanged in Leonardo’s masterful painting.
“UN RELOJ DERRAMADO EN EL DESIERTO IS A VALUABLE COLLECTION OF POEMS FOR SEVERAL REASONS. IT BOASTS RIGOROUS THEMATIC AND FORMAL UNITY. LIKEWISE, IT EMPLOYS AN ENDLESS SERIES OF INTERTEXTUALITIES”
Another noteworthy poem is “Las Meninas,” in which the baroque painter Diego de Velázquez depicts the Infanta Margarita, who dies very young. There is a recurring play between light and darkness, as “the gloom of the palace” contrasts with “the luminous necklace/ the wake of a promiscuous light/ that enters the enclosure.” Once again, the artist’s mastery seems to triumph in the face of death, as Velázquez has managed to visually conceive of a fictional character who overcomes time. Susti gives prominence to “the painter’s hand that rises” and that, metaphorically, is more important than the nobility of kings. The misfortune of dying young does not matter as much if a genius painter captures the Infanta’s gesture for posterity.
The interesting thing about Un reloj derramado en el desierto is the way the poet navigates through different periods of time, building a sort of history of civilization based on a present marked by a demystifying perspective. “History”—as Jacques Lacan used to say— “is not the past. History is the past historicized in the present, historicized in the present because it has been lived in the past.” A case in point is “Olympia,” a poem inspired by Édouard Manet’s painting, which brings the French artist’s work into dialogue with Titian’s “Venus of Urbino.” The Greek goddess, in Manet’s oil painting, becomes a prostitute. This recalls “To One Who Is Too Gay,” a poem by Baudelaire whose main protagonist is a prostitute. In addition, we might think of “Venus Anadiomena” by Arthur Rimbaud, which depicts the image of Venus coming out of a bathtub, manifesting incredible ugliness. In this sense, Susti draws from several sources and seeks to demystify Titian through the metonymic game of contiguity: he juxtaposes the work of the Italian Renaissance painter with that of Manet through the mention of the grotesque, so dear to Victor Hugo in the prologue to Cromwell (1827), itself an expression of modern aesthetics.
Not all the paintings evoked by Susti are the work of European painters. Latin American artists are present as well. In “Paisaje infinito de la costa del Perú” by Jorge Eduardo Eielson, the poet and author of Habitación en Roma becomes a character, (the “I”) who speaks with the landscape (the “you”). A dialogic perspective ensues as Susti reflects on the origin and water as an element both present and absent. We find a subtle allusion to Reinos, a remarkable book of poetry by Eielson, in the reconstruction of a marine horizon: “Infinite landscape of the coast/ map of the foam that separates kingdoms.” Here, the desert seems to suggest the failed construction of cultural identity on the coast of Peru: “I was born under your sign/ I covered the remains of your ancient race/ and left the mark that was later erased/ by the desert.”
Un reloj derramado en el desierto is a valuable collection of poems for several reasons. It boasts rigorous thematic and formal unity. Likewise, it employs an endless series of intertextualities: the poem and the painting; the character’s biography and its representation in a fictional work; a canvas from a particular era and another from a different time; the work of an art critic in relation to the painting evoked in a poem, among other possibilities. Thus, something that is mentioned by a female character in the poem “Self-Portrait on Her Sixth Anniversary” becomes important: “I paint/ so I may be born and die alone/ the artist who I am and always will be/ emerged like the tree/ that no longer perishes on the canvas.”
Translated by Christian Arista