(Juan Sánchez Peláez at his home in Caracas in 1979, by Vasco Szinetar)
One of the reasons I became a translator of Venezuelan literature into English is because I discovered the poetry of Juan Sánchez Peláez (Altagracia de Orituco, 1922 - Caracas, 2003). Sánchez Peláez published seven collections of poetry between 1951 and 1989 and had a profound influence on his contemporaries and several subsequent generations of writers in Venezuela. Although he was an International Writing Program Fellow at the University of Iowa in 1969 and lived in New York City in the early 1970s, Sánchez Peláez’s work remains unknown in the United States. I hope that in the near future my translations will lead American readers to Sánchez Peláez’s poetry.
In The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics: Fourth Edition (2012), the Venezuelan scholar Luis Miguel Isava devotes an entire paragraph to Sánchez Peláez in the entry for “Poetry of Venezuela”:
A herald of the Generación de los 60 (Generation of the 1960s), Juan Sánchez Peláez (1922-2003) is considered the most revolutionary, complex, and stimulating Venezuelan poet of the 20th c. His poetry bore some thematic resemblance to previous poets (José Antonio Ramos Sucre, Vicente Gerbasi), but distinguished itself by a revolutionary lang. that combined the grammatical transgressions of the avant-garde with a singular and tender intimacy, recognizable even in his first book Elena y los elementos (Elena and the Elements, 1951). The publication of his Animal de costumbre (The Usual Animal, 1959)—notably in the same year as the downfall of the dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez—marked the beginning of a new era of poetic experimentation. The Generación de los 60 enjoyed the newfound creative liberty enabled by Sánchez Peláez.
When Sánchez Peláez died, the only North American publication to mention the news was the Spanish-language El Nuevo Herald. The article was an essay by his close friend the Cuban poet Lorenzo García Vega (Jagüey Grande, 1926 - Miami, 2012). García Vega was the youngest member of the famous Orígenes group of poets, which included José Lezama Lima and Fina García Marruz. After García Vega left Cuba in the late 1960s, he lived in Caracas for a time before eventually settling in Miami or as he called it, Playa Albina.
I’d like to finish this week as guest author at the Best American Poetry blog with my translation of Lorenzo García Vega's appreciation of Juan Sánchez Peláez.
Thank you to Stacey Harwood for the invitation to participate in this blog and thank you, dear readers.
The One Who Threw Burning Grapes
Lorenzo García Vega, Miami, El Nuevo Herald, 26 January 2004
The one who threw burning grapes into hard bays? Who knew how to say it? Only a poet, of course, only my friend Juan Sánchez Peláez knew how. But because it ends up being painful for me to say he’s no longer here, I’ll take a leap that will lead me to a cinema from my youth. How’s this?
Some of us poets or men of letters, or whatever term one might use, who erupted onto the Latin American scene encompassed between the years 1940 and 1955, saw certain pathetic newsreels in the cinemas where a broadcaster with a “serious” voice explained what we were seeing: an atomic explosion over some Japanese cities. It was an entirely new Chapter in History (just like that, with capitals or with a capital voice, was how the newscaster said it) that was going to change everything, or take everything apart. This is how existential anguish became a daily occurrence. An existential anguish dyed with Surrealism’s good fires.
That’s exactly how it was. We made our entrance beneath an atomic explosion narrated by a newscaster and we hid ourselves, however we could, beneath Surrealism’s final shots. So that those of us who were young in those times—a few young people who had proposed among ourselves to hide beneath the metaphorical disorder of the avant-garde—, and who lived amid the isolation of an island, nourished ourselves in any way we could with what reached us from the outside world through the bookstores in Havana. And this, while on the mainland, in other words on the continent, a Venezuelan we didn’t know, Juan Sánchez Peláez, was making his way to Chile to gather the legacy of that Surrealist magazine, Mandrágora, where, according to a critic: “The Mandragoristas opened a path with elbow jabs, savagely breaking with everything; screams, improprieties, insults against the medium with no concern for good manners.” And this, so that afterwards, on a journey by velocipede, as Juan confessed in one of his poems, he ended up in that Paris where he met Péret, and where he assimilated such things as “the deep and long night of my age,” pointed out by Éluard.
It was an anguish, then, which arrived with an atomic explosion that, transformed into shadows of film, settled in the Havana neighborhood cinema we went to. Or it was a Surrealism with a night of astonishing harlequins, or with a scream that warned: Into the water with Apollinaire!, but where isolation was the only thing that existed. An isolation where the Surrealist automatism we tried to plunge into ended up being an empty gesture. A gesture that was merely surrounded by the solitude of an island where the surreal was seen out of the corner of an eye by a glance that, even in its best expression, Gongoresque, attained the quality of the Beautiful with a capital. In other words, the Beautiful with a Roman God, which couldn’t help being, with its lamentable connection to the ritualistic, the manifestation of the cassock and the cathedral.
And, how sad then!, as we walked out of those cinemas where the atomic bomb exploded, that we young people, who lived surrounded by water on all sides, couldn’t fully connect with the great Latin American Surrealist shadows who wandered on the mainland: César Moro, Enrique Molina, or Emilio Adolfo Westphalen, or…
In the end, many things had to occur and, among these, departing the island in a stampede, so as to be able to encounter, after a few years, the surrealist, friend and contemporary, Juan Sánchez Peláez, whom we should have encountered sooner, much sooner. But, finally…We were destined to meet, and the Laws of Cosmic Necessity (laws that could have been dictated by that Gurdief that Juan was reading the last time I saw him) led the poet Octavio Armand to put me in contact with Juan (and, of course, with his companion Malena), during a New York night in the 1970s.
And who was Juan, the Venezuelan poet born in 1922 in Altagracia de Orituco, in the sate of Guárico, and who died in Caracas last November? Who was that Juan, with a turtleneck and Picassian eyes, whom I met one night in New York? Well, looking through a window now in January, through a window that, I don’t know how, puts me in direct contact with the old gold – alchemical? – of a light, this, with nothing else whatsoever but to face the weight of his absence. My friend the poet, who knew how to define himself so well in this manner: “And I know of my limits / I possess a dwelling, my dwelling is / the irony, / a living owl, no / embalmed / the owl that's in the well of the / moon / at the very lonely first hour of / dawn.”
Or I remember once, when emerging from the room that was in the hallucinatory patio of his house in the Altamira neighborhood of Caracas, Juan arrived on the terrace were I sat to say to me suddenly, but not emphatically: “The words sound like gold animals.” And then—I can guarantee it happened this way – I hallucinated when I heard Juan say those words, since, in a way I wouldn’t know how to explain now, I understood what my poet friend was saying was not one of his verses, but just that, gold animals, which he seemed to know how to weigh in his hands, while he spied on the brilliance as though he were a child.
Or Juan, how would I know how to say it?, with his deafness, in his slow, very slow walks that he took, where he was like a Zen figure whose cane, which in actuality he never used, had just been taken away. Very slow walks, I repeat. And above all I remember one, paradigmatic, which we took around the Paseo de los Chorros in Caracas, and where I thought to say to Juan that at any moment we could very well come across an apparition of José Antonio Ramos Sucre, that Venezuelan poet so close to us, arm in arm with Empress Charlotte. I thought to say this to him, and my friend Juan, poet without a cane, advanced a few steps, as he tended to do during his walks; and he backed up one step, as he immediately tended to do; and this so as to, as always, conclude by opening his eyes, or covering his mouth, just like a gracious character in a silent film who knew how to say it all without having to use a single sound. Although, yes, a silent character, who in certain moments knew how to sing “Júrame” for us, that song composed by María Greber in 1926, which he loved so much (“I’m certain – he once told me – if the old Surrealists had heard it, it would have been one of their favorite songs”).
Or Juan, at the end, who knew like no one else how to evoke César Moro, a figure Latin American Surrealism can identify with, and he did this with words that can also serve to say goodbye to him in this brief essay:
César Moro, beautiful and humbled,
playing a harp in the outskirts of Lima
said to me: come into my house, poet
always ask for air, clear sky
because we have to die some day, it’s understood
we have to be born, and you are already dead
the floor will always be here, wide and mute
but dying from the same family is to have been born.
(Juan Sánchez Peláez, “Air On the Air: III”)