Poemas / Poems
translation and edition by Monica de la Torre
Ditoria /Lost Roads Publishers ($12.50)
by John Olson
To state the truth bluntly is to blunt the truth. This is why spiritual insights are best arrived at obliquely, via koan and parable, so that we may reach enlightenment through our own imaginative efforts. Juan Almela may not agree with this, nor may his pseudonym, the poet Gerardo Deniz, the name (derived from the Turkish word for sea) under which Almela writes his poetry, but the poems in this collection are quintessentially parabolic. They rattle with hidden meaning like Duchamp's "assisted readymade" À Bruit Secret (With Hidden Noise), the ball of twine sandwiched between two brass plates into which Walter Arensberg placed a small unknown object.
Take "Piel de Tigre" ("Tiger Skin") for instance, one of the shorter poems in the book; every line is as rich in meaning as an artery is with blood. But unlike blood, which is phenomenally warm and candid in nature, the lines informing the "lay" of "Tiger Skin" are tantalizingly oblique:
An island three steps
its left claws browned by the blaze of the fireplace,
now fearless of the torch brandished by Man, and he striped you with art:
he knows about symbolic forms; you know nothing--
"Torch brandished by Man" suggests a Promethean ardor for knowledge, while "brandish"--the Spanish verb is blande--is redolent with aggression and arrogance, which is amplified in the next line: "he knows about symbolic forms, you know nothing--." The tiger, ironically, has not only been rendered lifeless and decorative in front of a fireplace, but its vanquisher, humanity, has also invested it with meaning, "striped it with art." The convolutions here are dizzying. These are the kind of knots Deniz ties into his language, a language as erudite as anything by the modernists--Pound, Eliott, Joyce--and as vivid as the romantic painters, Blake, Delacroix, Goya.
Deniz shares a great deal with Goya, in fact. Both are Spanish, both evince a flair for the grotesque, both are simultaneously acerbic and droll. Goya's Caprichos ("Caprices"), with their dual absorption in the grotesque and supernatural, in philosophy and the warts and vividness of real life, have much in common with Deniz' poetry. "Act," one of the longer poems in the collection and included in the third section of the book, "20,000 Places Under Our Mothers" (an allusion to Jules Verne's Vingt Mille Lieues sous les mers), begins "With much noise" (Con tanto ruido) as Captain Nemo goes "riding down the hallway on a rundown Dionysian cart pulled by bidimensional / panthers. / He was announcing things: / --Indian summer! / and tossing out explosives." This combination of literary allusion, grotesquerie, violence and comedy so characteristic of Deniz' poetry echoes the same uneasiness and humor of Goya's Caprichos. Like Goya, Deniz shares the same low view of those in authority, a disrespect he best illustrates in his odd, iconoclastic images. Captain Nemo--the Victorian romantic genius nonpareil who has taken to the high seas with a vow never to step on land because of his revulsion for war-mongering humanity--is the perfect caricature for Deniz' more contemporary caprichos. "Careful--they warned him--you are mortal," "Act" continues, "Remember Salmoneus--the humanists, of course." Salmoneus, king of Elis and son of the wind god Aeolus, was himself a mortal who presumed to vie with Jupiter; he built a bridge of brass over which he drove his chariot that the sound might resemble thunder, throwing torches to imitate lightning, until Jupiter struck him down with a real thunderbolt. The parallel to Captain Nemo, of course, is astoundingly apt, right down to the metal of the submarine through which "a rundown Dionysian cart" would rumble.
The allusions, erudition and wit of Gerado Deniz' Poemas are so global, and contain such a wide-ranging breadth of cultural experience (a few poems are based on Celtic mythology), one might forget these poems were originally written in Spanish, and thus forget to view the world through an Hispanic--not an English--lens. Deniz is also fond of neologisms (Único félido feo es el jeopardo, "the only frightful felid is the jeopard") and large, esoteric words, enriching his lexicon with borrowings from a broad array of disciplines, such as chemistry, linguistics, mythology, religion, music, psychoanalysis, medicine, astronomy and Spanish classical literature. Fortunately, this is a bilingual edition, with the Spanish on the verso, English on the recto. The translations by Mónica de la Torre are nothing less than excellent; the lines rendered in English read smoothly and correspond faithfully with the tenor of Deniz' adventurous Spanish. I should also mention that Poemas / Poems is an absolutely gorgeous book, with large glossy pages, deep rich black ink, nary a typo, a smattering of photographs, and wonderful essays by David Huerta and Josué Ramiriz, both translated by Jen Hofer. As such, it is a splendid way for English-language readers to encounter Deniz.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001