Against the Eviction of the Poet: An Introduction to the Poetry of Juan Arabia

Argentine poet Juan Arabia.

I. In Search of Lost Lyricism

At first sight, the most notable element of the poetry of Juan Arabia (Buenos Aires, 1983), author of El enemigo de los Thirties [The enemy of the Thirties] and Desalojo de la naturaleza [Eviction of nature] is its convincingly lyrical, neoromantic, almost prophetic tone:

Estoy hecho de palabras; soy el que canta.
Estoy hecho de materia; soy el que inventa.
No siento temor por la verdad:
Soy el que vive, soy el poeta.

[I am made of words; I am he who sings.
I am made of matter; I am he who invents.
I feel no fear of the truth:
I am he who lives, I am the poet.]

(“Soy el que mira el cielo y la tierra” [I am he who watches the sky and the earth], El enemigo)

We know that this tone has been excommunicated by the critics, and the poets themselves, of the twentieth century, who, in the name of objectivity and universality, have exalted the kind of art in which the author becomes invisible in the name of “genuine poetry.” But is it enough to simply eliminate deitic marks, the supposed footprints of the “biographical author,” in order for poetry, untethered from any subjective frame, from any “I,” to achieve the laudable Rimbaudian objectivity that dubs it a poem-thing, as Rilke aspired? Personally, I believe that subjectivism and objectivism in poetry are mere abstractions that ignore an essential fact: a poem is the result of the equation between the living subject and his literary alter ego, or the subject of the enunciation, as I prefer to call him. In other words, the great poem will consist of the capacity of the biographical individual to observe the world and self-evaluate his experience, and of the genius of his alter ego-speaker to filter lived experience and dissolve “the real” in the name of a higher language. In my opinion, this is what the poetic exercise consists of. This poetic idea casts aside one of the great myths of literature, dear, for example, to Huidobro and Reverdy: that is, that the poet is a creator. In effect, if the first operation consists of being “attentive to the world,” then the poet is a participant in a flow that goes beyond himself, whether it be nature in romanticism, the modern in Baudelaire, or the epiphany in the language of Joyce. And it is, what’s more, a bridge between this everyday “magma” and the concretion of a universal language, of a Promethean speech whose fire has been stolen to be given to the world and create new men, following Rimbaud, whose creed is also that of the Argentine poet Juan Arabia:

Soy el que mira al cielo y a la tierra.
Soy el universo.
El que baja hasta la orilla del lago
Y enciende las hierbas secas.
La explicación es una bajeza,
El esclarecimiento la humillación.
Porque el aire es como los otros:
La memoria del hombre, en sí misma.

[I am he who watches the sky and the earth.
I am the universe.
He who descends to the shore of the lake
And ignites the dry grass.
The explanation is a base act,
The illumination the humiliation.
Because the air is like the others:
The memory of man, in itself.]

(“Soy el que mira al cielo y a la tierra”, El enemigo)


II. The return of the solitary, walking poet

This clarification of the value of lyricism in poetry serves to situate Juan Arabia within the exiguous category of poets who think of poetry as opposed to all determination and unconnected to any aesthetic creed sheltered by hermetic coteries, resulting in the return of the solitary, rebel poet. This attitude has a stylistic corollary, of course: the return of the ellipsis as a way of replacing the focus on communion with the reader, a participant in the creation of meaning: a celebration of the return of poetry and the reader, but also of the journey, of the resumption of the walk that, from its affiliations to the literary tradition, represents a brotherhood of spirit with the Rousseau of the Reveries of a Solitary Walker, with Coleridge, and, certainly, with Rimbaud and his “soles of wind”:

Bueno, descargamos el carro:
Sólo unas botellas de vino y las amapolas de Rimbaud.
Crecimos sin darnos cuenta, y ahora esperamos en el camino.
Al menos estábamos cerca de la gente y de su tierra,
Aunque todos nuestros hábitos fueron corrompidos.

[Well, we unload the car:
Only a few bottles of wine and Rimbaud’s poppies.
We grow up without realizing, and now we wait on the road.
At least we were close to the people and their land,
Although all our habits were corrupted.]

(“El hombre de las suelas de viento,” [The man with the soles of wind], El Enemigo)

The alienation of “the people and of their land, the corruption of our habits” are the complaints that set this poet apart in the context of modern criticism. Juan Arabia knows clearly that, generally speaking, the ineffable myth of the “clairvoyant poet” was pulverized by aestheticism and avant-garde movements in the hands of small poets who could not bring poetry close to the common man. In the Latin American context, what’s more, this results in word games that caused the ominous forgetting of a local reality, stolen through the installation of urban spaces based on the great Western cities from which economic development flowed. This critique becomes evident in Arabia’s second book, Desalojo de la naturaleza, in which the poet passes from the declaration of his project and the exposition of his affiliatory exercises in the context of the literature that we find in El enemigo de los Thirties to the critique of a falsified modernity and complaints against poetry’s silence:

Nos alejamos de la ciudad, infortunio, infortunio, etcétera.
En la que ya no hacemos más canciones.
Nuestra flauta quedó encerrada en la raíz de un sauce:
destruyendo el suelo, levantando calles y baldosas.
Nos vamos lejos, amigos:
donde las vacas beben, donde la savia fluye.
Nuestros versos necesitan ser juzgados,
pero en tierras más salvajes…

[We distance ourselves from the city, misfortune, misfortune, etc.
In which we make no more songs.
Our flute remained enclosed in the roots of a willow:
destroying the ground, raising streets and paving stones.
We go far, friends:
where the cows drink, where the sap flows.
Our verses must be judged,
but in more savage lands…]

(“Juicio” [Judgment], Desalojo)


III. Poetry and sincerity

Therefore, we must conceptualize Arabia’s work as a poetic expression that holds on to another tradition, that of individuality, a return to nature, and, finally, the sincerity that characterizes the critique of rationalism, a tradition easier to find in English-language poetry than in Latin American poetry, always rich in Gallicist vices. The poet knows that to enter into poetry is to cross a threshold, with deviation, displacement, and detachment as fundamental acts. If we could summarize Juan Arabia’s creed, it would be: “I feel, therefore I am”:

Matar al individuo, a la experiencia…. Soltar una lágrima.
Vivir en la hermandad del silencio…. Perpetuo.
Quiero escribir con el corazón, y olvidar lo que estoy haciendo.
Quiero escribir como el aire es en el mundo.

[To kill the individual, the experience… To shed a tear.
To fake it.
To live in the brotherhood of silence… Perpetual.
I want to write with the heart, and forget what I am doing.
I want to write like the air is in the world.]

(“El océano avaro” [The miserly ocean], El Enemigo)

If the pact between progress and wellbeing has arrived at its end, someone must say so, and only the poet can do that; skepticism no longer fits within poetry. If someone has to write against modernity and its technification, it is necessary to remind people that the field will still be green, that somewhere else it must be spring. The ancient is, in Juan Arabia’s poetry, the forgotten-necessary and the new is - like in Novalis - that which doesn’t matter, a railway that ruins the landscape of the Lake District. I make this allusion because in this poetry we come up against the captivating expression of the poet’s real-life visits to such places, where Wordsworth and Coleridge, the Lake Poets, found their homes in nature. Similarly, in El enemigo de los Thirties, the author mentions Rimbaud’s journey to Charleville. Both are “sacred” spaces for the Argentine poet, as they allow him to establish meaningful affiliations in the art field, and in them he can find “the aura” to which Benjamin alludes: the manifestation of an unrepeatable distance distance offered as an object of intuition. This experience is impossible in the city, with its single-subject development that crushes the unrepeatable. Another similar place is Edinburgh, where the Latin American poet hopes to find true European culture or “the last remnant of humanity that stays behind”:

Ediciones de Knopf, Dylan en los anaqueles de Blackwell.
Como si la literatura fuera
el único resto de humanidad que queda.
Las tierras altas de Edimburgo,
la corona acéfala.
Cada paso es una constante pérdida:
dejé la lluvia en la joven Rose Street.
Los muchachos de Manchester
que bien dejaron la universidad
ahora se emborrachan,
abandonando toda idea de independencia.

[Editions of Knopf, Dylan on the shelves of Blackwell’s.
As if literature were
the last remnant of humanity that stays behind.
The highlands of Edinburgh,
the headless crown.
Each step is a constant loss:
I left the rain on young Rose Street.
The young men of Manchester
who, after leaving the university
are now getting drunk,
abandoning any idea of independence.]

(“El poeta que enterró sus mentiras” [The poet who buried his lies], Desalojo)

In “El poeta que enterró sus mentiras” [The poet who buried his lies], Juan Arabia shows us that, in his role as a universal walker, he is not a “Metic”: a figure full of provincialism faced with a superior culture, in which the traveler of our lands, instead of being formed, is deformed by the consciousness of their precariousness - a character to whom we grew accustomed through one of the principal Latin American writers of displacement: the Chilean poet Enrique Lihn. In Arabia’s poetry, on the contrary, the speaker assumes a certain intellectual superiority whose function is to reveal the spiritual doors that will lead the Western being to end a state of historical submission. A situation that Europe, with its “dusty books” and its anaesthetized “drunken intellectuals,” has not been able to resolve in the past or the present, as is well said in “El colibrí en la bahuinia” [The hummingbird in the bahuinia], a poem that puts forward the Americas as an alternate symbol of an axis of power that could house the ambition of beginning a countercultural maneuver, where the savage is presented as a defiant image counterposed to the pseudo-civilized bourgeoisie:

Néctar, Licor, Hachís: como el origen
del fuego. En América las flores
alimentan legiones
Brota el alga
del renacuajo, el grillo sacude banderas.
Ermitaño es el sol, como el maíz,
y el lugar donde el ave del silencio
canta. Inadaptable antes que el hierro,
el carbón, y el vapor de los corsarios,
en la rama más baja de bauhinia:
La esclavitud occidental, las ratas.
Acá mueren enfermos los sonidos
de cacería… Brota el húmedo aire
de la brisa en los círculos de rebelión
En la rama más baja de bauhinia
descansa el negro azul color marino
El colibrí inadaptable… Púrpura

[Nectar, Liquor, Hashish: like the origin
of fire. In America the flowers
feed legions
The algae sprouts
from the tadpole, the cricket waves flags.
The sun is a hermit, like the corn,
and the place where the bird of silence
sings. Unadaptable before the steel,
the coal, and the steam of the corsairs,
on the lowest branch of the bauhinia:
Western slavery, the rats.
Here, sick, the sounds
of hunting die… The moist air rises
from the breeze in the circles of rebellion
On the lowest branch of the bauhinia
rests the black blue, dark blue color
The unadaptable hummingbird… Purple]

(“El colibrí en la bahuinia” [The hummingbird in the bahuinia], Desalojo)

But if Juan Arabia is a neo-romantic, anti-bourgeois poet, as we have said, he lacks any blasphemous or degrading tone toward that society that devotes itself tragically to depriving words of all their foundations, to submitting them to the imperatives of action or the tyranny of the universal lie. Why doesn’t he make use, as we would expect, of this Decadent resource?

Because, before dissolving his language in irrationality, the poet knows he must maintain, at least at first, the tranquility of his constancy; he wants to be heard, he wants to re-establish poetry’s place as the ancient governess of humanity. So, instead of throwing around errant words or trying his luck down forgotten paths, the Argentine poet goes on a pilgrimage to the sources of language, prior to its neutralization as a vague social function. His lyrical tone transforms calmness into a dart launched against the degradation of life. The poet has read much and read well: Coleridge, Rimbaud, Verlaine, the Bible, the Beats, and, particularly, Ezra Pound and Dylan Thomas. By reading well, I refer to taking the necessary time, to admiring, to adhering to foreign creeds, but also to letting things pass. The economy of his verse, his technical rigor, speak to a well-used poetics, although the character of his message suggests that of a spoken voice: that of a prophet who comes from far away to complete his mission, as is revealed in the preamble of El enemigo de los Thirties, his first battle cry in the open field, widely unfavorable, where “other horrible workers” have already fallen:

Develarle al hombre
que los ángeles no están en el cielo,
sino debajo, en lo más profundo de la tierra.
Develarle, también, que ya experimentó la eternidad y la muerte;
y que todo es posible…
Develarle que en la ciudad se aleja insistentemente de sí mismo;
Y que aquél a quien más teme, es sólo él y nadie más.

[Reveal to man
that the angels are not in the sky,
but beneath, in the depths of the earth.
Reveal to him, also, that he already experienced eternity and death;
and that anything is possible…
Reveal to him that in the city he draws ever further from himself;
And that which he most fears, is only himself and no one else.]

(“Exordio” [Preamble], El Enemigo)


V. Poetry, Politics, and Truth

“Reveal”: the ancient dispute between poetry and truth that comes to us from the age of Plato. I am sure that if Juan Arabia were a citizen of a platonic republic, he would be one of the first to be ostracized. But he would not suffer the fate of the exile: he would die in some heroic act, like Christ, like Hart Crane, or, drunk on himself like Dylan Thomas, he would revindicate, to the point of martyrdom, the potency of poetry. But he would leave us - as Pierre Emmanuel said - the diagnosis of the mortal illness of our age far before it was declared; he would denounce, after the mistaken symptoms, the profound unease of the absence of energy. In some way, he does this already. His poetry is a meticulous calculation of the possibilities of reparation in a society that, sooner or later, must address the question of to what extent poetic discourse maintains its relation to the utility of existence of a common citizen.

El enemigo de los Thirties is a reflection on this possibility and, at the same time, a critique of one of the solutions offered in the official History of Literature. The book’s title suggests an antagonism toward the type of poetry practiced in North America in the 1930s, before the “War Generation” or the “Auden Generation,” as it has also been called. This was a generation of poets who, before the agricultural crisis and the First World War, opted for their social concerns - the theories of Marx, principally - and Freudian discoveries as a way of understanding what had caused the sickness of civilization. Auden’s poetry, for example, it the clearest manifestation of this tendency, full of theses and antitheses, whose syntheses attempt to dissolve into immediate social solutions. It is clear that this type of poetry unearthed subjectivity and the image of the individualist poet, under penalty of tripping over the impossibility of conforming a metaphysical image of man, something that Juan Arabia does not forgive and that allows him to identify with the following generation, the “Forties,” and their most magnificent figure: Dylan Thomas, “the Rimbaud of Cwmdonkin Drive,” as the poet declared himself.

And so, what do Arabia, Rimbaud, and Thomas have in common? They are all solitary poets who, through their exultant individualism, elevate themselves above the possible in order to create a consciousness of race which authorizes them to speak from that lyrical I to a man-other who has lost his intimacy and the capacity for wonder at the transverse mysteries of all culture. Along this line of similarities, in the poem Final (o el enemigo de los Thirties), the poet produces an image of Dylan Thomas before his death, in an instant that also houses the possibility of his own fate:

Sostenías tu copa,
Enjaulada de demonios y tibia verdad,
de antaño no resuelto y espinas arenosas.
¿Alguno entenderá que esa cruz
no es la misma que la de esos ladrones
que deben despiadados su pobreza?
Tu propósito es olvidar una multitud entera de belleza.
Pero tus versos rugen, como encadenados:
Al fin los pájaros serán libres como el cielo;
aunque en la próxima mañana
en el canto de sus alas desaparezcan.

[You held up your glass,
Imprisoned by demons and lukewarm truth,
by unresolved pasts and sandy spines.
Will anyone understand that the cross
is not the same as that of those thieves
who ruthlessly owe their poverty?
Your purpose is to forget a whole multitude of beauty.
But your verses roar, as if enchained:
In the end the birds will be as free as the sky;
although the next morning
in the song of their wings they disappear.]

(“Final,” El enemigo)

These remarkable verses reveal the figure of the poet as redeemer of mankind, but also of himself. And so, it is worthwhile to wonder, with what authority does Juan Arabia’s poetry revindicate the responsibility of changing lives? I ask because the poets with whom he identifies were witnesses of overwhelming historical changes: Blake, twenty years old at the start of the American War of Independence; Hölderin in the outbreak of the French Revolution; and Dylan Thomas on the point of enlisting to fight in the Second World War. These are experiences that are permanently grafted into memory, never ceasing to echo in their works and forcing History to open to the meeting of two temporalities: one framed by the denigrating course of events and the other bursting with voices like that of Juan Arabia, coming from other places (from the unconscious, from myth, from the sacred). Through this prism, Juan Arabia’s poetry is framed within the tradition of these poets who, in solitude and with no guarantee of success, felt themselves compelled by the logic of their works to disobey the establishment until reaching a point of physical and spiritual degradation.

These poets become more meaningful in direct proportion to their failure. They fulfill the role of solitary witnesses, beyond social conformity or the ethical expectations of their community. For this reason, this poetry must be read as the conscience of the memory of a poetic “I” who practices the only innate virtue of the poet: the virtue of hope, that mental state or orientation of the spirit and heart that transcends the immediate world.

Is it necessary to read Juan Arabia? Yes. But it is necessary to read him with the faith that we find ourselves before a man-poet able to cross the borders between the worlds of the fleeting and the eternal, the visible and the invisible, that we find ourselves before verses that set down moments in which we feel ourselves and experience, even if only once, what must be an inevitable friendship with this earth, redeemed through a set of images of our neverending eviction of nature. That is the invitation of Juan Arabia: the poet.

Bajemos juntos a sentir el desalojo.
Escuchar el viento que se mueve
por encima del trigo:
la aguda guerra de metal.
Un estruendo de plata
corroe lo vivo,
separa a cada una de las cosas
que existen en el mundo.
Caen ahora los primeras gotas.
La fiera tormenta confederada
se afianza para siempre
dentro de los muros de las ciudades.

[Let’s go down together to feel the eviction.
To hear the wind that moves
over the wheat:
the sharp war of metal.
A clash of silver
corrupts the living,
separates every thing
that exists in the world.
Now the first drops fall.
The fierce, confederated storm
is cemented forever
within the walls of the cities.]

(“Desalojo de la naturaleza” [Eviction of nature], Desalojo)

Rodrigo Arriagada Zubieta

Translated by Arthur Dixon


Recommended Reading:

Three Poems by Juan Arabia



LALT No. 4
Number 4

The fourth issue of LALT highlights underrepresented but deserving voices from across Latin America, with a focus on women writers as well as special sections dedicated to genre-bending science fiction, indigenous-language poetry and prose, and the essential relationship between author and translator.

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