Eugenio Montejo: A Living Presence Ten Years After His Passing

Eugenio Montejo with Pedro Lastra and Arturo Gutiérrez Plaza.

Never foretell your death in verse—he said to Evtuchenko—since the strength of the word is such that, with its power of invocation, it would drag you to the death foretold.

(Advice given by Boris Pasternak to Eugenio Evtuchenko, cited by Eugenio Montejo in his essay “Mario de Sá-Carneiro en dos espejos” [Mario de Sá-Carneiro in two mirrors], El Taller blanco [The white workshop]. Mexico City: UNAM, 1996.)

Eugenio Montejo (1938-2008) was not only a poet, a creator of poems. He was, above all, a man who sought throughout his life to make of life, and of his poetry, a full and continuous communion with the mystery of existence. While he found in heteronomy a path to form the distinct intonations, daydreams, and rhythms that would combine into the polyphonic chorus of his poetic creation, made up of his curious pseudonyms or colígrafos (Sergio Sandoval, Tomás Linden, Jorge Silvestre, Lino Cervantes, Eduardo Polo, among others we will never know), he was also one among them, the most discreet and dedicated interpreter of the teachings of the master of Puerto Malo, his venerated Blas Coll. As a tribute to this “essential heterogeneity of being” mentioned by Antonio Machado, the work of Eugenio Montejo slowly gave way to the continuous unfoldings of his vision. Out of this “oblique” vision, as he preferred to call it himself, the poetic being called “Eugenio Montejo” was also born. He told us this in a poem appearing in Trópico Absoluto [Absolute tropic] (1982) entitled “Final Provisorio” [Provisional ending]:

Ya yo fui Eugenio Montejo,
poeta sin río con un nombre sin equis,
atormentado transeúnte
en esta ciudad llena de autos
Ya yo fui Eugenio Montejo,
el falso mago de bosques invisibles
que convertía en vocales verdes
la densa luz de mis árboles amigos.
Volveré a serlo un día, alguna vez, quién sabe…

[I was already Eugenio Montejo,
a poet without a river with a name without an X,
a tormented passer-by
in this city full of cars
I was already Eugenio Montejo,
the false magician of invisible forests
who transformed the dense light
of my friendly trees into green vowels.
I’ll be him again someday, sometime, who knows…]

And indeed, this poem, the only one that speaks to us of “Eugenio Montejo” in all of his work, is merely a provisional announcement. His path continued, as it secretly continues still. We receive news of the life journey of this poet in various poems. Today, faced with the knowledge of his death at the cusp of his seventies, we cannot help but read with wonder a poem written when he was thirty-five, entitled “Media vida” [Half life] in a clear allusion to Dante’s verse (“nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita”) and to the well known Jungian notion; a poem that puts forth an enigmatic poetic premonition:

Sentí pesar de media vida
cuando rodó el dragón ante mis pies, ya muerto,
aquel dragón que al curso de los años
dejó sangre en mi espada,
tajos de ala
y fuegos con que luché solo, sin tregua,
en todos los instantes.

Recordé los rugidos noche a noche,
los libros que leí para aplacarlo,
viejos poemas con que lo tuve a raya.

Sentí pesar de media vida
cuando cesó el estruendo
y advertí que mi alma era su cueva,
que yo era mi dragón, mi enemigo inmediato

[I felt the sorrow of half life
when the dragon rolled before my feet, dead,
that dragon that over the years
left blood on my sword,
swipes of the wing
and fires with which I fought alone, without quarter,
at every instant.

I recalled the roars night after night,
the books I read to placate him,
old poems with which I kept him in line.

I felt the sorrow of half life
when the turmoil ceased
and I realized that my soul was his cave,
and that I was my dragon, my immediate enemy]

This poem belongs to Terredad [Earthdom] (1978); at that time he had already published Algunas palabras [Some words] (1976), and with these two books he would begin the search for a complete opening to the world. He had left behind the first phase of his work, made up of Élegos [Elegies] (1967) and Muerte y memoria [Death and memory] (1972) and the first half of his life, in which the intimate surroundings of family, the anguish of death, the ghostly, and solitude would be the elements around which his poetic atmosphere would gravitate. With the “dragon” defeated, dead “at his feet,” kept in line with “old poems,” the poet undertakes a different dialogue with existence. His interlocutors will now be trees, birds, roosters, stones, light, the cosmos, the tropics—all in all, nature itself and his longed-for “terredad,” a neologism demanded by a deep expressive necessity that, like no other word in his work, will characterize it. Now, at this stage of his existence, it is the birds to whom he listens:

Oigo los pájaros afuera,
otros, no los de ayer que ya perdimos,
los nuevos silbos inocentes.
Y no sé si son pájaros,
si alguien que ya no soy los sigue oyendo
a media vida bajo el sol de la tierra (“Pájaros” [Birds])

[I hear the birds outside,
others, not the ones from yesterday that we lost,
the new innocent songs.
And I don’t know if they are birds,
if someone I no longer am still listens to them
at half life under the sun of the earth]

If in the poem “Un año” [A year] from Muerte y memoria he calls himself “an old man of thirty-three turns around the sun,” the age at which he begins “another descent / to hell, to winter” and affirms that “The leaves of the trees bleed in me,” in another from Trópico absoluto, “Poema de cuarenta años” [Poem of forty years], it is no longer traces of blood but rather “green colors” that mark his life:

Cuarenta pasos ya abren un sendero
y cuarenta años más de media vida,
 lo que resta es el giro redondo del tiempo
Hasta los cuarenta no se sabe
que todos los colores son verdes,
que las palabras son máscaras caídas
en pozos de silencio

[Forty steps give way to a path
and forty years more than half a life,
what remains is the round turning of time
Until you are forty you don’t know
that all colors are green,
that words are masks fallen
into wells of silence]

In “La hora cincuenta” [Hour fifty], the poem that closes the 1988 edition of Alfabeto del mundo [Alphabet of the world], “the others” appear—others who inhabited him throughout his life, others who wrote his poems:

De aquel que vino en mí a nacer, ¿qué rastro queda
a la hora cincuenta?
Amaneció y fue noche;
pasaron soles llevándose mis días,
uno tras otro, del ensueño al recuerdo.
Fui éste, aquél, tantos y tantos
que hablaron con mi voz, fueron conmigo
de la mano, al azar, vestidos con mis ropas,
compartiendo el amor, la soledad, la poesía,
hasta que sus pasos se tornaron ausentes.
jamás escribí nada. —Fueron ellos.
La hora cincuenta cae sobre mi vida
cuando ya de sus voces no me queda ni un eco.
Hundidos yacen al fondo de sus noches,
lejos, en otro espacio, en otro mundo,
pero yo sé que en un lugar siguen despiertos:
la vida ha sido todo, menos sueño

[Of that which came with me when I was born, what trace remains
at hour fifty?
It dawned and was night;
suns passed carrying off my days,
one after another, from daydream to memory.
I was this one, that one, so, so many
who spoke with my voice, went along
holding my hand, at random, dressed in my clothes,
sharing love, solitude, poetry,
until their steps became absent.
I never wrote anything. —It was them.
Hour fifty falls over my life
when not an echo of their voices remains.
They lie sunken at the bottom of their nights,
far away, in another space, in another world,
but I know that somewhere they are still awake:
life has been everything but a dream]

He tells us of his sixties in the poem “El duende” [The spirit], with which he opens Fábula del Escriba [Fable of the copyist] (2006), the last verse collection he published. But now, unlike the poem referring to his fifth decade, his visitors are not the absences that stayed behind in his youth. Now the poet remembers that “aboard” his “twenties, / from night to night, with tobacco and a lamp, I used to write poems,” visited by the spirit that, with “fixed eyes,” “followed [him] / phrase by phrase and letter by letter.” A spirit that was none other than that of the present moment “—that / which now figures sixty”:

El que aquí vuelve buscándome de joven,
en esta misma calle, a medianoche,
y me llama
y no es sueño

[He who here returns, looking for me as a youth,
on this same street, at midnight,
and calls me
and is no dream]

In “Para mi ochenta aniversario” [For my eightieth birthday] from Trópico absoluto, the poet indicates:

El año ochenta ya es un límite impreciso
en que me veo y no me veo,
se halla tan lejos de esta hora,
es tan incierto,
que aunque ningún amigo falte
tal vez yo entonces sea el ausente

[The eightieth year is an imprecise limit
in which I see and do not see myself,
found so far from this time,
and so uncertain
that although no friend is missing
perhaps by then I will be the absent one]

Eugenio did not tell us about his seventies in any poem. He died on June 5, 2008, not long before turning seventy. For a long time, I had the privilege of being very close to him and his work; we were united by a long and dear friendship. For a long time I have wondered how such a poem would be. What he would tell us of that time. One afternoon, many years ago, he gave me a folder containing the originals of the different versions of a beautiful poem entitled “Final sin fin” [Ending without end]. I have read in wonder, many times, the thirteen versions, successively edited, that he gave me. There I could trace, once more, the tracks of his humble and patient vocation, a vocation learned in his “white workshop,” I could appreciate the construction of this “melodious chess” that, for him, was the poem, his silent dialogue with God. Now, I think I understand that this poem was destined to make up for the absent poem, the poem that would account for his seventies. In these drafts he gave me and in the definitive version that forms part of Fábula del escriba, preceded by an epigraph from Juan Ramón Jiménez that reads “...And I will leave,” he leaves us his goodbye, but also a testament to his permanence, that living presence to which we bear witness today, ten years later:

La que se irá al final será la vida,
la misma vida que ha llevado nuestros pasos
sin pausa, a la velocidad de su deseo.
Cuando haya que partir –se irá la vida,
ella y mi música veloz entre mis venas

ella y su melodiosa geometría
que inventa el ajedrez de estas palabras.
Sí, tal vez nadie se aleje de este mundo,
aunque se extinga cada quien en su momento.
-Nos iremos sin irnos,
ninguno va a quedarse o va a irse,
tal como siempre hemos vivido
a orillas de este sueño indescifrable.
donde uno está y no está y nadie sabe nada

[What will leave, in the end, will be life,
the same life that has taken our steps
without pause, at the speed of her desire.
When it’s time to go –life will leave,
life and my quick music in my veins

life and her melodious geometry
that invents the chess of these words.
Yes, perhaps no one moves away from this world,
even if everyone is extinguished in due course.
–We will leave without leaving,
no one is going to stay or go,
just as we have always lived
on the banks of this indecipherable sleep.
where one is and is not and no one knows anything]

Arturo Gutiérrez Plaza

Translated by Arthur Dixon


LALT No. 7
Number 7

The seventh issue of Latin American Literature Today highlights indigenous voices with dossiers dedicated to three Wayuu writers from Colombia and Zapotec poetry and prose. We also pay homage to renowned Venezuelan poet Eugenio Montejo with a special dossier, as well as returning to the strange worlds of Latin American science fiction and opening a new space for Brazilian literature in Portuguese and English.

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