Antología poética by Juan Sánchez Peláez

Antología poética. Juan Sánchez Peláez. Madrid: Visor. 2018. 168 pages.

Alvaro Mutis once referred to the poetry of Juan Sánchez Peláez (1922-2003) as “Latin America’s best kept secret.” The pronouncement may sound trite, but it suggests a truth: even today the poetry of Juan Sánchez Peláez remains an oral treasure that travels selectively from lips to lips and a hidden island that even very sophisticated readers of Latin American poetry have yet to discover. Not even its inclusion in important transatlantic collections, such as Las ínsulas extrañas: Antología de poesía en lengua Española 1950-2000, edited by Galaxia Gutenberg in 2002, nor the publication of his Obra poética by Lumen in 2004, have helped bridge the gap or completely dispel the unfamiliarity, not even today in conversations and meetings with writers and academics with a creative and research output that I admire and respect.  Could Juan Sánchez Peláez be destined to remain a cult poet, tethered to the furtive tradition to which he belongs, solidified by José Antonio Ramos Sucre, Rosameldel Valle, César Moro, Humberto DíazCasanueva, Enrique Molina, Emilio Adolfo Westphalen, Juan Eduardo Cirlot or Blanca Varela, writers that Rubén Darío might have included in his volume Los raros? Moreover, Sánchez Peláez’s relative anonymity fans the debate about the “qualifications” of literary fame or the doubtful concept of the national poet.

His Antología poética, just published by Visor and coedited by the Fundación para la Cultura Urbana, located in Caracas, is another significant effort to preach the poetry of Juan Sánchez Peláez on both sides of the ocean, considering the aforementioned publication by Lumen fifteen years ago that at the dawn of the 21st century sowed the seed of his poetry in Spain. The link with the surrealism of South America through the Chilean collective La Mandrágora, among whose members was a young Gonzalo Rojas, has also failed to contribute to the dissemination of Sánchez Peláez’s poetry, except anecdotally, perhaps because in the end his horizon transcends, I believe, the generalities of the avant-garde to create from the start a writing less profuse in textual density and equally less exhaustive. There is nothing more foreign to him than the pyrotechnics and expository abandon derived from psychic automatism. If the disruption of the absurd constitutes one of the constants in his poetry, this is within the framework of a minimalist composition that carefully manages, even reticently and sometimes with mistrust, the measuring of terms. Juan Sánchez Peláez was not a prolific poet. Seven brief books constitute his bibliography in a span of a half century, averaging one every seven years. Within this frame, his diction is closer to murmur than to speech, in sync with the phrase “metaphor of silence” through which Guillermo Scure fixed it in La mascara, la transparencia.

In this way there has flourished from the mystical orientation of his poetry, as well as from the subtle eroticism that intensifies it, an unusual combination of trends in the Spanish-speaking lyric of the second half of the previous century. However, I would be inclined to emphasize the tension between its momentary muteness and the gravitational force of the poetic enunciation that struggles between the prerogative of remaining silent and the urgent need of utterance. We are then, without exaggeration, before a prophetic poet who, through a tendency toward dilution after his 1951 debut with Elena y los elementos, mutes his measured expression in an epiphany or a disposition toward perception, from which grows a consistent blooming of the aphorism. Animal de costumbre from 1959 reads, “Debo servirme de mí / como si tuviera revelaciones que comunicar.” [I must serve me of me / as if I had revelations to impart.] And later Lo huidizo y permanente from 1969 reads, “Se juntan dos cuerpos y el alba es el leopardo,” [Two bodies meet and sunrise is a leopard] or “Mi oficio es como la lluvia: acarciciar, penetrar, hundirme” [My trade is like the rain: caress, penetrate, plunge]. And Rasgos communes from 1975 reads, “Tu asombro es eficaz como el tacto de un ciego” [Your astonishment is effective like a bland man’s touch]. From the concentration and abundance, from the anxiety and anguish of Elena y los elementos, appropriate for a young man of 29, Juan Sánchez Peláez transitioned to a more terse phrasing that never abandoned the forcefulness nor the magic; but rather, beyond the label of “original, vigorous poet” which Octavio Paz called him in a 1974 review of Antología de la poesía surrealista latinoamericana by Stefan Baciu, introduced the reader to the exploration of the Orphic mysteries based on the electrifying weightlessness of intuition.

If Sánchez Peláez remains loyal to the exaltation of the feminine principle, the lost paradise of childhood, the perennial nature of love, and the labyrinth of memory, he combines these primal elements of surrealism with an irony and self-deprecation that allow him to simultaneously express the vulnerability of the individual under the cosmic flow and its impossibility before the incorruptible challenges of language, which while they facilitate poetic form, they eventually also present a dead-end trap. This was a question that Juan Sánchez Peláez explored in the different phases of his poetic output. Without referencing meta-literature, his poetry transforms the contradictory relationship between the poet and the word into a vessel of resonance dominated by the echo of existence, which is to say the heartbeat of man adrift in the universe. In pursuit of this, he relies as much on a grammar that is sober, though no less decisive, as on allusion and allegory, in an attempt to trace the sinuous and volatile purpose of the poetic assumption, gathering its gnarled dilemmas. The prose poem, which first disrupts in Filiación oscura from 1966 and becomes more prevalent in Rasgos communes, in the manner of Rimbaud’s Illuminations, develops another way of exploring with the requisite tools the uncertain manifestation of the poetic.

Precisely at the start of this merging of verse and prose, the dissolution of the line and double-spacing, signs of a poetry punctured by pause and fragmentation, reveals in 1981’s Por cuál causa o nostalgia the unmooring of punctuation, the absence of adjectives and a phrasing that is blunt and at times dry, though steely and substantial. However, adjacent to this apparent sophistication of unorthodox measures, in relation to our times, Sánchez Peláez cultivates a dialogue with the primitive world that moves him closer to the earthiness that has broadened the poetry of the continent, beginning with Vicente Gerbasi and continuing with Eugenio Montejo, beyond the other terrains, granting it a unique identity and a stimulating imagery. Creatures of the animal and plant worlds figure throughout his work, imbued with a profoundly authentic character emanating from a seemingly lived experience with a plethora of species, however distant they may seem. Beyond the gladiolus, sunflower, corn, or lime, we see the convergence of the partridge, hummingbird, roe deer, horse, she-wolf, nightingale, snake, swordfish, butterfly, parrot, bee, lory, owl, lamb, starfish, ox, larva, and buzzard, among others. Far from employing an exoticizing gaze, Juan Sánchez Peláez creates a poetics in which nature is accomplice par excellence of the sensitive order’s enigmas.

In late 2007, I earned my doctorate from the Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona with a dissertation on Juan Sánchez Peláez. Part of my thesis was to propose his assimilation of the European avant-garde through what I called southern surrealism, limited to the integration of that movement’s perspective disrupted by ecological, idiosyncratic, and cultural elements from Southern America. In addition to appealing, both literally and symbolically, to a diverse variety of flora and fauna that further refines the precision of a discourse rooted in the primitive, Sánchez Peláez also paraphrases, for example, one of the central prayers of the Catholic devotional book and conveys the spiritual syncretism of colonization, accentuating the power of the indigenous psyche: “ora pro nobis, ave de buen augurio, ora / pro nobis en tu niebla finísima y fija,” [ora pro nobis, ave as good omen, ora / pro nobis in your fine and everlasting mist,] he writes in 1989’s Aire sobre el aire, his final contribution. Ave María, Great Mother, Magna Dea, Venus Genetrix. Beyond the maxims of André Breton, Juan Sánchez Peláez fervently fostered a poetics of the essential, which the content and preface of this Antología, undertaken by Marina Guasparini Lagrange and Alberto Márquez respectively, greatly honor so as to cement this extraordinary Venezuelan poet’s place as a key piece of the puzzle of Hispanic-American poetry through which the third millennium has awakened.

Jorge Ortega
Centro de Enseñanza Técnica y Superior (CETYS Universidad)

Translated by José Antonio Rodríguez


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Number 11

In the eleventh issue of Latin American Literature Today, we highlight one of the essential voices of Mexican letters, Elena Poniatowska, and we pay homage to the towering literary figure of Chilean poet Enrique Lihn. We also highlight literary journalism from Venezuela and Mexico, indigenous literature in the Maya languages of Guatemala, poems by renowned Brazilian writer Hilda Hilst, and exclusive previews of upcoming books in translation from Silvina Ocampo, Johanny Vázquez Paz, and Sergio Chejfec. 

Table of Contents

Editor's Note

Featured Author: Elena Poniatowska

Dossier: Enrique Lihn




Indigenous Literature


Brazilian Literature


On Translation: Seeking Publisher

Translation Previews and New Releases

Nota Bene