The Other Lesson/Reading from Poetry: Writing as Reality


Venezuelan poet Rafael Cadenas in the Library of Salamanca. Photo: Silvio Orta.

“The word is not the place for splendor, but we insist, we insist, and nobody knows why.”

Rafael Cadenas

There is no doubt that Cadenas’ poetry tends to be read as an attempt to patent a sort of fundamental thematic motivation that results in the very content of its various verbal manifestations. Apparently, his poems, in consonance with his annotations, essays, and interviews, seem to reiterate a unique and complex essential thesis: human beings, especially in the West, seem to have lost the key to a full existence in communion with world. It is therefore necessary to recover that nexus, that immediate connection—not one mediated by ideas, dogmas, ideologies, or thought systems—as a whole, or, more precisely, with its foundation. The therapy that corresponds to this diagnosis is no less precise: humanity ought to transcend every sparkling thing that impedes a return to an immediate vision: me, the mind, technical reasoning, perspectivism, nationalisms, etc. In this manner it will return to the shadow and, with it, the lost perspective of presuppositions seen and known to mystery. Let us briefly explore these two elements: the thesis/diagnosis about western culture and the possible therapy that I would like to christen “the ethic of dispossession” so that later, we can reflect.

For Cadenas, the “calculating reason” that has characterized western culture throughout modernity is, perhaps, the underlying problem. Humanity has chosen a super-intellectualization of its relationship with nature, sensation, and perception. This has allowed mystery, the true foundation of all existence, to be covered by the rationalization of that existence. Technical-scientific reason and its radical distortion, “scientism,” has contributed decisively to this process. Its theories and consequent technical implementation contribute to the appearance that the world is something intelligible, that its puzzles have been solved definitively and satisfactorily. Responsibility for this detour does not belong to technical reason alone, however. The same humanity, in its longing to submit to the scientific imperatives of the academy, has abandoned the crucial role that would have belonged to it at these crossroads: denouncing this situation or, in other words, “being contrary.” Literature does not escape this “requirement” either; it has also abandoned its life-giving role of yore, only to turn itself over to rhetorical, stylistic, and aesthetic explanations that take away from its artfulness. This would be, in nuce, the diagnosis that Cadenas gives to western literature; a diagnosis, one must say, that recognizes an important tendency of modern philosophical thought. It may have Heidegger as its most conspicuous representative, but it appears with urgency among various other authors to whom Cadenas returns again and again: Rilke, Schajowicz, Otto, Bollnow, Kraus, Pieper, Steiner… what this means is that the diagnosis is completely inscribed in a textual tradition that carries out a particular reading of our culture. It is a reading that can be contrasted or compared with other readings, other philosophical traditions—other texts—before the phenomenon of western civilization.

The other aspect that I called the “ethic of dispossession” also comes with important implications. It is about, as Huxley would say, “waking up,” or returning back to the origin (childhood, the immediate vision, the “classical ethos”), where the root of our true existence lies. It is necessary to effectively dispossess oneself of everything that culture has imposed upon us and our perception and communion with the world. In this sense, the proposal of Cadenas is fundamentally religious, as much in the etymological sense (re-ligare, to tie), as in the sense of knowing and celebrating what it is. Nevertheless, as Blake would have wanted, Cadenas proposes religiosity without religions; that is to say, a religiosity that escapes the threat of fundamentalisms—those other masks of the human detour—and that returns to nature, the body, and the senses as its privileged space. Only as far as we regain our eyes, and cease to adopt “points of view,” can we reestablish our connection with the world that can become synonymous with “life, reality, mystery, religion, being, soul, poetry.” Likewise, the posture of Cadenas is inscribed in an important and complex tradition: that which reunites a heterogenous body of texts that has come to be known as mysticism. This tradition, of course, overtakes western borders and, in a sense, the ages. It includes bodies as dissimilar as Zen Buddhism and Christian mysticism (Meister Eckhart, Angelus Silesius, San Juan de la Cruz, to name just a few). Without a doubt, the affiliation of Cadenas with this tradition is both eclectic and critical. Similarly, here, his posture flees from extremism (for example, the negation of the body in certain mystic circles) in order to adopt a more celebratory attitude of community and thanks. This is also found among the most well-known contemporary teachers of mysticism (Watts, Suzuki, Blyth, Paniker). If it is true that upon reflection, his adherence to some mystic positions reaches certain qualities of radicalism, it is only in the same proportion that his work has developed his vision to be less prescriptive and more unconditionally attentive to the search for a relationship with the world and existence that is free of mediation.

But it is precisely this search, it appears, which guides us to one of the most complex inflection points in all of Cadenas’ work. “What we explore”—he tells us in the introduction to Realidad y literatura [Reality and literature]—“is the possibility that humanity has of establishing a direct relationship, not based in thought, with beings and things.” He reiterates in Notes on Saint John of the Cross and Mysticism: “everything is part of the fundamental mystery, eternal, unapproachable, before which the mind cannot but become silent.” Still, one might ask, how is it possible to reach or even search for that possibility of closeness, that muteness, through the medium, par excellence, of language? What interests me here is not a contradiction, but the dialectic that is generated from the irresolvable tension between proximity and mediation that is dramatized between his thesis with its diagnosis and the manifestations of his poetry.

It is in this sense that that I have wanted to point out that written, textual character in Cadenas’ sources—both the reflexive and the mystical ones. It is in this sense that, beyond his fundamental thesis, it seems that he should propose the other lesson/reading of his work: in that of his eminently written, textual character. There is no doubt that his poetic texts largely respond to his vital worries; he even makes themes of them. Nevertheless, it would be too reductive to confine them to so-called peticiones principi, since these texts go further than they declare; or, to be more precise, that which they declare transcends the conception of their theses. Said in this manner, perhaps, the dialectic that I referred to earlier is patented; that which is most explicit in Cadenas’ work is precisely that thesis: that which is most difficult is even more mysterious. Better yet, that which these texts say obliquely is what they do as texts. In other words: if, as Cadenas desires, what poetry should do is point to mystery, isn’t this achieved more effectively when what is said appears mysterious? This results in something that cannot help but purify the afore-mentioned dialectic. If that is the case, words can become the place—not the vehicle— of mystery, illumination, celebration; that is to say, “splendor.” If, as Cadenas says, one hopes that poetry (and I take poetry as he does, in the broadest possible sense) “will make living livelier,” can it do so in words that invent verbal looks, situations, ideas, and worlds? Let it be noted that I am not trying to contrast Cadenas with an alternative conception of poetry but making clear that this other poetic impulse also irrigates his work (Cadenas himself seems to insinuate this in the introduction to En torno al lenguaje). It is from there that, over the course of his reflections, his defense of the direct relationship with the world has been engrained in what could be considered a paradox, unable to be disassociated from the defense of language. This defense, clearly present, possesses a proposal that coincides with his diagnosis: language, like culture, is threatened, and it is necessary for him to recover its original strength. But we cannot lose sight of the complex ramifications that come with the displacement of recovery and the proximity of the vision to the defense of language—which is fundamentally a mediation. Cadenas insists, in Anotaciones, in defining himself from the currents of modern poetry, from the international style, experimentalism, style, and rhetoric. And he does not cease to reiterate, in En torno al lenguaje, his criticism of the “deification of the word” that he recognizes in much contemporary literature. However, his poetic praxis—as he himself admits—sometimes contradicts those defintions. It is enough that Kraus—one of his allies in the defense of language—insists again and again upon the “productive” possibilities of language (Goethe used the same reviled adjective); possibilities that go beyond control of the subject that he writes just to problematize the criticism that Cadenas proposes from the very conception of poetry as “heuristic.” Doesn’t Kraus manage to write in one of his most astonishing aphorisms, “Die wahre Wahrheiten sind die, die man erfinden kann” [true truths are those that can be invented]? What I want to put into sharper relief is that the demarcations put forth by Cadenas appear to be attempts at confining a process—that of verbal composition—against which his own poems rebel. That is, these constitute the other reflexive nucleus of his work: that of more complex thought, of the writer’s irrational nature, in which, in my judgment, lies the most elaborate philosophical wager of his work. Let’s go a little deeper here.

Without a doubt, his work can be read like a process that, coinciding with the search for voice, allegorizes the proposal found in his fundamental thesis. Some of his commentators have done so: a primary children’s book—infans, who does not speak—suppressed (Cantos iniciales [Initial songs]); later an unpublished book, but one that circulates almost secretly, describing the loss of a paradise (Una isla [An island]); the eruption of the “republic of letters” with unmeasured and fantastic lectures (Los cuadernos… [The notebooks...]); the displacement of creation and its corollary objectives to the psychic dimension of ruptures (False Maneuvers); the slow start to recuperating sobriety and purity (Intemperie [Outside]); the review of the journey and the first glimmer of a possible fullness that coincide with the solidification of his voice (Memorial [Memoranda]); the complex staging of the process of communion (Amante [Lover]); an opening toward the diverse manifestations of existence in an elevated voice (Gestiones [Paperwork] and, definitively, Sobre abierto [Open envelope]). Nevertheless, this reading comes with danger. In effect, if every one of Cadenas’ books represents a level—a beaten level—it could end up being erroneous and fallacious, such that its respective verbal crystallizations have lost validity. We would be devaluing, for example, the sensitivity of the language in Una isla, the strength of the exuberant rhetoric and the verbal transgressions of Los cuadernos, the nearly surgical precision of the language in False Maneuvers, the severity and verbal rigor of Intemperie, the multiplicity of writings, as seen in Memoranda but, as the reader knows, all of the them demonstrate verbal possibilities, living, current, and actionable texts in any poetic exploration. All of them represent authentic forms of expression that are made manifest in the repertoire of contemporary poetry. (In fact, in the work of many younger Venezuelan poets, one can recognize the influences of these books, which are so distinct from one another). In short, all of them put alternative methods of thought into motion just like so many other mysterious forms, just to say so once more alongside Cadenas.

I deliberately omitted mention of Amante from the list above. I wanted to briefly stop and consider it to attempt to clarify what I am trying to explain. This book, which is not really a collection of poems so much as it is an extensive, fragmented poem, underscores the measure in which Cadenas’ writing becomes transcendent in its reflexive implications from its fundamental thesis. The poem consists of a sort of voice-driven scene (those of the lover, the note-taker, and the spectator). They each take the floor to admonish, indicate, dissuade, clarify, excite, or reveal, reflexively or transitively, fighting amongst themselves or speaking to the reader in a “perennial game” of “language-games” (Wittgenstein). And yet, the phrase “take the floor” has never been more literal: if “she,” in appearance—the feminine character and honored subject of the poem—does not “speak,” she does so exclusively in reality: she is essentially the language, the word.

On the other hand, the verbal fragmentation of this poem (that I will compare at some time to the music of Webern), its plurality of voices and the abstraction of their speech—an aspect that has barely even been noticed—the nearly absolute absence of sensory stimulation, can hardly be thought of as writing options that the contributions of contemporary poetry have made possible and which elevate crystallizations of a verbal nature to the level of experience. Furthermore, in this text, Cadenas manages his most unique “un-style”—somewhat transfigured in Gestiones and retaken in Sobre abierto—one which renders it unmistakable alongside other contemporaneous poetic writings, a meticulous and nearly minimalist attention to words.

This example, which must be added to those of his prior books, allows us to reach our first conclusion: faced with the monotonality of Cadenas’ thesis—a thesis that has significantly guided the majority of his commentators—his poetic work rolls out, in musical terms, a complex polytonality and a mingled polyphony of verbal experiences in which diverse writing forms manage to give shape to many other manners of thought.

Let us attentively read the epigraph of this work: “The word is not the place for splendor, but we insist, we insist, and nobody knows why.” This text/aphorism/poem condenses the setting of the dialectic that I have thus far discussed. The specificity of the first part of the phrase is unequivocal: “The word is not the place for splendor”; it corresponds with the “judgment” that Cadenas undertakes against the processes of thought and mediation, in his zeal to reach a true and close relationship with the world. Still, it also conforms to the question of the contemporary aesthetics and poetics which are inclined, in his judgment, toward the “deification of language.” Seen in this manner, the first part of the phrase corresponds to the thesis that explicitly seems to underlie his work. However, as we advance through the sentence, it becomes more dubious, more tentative: “we insist, we insist”; the repetition must be understood as a form of making explicit what is known in Latin as the frecuentativo: an action that is repeated again and again. Again and again, we try to find or bring out the splendor in the word—now he uses a “we” that begins to weaken the impersonal specificity of the first phrase. We try it on various paths and in diverse ways, with diverse writings. Finally, a return to the impersonality, but one based on ignorance, or better yet, on mystery: “nobody knows why.” To know why erases the mystery; that is to say, to submit the word to the designs of a precise intentionality. But the text proposes that guided by something that we do not understood or know, we continue searching, in a variety of ways, to make the word the place for splendor. On this point, we return to the possibility of the production of the sense that lies in language itself and that, as we have seen, is an even deeper seam in Cadenas’ thought. His thesis, hypothesis and presuppositions can be answered: what remains irrefutable is crystallization, the fulfillment that is produced in his texts, what they say without saying and without abandoning the ability to say them. Mallarmé once spoke about “la disparition élocutoire du poète, qui cède l’initiative aux mots” [the locutionary disappearance of the poet that cedes the initiative to his words]. There is no doubt that in this saying is found one of the chief criticisms of Cadenas and modern poetry (we already know, “the word is not the place for splendor”). And yet, isn’t the result of what those words have created precisely many years’ insistence on visiting them just to make them say what they ordinarily do not, to allow them to make sense? It is the humility of not knowing that makes us insist, insist. It is that insistence that has allowed us to accomplish painstakingly, artfully, the task us reaching “revelations.” “Perhaps”—a voice from Amante reminds us— “/ to the poorest of all/ is given/ the excellent gift: to allow.” To allow—not to prescribe—will later make room for the advent and arrival and, even more relevant, the production of sense. Following its apparent simplicity, its evident minimalism, this poetry has offered us a range of alternative forms of writing, thought, and reflection.

In his Encyclopedia, Novalis says: “Wo mit der Verdichtung –Vermehrung verbunden ist –da ist Leben” (Wherever there is reduction—connected to multiplication—there will be life]. Without a doubt, this practically prophetic sentence requires further explanation. I shall limit myself to an attempt to pull from it a conclusion that I have proposed for further meditation in this piece. Only after having unfolded and gone over the combined tensions that regulate this work can we recognize the true tenor of the forms and senses: in it, the reflexive reduction into the theoretical nucleus, and the other in and from writing. The word verdichten, “to reduce,” immediately brings to mind “dichten,” “to verbally compose.” The multiplying aspects of meaning are combined. In this union are crystallized their pure ethical quality and their complex verbal structure. Just as Novalis says, if this union occurs, “there will be life.”

Luis Miguel Isava
Universidad Simón Bolívar

Translated by Michael Redzich


LALT Number 9
Number 9

Latin American Literature Today begins its third year of publication with an issue that takes in Venezuelan poetry, the writing of indigenous women, and the strange worlds of fiction. We open the journal's second volume with a dossier dedicated to Samanta Schweblin, an Argentine writer whose work tests the limits between the fantastic and the real, and then we shift to the poetry of Venezuelan poet Rafael Cadenas, winner of the 2018 Premio Reina Sofía de Poesía Iberoamericana. We also pause over Mapuche poetry, with a special selection of four young women poets who write in Mapuzungun and in Spanish, and we also stay up to date with the present debates surrounding one of the central figures of twentieth-century Latin American literature, Pablo Neruda, with an exclusive interview of his biographer Mark Eisner.

Table of Contents

Editor's Note

Featured Author: Samanta Schweblin

Dossier: Chicanx Literature

Indigenous Literature






Translation Previews and New Releases

Nota Bene