El cangrejo ermitaño by Arturo Gutiérrez Plaza

El cangrejo ermitaño. Arturo Gutiérrez Plaza. Prologue by Rafael Courtoisie. Madrid: Visor, 2020. 174 pages.

Al margen de las hojas [On the margin of the pages] (1991), Principios de contabilidad [Principles of accounting] (2000), Un sobre sin abrir [An unopened envelope] (2006), Cuidados intensivos [Intensive care] (2014), and Cartas de renuncia [Letters of resignation] (2020) are a few of the verse collections we owe to Arturo Gutiérrez Plaza (Caracas, 1962). The recognition they have garnered for him in his home country is now consolidated internationally with his first title published in Spain, El cangrejo ermitaño [The hermit crab]. As Rafael Courtoisie points out in his prologue, this collection underscores, besides Gutiérrez Plaza’s stripped-down expressiveness, the “well looked-after engineering” with which he reorganizes pieces from distinct moments of his career (9). Indeed—along the same lines as Gonzalo Rojas’s Oscuro [Dark], the successive versions of Pedro Lastra’s Noticias del extranjero [News from abroad], or Eugenio Montejo’s Papiros amorosos [Loving papyri]—the author assembles here a substantial review of his past trajectory, along with many never-before-published texts.

Obeying thematic criteria almost with the meticulosity of a treatise, El cangrejo ermitaño is divided into eight sections dedicated to: (I) political shifts, (II) wandering, (III) the city and its discontents, (IV) the variants of estrangement, (V) love, (VI) the unstable borders between the dream and reality, (VII) the fate of the individual and the family, and (VIII) reflection on poetry. Nonetheless, as we progress through the book, we discern less obvious bonds between the compositions it contains: coincidences in their conduct with respect to their points of reference, as unalike as they may be, as if the essential project were to reveal the profound unity of human experience hidden beneath the heterogeneous surface of the universe.

This buried concordance can immediately be glimpsed in passages from “Hogar” [Home]:

I live in this city, in this depopulated country,
ashamed of its own ghosts,
confined to four reclusive walls.

I live in empty rooms.
In quarters that sometimes contract,
expelling all the things
that, until yesterday, went along with me.


But I’m from here, this is my home,
and even if I left, even if I fled far away,
this lock-up will always be mine.

I live like the hermit crab,
like an errant decapod,
sheltered in empty shells,
trapped, impenitent, waiting for
some wave to be good enough to drag me away
or leave me hidden in the sand. (29)

The elocutionary mold of these verses unites the tangible and the intangible, the public and the private. Within it converge, on the one hand, the pitfalls of Venezuelan life in recent decades—with key terms: city, country, shame, shelter—but not only this: the reiteration of the adjective empty heralds a metaphysical dimension unbound by factors of politics or community. On the other hand, an ascetic horizon is drawn by hermitage and goodness, notions within which the religious is not free of ambiguities, not only due to the ironic aftertaste of the alluded-to impenitence, but also because several poems evoking the seashore and ocean waves throughout the book liken these landscapes and their elements to the relation between the subject and signs—“When you arrive / at the beach / of time / you will find / in the center / of the page / a fountainhead,” we read, for example, in “Cuando llegues” [When you arrive] (146); or, in “Tras la marea” [After the tide]: “Like algae that remain on the shore / after the tide passes, / there are words left behind / that dry out on the page” (158). We find ourselves faced with a collective experience aroused by the lyric voice, with intuitions of a mobile center, a portable rootedness that is not on the outside; and we glimpse, simultaneously, an initially individual certainty—the certainty of the internal exploration of the cenobite, which gives rise to a paradoxical desire for dissolution in the impersonality of the language: a plunging “into the sand.” The shifts between a within and a without, the conjugation of extroverted and introverted attitudes with which the speaker confronts his surroundings amalgamate what the eight section of the book might wish to delimit, indicating that one of Gutiérrez Plaza’s principal missions as a creator is to understand—and to help us understand—the secret convergences that are possible in the sphere of the intimate. In other words: poetry is an instant of vertiginous immobility. The crab has converted its journey into a home.

Just as the poems on the alienation felt in national or urban space invite us—as in the aforementioned case—to more abstract inquiries, to a veiled analysis of feelings of belonging, or even to an ontology, the poems on erotic subjects often ramify their meanings. “Cuerpos (con)versos” [(Con)verse bodies] illustrates this superbly:

This first line could be
my finger, like this, suspicious of your mouth.
An open palm on this naked
verse, trembling under your skin.

The second, two hands, your nipple
invented in mine. Held up
on the other, on yours, the forbidden:
the torch that lends kindling to the draft

Of the other breast, the left. Two flames,
two burning embers, crammed in
over the white flesh accustomed
to the poem’s impenitent fire.

The fourth point, yes, the burning deep,
the vertex of blossoming wetness,
the port of arrival, fourth corner,
the final line, dark and indulgent. (78)

In contrast to “Hogar,” in the Spanish text of “Cuerpos (con)versos” we see what a return to the classics and traditional meter can contribute to a poetics interested, in a very modern way, in underlining the materiality of writing. This is the case because the exploitation of a genre from the Golden Age implies, on this occasion, a mise en abyme. This is a piece that dramatizes its own elaboration while archeologically reminding us of others who have done the same thing: Diego Hurtado de Mendoza’s “Pedís, reina, un soneto, y os lo hago” or Lope de Vega’s “Un soneto me manda hacer Violante,” to limit ourselves to a couple of the most celebrated examples. Beyond Renaissance or Mannerist ideals of “acuity” and technical mastery, nonetheless, we perceive the wake left by so many recent debates surrounding the centrality of the verbal in the construction of the real, as well as the wake of certain inescapable poetic trends of the twentieth century: Objectivism, concretism, Language Poetry. The use of assonant quatrains in place of the sonnet underscores a pattern of divergences, with the ground laid by the visual mischief of the title, which swaps the dominions of the erotic and the lyric and, no less, anticipates an imperative of indetermination in which commitment to an isolated reference point is avoided at all costs, once the parentheses bifurcate the title’s meanings. From there on, duality reigns: in the anecdotal plane, the two lovers; in the formal plane, four quatrains, two rhyming verses in each that, in the persistence of their enjambment, are semantically “coupled.” We know not where Eros starts and ends, nor if the erotic love between bodies is analagous to the erotic love between signs or, perhaps, their product. Although this poem belongs to Section V of the book, due to its romantic subject, it would not have been illogical to situate it in Section VI, made up of poems that portray the illusory aspects of our existence—since, here, the artifice of sound competes with passion and the sensual; that is, the physical—or Section VIII, which consists of a series of ars poeticas.

As can be appreciated from the preceding examples, the repertoire of tonal and stylistic registers offered to us by El cangrejo ermitaño is one of dazzling richness. It reveals a poet capable of moving with ease between terrains usually conceptualized as conflictive: from the colloquial to the stylized, from the emotive to the intellectual, his humanity densens. The work we have mentioned here demands such ductility: a cosmovision that evinces the surreptitious unity of the diverse cannot help but conceive of the form in constant dialogue with its materials, only to end up making of said dialogue the very object of its pursuit.

Miguel Gomes
The University of Connecticut

Translated by Arthur Dixon


Miguel Gomes (1964) is the author of, among others, the works of fiction Visión memorable (Fundarte, 1987); De fantasmas y destierros (Eafit, 2003); Viviana y otras historias del cuerpo (Random House Mondadori, 2006); El hijo y la zorra (Random House Mondadori, 2010); Julieta en su castillo (Artesano, 2012); and Retrato de un caballero (Seix Barral, 2015). He has been the recipient of the Caracas Municipal Prize for Literature and has twice won the yearly short story prize awarded by the Venezuelan newspaper El Nacional. As a critic he has written extensively about the essay in Latin American and about various poets and fiction writers. Since 1989, he lives in the USA, and currently is Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor at the University of Connecticut.


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In our August 2020 issue, we celebrate the work of women writers and translators in honor of Women in Translation Month, highlighting the work of Victoria de Stefano, Krina Ber, Rowena Hill, and Margara Russotto—four women united by the coincidence of emigrating to Venezuela and becoming renowned writers in Spanish. We also pay homage to a giant of Latin American letters, Rodolfo Enrique Fogwill, on the tenth anniversary of his passing, and we highlight the work of Mé’pháá writer Hubert Matiúwàa in our Indigenous Literature section. This #WITMonth issue is rounded out with exclusive previews of upcoming books from women translators and an interview with translator Annie McDermott, plus poetry, fiction, interviews, and reviews of fascinating new releases from across Latin America.

Cover Photo: Grupo Mondongo

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