The Image of Liminal Language: Rituality and Poetry in Jaime Saenz, Juan Ramírez Ruiz, and César Dávila Andrade


View of Illimani from La Paz, Bolivia. Photo: Miguel Melgarejo Johannessen, Unsplash.

Between 2010 and 2017, a series of ethnographic studies allowed me to observe differing levels of relationship between inhabitants of the Andean region and rituality. Two elements stood out from these observations: the language that occupied the ritual field and the relationship between this language and the identity of the rites’ participants.

I related these elements to other frameworks in which language and identity affect each other mutually. Poetry, a field in which language and identity come into interaction and crisis, became the space of dialogue with these observations. The convergence between ritual and poetry presented, as a starting point, a tension within language following the effort to utter something that, previously, had no way to be said. Identity appeared as a state of constant modification through the broadening of its reference spectrum.

The ritual and the poem approach and intersect with one another, displacing the instrumentalization of everyday language by calling into question its functionality. What emerges is a language of the pause, of the cut, and of distance from communicational efficacy. At the center of this intersection’s action is a neuma [1], a place of respiration, which tends to dilate the direct and automatized reality-language relationship and to disassociate the individual from their relationship with matter and the senses, generating in creative activity a motor of reincorporation into a reconfigured reality. Out of this action unfolds the presence of other ontologies that question unitary and hierarchizing versions of the real, truth, and freedom.

These two fields—the ritual and the poem—are presented as texts open to interpretation, and their reading as a radical means of addressing and absorbing the experiences that occur as they play out. Reading a process of language in continuous transfiguration implies opening oneself up to a change of perspective and assimilating its effects. The density of a ritual or poetic text cannot be captured in binary interior-exterior interpretations, or in ones oriented toward the reaffirmation of their social meaning and specific function, but rather in a navigational mode that understands ritual and poetry as places of production of an encompassing knowledge, integrative of times, spaces, and practices in their effort to generate points of connection with reality. To read the ritual as a poem. To read a poem as a ritual. To read them as the symmetric and asymmetric attempt to construct a linguistic prosthesis that acts as an amplifier of senses and corporalities on their path toward new forms of relationship with animate and inanimate elements.

From this perspective, I read the poetry collections La noche (1984) by Jaime Saenz and Las armas molidas (1994) by Juan Ramírez Ruiz, and the poem “Boletín y Elegía de las Mitas” (1959) by César Dávila Andrade.

My reading of La noche, the final publication by Jaime Saenz, addresses the four sections that make it up, comparing them to the three phases of the rite of passage proposed by Arnold Van Gennep: separation, liminality, and incorporation. This comparison explores the moments at which Saenz recreates his isolation from the world, his entry into a state of crisis until attaining bodily ecstasy, and his descent into a remade reality via a radical personal paradigm shift. My observation follows the performance of mystical reading to which Jaime Saenz submits integrally during this journey, incarnating principles practiced by Saint John of the Cross, Saint Teresa, and Miguel de Molinos, and resignifying these principles in his own experience of being in the world. Language distanced from the everyday and the space of the ritual identity crisis turn into an aptitude for contemplation from language, modifying temporal and spatial linearity—related to the outside—toward a series of cycles produced and renewed within the individual, extending the reach of his contemplative vision. The space of this change is a place of crisis in which identity is called into question and submitted to a systematic fragmentation that succeeds, at its endpoint, in dissolving the body-spirit relationship and thereby renewing the individual’s multidimensional relationships. Saenz presents ecstasy as a place essential to the transformation of relationships with reality.

Two postulates of this reading of La noche are (1) the image of language as a material—visible and audible—space in the transfiguration of the individual, and (2) the ritual as a technology of change and adaptation. In poetry as in the rite, language is alive and in motion, giving signals that are not entirely decodifiable but that open alternate relationships allowing for their passage through the senses. Words are at odds with communication; they seek to break free of its framework by questioning its significative content. The identity with which the individual embarks upon the creative process—both poetic and ritual—is fragmented and in conflict with historical, political, ideological, and psychological referentiality. Poetic activity and ritual activity are instances of creativity, prioritizing the presence of the anti-structural, a characteristic that grinds the gears of Western, rational, hierarchizing, sequential thought, and places such thought in dialogue with a different ontological form in which language and crisis constitute the center of reality.

In my reading of Las armas molidas (1994), language is in a state of constant affectation. Laid out as a passage through the history of Peru, from the pre-Inca age to the present day, this book presents war as the motor behind the mobilization of the Andean individual and of Andean society. The language of this mobilization is perforated, eroded, neutralized in the relationship between war and progress. Ramírez Ruiz seeks to work from the limits of this language, starting with the primordial alteration of significative forms. He therefore structures the space of the poem as a space for the affectation of language, decentered from its Western lineality and dragged toward forms of complementation that redirect its use and function. This is a process of healing language; an option in which the poet sees the possibility of renewing reality from the space of its enunciation. Proof of this are his Andigramas, energetic and agglutinative condensations that can be read in different directions. In the intersection between rituality and poetry, this synthesis is identified as a breakdown in the semantic use of language. This is not a case of seeking connections with which to transmit the message, but rather one of a mode of production on the fly. In the Andigramas, as Ramírez Ruiz sought, the growth of relations and functions that lead written language to spill over, diverting toward the pictorial, the musical, and the theatrical, is latent. Synthesis and expansion include ambiguity as the nucleus of action. Myth, from this perspective, is shown as a text both dialogic and in development, not a space annulled by tradition. Myth is dissolved by the readjustment of the elements of altered language within its framework. A rereading of myth emerges, in which the hybrid—a product of the sacred versions of the rite and of the linguistic alterations of poetry—deconstructs its spatial and temporal limits, transforming it into a medium of trance and expansion.

The nature of these modifications constitutes a framework with which to think about ritual and poetic space; the lines of decodification do not end at significative form, but rather project toward contacts that make semantic elements and their rules spill over, and that become, on occasion, spaces of occupation in sonic, pictoric, mathematic places, in which the possibility of saying is displaced into a possibility of being. States of transit in differing stages of the rite intersect with states of transit in the poetic. In both cases, they delineate a significative distance from the version of the real, and they resist being decodified by the immediacy of functional thought. This condition is seen as these states’ resistance to the making of the sign. Influenced by a series of temporal and spatial stimuli of alteration, these states dispute with the language that attempts to anchor them to meaning. What is achieved, in the best of cases, is extracting a few splinters, fragments that plainly show their intimate relation with the uneroded, the undigested by the cultural center of neutralization. The poetic resists because it is not there to be described or said. And, as in the ritual, a series of transfers mark the paths along which they move, mobilizing symbols and senses in covert observation of—and at odds with—meaning.

This element of resistance gives cause to explore “Boletín y Elegía de las Mitas” by César Dávila Andrade. Certain critics have classified this poem as a representative piece of indigenism, in which Dávila gives speaking to the Indian and makes visible the exploitation of which he was a victim. The Indian’s annulled speech exists, according to said critics, because by being in an asymmetric situation, his voice does not attain the auditory value possessed, for example, by the voice of the mestizo. The impossibility of the subject’s visibilization turns around his own voice.

Taking distance from these parameters of reading implies assuming that this asymmetry exists due to the preconceived thought that the language the mestizo speaks is the same as the one the Indian attempts to speak. This language would be a sort of generic Spanish, in which critics have seen a wink of pity on the poet’s part, in his attempt to Indianize his writing in order to lend verisimilitude to the discourse. As territories of altered language and identity crisis, poetry and rituality accommodate linguistic forms that take distance from these generic molds that have been devised for language, and that not only correspond to a tampered-with Spanish, a deformation of official speech, but also represent a proto-language, a speech in formation. Within the poem and rituality, the forms assumed by language are in transit toward another differential that coincides, only in part, with the linguistic form in which they are decodified. But the part that does not coincide—that becomes incomprehensible for the reader and for the rite’s observer—constitutes the most vital point, as it places outside the range of the expected that which seeks to fit within reason, and that which by its very nature cannot enter, demanding, when the process is intense, that the reader or observer exit the center of enunciation and evolve in alterity. An Uku Simi, or language of depth, might incarnate this proto-language that configures a possible mode of enunciation through a state of distancing from the historical and social surface.

Within the rite, the voice of individuals at ceremonial moments functions as a sonic palimpsest, composed of prayers, songs, lamentations, and cries, and directed toward various fronts. Senses, body, and the action that conjugates them live the experience of a voice in transit, prior to the voice functionalized and bonded with man’s glossolalic capacity, in clear connection to an altered form of reference. [2] Identity, in this sense, is far from being reduced to the ethnic field, since—decentered as it is—it constitutes a state of mutation. Within the poetic construction, the voice constitutes a differential effect in the tone upon which the writing is established. Within a poem, the paths of the voice cannot be reduced merely to the place of enunciation; rather, they seem to pull toward zones of flight from this enunciative reality, zones of overflowing voice where the pause, the cut, the superposition of a voice that is no longer that of the poet take it upon themselves to affect through an experience of language that does not belong to the individual who writes. Rituality and poetry have, in the voice, a point of connection and amplification of the echoes over which its saying is built.

This exploration places different modes of living the poetic experience in dialogue. Saenz, Ramírez Ruiz, and Dávila Andrade are poets whose trajectories may seem distant from each other’s, but who reflect upon similar fields. The mystic reading of Saenz and his notion of the body find a connection with the forms of bodily disintegration from which Ramírez Ruiz conceives of the individual within the poem and, in turn, with the sonic unfolding that Dávila Andrade points out regarding the entities that inhabit his poem. Each of them, at once, seems to place a certain personal faith in marginal characters within the coordinates of progress and reason, relegated by national discourse. The aparapita in Saenz, the golondrino in Ramírez Ruiz, and the indio in César Dávila Andrade thereby configure another segment of intersection—one in which it will be of great interest to find points of connection with the forms in which these poets think of a future individual, a being of renewal, incubating in the shadows a language yet to be made. A language of the future.

Translated by Arthur Malcolm Dixon



1. Greek term referring to the spirit as the exercise of breath, of respiration, of the space between actions.

2. The glossolalic refers to the progressive rarefaction of language, reaching the extreme of a form of enunciation indistinguishable in the significative sense, but emitted as a result of temporal, spatial, and physiological alterations into which the individual enters as a deliberate result of his relationship with altered states.


Arthur Malcolm Dixon is co-founder, lead translator, and Managing Editor of Latin American Literature Today. He has translated the novels Immigration: The Contest by Carlos Gámez Pérez and There Are Not So Many Stars by Isaí Moreno (Katakana Editores), as well as the verse collection Intensive Care by Arturo Gutiérrez Plaza (Alliteratïon). He also works as a community interpreter in Tulsa, Oklahoma and is a Tulsa Artist Fellow.


LALT No. 20
Number 20

With our twentieth issue, we celebrate the close of five years of publication. The cover feature reflects on LALT’s achievements thus far and on our goals for the years to come. Other dossiers highlight Bolivian poet Jaime Saenz on the centennial of his birth, 2006 Neustadt Prize winner Claribel Alegría, Spanish-language creative writing programs, and poetry and prose in translation from Quechua.

Table of Contents

Five Years of LALT

Dossier: Jaime Saenz

Dispatches from the Republic of Letters

Brazilian Literature






Indigenous Literature

Spanish-Language Creative Writing Programs

Translation Previews and New Releases

On Translation

Nota Bene