Dossier: Octavio Armand
Works by and about Octavio Armand in LALT No. 8:
In order to explain the radical nature of Armand’s project within Cuba's literary tradition, one can attempt to imagine a triangular map that outlines the tensions between the meaning of his work by considering it vis-à-vis the cultural and/or political projects of José Lezama Lima and José Martí. For practical purposes, I will reduce Lezama’s literary project to his far reaching attempt to envision a glorious destiny for Cuban culture, what is commonly –and problematically– considered the island’s “teleology.” For Martí, I will choose his rarely mentioned final scene: the description of the Cuban Apostle's body offered by Corporal Juan Trujillo from the military health system when he recognized Martí as he lay dying in Dos Rios. "It seems that as he fell, Martí pulled out his revolver," says the Spanish corporal, "because I saw him lying on the ground with his arms stretched out and the gun in his right hand. After he died I noticed that he had bitten his tongue and literally pierced it with his teeth"
He is two people now: Octavio and Armand. One is a poet, the other is an essayist. Both are inseparable. What’s more, the two tend to get mixed up. Octavio, the poet, floats on the most varied lines of thought, he unleashes the melody of his comings and goings. His prose sets off down a path: no longer the path to Galta, or to Havana, or to Guantánamo, but the path from Spanish to English, from the Danube to the Pavesina, the path of the here and now, of the now that is no longer now because, just now, it is losing its time. Armand, the essayist, does not give up on the lyrical impulse, but now he is accompanied by anatomy, philology, painting, melancholy. But, above all, Octavio and Armand are something like a body that turns and turns. They jump, they make feints and dives, they pursue a meaning that always moves toward the edges of his pages of prose, like an “Etruscan brick” that arrives in my hands ready to question me.
The neo-Baroque produced a strange air of family resemblance in the Cuban writers we most associate with the heights of that aesthetic— José Lezama Lima, Severo Sarduy or José Kozer; an air that is not breathed into the text, much less into the style, but that has to do with the idea of the Baroque as gaze and display. A sort of forced kinship that one of them, like Kozer, renounced, and that another, like Sarduy, praised to the extreme with his Tacitus-like phrase “inscribo, en esta patria que es la página, en minúsculas y sobre una cifra, mi paso por la era Lezama” [I inscribe, upon this homeland that is the page, in lowercase and on a figure, my time in the Lezama era]. That air of family resemblance becomes more tangible when we move from writing to reading, from the poetic to the political, from the invention of an authorship in touch with the Cuban tradition that these writers postulate.
“That voice was heard and then it was gone, it began and it ended; its syllables thundered and were heard no more, the second behind the first, the third after the second, and the rest in the same orderly succession. With the last word spoken, silence reigned.”
Language is consecutive, as you have just read from Saint Augustine’s Confessions regarding God’s creative Word. The will to mean, meaning to mean, includes sequences that must be fettered and followed gradually before one reaches the desired objective: a silence equal to a viable completeness.
Did you see it? Just now it leaped
from that verse to this one.
You don’t see it? It’s there,
In what you have just read.
You mean you don’t hear it?
You don’t hear it either?
What a pity. It’s gone.
Octavio Armand is a Cuban poet and essayist whose collected work (1974-2016) was recently published in three volumes: Contra la página (Against the page, 2015), and Canto rodado (Spinned Stone, two volumes, 2016). Armand settled in New York during his youth and graduated from Rutgers University, but has lived in Caracas, Venezuela for more than 30 years, thus embodying the life of a writer whose main themes are memory, a search for plural and conflicting meanings in language, and the appropriation of poetic traditions that range from the ancient Sumerian, Greek, and Mesoamerican to the Latin American modern in José Martí, Vicente Huidobro, and Octavio Paz. Armand’s writing forms itself of words that have been cleansed of accumulated surfeit, like polished pebbles on a stream, setting in creative motion a poem or an essay where the reader’s aesthetic experience stems from uncommon levels of interpretation. My conversation with Octavio Armand concentrates on his book of poetry Concierto para delinquir (A Concert for Misconduct, 2016), but we also discuss his childhood in Cuba and the poetics that continues to breathe life into his poems, poems in prose, and essays.