The Poetry of Pedro Lastra
A painter, an exile, a traveler, someone who converses with his friends and teachers (some of them dead), and, above all, a wayward reader in the aisles of a vast, solitary library, inhabited only by ghosts. These are a few of the images that Pedro Lastra has constructed of himself in his poems. When I say “Pedro Lastra,” I’m not referring to the Chilean citizen born in 1932 who has served as a professor and lecturer at various universities in his own country, Latin America, the United States, and Europe; nor am I speaking of the man who was married, widowed, and married again, the father of three daughters who practice medicine, the grandfather and great-grandfather on two hemispheres, the dear friend and voracious reader. The Pedro Lastra of whom I speak, the poet and essayist, is, as ever, a mask created by his poetry. Every poet constructs, as Wallace Stevens would say, his “supreme fiction,” his fiction of fictions, and Lastra has not been foreign to this labor that poets undertake over their own figure. Like any true creator, Lastra is spoken by the language of his poems, not the other way around. The dominant form in which this fiction manifests itself in Lastra is somewhat paradoxical, and we could resume it thusly: the greater the command of language, the less accurate the image of the world. The word that resumes this attitude for this author is one that he repeats in many of his poems: “indecisive,” Lastra’s seminal adjective.
Already in Traslado a la mañana [Transfer to morning] (1959), Pedro Lastra’s second book, we find this word in a line that reads “El tiempo con sus ramas indecisas” [Time with its indecisive branches]: the only line, by the way, that the author retained from this book, incorporating it into a later poem called “Noticias breves” [Brief news], composed of fragments that are like “poetic precepts,” muted reflections that function as epigraphs or poetic mottoes that define Lastra’s own creative activity. This is, therefore, the oldest verse by this poet, and, as such, the self-definition of this poetry (from his first book, La sangre en alto [The blood up high] (1954), our author retained not a single line, considering the book a youthful exercise whose value was more testimonial than poetic). He repeats this concept in at least two other poems: one is “Con letras indecisas” [With indecisive letters], a text on Omar Cáceres, the seminal author of a secret vanguard who Pedro Lastra put back in the spotlight in the nineties when he republished, in Chile, Mexico, and Venezuela, Defensa del ídolo [Defense of the idol] (1934), the only book ever published by Cáceres. The beginning of the poem reads, in heptasyllables of free verse: “Omar Cáceres says / that he wrote his poem / with indecisive letters. / Many years later / I read in another world / his sharp speech / of desolation”. In “Lección de historia natural” [Natural history lesson], on the other hand, we read these verses: “Among the plants and the birds, / the stealthy creatures / and the indecisive squirrels, / the life from outside / plots its circular movements.”
For Lastra, indecision, doubt, the undefinable, and indeterminacy do not have a negative status, as we might think at first sight. The “changeable” or “stealthy,” as the poet says in other poems, constitutes a true poetic in itself, a modus operandi of language. Like in certain paintings by Magritte (one of the favorite painters of this poet, who has written many texts on painting), in Lastra, the shadow is, with no contradictions, “the empire of the light,” a paradoxical shadow that illuminates. This is Pedro Lastra’s way of communicating his poetic vision. The practice is so common in his work that we can see it and identify its mechanism in many of his poems. I’ll mention a few examples, almost at random: the poem “Instantánea” [Instantaneous], which says: “Fireflies, the river: / the river that is illuminated / and it’s the firefly in your hand. / Its swift light survives me / no more firefly nor river.” Another is the poem “Composición de lugar (Qué pensaba Kandinsky, qué diría” [Composition of place (What was Kandinsky thinking, what would he say)], whose first verses read: “I correct the shifts / in color and form / to paint the world as it is, / to see from closer range / the night and its brightness, / the secret swaying of desolation.” And, finally, the brief poem “Nocturno de Long Island” [Long Island nocturne], which I’ll cite in its entirety:
Duermes, y yo velo tu sueño,
atento y minucioso
con los cinco sentidos
el paso de tu sombra
de la alta noche hacia el amanecer.
[You sleep, and I watch over your sleep,
attentive and meticulous
with all five senses
the footsteps of your shadow
from the dead of night until the dawn.]
For decades, we have read Pedro Lastra as an author who masterfully cultivates these poetics of shadow (although his poetry is not somber, as he also writes about celebration, above all as the manifestation of an eroticism that he makes no effort to conceal), in a country with a literary tradition characterized by poets with strong, eloquent voices, from Pablo Neruda to Raúl Zurita, not to mention Pablo de Rokha, Vicente Huidobro, and Gabriela Mistral, among others. If we carefully analyze this phenomenon, we can conclude that the merit of Pedro Lastra has been to stand out as a poet precisely by avoiding the path of the literary caudillo. You need a stoic mindset to succeed at such a task. And I now wish to direct these reflections toward the area of stoicism, because, while it’s true that in Lastra’s most recent production (the book Transparencias [Transparencies], Santiago de Chile: Editorial Pfeiffer, 2014, magnificently illustrated by Mario Toral) the backbone of his work remains intact, there is an evident change that we could characterize as a calm acceptance of death. Death, whose presence has been constant in Lastra, has acquired a new status in his work; if it was a sort of idea or concept before, now it is a concrete presence of otherness, a character more than an idea. If we are to accept this, we must do so with stoicism; that is, we must exercise virtue while accepting the passage of time. The compensation of happiness will arrive, but not with material goods: rather, with the cultivation of a wisdom that tells us at every moment that our existence is fleeting. This is what Pedro Lastra, an avid reader of Seneca, means to say when, in one of his “Noticias breves,” he cites the poem “La muerte tiene un diente de oro” [Death has a gold tooth] by Oscar Hahn, establishing the differences between the two. Lastra says: “Hahn talks to death like a friend: / ‘Hey, Flaca, he says: how’s it going? / I talk to her in crosswords.” Neither excessive trust in death nor avoidance of death: he accepts her problematic presence, thinking of her as an energy that moves the world. This is the novelty of Lastra’s recent work: death is not the end of language, but its beginning; it is not complete and utter silencing, but the origin of “melodious songs,” as Vladimir Jankélévitch said in his exemplary book La Mort [Death] (1966). In this way, the transparency to which the title of his most recent book alludes is that of a more conclusive universe, although equally governed by that seminal erasure, the true trademark of this poetry.
Transparencias eloquently reveals how Pedro Lastra converses, before and always, with his friends, sheltered by his stoic vision of the world; it includes, for example, a poem remembering the great Venezuelan poet Eugenio Montejo:
A LA SOMBRA DE UN SUEÑO HAS REGRESADO,
a recordar historias perdidas y encontradas.
Hablamos largamente bajo un árbol
parecido a un samán.
Se oyó el canto de un pájaro:
—Ya ves, ya ves, dijiste,
aquí estamos muy bien acompañados.
[TO THE SHADOW OF A DREAM YOU HAVE RETURNED,
my friend Eugenio,
to visit me,
to remember stories lost and found.
We talked for a while under a tree
that looks like a raintree.
We heard the song of a bird:
“You see, you see,” you said,
“we’re in good company here.”]
Or that true elegy to the memory of Elías L. Rivers, Lastra’s former colleague at Stony Brook and one of the greatest scholars of the Golden Age of Spanish literature to have emerged from U.S. academia, in a poem titled “In memoriam”:
yo recordaba un tiempo junto a ti, unas palabras
que ya estaban muy lejos de aquel día,
en esas soledades con las que te confundes
hasta ser uno mismo con ellas,
y la memoria acerca una vez más
tus lecturas amigas de los viejos poetas,
mi vía Garcilaso y Aldana y Juan Boscán
que hice de tu mano,
y entiendo claramente
que a esa antigua usanza
mi mensaje cifrado para ti fue esta vez
transcurrir paso a paso
de una última carta a una elegía.
I was remembering a time with you, and words
that were already far from that day,
in those solitudes into which you dissolve
until you’re one with them,
and memory approaches once again
your friendly readings of the old poets,
my path, Garcilaso and Aldana and Juan Boscán,
that I made of your hand,
and I understand clearly
that in that old-fashioned way
my coded message went to you this time
the passage, step by step,
from a last letter to an elegy.]
And so, from conversation with friends we pass to conversation with unexpected strangers; these troubling figures are present in the poems that the compilation Poesía completa [Complete poetry] tags as “unpublished” and which are, in my opinion, an expression of the spirit that governs Transparencias. The landscape that serves as a setting for these encounters is that of a death that liberates language, a silence pregnant with words. The poem “Para hablar con los árboles” [To talk with the trees] is a good example. It begins: “The secret of the forest is the key of time [...] / the tree at its time, which is everyone’s time, / demands that we give the number to its name / to recognize each other.” The poem ends with an image of which Eugenio Montejo would have approved: "That’s how they tell themselves the news of the earth, / when all is silence / or a smooth melody of the choir of themselves.” If we go a little further in the reading, we will encounter the presence of friendly strangers, characters who had never before appeared so concretely in Pedro Lastra’s poetry and who occupy a more radically otherized space in his work. Here we have, for example, the poem “Visitante” [Visitor], a truly expressive discovery that I’ll cite in full:
Alguien llama a la puerta, y luego sigue ahí,
más allá de nosotros pero inmóvil
sin gesto alguno,
ni airado ni amistoso,
al modo en que se acercan
las personas de un sueño
a reclamar su sitio y su dominio;
qué podemos hacer sino invitarlo
a recorrer la casa, y enseguida
caminar junto a él
acordando sus pasos y los nuestros
uno a uno
[Someone knocks on the door, then stays there,
beyond us but immobile
neither angry nor friendly,
in the way that the people
in a dream draw nearer
to reclaim their place and their dominion;
what can we do except invite him
to have a look through the house, and then
walk with him
matching his steps to ours
one by one]
Who is this visitor? A stranger? A foreigner? The speaker of the poem years before? A ghost? The poem doesn’t answer these questions, leaving the mystery hanging in the air. We will find no such poem in his previous books: a poem in which the other assumes the presence of a person, a concrete entity that converses without exchanging words with the speaker. Little by little, the speaker assumes the identity of the visitor (“matching his steps to ours”) and walks beside him on a journey that we cannot help but imagine as that of death and silence. It should be no surprise that just a few pages later, in the section of “unpublished” poems, we find another text that we could consider a corollary to “Visitante.” It’s called “Transeúnte” [Passer-by], and it speaks of a walker, of an other who walks through “places, that emerge as he steps,” a “fleeting passenger who crosses borders,” only to lose him from sight, “ever further from the uncertain landscape / lost in its memory” (p. 225). Indecision, erasure, an uncertain landscape, as ever, but now charged with a presence that is there, before the reality of language and the world.
A final, brief observation that I think could open a new debate (a new conversation, in fact) of Pedro Lastra’s poetry: I see in the poems cited above a more than evident closeness to certain poems by James Laughlin, the poet, editor, and founder of New Directions, probably the finest poetry press in the United States. Many of the poems of this true initiator of tradition tell of the presence of visitors who arrive to knock on the door and converse with the speaker. Sometime the visitor is the speaker himself when he was young, sometimes she’s a former lover who has faded out of memory, other times it’s a figure that appears on a wall while the speaker waits for the bus that will take him back home. Coincidence or not, these apparitions--present in the work of two great poets of the Americas--are an enticement to alert us to another presence: that of great poetry, which Pedro Lastra has given to us generously for over fifty years.
University of Wisconsin—Madison
Translated by Arthur Dixon
Marcelo Pellegrini (Valparaíso, 1971) is a Chilean poet, essayist, and translator. His most recent verse collection is El doble veredicto de la piedra (Santiago de Chile: Das Kapital, 2011). As a translator he has published Constancia y claridad (2006), a selection of sonnets by William Shakespeare, and Figuras del original (2006), a book that compiles his Spanish translations of poems written in English and Portuguese. In the academic sphere, he has published Confróntese con la sospecha: ensayos críticos sobre poesía chilena de los 90 (2006) and La ficción suprema: Gonzalo Rojas y el viaje a los comienzos (2013). He is a regular collaborator of academic and literary journals in the United States as well as Latin America and Spain. He currently works as an Associate Professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
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.
The fourth issue of LALT highlights underrepresented but deserving voices from across Latin America, with a focus on women writers as well as special sections dedicated to genre-bending science fiction, indigenous-language poetry and prose, and the essential relationship between author and translator.