Photo by Pedro Zamacona

Poets lie who claim their work does anything other than reflect the times and places they live in.  The poem is cheap, easy and fast, and its range of emotion is cramped and prefabricated on a tight feedback loop.  It’s not an artwork, at least not in the way we used to understand the concept. The poem is a form of collective memory, a blob of undistinguished feelings that get agglutinated into a composite experience, generalized and vague.  The lack of distinctions within the poem reflects how hard it would be to tell the difference between people in the world if everyone had their way. We live in an epoch of global sameness—if you can get there. It’s all about skills.  Money rules, and writers want a position on the team instead of an immersion of their self in the act of creation. In an interview with Antonio Calera-Grobet, the poet Eduardo Milán breaks the situation down like this:

There’s a fairly devastating reality that one can’t escape.  You can’t be naive [….] What you can do is try for emancipation, as much as possible, and by going after contacts, you can create a sort of small community of like-minded people.  Not with any logic of civilization or humanity, anymore [….] If the present is the sole parameter of what we mean by communication, then Negative Communication, let’s call it, would be the kind that revolves around the present as if around a single point.  

These comments remind one of what’s truly new in the poetry of the postindustrial age: poets feel a need, not only to distinguish the Human from the Animal and the Immortal; but also to state what makes the Human different from the Mechanical.  To be sure, poets have always kept strange bedfellows to get by; and yet Milán’s remarks are extraordinary, and that begs the question of why Poetics has pretty much totally failed to measure up to its promise.

A glance at 20th-century rebel movements yields the gloomy surmise that whenever a government suppresses a group, a politician is born, several hundred vanguardists gain entrée into prison, and countless other people “disappear.”  Allegedly affiliated with the Tupamaros guerrillas, José Milán, the father of Eduardo Milán, belonged to the second category: he served twelve years of a twenty-four year sentence thanks to a military dictatorship that obtained in Uruguay from 1973 to 1985.  Eduardo moved to Mexico in 1979 and published his first collection in 1985—the year his father was released and the year Uruguay reinstituted its democracy—and he hasn’t moved back. Milán’s sense of the connections amongst family, nationality, liberty and creativity appears throughout his body of work, perhaps nowhere more trenchantly than in these lines:

Those twelve years as a prisoner he spent in the Establecimiento

Penal de Reclusión Militar no. 1, or ‘Liberty.’ He

spent 12 years as a prisoner in ‘Liberty.’ As for me,

it was no longer possible to escape from poetry.

(“My father’s name is José,” Son de mi padre, 1996)

In an elegy for his father, Milán puns on the name José, calling him Yo sé (“I know”), and adding, “he never said / what he knew. He was humble. / A doorknob is humble / Though grasped by claws” (“José Milan [1922-2004],” Por momentos la palabra entera, 2005).  Selected Poems is the first substantial collection of Milán’s work to appear in English.

Reviewing an anthology of Uruguayan poetry for Octavio Paz’ periodical Vuelta in 1991, Milán wrote:

The poet and essayist Roberto Appratto (1950) has chosen eighteen poets out of eighty-five years of Uruguayan poetry.  Not much, but not bad either. However, if the word crisis is any evidence, etymologically speaking, in the art of poetry and in the country of Uruguay, then the work has been accomplished, and then some.  To state it once and for all: Uruguayan poetry has always been in crisis. For a cultured country, modeled on the France of Lights, for a country that refuses freedom of expression out of a fear of ridicule, for a culture that possesses a keen sense of apparent reality, the existence of eighteen poets is a respite, an extra breath [….]  Uruguayan poetry exists through its variables that go on confirming the rule of a culture that is foreign to other poetry, even today.

If Uruguayan poetry is in a state of crisis, as Milán claims, then it seems reasonable to suppose that, with the recent appearance of two bilingual anthologies—Contemporary Uruguayan Poetry, edited by Ronald Haladyna (Bucknell University Press, 2010), and Hotel Lautréamont, edited by Kent Johnson and Roberto Echavarren (Shearsman Books, 2011)—the anglophone reader can discern the outline of that crisis, indistinctly and from a singular vantage.  We might imagine Milán as an expatriate poet, who relates distantly yet intimately to the ongoing crisis of poetry in his native land.

Eduardo Milán’s poetry isn’t global, it’s cosmopolitan.  You can read it as a counterexample of our moment. Milán represents a new development in the tradition of the poetry of exile.  Uprooted poets live everywhere. They make up a type all their own. But transplants from one Spanish-speaking country to another bear the stamp of a peculiar set of circumstances.  What must it be like, in Central or South America, to consult, as the ultimate lexicographical authority—even if only to ignore it—a dictionary whose every entry has been vetted by the Royal Spanish Academy in Madrid?  The name of that august body is Real Academia Española.  The word real means authorized, correct, and true, rather than royal—except when that meaning is specified.  But realidad (“reality”) and realeza (“royalty”) share the same adjective, real.  If you’re an artist in words, writing in Spanish and dwelling on this single word, real, then maybe reality, cosmology, language, art, and conquest will start to seem tied to each other.  As they are, after all. The following poem explores the ambiguity expressed by the Spanish word real, as a condition of the spirit:

Real words are not

true words. Real words

are the words of the poem when they are

physical (they were previously made flesh:

the gods carried them off).

But they’re not true because they don’t tell

the truth. And this is the schism, the fall,

the fire: the poem wants to tell the truth

beyond its poetic truth. And this

the gash, the wound, the hemorrhage

caught in a glass that isn’t a glass

but longs to be a Latin American country.

(“Real words are not,” Razón de amor y acto de fe, 2001)

In 1991, ten years earlier, Milán had written: “Real es la palabra más bella de este reino / en ruinas, real,” which might be translated: “Real is the most beautiful word in this realm / in ruins, real” (“Sin una idea para rodearte”, Errar, 1991).  Questioning the conditions of the present moment, and welcoming doubt into the exchange of ideas, defines Negative Communication and separates the cosmopolitan from the merely global.

Antonio Ochoa has edited this volume to showcase a modest but representative selection of work from throughout Milán’s career.  The original texts are presented en face, and book titles appear in the table of contents but not in the text, asserting a fluid cohesion.  A page of explanatory notes appears at the back, and the cover shows the exquisite painting Body Net (Series) by Gabriella Gutiérrez Ovalle.  Patrick Madden and Steven J. Stewart have translated poems written between 1985 and 2003; John Oliver Simon, poems between 2005 and 2009.  The former have done consistently lovely work, keeping interpretive choices to a minimum and mostly fabricating syntactic rhythms equal to the Spanish (they translated the poem quoted above, for example).  The second half of the book contains a number of deviations from the prose sense of the original. These interpolations produce a tonal slippage that results in several moments of bathos. For instance, the last line of “First Ullán Road,” a poem which opens a long and ambitious sequence entitled The Ullán Road (2009), is: “fija, no se pone in movimiento, se dispersa en haces,” which means “fixed—not set in motion, handed around in bundles;” and yet John Oliver Simon’s version reduces the intensity and grandeur of this line to: “pay attention, don’t hurry, all goes blurry.”  And in “Tenth Ullán Road,” the line “rico, el trobar ric, el trobar clus también es rico,” which means “rich, the trobar ric, the trobar clus is rich too” (where the Occitan terms trobar ric and trobar clus refer to the “rich” and “closed” styles of writing that the Troubadours practiced) is unhappily rendered as “rich, the troubadours Ric and Clus are rich as well,” as if these (admittedly technical) terms were people’s names instead.  In a project introducing an author to a wider audience for the first time, a more consistent fidelity would have been preferable. Still this book is a valuable addition to our resources.

Up to now Milán’s sensibility has been entirely missing from poetry in English.  This new selected volume points up an ambiguity that’s invoked in a couplet by Molière: “Qui n’a pas l’esprit de son âge, / De son âge a tout le malheur.”  Whoever doesn’t get the spirit of the age, gets all the evil of the age.  It’s an understanding of the present that more poets writing in English might want to consider.

Selected Poems by Eduardo Milán, edited by Antonio Ochoa, translated by Patrick Madden, Steven J. Stewart and John Oliver Simon.  Bristol, UK: Shearsman Books, 2012

First published in Mexico City Lit

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