Sunday, 29 March 2009

Not All a Load of 'Hard Stag Testicles'

David Huerta: Before Saying Any of the Great Words, Selected Poems, translated by Mark Schafer, published by Copper Canyon Press.

Whilst Mexican poetry is unfamiliar to most UK poetry audiences, David Huerta's poetry will not seem strange to those of us who read Lorca and Neruda in translation. It is rich in sensuous imagery, surreal, focuses on the self and the body, and suggests radical political engagement. However, it is also of our time in that it has an overt interest in French post structuralist language theory, which forms much of the subject matter of the verse. There are references in his work to Saussure, Baudrillard and Wittgenstein. The volume just published in parallel translation by Copper Canyon Press provides a generous, though not overwhelming selection, of the brilliant, entertaining and highly imaginative work of a poet whose main concerns are ontological.

This may sound abstruse (indeed, some of the verse is difficult to fully comprehend). However, the poetry's energy and engagement with the physical world makes the verse attractive and exciting to read.

The book is divided into 3 sections: early poems, extracts from Huerta's masterpiece, a long poem called Incurable and a number of the short poems he has published over the following 20 or so years.

His early work is rich and dense and there is strong sense of exploration of the body's elaborations and its exclamatory fruits. Abstruse some of the poems may be but they are evocative reflections on writing and language, which also touch on hidden narratives/ objects/ subjects (e.g. Index is also a poem about summer, which includes the unforgettable line:

summer expelled with its clammy sweat of time

Is this the end of Summer in Autumnal rain? If so, the poet is not just describing summer, but also the concept of summer in which physical manifestations reinforce the abstract implications of the concept.

Incurable is a romantic poem covering moments in the growth of the poet's consciousness of language.

what I believed was Reality was nothing but Lines

There's a distant parallel with Wordsworth's Prelude

As with Wordsworth, it is tempting to find the hyper self-consciousness of the poetry (and the poet) somewhat risible. For instance, in Chapter III, Glass Door, the poet appears to experience an intense revelation in an otherwise mundane moment: he sees hos own reflection in a glass door. If it were not for what followed, this could be read as a piece of narcissistic hyperbole. Subsequently, the poem concerns a 'you' who was beaten up by police on a demonstration but escaped through a glass door.

This returns the reader to a musical theme which reoccurs in Incurable: the image of the mirror.

Incurable begins: The world is a stain on the mirror.

This seems to refer, amongst other things, to the idea that language and reality are conventionally supposed to be mirror images (although the poet reverses - or perhaps mirrors - the convention by seeing reality as a mirror of language rather than vice versa).

In Glass Door, the section seems to culminate in the line:

The door was writing a long and misty sentence on the man.

In a sense, this is simply an imaginative way of describing a reflection, but it is striking, partly because the door (and not the man) has agency but mainly because human beings are seen as blank pages where abstract systems of language create experience. The poem is about perception and knowing - the egotistical sublime.

After Incurable, Huerta's poetry matures. The earlier stuff is full of machismo, Thirteen Propositions against Trivial Love, which should be retitled '2 or 3 really crass sexist concepts'. I suppose it's appropriate that the poem also seems to be about masturbation. Anyway, here's an example of crap sexist tripe:

frayed fertile liquid
of the woman I am not


or

my hard stag testicles

Huerta confuses sex with gender and seems only to write about relationships as occasions for personal physical fulfillment. Beyond that, the verse often becomes adolescent e.g.

He was unaware of the art of dreams
and she smeared his face with nightmares.

(Pathological Beings)

Yet, Machinery contains a beautiful abstract section about Love, achievable perhaps because he is thinking of someone other than himself: We will be equals even in pain, he declares.

As he gets older, he seems to turn to familiar subjects which involve disappointment and irony, such as our attraction to money or making mistakes. The title poem, Before Saying Any of the Great Words, is about language and summarises his views in a way which I find touchingly humble:

[silence]
that body or fabric from which
are also made the great words, time, so many things.


(Is time a great word or another item on the list? There's always more to get from these poems, and not just autobiographical or situational detail, but philosophical ideas which are important to everyone who is interested in the question, 'what is life?')

Increasingly, there is an overt Catholicism in his work, which should come as no surprise given the focus on the body and the search for the abstract in sensuous detail.

The main reason for reading this book is not the poet's philosophy but his imaginative and highly creative rendering of those things into vivid verse. The book is full of really striking images. Here are a few to whet your appetite:

And the trench of curiosity
full of bric a brac

The storehouse of words is
a strange, damp place, a discrete gallery, a hospital asleep.

(There's something about those lines which reminds me of a quite different poem: Derek Mahon's wonderful contemporary classic, 'A Disused Shed in County Wexford')

Those things happened to me, except that words came tumbling down
from the high sky of impalpable birds to my impossible depth
like knowledge or love

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