December 2011

Jesse Tangen-Mills

Latin Lit Lover

Getting Vertical with Roberto Juarroz

Sylvia Plath once expressed her desire to go horizontal, in her poem “I am vertical.” Argentine poet Roberto Juarroz on the other hand preferred to be vertical, very much so. He wrote eleven volumes of “vertical poetry”: cryptic aphorisms, wobbly syllogisms that depend in great part on poetry’s top-to-bottom hierarchy of line breaks. They are also vertical in that unlike many other twentieth century poets that wanted to include everything, Juarroz opted for hardly anything. If you sense the influence of Japanese poetry, you're on to something. When asked about his verse Juarroz cited Basho’s answer to similar questions about his writing: How can you explain something that you don’t understand? To describe poetry, like describing life or love, is impossible. Explaining creation, he said, is only possible by creating. In this way, Juarroz creates, writes, moves forward or downward, as it were, while paradoxically moving "up," or towards the metaphysical.

Roberto Juarroz is hardly a no-name, not even outside of Argentina. W. S Merwin translated the first volume of his “vertical” poetry to English in the 1970s, anthologizing poetry from volumes 1-7 in Vertical Poetry. Mary Crow then translated Vertical Poetry: Recent Poems (volumes 8-11) and now Vertical Poetry: Last Poems. Rarely do we get such a fantastic overview of the work of a poet in translation.

In the tradition perhaps of untitled long term approaches to poetry -- say Ezra Pound’s Cantos or Ron Sillman’s The Alphabet -- Juarroz spent years writing one kind of poem, over and over again. What actually happens -- or doesn't -- on the page might best be described using one Juarroz’s own metaphors: “Between the road of yes / and the road of no / hang up a mirror / that doesn’t reflect either.” A perversion of Stendhal’s metaphor (as well as Hamlet’s), Juarroz’s version of realism is the mind at work, thinking through orthodox themes like time, life, love, and -- like this poem -- poetics.

There is a quotidian quality in many of these poems that readers might find appealing. Take for example poem 42 from Volume Ten, that deals with “the craziness of not being crazy,” and concludes, “It’s necessary, every so often,/ to rest from not being crazy.” And -- aha! -- that is crazy. That’s usually the end of a “vertical” poem: pithy and paradoxical. Other endings suggest things like “Learning to erase the world / will soon help us to erase ourselves.”

You might recognize in all of the metaphysical tropes the bonaerense behemoth, Borges. Poem 10 from Volume 11, for example, reeks of his short stories. It involves a dream and a manuscript in revision, and ends in theodicy. The speaker wakes up and finds the manuscript sitting on the table. “There was only one line,/ also beginning to be erased./ The line said:/ Only god can save one from god.” They are both from the same suburb of Buenos Aires. (What the hell happened in that suburb to make it so metaphysical?) They were also both librarians at one point or another.

A bigger influence on Juarroz however would no doubt be Antonio Porchia (also translated by Merwin into English) a poor Italian immigrant in Argentina, who self-published his first books of aphorisms, which he called Voices. By the end of his life Porchia was no longer a secret, or self-publishing for that matter, with some four of five volumes of his "Voices" circulating. Juarroz, as well as poet Alexandra Pizarnik, liked what Porchia was doing, although what they took from him is quite different. While both borrow the power derived from minimalism, it was clearly Juarroz that was feeling Porchia’s stacking of anti-logic.

Here is Porchia:

When I die, I will not see myself die, for the first time.

And Juarroz:

Before or after meeting,
your name isn’t the same,
my word isn’t the same
before or after thinking again
that tomorrow we won’t exist.

Juarroz also published some of Porchia's poems, as well as some of Octavio Paz’s, in his magazine Poesia=Poesia (now available online). Juarroz recognizes in Porchia an intensification of the value of words, to the point that in some cases, the words original meaning disappears. For Juarroz, poetry fights against natural laws like time and gravity. And so surprises or turns are better to be understood as revelations. Maybe that’s why I think that a lot of “vertical” poetry sounds like the Tao Te Ching.

His last two volumes of poetry seem to step back, even undo themselves, more so than his earlier poems. They are deceivingly sure about being so unsure. He writes “We didn’t even discover/ how to drink water’s transparency./ To drink something is to understand it.” A meditation on the nature of silence, at first thinks, “Silence is also a question.” A few stanzas later wonders, “Can silence also be an answer?” Then, at the bottom of the page, adds, “Perhaps at certain heights / questions and answers are exactly the same.”

Juarroz's shortest poem goes:

Absolutely isolated
not even a zero would exist.

Echoing Cesar Vallejo’s famous Hay días que me persiguen he thinks, “There are days that are like spaces/ arranged so that everything hurts.” And then taking a step closer to Vallejo finishes, “Only god doesn’t hurt me today. / Can that be because he doesn’t exist?”

Some may dismiss Juarroz like so much jojoba incense, and maybe they’d be partly right, but there are times when Juarroz truly nails the moment, with the turn of a phrase. And there it is.