The Latin American novelist and poet Roberto Bolaño is hot right now. And dead. “So it goes,” as Billy Pilgrim taught us. Anyway, needing a novel to read for a journey, I scanned the New York Times 2007 Best Books List (something I usually don’t do, being an elitist in a proletarian sort of way) and picked up his book The Savage Detectives. An incredibly lucky pick. The novel affected me like no other novel has done in a long time. So much so that I’m writing a longer piece which I’ll append above.
But, since the book is at least partially about poetry, in particular the internecine warfare between poets and their (our) various congregations, I wanted to paste in its entirety a rambunctious tongue-in-cheek riff (see note at the end) about the Great Mexican Poetry Wars, circa 1975. Although Mexican in nature, it spreads to include much of western poetry--Whitman, Vallejo, Neruda, French poets, Italian poets, etcetera. The venue for the rant is a wild party of “Visceral Realists,” that group of angry young Mexican poets (fictional) who revolt against the Mexican poetry establishment of government grants, the tenured academy, Octavio Paz and his disciples, and all institutionalized poetics. Reading it I couldn’t help but think of Ron Silliman’s discussions and definitions of the poetics and poets of the School of Quietude in American poetry versus the rawer and certainly less institutionalized poetry of the New Americans and their gregarious cohorts. Or to put it more simply, the Mexican battle was akin to the 1950s battle occurring in the U.S. when the New Critics were scandalized by the antics of the Beats with their anarchic sense of poetics. I agree generally with Silliman’s categories. Indeed, I was happy to discover Silliman making these distinctions. I’m not a fan of the SoQ and I could never put a finger on my antipathy until I paid more attention to Silliman. But I must listen to my friend JB Bryan when he accuses me of elitism and snobbery. Thus, I was happy to find a rant that makes a mockery of the civil wars of poetry but at the same time takes the arguments very seriously
Visceral Realism is a fictional counterpart of the infrarealismo movement of the same time period of Mexican poetics. Its adherents, of whom Bolaño was one, were feared as a rowdy bunch of barbarians known for disrupting readings and being decidedly loud-mouthed rabble rousers. This remarkable speech comes to us third hand. The first part of the novel is the diary of 17-year-old Juan García Madero, a wannabe poet in his first year of university. He has fallen (luckily/unluckily) into the circle of the “visceral realists.” One morning García Madero, after a particular wild and drunken party, reconstructs the speech as it flowed from the mouth of Ernesto San Epifanio. San Epifanio is gay, a card-carrying member of the Visceral Realists, as well as the founder of the first Homosexual Communist Party of Mexico and the first Mexican Homosexual Proletarian Commune. The wonderfully witty and wild harangue reminds me, in its berserk crazy energy, of Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech in Romeo and Juliet. Or better yet, the rants and curses that New Mexico intellectuals Gus Blaisdell and Bill Pearlman used to hurl at each other late on drunken Saturday nights at those forever lost historical landmark of radical 1960s New Mexico culture: the Thunderbird Bar in Placitas, NM, or Okie Joe’s on the corner of University and Central in Albuquerque. You had to be there.
The selection from the young poet's diary is taken from pages 71-73 of the novel.
I woke up at Catalina O’Hara’s house. As I was having breakfast, very early, with Catalina and her son, Davy, who had to be taken to nursery school (María wasn’t there, everyone else was asleep), I remembered that the night before, when there were just a few of us left, Ernesto San Epifanio had said that all literature could be classified as heterosexual, homosexual or bisexual. Novels, in general, were heterosexual, whereas poetry was completely homosexual; I guess short stories were bisexual, although he didn’t say so.
Within the vast ocean of poetry he identified various currents: faggots, queers, sissies, freaks, butches, fairies, nymphs and philenes. But the two main currents were faggots and queers. Walt Whitman, for example, was faggot poet. Pablo Neruda, a queer. William Blake was definitely a faggot. Octavio Paz was a queer. Borges was a philene, or in other words he might be a faggot one minute and simply asexual the next. Rubén Darío was a freak, in fact, the queen freak, the prototypical freak.
“In our language, of course,” he clarified. “In the wider world the reigning freak is still Verlaine the Generous.”
Freaks, according to San Epifanio, were closer to madhouse flamboyance and naked hallucination, while faggots and queers wandered in stagger-step from ethics to aesthetics and back again. Cernuda, dear Cernuda, was a nymph, and at moments of great bitterness, a faggot, whereas Guillén, Aleixandre, and Alberti could be considered a sissy, a butch, and a queer respectively. As a general rule, poets like Carlos Pellicer were butches, while poets like Tablada, Novo, and Renato Leduc were sissies. In fact, there was a dearth of faggots in Mexican poetry, although some optimists might point to López Velarde and Efraín Huerta. There were a lot of queers, on the other hand, from the mauler (although for a second I heard mobster) Días Mirón to the illustrious Homero Aridjis. It was necessary to go all the way back to Amado Nervo (whistles) to find a real poet, a faggot poet, this is, and not a philene like the resurrected and now renowned Manuel José Othón from San Luis Potosí, a bore if ever there was one. And speaking of bores: Manuel Acuña was a fairy and José Joaquín Pesado was a Grecian wood nymph, both longtime pimps of a certain kind of Mexican lyrical verse.
“And Efrén Rebolledo?” I asked.
“An extremely minor queer. His only virtue is that he was the first, if not the only, Mexican poet to publish a book in Tokyo: Japanese Poems, 1909. He was a diplomat, of course.”
Anyway, the poetry scene was essentially an (underground) battle, the result of the struggle between faggots and queer poets to seize control of the word. Sissies, according to San Epifanio, were faggot poets by birth, who out of weakness or for comfort’s sake lived within the accepted--most of the time--the aesthetic and personal parameters of the queers. In Spain, France, and Italy, queer poets have always been legion, he said, although a superficial reader might never guess. What happens is that a faggot poet like Leopardi, for example, somehow reconstructs queers like Ungaretti, Montale, and Quasimodo, the deadly trio.
“In the same way, Pasolini redraws contemporary Italian queerdom. Take the case of the poor Sanguinetti (I won’t start with Pavese, who was a sad freak, the only one of his kind, or Dino Campana, who dines at a separate table, the table of the hopeless freaks). Not to mention France, great country of devouring mouths, where one hundred faggot poets, from Villon to our beloved Sophie Podolski, have nurtured, still nurture, and will nurture with the blood of their tits ten thousand queer poets with their entourage of philenes, nymphs, butches, and sissies, lofty editors of literary magazines, great translators, petty bureaucrats, and grand diplomats of the Kingdom of Letters (see, if you must, the shameful and malicious reflections of the Tel Quel poets). And the less said the better about the faggotry of the Russian Revolution, which, if we’re to be honest, gave us just one faggot poet, a single one.”
“Who?” they asked him. “Mayakovsky?”
“Pasternak? Blok? Mandelstam? Akhmatova?”
“Come on, Ernesto, tell us, the suspense is killing us.”
“There was only one,” said San Epifanio, “and now I’ll tell you who it was, but he was the real thing, a steppes-and-snow faggot, a faggot from head to toe: Khlebnikov.”
There was an opinion for every taste.
“And in Latin America, how many true faggots do we find? Vallejo and Martín Adan. Period. New Paragraph. Macedonio Fernández, (although some of his poems are authentically faggotty), butches like León de Greiff, butch nymphs like Pablo de Rokha (with bursts of freakishness that would’ve driven Lecan crazy), sissies like Lezama Lima, a guided reader of Góngora, and, along with Lezama, all the poets of the Cuban Revolution (Diego, Vitier, horrible Retamar, pathetic Guillén, inconsolable Fina Garcia) except for Rogelio Nogueras, who is a darling an a nymph with the spirit of a playful faggot. But moving on. In Nicaragua most poets are fairies like Coronel Urtecho or queers who wish they were philenes, like Ernesto Cardenal. The Mexican Contemporaries are queers too…”
“No!” shouted Belano. “Not Gilberto Owen!”
“In fact,” San Epifanio continued unruffled, “Gorotiza’s Death Without End, along with the poetry of Paz, is the ‘Marseillaise’ of the highly nervous and sedentary Mexican Queer Poets. More names:Gelman, nymph; Bendetti, queer; Nacanor Parra, fairy with a hint of faggot; Wesphalen, freak; Enrique Lihn, sissy; Girondo, fairy; Rubén Bonifaz Nuño, fairy butch; Sabines, butchy butch; our beloved, untouchable Josemilio P., freak;. And back to Spain, back to the beginning”—whistles—“Gongora and Quevedo, queers; san Juan de la Cruz and Fray Luis de León, faggots. End of story. And now, some differences between queers and faggots. Even in their sleep, the former beg for a twelve-inch cock to plow and fertilize them, but at the moment of truth, mountains must be moved to get them into bed with the pimps they love. Faggots, on the other hand, live as if a stake is permanently churning their insides and they look at themselves in the mirror (something they both love and hate to do with all their heart), they see the Pimp of Death in their own sunken eyes. For faggots and queers, pimp is the one word that can cross unscathed through the realms of nothingness (or silence or otherness). But then, too, nothing prevents queers and faggots from being good friends if they so desire, from neatly ripping one another off, criticizing or praising one another, publishing or burying one another in the frantic and moribund world of letters.”
“And what about Cesárea Tinajero? Is she a faggot or queer?” someone asked. I didn’t recognize the voice.
“Oh, Cesárea Tinajero is horror itself,” said San Epifanio.
Copyright © 2006 by Roberto Bolaño; translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer. Published in April 2007 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.
NOTE: As a publisher, I thought long and hard about inserting this harangue into my blog because of copyright issues, but I believe that putting it here can only help the sales of the book. If somebody from FS&G contacts me, I will be happy to delete this post.