Juan Sánchez Peláez
is, for me, the most interesting Venezuelan poet of the twentieth century. And yet, outside of Venezuela and Latin America he is completely unknown. Even within Latin America, very few people know his work. Álvaro Mutis and Octavio Paz have both praised his poems and the latter published his work in Vuelta. Sánchez Peláez was a visiting international fellow at the Iowa Writer's Workshop, after which he lived in New York City for a few years in the early 1970s. In the 1950s he lived in Paris for several years. Despite the international scope of his work, no one seems to have even heard of him.
As far as I know, there has never been an English edition of Sánchez Peláez's work. Which brings us once again to the topic of Venezuelan invisibility. Why, for instance, is there not a single book of his at the University of Iowa's library? Well, because according to the libraries, bookstores, scholars, poets and readers of the United States, Venezuelan poetry does not exist.
One good piece of news, however, is that his collected poems have just been published in Spain by Editorial Lumen.
My first encounter with JSP's poetry was in Providence, RI in 1997, when I purchased his final collection Aire sobre el aire (1989) at a book fair in that city's convention center. I read the 14 poems in this magnificent collection that same evening and was immediately entranced by his verses. His work instantly challenged and transformed my conception of what poetry might be or what it might accomplish. Reading him for the first time was a revelation, which continues to unfold. I guess in that sense, I conceive of poetry as an action, a thought, a vision--hardly ever simply words or a poetics.
Although he aligned himself spiritually with French surrealist and symbolist poets, JSP developed his own distinct style which he polished, deconstructed and inhabited throughout several decades, from the 1940s until his death in Caracas last November. The Miami Herald was the only North American newspaper to mention his death (in its Spanish-language edition, El Nuevo Herald, on January 26, 2004--see my February archives below).
One thing I have noticed about my own translations of his poems is that my versions always end up being rather pathetic approximations of the subtle tones he works with. I am working on a manuscript of selected poems of his in English translation. However, as I keep in mind the fact that he often spent years revising individual poems, I am hesitant to rush my versions. The ones I have posted here and at Antología are extremely clumsy versions.
As with John Wieners, JSP's work must be read within the context of his life. As we read him, we should remember that poems are merely the extensions, or shadows, of our thoughts and actions. This borrowed computer I write on, this internet I take from work, those trees budding outside my classroom windows, those rain clouds gathering above Boston just now, the violence and despair of every day, all these are essential to whatever poem might emerge. We are, more or less, mere conduits.
In the opening paragraphs of 707 Scott Street, John Wieners wrote: "I must forget how to write. I must unlearn what has been taught me." JSP's move toward a minimalist aesthetic, later in his career, evokes this notion of unlearning.
"You arrive, to quell lightning with a glass of almonds.
This dream’s anchor opens my eyes into life."