El que arrojaba uvas ardientes / Lorenzo García Vega

The One Who Threw Burning Grapes

The one who threw burning grapes into the hard bays? Who knew how to say it? Only a poet, of course, only my friend Juan Sánchez Peláez knew how. But since it ends up being painful for me to say he’s no longer here, I’m going to take a leap that will lead me to a cinema from my youth. How is this?

Some of us poets or men of letters, or whatever term one might use, who erupted onto the Latin American scene encompassed between the years 1940 and 1955, saw certain pathetic newsreels in the cinemas where a broadcaster with a “serious” voice explained what we were seeing: an atomic explosion over some Japanese cities. It was an entirely new Chapter in History (just like that, with capitals or with a capital voice, was how the newscaster said it) that was going to change everything, or take everything apart. This is how existential anguish became a daily occurrence. An existential anguish that was dyed with Surrealism’s good fires.

That’s exactly how it was. We made our entrance beneath an atomic explosion narrated by a newscaster and we hid ourselves, however we could, beneath Surrealism’s final shots. So that those of us who were young in those times—a few young people who had proposed among ourselves to hide beneath the metaphorical disorder of the avant-garde—, and who lived amid the isolation of an island, nourished ourselves in any way we could with what reached us from the outside world through the bookstores in Havana. And this, while on the mainland, in other words on the continent, a Venezuelan whom we didn’t know, Juan Sánchez Peláez, was making his way to Chile to gather the legacy of that Surrealist magazine, Mandrágora, where, according to a critic: “The Mandragorists opened a path with elbow jabs, savagely breaking with everything; screams, improprieties, insults against the medium with no concern for good manners.” And this, so that afterwards, on a journey by velocipede, as Juan confessed in one of his poems, he ended up in that Paris where he met Peret, and where he assimilated such things as “the deep and long night of my age,” pointed out by Eluard.

It was an anguish, then, which arrived with an atomic explosion that, transformed into shadows of film, settled in the Havana neighborhood cinema we went to. Or it was a Surrealism with a night of astonishing harlequins, or with a scream that warned: Into the water with Apollinaire!, but where isolation was the only thing that existed. An isolation where the Surrealist automatism we tried to plunge into ended up being an empty gesture. A gesture that was merely surrounded by the solitude of an island where the surreal was seen out of the corner of an eye by a glance that, even in its best expression, Gongoresque, attained the quality of the Beautiful with a capital. In other words, the Beautiful with a Roman God, which couldn’t help being, with its lamentable connection to the ritualistic, the manifestation of the cassock and the cathedral.

And, how sad then!, as we walked out of those cinemas where the atomic bomb exploded, that we young people, who lived surrounded by water on all sides, couldn’t fully connect with the great Latin American Surrealist shadows who wandered on the mainland: César Moro, Molina, or Emilio Adolfo Westphalen, or…

In the end, many things had to occur and, among these, departing the island in a stampede, so as to be able to encounter, after a few years, the surrealist, friend and contemporary, Juan Sánchez Peláez, whom we should have encountered sooner, much sooner. But, finally…We were destined to meet, and the Laws of Cosmic Necessity (laws that could have been dictated by that Gurdief that Juan was reading the last time I saw him) led the poet Octavio Armand to put me in contact with Juan (and, of course, with his companion Malena), during a New York night in the 1970s.

And who was Juan, the Venezuelan poet born in 1922 in Altagracia de Orituco, in the sate of Guárico, and who died in Caracas last November? Who was that Juan, with a turtleneck and Picassian eyes, whom I met one night in New York? Well, looking through a window now in January, through a window that, I don’t know how, puts me in direct contact with the old gold—alchemical?—of a light, this, with nothing else whatsoever but to face the weight of his absence. My friend the poet, who knew how to define himself so well in this manner: “And I know of my limits / I possess a dwelling, my dwelling is / the irony, / a living owl, no / embalmed / the owl that's in the well of the / moon / at the very lonely first hour of / dawn.”

Or I remember once, when emerging from the room that was in the hallucinatory patio of his house in the Altamira neighborhood of Caracas, Juan arrived on the terrace were I was to say to me suddenly, but not emphatically: The words sound like gold animals.” And then—I can guarantee it happened this way—I hallucinated when I heard Juan say those words, since, in a way I wouldn’t know how to explain now, I understood what my poet friend was saying was not one of his verses, but just that, gold animals, which he seemed to know how to weigh in his hands, while he spied on the brilliance as though he were a child.

Or Juan, how would I know how to say it?, with his deafness, in his slow, very slow walks that he took, where he was like a Zen figure whose cane, which in actuality he never used, had just been taken away. Very slow walks, I repeat. And above all I remember one, paradigmatic, which we took around the Paseo de los Chorros in Caracas, and where I thought to say to Juan that at any moment we could very well come across an apparition of Ramos Sucre, that Venezuelan poet so close to us, arm in arm with Empress Charlotte. I thought to say this to him, and my friend Juan, poet without a cane, advanced a few steps, as he tended to do during his walks; and he backed up one step, as he immediately tended to do; and this so as to, as always, conclude by opening his eyes, or covering his mouth, just like a gracious character in a silent film who knew how to say it all without having to use a single sound. Although, yes, a silent character, who in certain moments knew how to sing “Júrame” for us, that song composed by María Greber in 1926, which he loved so much (“I’m certain—he once told me—if the old Surrealists had heard it, it would have been one of their favorite songs”).

Or Juan, at the end, who knew like no one else how to evoke César Moro, a figure Latin American Surrealism can identify with, and he did this with words that can also serve to say goodbye to him in this brief essay:

César Moro, beautiful and humbled,
playing a harp in the outskirts of Lima
said to me: come into my house, poet.
Ask always for air, clear sky,
because one must die some day, it's understood.
One must be born, and you are already dead.
The floor will always remain, wide and quiet,
though dying from the same family is birth.

{ Lorenzo García Vega , El Nuevo Herald, 26 January 2004 }

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