Juan Sánchez Peláez

I've just published a feature on the poet Juan Sánchez Peláez (1922-2003) in issue 4 of Eileen Tabios's Galatea Resurrects. The feature includes my English translations of four poems by Sánchez Peláez, along with essays on his work by Lorenzo García Vega and Juan Calzadilla. Thanks, Eileen, for giving me the space in your fantastic magazine.

I find it very difficult to translate someone whose work I feel so close to. What I admire in Sánchez Peláez's work is the devotion to silence he enacts, in composition itself and on the page. He was one of those rare writers whose first book is a masterpiece. The poems in that collection, Elena y los elementos (1951), transformed Venezuelan literature by inaugurating its postmodern era. The rest of his books emerged slowly, a total of seven relatively short collections in five decades.

As I've been preparing this feature, I've also been immersed in reading the work of Jack Spicer. It's felt like synchronicity to see certain parallels between these two poets. For one, they both adapted aspects of French surrealism to an American context, in the process creating something far beyond Breton's original ideas. Spicer's notion of poetry as dictation echoes Sánchez Peláez's use of automatic writing as a form of composition. Both also use the serial poem as a way to redefine what a collection of poems might be.

Throughout his career, Sánchez Peláez constantly revisited his poems. The 50th anniversary edition of Elena y los elementos has many changes and omissions from the original manuscript. Likewise, the final edition of his collected poems, published in Spain within months of his death, includes revisions to most of his books. Although these changes could seem minor (an image here, a line there) what they point to is the notion of poems as living works the writer doesn't always understand, or even build correctly, at first.

There hasn't been an English edition of Sánchez Peláez's poetry published yet. Obviously, I hope to eventually remedy that problem. For various reasons, Venezuelan literature remains one of the large unknowns within Latin American letters. Regardless, Sánchez Peláez is a major presence in Venezuelan poetry. It wouldn't be an exaggeration to call him one of the most important Latin American poets of the XX century.

There are two crucial books when it comes to Sánchez Peláez. The first is the aforementioned collected poems, which includes 9 poems written after his final collection Aire sobre el aire (1989). The second one is a collection of essays and criticism on his work by a wide range of Latin American critics and poets:

1. Juan Sánchez Peláez, Obra poética (Barcelona, España: Editorial Lumen, 2004)
2. José Ramos, ed., Juan Sánchez Peláez: Ante la crítica (Caracas: Monte Ávila Editores, 1994)

One of the essays on Sánchez Peláez that I've translated for this feature is by the Cuban poet Lorenzo García Vega, who was part of the circle of writers associated with José Lezama Lima in Cuba during the 1940s and 50s. Writing in January 2004 for El Nuevo Herald in Miami, García Vega recalled a visit he made to Venezuela:

"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 sat 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."

"Hallucinatory" is just the right word to describe the magnificent and strange poems of Juan Sánchez Peláez.

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