Among the books I found in the fantastic new & used bookstore Libroria in Las Mercedes was a first edition of the essay by Armando Rojas Guardia, El dios de la intemperie (Caracas: Editorial Mandorla, 1985). This edition includes an introduction by Juan Liscano, who describes the poet’s meandering essay as being imbued with spiritual candor:
“The notes that make up this book extract from the anecdotal and biographical, the essence of a spiritual experience defined by him, from the beginning, as an “exodus.” These texts are not chronological nor do they narrate anything. Much less are they a part of a preconceived plan, of a planned development. They don’t aspire to convince, expound, demonstrate, inform. They constitute a structure in which each fragment internally relates to the whole, in which the whole becomes a constellation. Fragmented coherence. We stand before an organic writing, before a living organism of writing, that breathes, moves, pulses, contracts, and expresses itself. The texts are born of an active meditation, rather than a contemplative one, and they are reflection and creation, fundamentally an encounter, inner resonance, dispossession and sign. What has happened here, what happens as we read, is given only to the person who passed (or passes) through this exodus, through this nomadism that implies the dispossession of ephemeral encampments, the succession of landscapes, the constant exit, the refusal of locking oneself in or being locked in, even at the cost of losing the sense of being safe, guarded, protected. This wandering can’t be, could not – for the moment perhaps – install itself, much less inhabit a temple, a palace or a castle, which is to say, a blind and dogmatic faith, a remunerative and circumstantial success, or a defensive closure within itself. Rojas Guardia, this nómade of the spirit, ceaselessly changes places and opens himself to the world’s knowledge, with a vehemence and generosity that are unusual in a medium such as ours, where in general the artist and the writer are politicians, cultivate a career and defend themselves from sincerity, by means of evasion or duplicity.” (11)
Born in Caracas in 1949, the son of the poet Pablo Rojas Guardia, he studied philosophy at the Universidad Católica Andrés Bello and spent time as a seminarian at the Instituto Pignatelli, which he abandoned without becoming a priest. In the early 1970s he lived at Ernesto Cardenal’s spiritual community in Nicaragua, Solentiname, which he wrote about in various early poems, including “Postales de Solentiname” [Solentiname Postcards] from which I translate two sections below:
Over the Guayibo
the long scream
of the oropendola
No one is home
She is alone
– I type this
on my machine
Today the poem was that little half bottle of Plata rum
gulped in the kitchen by eight friends who insisted that
each one receive
the same exact dose of happiness
(Antología poética, Monte Ávila Editores, 1993)
Back in Venezuela, Rojas Guardia became a member of the influential group of poets who emerged in the early 1980s, Tráfico, which included Yolanda Pantin, Miguel and Alberto Márquez, Rafael Castillo Zapata and Igor Barreto. The critic Rafael Arráiz Lucca describes Rojas Guardia as the central theorist of Tráfico, the person who wrote their manifestos and helped conceive their deep engagement with the city. El dios de la intemperie [The God of the Storm], however, is an explicitly personal and introspective essay. By means of an intuitive series of spiritual meditations, alongside readings of texts ranging from Barthes and Merleau-Ponty to the Bible, St. John of the Cross and Rafael Cadenas, among many others, Rojas Guardia explores his Christian faith in the context of his struggle with mental illness. He is also very direct in contextualizing his own homosexuality within spiritual and aesthetic frameworks. Like Cardenal, Rojas Guardia writes about his Catholicism in terms of an almost erotic connection with Jesus Christ. The opening paragraphs of the book hinge on this notion of a spiritual eroticism:
“Who are you, sonorous within my depths?
What is your name, intuited horizon, desired darkness, apex of the end, final landscape where pleasure can’t be but agony, icy aroma of a plain where nothingness induces vomiting and being grows dizzy, ray of death that however sets aflame all life.
Who are you?
Word and silence, perfect embrace and solitude that horrifies, secret memory from which all silenced remembrances are born and, at the same time, radical oblivion in whose vertigo the past dissolves and all that is left is an inexpressible present (the old words are useless to describe it).
Who are you, unquenchable song, unexpected color, brilliant and so subtle, central window of praise, of admiration, of a surprising and tender complacency (if tenderness can coexist with the fear of an uncontrollable happiness, though certain as the sun)?
Loved one in whose flesh the Lover we desired awaits, Friend who may well be the (man? woman?) lover who courts us from the shadows, empty Father like the maternal vagina.
My Comrade, sweetest and atrocious companion of a game that summarizes all the emotions of all childhood games, sacred accomplice of a poker game as crucial as destiny and as marvelous as those that feed the vice of the inveterate player.” (25)
Rojas Guardia succeeds in fusing the forms of the poem and essay, allowing his doubts and ruminations to wander alongside texts he points out for the reader to inhabit with him. In a conversation with the novelist Karl Krispin, he described El dios de la intemperie to me as one of the most important essays ever published in Venezuela. One of the reasons Krispin mentioned for his judgment was how Rojas Guardia writes about the notion of failure as an conduit for authentic literary expression, one removed from the ambitions and pretense of our postmodern moment. Krispin uses the following fragment from the essay as an epigraph to his novel Con la urbe al cuello (Caracas: Alfaguara, 2005) – a book I hope to discuss here soon:
“In a society built on the indiscriminate aspiration for success, only failure preserves existential lucidity. The latter still holds, in its rigorous corner, undiscovered possibilities for human realization, which are unknown by those who triumph.” (58)
What I find valuable in this idea is the notion that art and spirituality are endeavors requiring a deep humility, an awareness of failure and silence as fertile grounds for creation. Within that experience of imperfection, loss and failure, Rojas Guardia lauds the benefit of slowness, of learning to disengage from the increasing speed of the world. He identifies “a very slow rhythm” within mental depression, for instance, that can allow us a glimpse into deeper qualities within our lives. As in the image of Christ at his crucifixion, Rojas Guardia writes of the knowledge humans can gain from tragedy, suffering and failure. His essay never completely defines this knowledge, but its magnificent prose gathers an eclectic array of fragments from religious, philosophical and literary texts that resonate with his ruminations.
Rojas Guardia ends his essay with a beautiful portrait of his own methods of composition, sitting in his apartment at sunrise, listening to LP records on a stereo while he writes. The sounds of Mahalia Jackson, John Coltrane, Stan Getz, Thelonius Monk and Bix Beiderbecke evoke for him a spiritual quest centered on the notion of failure and humility as a starting point. Rojas Guardia evokes Mahalia Jackson’s resonant voice as a double of his own when he writes, both of them crying out to God from within a pure faith that acknowledges its own imperfection. He identifies Jackson’s voice as “a corporeal love,” one that transcends time and place in a spiritual yet carnal fervor.
“ I, who sometimes don’t know if I’m worthy of truly believing, when I hear as I do now this medullar jazz cleaving with its gusts of chills the distance between my bones and this page; when life swims above a young pulp, mysteriously complete; when I suddenly realize that, despite everything, I love and am loved; when just as quickly I am approached by a truth I haven’t tried to conquer, a beauty I haven’t sought, a friendship I didn’t expect, a free smile I didn’t provoke; when, in full awareness of my own limitations, I perceive that I always “can go further;” when I feel that, at the substantial level, nothing is lost if each day I’m capable of repeating the vital syllable that just now, beside me, Mahalia incarnates; when I become conscious, with a gratitude that is often instinctual, pre-rational, that, despite the shipwrecks, I receive being (that, effectively, they are giving it to me), then I feel invited (would it be better to say: convened?) to agree, to believe.” (144)