Con palabras / Roque Dalton

With Words

                                      For Enrique Lihn, on his wedding

        A complete knowledge of the world of words is impossible, at least for the human species and despite what cybernetics insinuates. We don’t even know how to begin. The word “azul” [blue], for instance, can very well be red or brownish-grey, depending on one’s state of mind, climate conditions, the plasticity of the sound wave or political necessities. A series of words that couldn’t be finished and is typographically resolved with an ellipsis is the only serious argument one can provide to prove the existence of God, though not necessarily his emergence from infancy and the possession of the common sense he is generally, very blithely, assumed to possess. There are twelve words in the Pipil language that evacuate the bowels, so as to not say it another way, if they are spoken out loud while staring at your belly button aligned with the firmament. It is evident that Lord Bertrand Russell will never be able to use the words babarabatíbiri, chivo [goat] or listín without the entire modern humanist movement receiving the equivalent of an underwater bomb. And what is onomatopoeia if not word-pliers with which, after sitting them down in the dentist’s chair and making them open their mouth, we extract the soul of things? If we take the words “granada” [grenade], “rompedora” [breaker], “de” [of], “ochenta” [eighty], “y” [and], “un” [one] and “milímetros” [millimeters], and we pin little sacks of gunpowder to their tails before letting them slide down the tube of an adequate mortar, what falls a few hundred meters in front of us is the sharpest moment of the toast in “La Traviata,” at such a volume that, any person who is moderately informed would think that New York’s entire Metropolitan Opera House had fallen from the sky, splitting apart like a rotten coconut and releasing that scandal. Wordless man is not synonymous with mute but rather with zombie. A wordless poet can continue to publish little books in deluxe editions and host cocktail parties so as to keep throwing things into literary pages, or even join Academies or clubs. But if Neruda – to cite a well known case – has something of the zombie after Residencia en la tierra, how do we discover, recognize, classify, the virus of the dead, the cadaverous profile in his subsequent books, the expendable viscous mass in order to isolate the architectonic elements that maintain locomotion’s physiology and the respiratory impudence of the living-dead whom the audience would poison; that is to say, finally, how do we differentiate a living word from one that is ready for the championship? Well, as Erique Muiño would say, when words die music begins and this is very serious for those of us who aren’t immune to 70 ampere headaches. One of the most abominable crimes of Western civilization and Christian culture has consisted precisely in convincing the great popular masses that words are merely signifying elements. That the word cebolla [onion] and that the word oropéndola only came to earth in order to synthesize for us a plumage of night and fire, a modest flight and a special appetite for ripe plantains. The Chinese have treated the word differently and we already know how quickly they proceeded from great famines to hydrogen bomb. No one baptizes their child with the name Sisebuto without experiencing symptoms of meningitis for a few seconds. Should we perchance escape through the tangent – which would be nothing more than a dark reiteration of what we intend to negate or question – of saying that it’s a case of a word that sounds awful? Why does a word free of significations sound awful if not because of something intrinsic in itself, its corporality, its being, which is independent from its most common function, which, on the other hand doesn’t have to be its only one, nor its principal one? We aren’t required to start trembling in the face of these problems, but we must recognize that once we accept the existence of words that can’t be said in any way, we establish a very serious fact. It occurs to me that from there we can depart on a not too distant date toward marking the limitations of anti-matter in physics and nothingness in philosophy. So that no one can come and say that poets spent their time with a lyre in their arms and dawn on their lips, as Otto René Castillo would say quoting Werner Ovalle López, a fact which, and notwithstanding the great authority Otto now has, is not completely true. One must have a great deal of good sense however to not fall for the traps the enemy lays for us, which are present on this terrain as in any other. One of these is what we could call “smoke-curtain-with-function-substitute.” This is what has been done with those poor words “Sesame” and “open,” whose task as signifiers has merely been changed in order to transform them into little keys for thieves’ dens, while swiping their true metaphysical essence. Between “open” as a key and “open” as such, there exists the same distance as between a shop selling mediocre locks and Kant’s room in Koënisberg, and between one “Sesame” and another “Sesame,” the one that exists between Disney and Picasso. Another trap would be infamy – that belonging to the “word of honor.” What one needs is humility, the methodology of being at a disadvantage, the subtlest of fields. We know nothing and are proud until we die. We should remember what happened to Stalin because he made words the exception of dialectical materialism: which led to Babel’s death, to the International’s shipwreck-amidst-ice-floes, to contemporary Soviet prose. If we had faced the problem head on with passion and courage, the situation would be different and magnificent. It would have been enough to begin truly knowing words, to organize them for the future, to discuss liberty with them and, above all, to separate them from quasi-words, anti-words, degenerate words (ex: in order to say “caldo” [stew] in El Salvador they say “Calderón,” “sebo” [grease] is spilled toward “Sebastián” and “medallas” [medals] is the same as “me das” [you give me], all of which is the degeneration of the words pinta [look] and parada [stop], clavada [dive], as Julito Cortázar would say) and dead words. Forget about zeniths and nadirs, forget about regrets as you emerge from the ecstasies: the most beautiful words in the world are: cinabrio [cinnabar], azafata [stewardess], saudade, áloe [aloe], tendresse, carne [meat], mutante [mutant], deprecatingly, melancolía [melancholy], pezón [nipple], chupamiel [honey sucker] and xilófono [xylophone], and if I’ve wasted time in declaring these things because later on someone will confirm that no one has truly understood them, it has been done in the same manner as Jesus Christ or Lenin, and accepting this will at least make me sleep well tonight. That is, if they don’t come and tell me at the last minute that it’s my turn to serve guard duty anyways.

{ Roque Dalton, Taberna y otros lugares, La Habana: Casa de las Américas, 1969 }

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