La aventura de “Mandrágora” / Juan Gustavo Cobo Borda

The “Mandrágora” Adventure

[Jorge Cáceres, “La idea.” Image borrowed from Mandrágora]

In 1942 Braulio Arenas edits in Santiago, Chile, the first issue of the magazine Leit-motiv which includes collaborations from Breton, Péret, Césaire, Gómez Correa, Arenas himself, Teófilo Cid, Jorge Cáceres, and Juan Sánchez Peláez. (1) Thus the young Venezuelan poet, only 20 years old at the time, is linked to one of the most radical surrealist groups of the Spanish language, that since its appearance, in 1938, with a series of public actions and the first issue of the magazine Mandrágora maintained, according to Octavio Paz’s words, “an exemplary stance”: “Not only did they have to face the conservative groups and the black militias of the Catholic Church but also the Stalinists and Neruda,” (2) the preferred victim of their sarcasm.

Arenas himself would evoke, 30 years later, “the presence at the time of that young, skinny and, of course, amorous Venezuelan, who was slightly adrift (as we all thought we were) and who shared with great stoicism, here in Chile, the bread and a piece of the “Mandrágora.” ” (3)

What a splendind initiation, then, for an apprentice poet, that fervorous outburst that was “Mandrágora”: that participation, as tangential as it may have been, in that combat in favor of the unleashing power of the word. A combat that recurred, as it should be, not only to a healthy black humor, qualifying for example Neruda, Huidobro and Pablo de Rokha as “the three stooges of Chilean poetry,” (4) but also submerging itself, already, in those public years of “Mandrágora,” from 1938 to 1952, in deeper layers. As Gómez Correa has recently recalled:

“We propitiated the outer limits of the instincts with the subsequent acknowledgment of irrational values in order to attain as a goal an equilibrium between instinct and reason.”

Sánchez Peláez would discover amid the “mad geography” of Chile the thrilling inheritance of surrealism, taken up again by a group that maintained solidarity with its fundamental principles, and which in its vital stance as well as in its vertiginous writing has tried to take poetry to its final consequences, where dream and daily life stop opposing each other.

It seems to me that this is, at the level of his poetry, the most fruitful lesson Sánchez Peláez received from the Chilean group: not just to live in poetry, but rather to open himself up to a better reception of his own world; learning how to listen to himself so that later on, as is the case with some of his best poems – “Profundidad del amor,” “Retrato de la bella desconocida,” “Animal de costumbre” – automatic dictation concedes to him those texts that are at once fervent and doubtful; that rhythm that is simultaneously magical and colloquial.*

The love letters I wrote in my childhood were memories of a future lost paradise. The uncertain trail of my hope was signed in the musical hills of my native country. What I pursued was the fragile roe deer, the ephemeral hunting dog, the beauty of the stone that becomes an angel.


My love letters were not love letters but rather visceral solitude.

My love letters were kidnapped by the ultramarine falcons
that move across the mirrors of childhood.

My love letters are offerings from a paradise

of courtesans.

What will happen later, not to mention tomorrow? murmurs the decrepit old man. Maybe death will whistle, before his enchanted eyes, the most beautiful love ballad.
(“Profundidad del amor”)

Nor was the reflexive ardor of phrases such as these alien to the poetics that Rosamel del Valle would formulate in his diverse books of poems – “the mysterious timbales / That can push me away from loving aged young girls / Not because of time but by reason of looking at themselves day by day / In the sea that passes through the mirrors” – rigurously anthologized by Sánchez Peláez, and which, likewise, owe thanks to the 1959 essay Rosamel dedicates to the poetry of Humberto Díaz-Casanueva, which under the title of “La violencia creadora” constitutes a lucid explanation of the poetic task. Rosamel speaks there of the difficult alloy between communication and enigma; how nothing will be feasible without original nostalgia; that is: without the presence of myth; of the need for a permanent insubordination – “the fire of disobedience” –, and the imperious need for canceling any type of nostalgia, since it is not necessary to say goodbye to that which remains within, reinventing, incessantly, amidst the archetype of repetitions, a new Paradise.

And above all a very marked emphasis on that “burning order”: to remain within poetry, exiling oneself in the world of mayor nonconformity, as is the world of great experiences. One does not always speak to be understood, says Rosamel, and he adds:

“The problem is to restore the spirit, to train it to strengthen itself in myth and imagination and not remain in the stubborn chore of sinking man into the pits of his poor reality.” (5)

At the death of Rosamel del Valle, whom Sánchez Peláez would only get to meet personally in New York in 1962, he dedicates a moving eulogy to him. To create is above all to create oneself, he says there, adding: the primary outburst of being pulverizes the apparent order that exists in the world. “To remake life because true life is absent, to invent the world because we are not in the world.” (6) This, the decalogue of surrealism, had already become for Sánchez Peláez an essential part of his creative effort. Confirmed, later on, through his various translations of surrealist poets: Péret, Magloire Saint-Aude, Sénelier.

Various notes of his, moreover, dedicated, for example, to Breton or Leonora Carrington, emphasize his interest. In the first of these, he says that poetry is a method of knowledge and a way of making known [hacer conocer] (7), following an idea by Breton. All of which becomes even more explicit in the various homages that several of his poems propose, where names such as Tristan Tzara or Rose Selavy shine unequivocally.

But the influence of surrealism is even subtler and impregnates his work in a perhaps more decisive manner. As Julio Ortega has pointed out:

“The happiness of the bright form, that immediate and necessary splendor that is the word objectified and without emphasis of writing impelled by a “rhythm,” by a knowledge that abandons itself without waste, is also a fervor gained by the modern tradition, in good measure, from the surrealist verbal experience.” (8)

Here we find something that can also be applied to Sánchez Peláez, who makes of his texts not a discursive sequence but rather a reiterated enigma; there where the prosaic lives alongside the cryptic, and language in a state of exhaltation doesn’t hide the transparency of its sense. Where the secret is clear, and stripped. Between solitude and participation Juan Sánchez Peláez’s poetry has led us to read those with whom he shares affinities. It’s time now to return to his own texts, and to focus our attention, in detail, on his contribution, which is as singular as that of those he considers, with good reason, his teachers.


1. Stefan Baciu, Antología de la poesía surrealista latinoamericana. México, Editorial Joaquín Mortíz, 1974, p. 90.
In/mediaciones. Barcelona, Seix Barral, 1979, p. 158.
3. “Los rasgos comunes de Juan Sánchez Pel
áez.” In El Nacional, Caracas, 11 November 1976.
4. Stefan Baciu,
Surrealismo latinoamericano, preguntas y respuestas. Chile, Ediciones Universitarias de Valparaíso, 1979, pp. 22-38. See also, by Braulio Arenas, Actas Surrealistas, Chile, Editorial Nascimiento, 1974.
5. Santiago de Chile, Editorial Universitaria, 1959, pp. 69-70.
6. “Rosamel del Valle,” “Separata,” Valencia, Universidad de Carabobo, October 1970, pp. 20-21.
7. “André Breton, 1896-1966.” In
Imagen. Caracas, No. 10, 1-15, October 1967, pp. 6-7; “Leonora Carrington, hada surrealista.” In Imagen. Caracas, No. 12, 1-15, November 1967. p. 5.
8. “La escritura plurar (Notas sobre tradición y surrealismo).” In
Revista Iberoamericana, Pittsburgh, Nos. 76-77, July-December 1971, pp. 603-604. See also, from the same author, “La escritura de la vanguardia.” In Ibid, Nos. 106-107, January-June, pp. 187-198.

* This is why upon returning to Venezuela Sánchez Peláez would seek the creation of a “genuine poetic atmosphere” in his country, as stated in the editorial for the only issue, appearing in November of 1949, of the magazine
El Perfil y la Noche which he would edit with his friend Vicente Gerbasi. Poems by Rosamel del Valle and Eluard, a note about Aimé Césaire and a translation of an article by A. Maugée which vindicates obscurity in poetry, these reveal the lasting influence of “Mandrágora.”

Translator’s note: This is an excerpt from a longer essay entitled “La poesía de Juan Sánchez Peláez,” which first appeared in the Papel Literario supplement of the newspaper El Nacional on August 17 and 24, 1980.

{ Juan Gustavo Cobo Borda, Juan Sánchez Peláez: Ante la crítica, Caracas: Monte Ávila Editores, 1994 }

No comments: