Rafael Cadenas, una semblanza / Victoria de Stefano

Rafael Cadenas, A Portrait

Rafael Cadenas’s vocation is an early one. At 16, barely a teen, almost a child, he publishes in Barquisimeto his first book, Cantos iniciales (1946),a Whitmanian title that is already a programmatic declaration of a voice in its beginnings.

His grandfather, an enlightened man for that time period, a reader of Shakespeare, who would tell him about the wars he had participated in, his contemporaries Salvador Garmendia and Manuel Caballero, the first circle of friends in his native city, and Hermann Garmendia, Salvador Garmendia’s proverbial older brother, a chronicler, writer, journalist, great reader of the classics and the modernists, these will all play an important role in the vocation of Rafael Cadenas. In his interviews (there is a book published that gathers almost all of them) he recalls that environment united in a love for reading.

Later on, for political reasons, he would move to Caracas to finish high school, and in 1952 the dictatorship of Marcos Pérez Jiménez sends him to that island of exile that is Trinidad, where he will make a living as a schoolteacher. These will be four crucial years for his formation with an apprenticeship in English and reading the poets of that language: Whitman, D. H. Lawrence. There he lives the experience of confinement, of exile, because of which he contrasts his rural and provincial Barquisimeto, subjugated by the asperity of the dictatorship, with other more systematized customs, another culture, other horizons. In a substantial interview by the culture journalist and poet Claudia Posada, after being awarded the Premio FIL de Literatura en Lenguas Romances 2009, he tells us with fine humor that he lived there as an “involuntary but glad subject of Queen Elizabeth,” that he owes the island a language that he reads a great deal and also translates. Thus, thanks to that, we have the collection of his translations gathered in 2005. But also Una isla (1958) and Los cuadernos del destierro, the vast and foundational prose poem written in Trinidad, with which he would burst onto the scene in 1960, once he was back in Caracas. Foundational because this book sets the foundations, without excluding the detours and corrections, of his successive poetry collections. And if I say he burst onto the scene, it is because within the nostalgic and mindful standard of the representation of the native landscape, unique to our poetic tradition, to the degree that the poem emerges from the inwardness of the I and of the movements of the poet’s consciousness in conflict with society, it constitutes a type of challenge, as well as a ticket of entry into modernity. Among its distinctive features we find the sumptuousness of the language, the verbal transgressions, the imaginative splendors of the assets that the poet brings with him upon his return to his country.

In 1966, after several years marked, as Cadenas himself confesses, by the lacerations of an existential crisis, he publishes Falsas maniobras, a collection devoid of the “abundant verbosity” of Los cuadernos del destierro, with a more precise, more sober language, in which the voice of disenchantment predominates. The first verse of the poem “Fracaso” (“Whatever I’ve taken for victory is merely smoke”) sets the tone for the collection.

We can’t forget that, before that, in 1963, in El Clarín del Viernes, which was edited by Adriano González León, he published “Derrota,” an emblematic poem because of its resonant implications, including the premonitions he had regarding the outcome of the conflict between the recently inaugurated democracy and the insurrectional model represented by the Cuban Revolution. This is how Cadenas describes it: “A poem very tied to history, with concrete references to the political and social moment that was being lived and to an existential uneasiness that took hold of those of us who began to lose our illusions in messianic solutions to the crucial problems of the continent.” Later on he declares to the interviewer: “Today I don’t find myself in “Derrota,” but not because I think I have found success, that word form part of my vocabulary, what happens is that poem was written by a young man with whom I hardly ever speak, that is, myself 40 years ago.” To a certain degree, we his readers, after 40 years, and with his collected works published by Mexico’s Fondo de Cultura Económica and Spain’s Pre-textos, or gathered in many anthologies, could venture to affirm that “Derrota” is the transitional stage, existential and aesthetic, in the path that goes from Los cuadernos del destierro to Falsas maniobras and from Falsas maniobras to the decade of “fertile and tenacious silence,” as Guillermo Sucre writes in La máscara, la transparencia, one of our era’s most illuminating essays about Latin American poetry. A silence during which Cadenas establishes himself in the search for a more precise language disengaged from adornment, closer to reality.

In 1977, within months of each other, we see the publication of La máscara, la transparencia and Intemperie. In 1983, Amante appears and from the seventies a significant quantity of essays (Realidad y literatura, Apuntes sobre San Juan de la Cruz y la mística, La barbarie civilizada, Anotaciones, En torno al lenguaje). In 1992, Dichos is published and Gestiones in 1993, which will earn him the Premio Internacional de Poesía Pérez Bonalde. It was undoubtedly a fertile and renewing silence.

Some critics consider Falsas maniobras as a response to a radical departure in relation to Los cuadernos del destierro, while others locate the rupture with Memorial. Others find, keeping in mind the differences between the books, a line of continuity traced by his ethical and existential position in the face of the world, by his poetics implicit in the search for an authenticity of the self, of a self free from all ties but not removed from the reality and time he has been fated to live. Cadenas has many poems that enact, whether they carry that title or not, his ars poetica. Poems that tell us about the states of consciousness laboriously traversed by the poet in order to go, detached from burdens, from one collection to another so as to reach the austere and disentangled language, the sober and purified forms of reflection in the service of truth: we all know of Cadenas’s interest in meditation and philosophy.

I would like to remember several among the many critics who have focused on the poetry of Cadenas. Because Rafael, followed by Eugenio Montejo, has been the most studied, reviewed, observed, scrutinized by literary critics in articles, reviews, doctoral theses: Ida Gramcko, Guillermo Sucre, Guillent Pérez, Rafael José Muñoz, Adriano González León, Ludovico Silva, Ángel Rama, Manuel Caballero, José Balza, Alejandro Oliveros, Armando Rojas Guardia, Ana Nuño, María Fernanda Palacios and Luis Miguel Isava, a devoted student of his work.

I would like to finish by citing a text by Guillermo Sucre from La máscara, la transparencia: “Rafael Cadenas’s oeuvre also begins with an awe for verbal powers and the imagination. But his rupture with all that becomes more radical. Cadenas’s radicalism? Perhaps there is nothing so simple yet more complex. Cadenas is not naïve nor is he a mystic, much less an aesthete. What he seeks is to return to a direct relationship with the world and that the word might serve that relationship. This is what I think he suggests in a poem from one of his most recent books: “Ancient voice, / you were hiding the path. / Now you occupy your place. / No more conjuring.” No more enchanting words, not even le mot juste, but rather the word that occupies its place; it is no longer mere despoilment, but rather the clearance that opens the true ‘path toward the real.’ ”

{ Victoria de Stefano, Tal Cual, 17 March 2012 }

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