Correspondences between Rimbaud & Ramos Sucre

I’d like to make a few observations about the Venezuelan poet José Antonio Ramos Sucre tonight. I’ll give a brief summary of his life and cite two critics who’ve noted the influence of Arthur Rimbaud on his writing.

Ramos Sucre was born in Cumaná, Venezuela in 1890 and died by his own hand in Geneva, Switzerland in 1930. He published five books and pamphlets in Caracas between 1921 and 1929. His texts are hybrids that employ elements from fiction, poetry and the essay. Many of these texts first appeared in Caracas newspapers and magazines throughout the twenties. In December of 1929, he travelled to Europe for a position at the Venezuelan consulate in Geneva. On his way, he stopped in Hamburg, Germany and Merano, Italy, where he stayed at sanatoriums he hoped might cure the insomnia that had plagued him for nearly a decade. Overwhelmed by his deteriorating mental health in Geneva, he took an overdose of barbiturates on his fortieth birthday and died three days later. His body was shipped back to Venezuela, where he was buried in his hometown.

One of the first critics to note the affinities between Rimbaud and Ramos Sucre was Francisco Pérez Perdomo, in the prologue to an anthology he edited in 1969, the first mass-market edition of his poetry. Pérez Perdomo wrote: “Ramos Sucre’s writing has a satanic, Dionysian tone just like some of the characters in his texts. […] and the uxoricide of “Life of the Damned,” frequented by the specter of his victim that will one day succeed in exterminating him with its rancor, recalls the infernal groom of Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell. A supernatural, fantastical world invades his texts.”

In his 1975 essay “Ramos Sucre and Us,” the philosopher and critic Ludovico Silva discussed the poet’s aesthetic lineage:

“The line that goes from Baudelaire to Rimbaud, which is to say, the line from Petits poèmes en prose (1864) to Une saison en enfer (1873) is perhaps the clearest literary source for detecting some of the most characteristic traits of Ramos Sucre’s universe, both in its purely formal aspect as well as in the behavior of the poet himself. The elongated and voluptuous prose, friend to a certain contemptuous Satanism; the landscapes in which

tout n'est qu'ordre et beauté,
Luxe, calme et volupté.

an almost complete indifference to the concrete social and historical references in which the poet lives (more accentuated in Ramos Sucre than in his French antecedents, who at least spoke about Paris) and, finally, the ironic manner of intermingling worlds of Olympian happiness and Hellenic clarity with somberly Christian worlds, of a “Christianity in ruins” that, according to Nietzsche, is a distinctive sign of poetic modernity; all of that is a clear symptom of a profound assimilation, on the part of Ramos Sucre, of the poetic message of those great French poets.”

In his poems and personal letters, Ramos Sucre never mentions Rimbaud, as he does other writers such as Homer, Virgil, Shakespeare or Leopardi. But he is known to have purchased many titles on a regular basis from two Paris booksellers, who shipped their merchandise across the Atlantic. Considering Ramos Sucre’s voracious and eclectic reading habits, his decision to exclusively adopt the prose poem form—when no one else in Venezuela had done that—and his use of transgressive or “satanic” imagery, Rimbaud can provide a helpful key to his work.

My reading of Rimbaud has been shaped by the Louise Varèse translations that New Directions first published in the forties. I’ve occasionally borrowed from Varèse’s somewhat antiquated diction and sensibility when deciding on what tones, words and images to employ in my Ramos Sucre translations. Reading Ramos Sucre these past five years, I’ve begun to pick up his trace in some of my contemporaries. Not that they’ve read him necessarily but rather his work has seeped into my sensibility as a reader. So for instance, when I read Jon Leon’s recent book The Malady of the Century (Futurepoem, 2012), I can’t help noticing Ramos Sucre lurking in some of his sentences.

Addendum: Three Views of Ramos Sucre

Winter Fête
Arthur Rimbaud
(tr. Louise Varèse)

     The cascade resounds behind operetta huts. Fireworks prolong, through the orchards and avenues near the Meander,—the greens and reds of the setting sun. Horace nymphs with First Empire headdresses,—Siberian rounds and Boucher’s Chinese ladies.


José Antonio Ramos Sucre

     The mystical commotion had startled me. I was in the presence of an aerial vision. The symbols of faith gained a spiritual form and emitted voice.

     I fell on my knees under the radiant sky.

     A message of health, music from chaste silence, the earth surprised everyone, the inveterate aridity consoled.

     The escape of the devoted dream caused a unanimous lament in the far ends of the dark valley. The humble ones told themselves they had been hallucinated by a meteor of vain light and they complained about their shame and abandonment.


La Isla Bonita
Jon Leon

I’m with four or five people on an elevator with a glass door overlooking the entire ocean that hovers above a ruined city like an Egyptian stela carved into the wall of the air. I’m wearing Surface To Air denim and patent leather Florsheims. Everybody else looks dimpled. I think I shouldn’t text you this. I text you this. Standing on the rail looking at a panoramic plaque with three girls I picked up at Wasteland. I did them both not five minutes ago with Rick in the changing room. Jenny Kayne shorts, Body Glove T-shirt. Came hard on her extensions. I’m thinking this as I step off the elevator into a crowd of minaret dancers faux-banging each other on the marble floor between a circular glass buffet. It’s not an actual club but I hang around until Marla beeps me. Marla beeps me. I call her back from a payphone on the hotel balcony. Tell her I saw five blondes peel a banana backwards from the foot of my satin sheets. I tell her I’m a part of this. Are you a part of this.

Talk given in Cambridge, MA on 17 August 2012.

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