Under the Enamel Sky: On Translating José Antonio Ramos Sucre

[Francisco Maduro Inciarte, "Letras y tiempos", Liceo Andrés Bello, Caracas]

Revised version of a talk given at One Makes Many: A Conference of Poetic Interactions, in the panel “Latin America (in Translation),” with Steve Dolph, Laura Jaramillo and Carlos Soto Román, on 11 November 2011 at Duke University.

Although José Antonio Ramos Sucre is a central figure in Venezuelan letters, and his work has been published in Mexico, Spain, Portugal and France, he didn’t exist in English until very recently. My translation of his poetry into English, José Antonio Ramos Sucre: Selected Works (University of New Orleans Press, 2012), is among the first. (1) I say that with astonishment and trepidation. I’d like to comment briefly on how specific places in Ramos Sucre’s work and life affect my translation of his poetry. In his texts Ramos Sucre created autonomous zones far removed from his immediate surroundings in Venezuela. For Ramos Sucre, the poem exists primarily in the realm of the book, removed from the physical world. But as his translator, my research in two Venezuelan cities has been invaluable.


Ramos Sucre’s short life was picturesque enough for the poet Cedar Sigo to remark that he is the “Venezuelan Rimbaud.” Born to an aristocratic family in the coastal city of Cumaná in 1890, he was a direct descendant of the revolutionary Antonio José de Sucre, one of the founding fathers of Venezuelan independence.

In 1900 he was sent to the nearby city of Carúpano to live with his uncle, a cruel and strict priest who forced Ramos Sucre to stay at home after school and study, isolated from his classmates and friends. The poet remarked in a letter to his younger brother Lorenzo in 1929: “Carúpano was a prison. Father Ramos completely ignored the consideration a child requires. He would incur in a stupid severity for trivial reasons. That’s why I feel no affection toward him. I would spend days and days without going out into the street and I would then be assaulted by fits of desperation and spend hours laughing and crying at the same time.” (2) However, his uncle had a substantial library and it was there that Ramos Sucre developed his passion for literature.

In 1911 he moved to Caracas to study at the Universidad Central de Venezuela. He worked as a teacher and as a translator for the Foreign Ministry. It was in Caracas that the legend now surrounding Ramos Sucre began to take shape. His texts were unlike anything else in Venezuelan literature, with their elegant erudition and dark narratives. They were ostensibly prose poems, but also hybrid objects that incorporated elements from poetry, fiction, non-fiction and aphoristic writing. He suffered from anxiety, depression and an insomnia that would torment him throughout most his short life. The poet Fernando Paz Castillo (1893-1981) recalled accompanying his former teacher during his nightly walks throughout Caracas. Ramos Sucre used these nocturnal walks to combat his sleeplessness. Paz Castillo remembered how Ramos Sucre once confided to him: “This insomnia will end up killing me.”

[Photo by Manrique y Co. Caracas, c. 1920s]

Ramos Sucre self-published all five of his books, beginning with the compilation of articles, aphorisms and prose poems called Trizas de papel [Paper Shreds] in 1921. In 1923 he published an essay on the Venezuelan travels of the German scientist Alexander von Humboldt, Sobre las huellas de Humboldt [On Humboldt’s Trail]. In 1925 La torre de Timón [Timon’s Tower] appeared, which includes his previous two books alongside new work. 1929 saw the publication of Las formas del fuego [The Forms of Fire] and El cielo de esmalte [The Enamel Sky]. Many of his poems and essays first appeared in Venezuelan newspapers and magazines.

At the end of 1929 Ramos Sucre travelled to Europe to take up a position at the Venezuelan consulate in Geneva. His last months in Europe were torturous, as the insomnia and anxiety that plagued him for so many years began to deteriorate his mind and body. He spent time at sanatoriums in Hamburg and Northern Italy in an attempt to cure his insomnia, but these therapies were unsuccessful. On June 9th he turned 40 and upon returning home from work ingested an overdose of barbiturates. He died four days later on June 13th. His remains arrived in Venezuela on July 17th and he was buried in Cumaná several days later.

Ramos Sucre was aware of his work being ahead of its time. In another letter to his brother Lorenzo in 1929 he wrote about the importance of his writing: “The judgments on my two books have been very superficial. It’s not easy to write a good judgment about two books that are so untarnished or refined. The critic is required to have the knowledge I treasured in the antrum of my sufferings. And not everyone has had such an exceptional life. Only Leopardi, the poet of bitterness.” It was not until the 1960s, when Ramos Sucre’s work was championed by younger avant-garde poets, that he was acknowledged as a central figure of 20th century Venezuelan literature.

[Caracas, c. 1920s]

Inner Landscapes of the Book

The places identified in Ramos Sucre’s poems are not his immediate surroundings in early 20th century Venezuela. His landscapes are often mythological, and always highly stylized. They are self-consciously literary, and include ancient Greece, 19th century London, the pastoral countryside or remote Chinese provinces. Ramos Sucre’s landscapes are radical departures into the realm of the book, the page as its own privileged location, much like the zones Jorge Luis Borges would create in his short stories a few years later. As in Borges, Ramos Sucre’s work is often about the process of reading, and about discovering a critique of daily life within the pages of a book.

A crucial aspect of my translation process has been the chance to research Ramos Sucre’s life and work in Venezuela. In the summer of 2010, I spent several weeks doing bureaucratic errands in downtown Caracas for personal reasons, at various government offices. I took advantage of these errands to go for walks around the streets of downtown Caracas, the same ones Ramos Sucre would wander in his nighttime excursions. Downtown Caracas today is a jarring contrast of 19th century houses, faded art deco buildings and mid-20th century skyscrapers, alongside huge postmodern glass towers. The streets are clogged with the noise of pedestrians, traffic and motorcycles. While I was there, I visited the rare books room at the National Library of Venezuela, where I inspected the first editions of his books.

[First edition of El cielo de esmalte, w/ inscription by author]

I also travelled to Cumaná to visit the Casa Ramos Sucre, a community library and cultural center in the colonial district of that city. The house belonged to Ramos Sucre’s grandparents, and he and his family lived there during his adolescence. At the Casa Ramos Sucre, I spoke with the novelist Rubi Guerra, who in 2006 was awarded the Rufino Blanco Fombona Prize for his novel based on Ramos Sucre's final months in Europe, La tarea del testigo [The Task of the Witness](Caracas: Fundación Editorial El perro y la rana, 2007). Guerra told me about his research on Ramos Sucre and his family in Cumaná and offered to take me to his grave.

Ramos Sucre is buried in the once-fashionable Santa Inés cemetery that today stands dilapidated in an area Guerra referred to as The Triangle of Death, as it neighbors a local prison and the ruins of the abandoned San Antonio castle. The first thing we saw as we entered the cemetery gates was a group of people drinking aguardiente liquor under Cumaná’s intense noonday sun. There was an awkward moment when both our groups stared at each other in silence, until Guerra told them, “We’re here to see a relative.” To reach Ramos Sucre’s grave, we had to walk on top of gravestones and around mausoleums overgrown with weeds.

I could translate Ramos Sucre’s work without ever setting foot in Caracas and Cumaná. But seeing these places with my own eyes, feeling the intensity of the sun in Cumaná, noticing the dried flowers scattered on top of his faded mausoleum, observing the traces of buildings Ramos Sucre would have walked by in the 1920s, these details have provided me a physical context for understanding his work.
[With Rubi Guerra at Casa Ramos Sucre, Cumaná]

The Poet as Stranger

Among the books catalogued in Ramos Sucre’s personal library are several French editions of Charles Baudelaire. The figure of Baudelaire is a presence throughout Ramos Sucre’s work, particularly his notion of the poet as a wanderer for whom the landscape of city is a source of inspiration. Another connection between Baudelaire and Ramos Sucre is their devotion to antiquity as a living presence in their poetry. Walter Benjamin writes about the importance of the ancient world in Baudelaire’s work. (3) In The Arcades Project Benjamin finds a key to Baudelaire’s poetics: “It is very important that the modern, with Baudelaire, appear not only as the signature of an epoch but as an energy by which this epoch immediately transforms and appropriates antiquity. Among all the relations into which modernity enters, its relation to antiquity is critical.” This interpenetration of distant times and places in the present is what I find in Ramos Sucre’s texts, saturated as they are with references to classical Greek literature, ancient European mythologies and writers such as Dante, Shakespeare and Goethe.

Benjamin also mentions “Baudelaire’s estrangement from the age…” He cites Baudelaire’s comments from “Salon de 1859”: “Tell me in what salon, in what tavern, in what social or intimate gathering you have heard a single witty remark uttered by a spoiled child, a profound remark, to make one ponder or dream…? If such a remark has been thrown out, it may indeed have been not by a politician or a philosopher, but by someone of an outlandish profession, like a hunter, a sailor, or a taxidermist. But by an artist… never.” Benjamin sees these people of “outlandish profession” as versions of the “amazing travelers” evoked in Baudelaire’s poem “The Voyage”–in Roy Campbell’s 1952 translation:

Amazing travellers, what noble stories
We read in the deep oceans of your gaze!
Show us your memory’s casket, and the glories
Streaming from gems made out of stars and rays!

We, too, would roam without a sail or steam,
And to combat the boredom of our jail,
Would stretch, like canvas on our souls, a dream,
Framed in horizons, of the seas you sail.

What have you seen?

In Ramos Sucre we continuously come across the motif of travel, of locations far removed from Venezuela by time and physical distance. The explicitly artificial “enamel sky” of his final book is a symbol for the realms Ramos Sucre crafted in his literature. He was very conscious of his books as composing a single, long work. La torre de Timón opens with the poem “Prelude” and his final book ends with the poem “Omega,” creating a closed circle in which his life work progresses through distinct stages. The only text he ever identified with a specific place at the time of composition is the poem “Residue,” which was signed: “Geneva, March of 1930” and found among his belongings after his death.

My translations aim to introduce Ramos Sucre to an American audience as a precursor to Borges and a poet responsible for inspiring several generations of avant-garde Venezuelan writers in the 1950s and 1960s. Poets such as Francisco Pérez Perdomo (1930) and Juan Calzadilla (1931), who as members of the radical collective of artists and writers called El Techo de la Ballena [The Roof of the Whale], promoted Ramos Sucre’s writing. Pérez Perdomo published a selection of Ramos Sucre’s poetry with Monte Ávila Editores in Caracas in 1969, the first widely available anthology of his work. In his prologue, Pérez Perdomo writes: “Ramos Sucre must have been seen, without a doubt, as a challenge and an outrage. (…) But the strangeness of Ramos Sucre doesn’t manifest itself… in any pointed eccentricity but rather in a conscious uprooting.” I will have been successful in translating his poetry if I’m able to maintain a sense of that “conscious uprooting.”

Santa Inés Cemetery, Cumaná


(1) In 2008 Cedar Sigo and Sara Bilandzija published a chapbook of translations 5 Poems by José Ramos Sucre (Santa Cruz, CA: Blue Press).
(2) My translations of Ramos Sucre are based on two editions of his work: Obra completa, edited by José Ramón Medina with a chronology by Sonia García, Caracas: Biblioteca Ayacucho, 1989 and Obra poética, edited by Alba Rosa Hernández Bossio, Paris: Colección Archivos, 2001. The Venezuelan edition is available as a free PDF file from Biblioteca Ayacucho.
(3) All excerpts by Walter Benjamin taken from The Arcades Project, translated by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2002).

Save for the portraits of Ramos Sucre, all photographs were taken by the author & Dayana Fraile in Cumaná and Caracas, Venezuela in 2010.

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