Juan Sánchez Peláez / Alejandro Oliveros

Juan Sánchez Peláez

Juan Sánchez Peláez was born on August 25th, 1922 in Altagracia de Orituco, which was once the capital of Venezuela, into an old family from the state of Táchira that had been displaced towards the center of the country. Within a few months he was taken to Caracas, where he would begin elementary school and continue into high school. Since 1908, Venezuela had been under the submission of the rigors of a dictatorship of an upstart named Juan Vicente Gómez, who took charge of the government for nearly three decades. 1922 was the year of a new Constitution, that legitimated the lifelong permanence of the caudillo in power. At eighteen, Sánchez Peláez, under the liberal dictatorship of Isaías López Contreras, travels to Chile to study at the prestigious Instituto Pedagógico, where Mariano Picón Salas has studied to be a professor and doctor. The Chilean experience was decisive for the Venezuelan poet and it was the source of his aesthetic formation, and perhaps even his political one:

My face is glimpsed
by the sun and moon
beside the memory
of Valparaíso

profound desires
of youthful intoxication
undulate far off
there in the distance

(Uncollected Poems)

He left behind a Venezuela that was arduously trying to abandon the reality of being a village of consecutive rural dictatorships, in order to incorporate himself into one of the most prestigious democracies of the country, as Chile was at the time. In 1940, the year he arrived, Santiago was a cosmopolitan city with all the attributes of modernity. It was the first urban experience for Sánchez Peláez, a moment that would continue with stays in New York, Paris, Madrid and Bogota, which distinguishes him as the first essentially urban poet of Venezuelan lyricism. The trip to Chile would become an initiation for him, a rite of passage, whose importance in his biography cannot be exaggerated. Its gravitation is reiterated throughout his poetic oeuvre:

That night I said goodbye to the wicked ones. Supreme goodbye to innocence, to guilt, to disenchantment. That night I reached the house of a foreign woman. For me, her body had the taste of bitter splendors.

(Helen and the Elements)

I walked through the black hills of an unknown country.
Herein the spectacle:
I was lucid in defeat. My ancestors
handed me the combat weapons.
I avoided the universe because of a great injustice.

(Helen and the Elements)

Hour among the hours facing the motionless text
or the pupils of Valparaíso

pretty train happy to send off smoke that went to La Guaira
like the vengeful talisman

(Common Traits)

In the Chilean capital, the young Sánchez Peláez comes into contact with the poets of Mandrágora, one of the most active groups groups with ties to surrealism in Latin America, founded in 1938 by Braulio Arenas, Teófilo Cid and Enrique Gómez Correa, with the participation of Jorge Cáceres, Gonzalo Rojas and Ludwig Zeller. In the years that followed, the surrealist affiliation of Sánchez Peláez would be one of the most conspicuous attributes of his poetry. An aesthetic that he himself would assume the responsibility for introducing to Venezuela, where it would be adopted by the greatest talents of successive generations. Two other Chileans would, along with the members of Mandrágora, gravitate over his writing, and whom we could consider his teachers: Rosamel del Valle and Humberto Díaz-Casanueva. A brief stay in Buenos Aires put him in contact with Enrique Molina, the most distinguished and active among the Argentine poets associated with the surrealist tendency, and one of the Venezuelan poet’s closest friends.

Upon his return from Argentina, Sánchez Peláez will teach in high schools in Barquisimeto and Maturín, until, shortly afterwards, he opts for completely assuming his condition as a poet, “You will not devour any more chalk,” he says in a poem from Common Traits. And once again he abandons his native country to begin an improbable errancy throughout three continents. The first stop will be neighboring Trinidad, a not infrequent destination for exiled Venezuelans:

Then, I suddenly go to an island,
And the stores there, the hunting of frogs, the obsequiousness of
a black girl,
Make me formulate happy vigils;

I blow out a great candle:

                  It is the farewell sobbing in my heart.

The anchor that weighs at the bottom of the sea.

(Creature of Habit)

From Trinidad to Paris in the fifties, where he meets Helen Lapidus, who would become his first wife and the mother of his two daughters, Raquel and Celia. In 1951, he publishes his first collection, Helen and the Elements, one of the most accomplished displays of surrealist poetry written in Spanish. From that moment onwards, Sánchez Peláez becomes the most influential poet of Venezuelan lyricism. Juan Liscano has recognized this presence in his well-known Panorama de la literatura venezolana, published in 1973: “Already in 1951, with his first book, Helen and the Elements, Sánchez Peláez signaled a different path that was his own in function of language, of the most sharpened sensibility, closest to the dictates of the unconscious, and to the very conception of the poem, liberated from conceptual traps.” New destinations would take him to exercise diplomatic functions in Bogota and to reside in New York City for several years. In 1959, his second collection of poems, Creature of Habit, appeared, the result of his experiences in Paris and dedicated to the French artist Suzanne Martin, a volume where orthodox surrealism gives way to a poetry of more autobiographical and existential content, and which assimilates his reading of poets neighboring the surrealist experience, such as Henri Michaux and Jean-Pierre Duprey. Upon his return to Venezuela, he works as a radio journalist and spends a year in the city of Valencia (Venezuela) as a founder of the Deparment of Literature at the University of Carabobo. Dark Affiliation comes out in 1966, a return, not completely appreciated, to the hermeticism of his early years. In 1968, he’s invited to the INternational Writers Program at the University of Iowa and in December of the following year, in New York, he meets the Argentine translator Malena Coelho, his partner, and then wife, to the end of his days. In 1970 he returns to Venezuela to live in the Altamira neighborhood of Caracas, where he will receive visits from several generations of Venezuelan poets and of contemporaries from diverse geographies: Gonzalo Rojas, Humberto Díaz-Casanueva, Raúl Gustavo Aguirre, Fernando Charry Lara, Mark Strand, Álvaro Mutis, Sarah Arvio, Nicolás Suescún, Lorenzo García Vega, Carlos Germán Belli, Francisco Madariaga, Enrique Molina, among others. Later on, he will work as the Literary Director for Monte Ávila Editores and in 1976 he receives the National Prize in Literature for his collection Common Traits. That same year he travels to Madrid as Cultural Attaché, where he lives until 1978, when he returns to work on his two latest collections, By What Cause or Nostalgia and Air on the Air. In 2001 he was distinguished by the University of the Andes (Mérida, Venezuela) with a Honoris Causa Doctorate. Sánchez Peláez dies in Caracas on November 20th, 2003. The next year, his widow Malena Coelho was in charge of the definitive edition of his work, Obra poética, for the Spanish publishing house Lumen, perhaps the most representative book of Venezuelan lyric poetry of the 20th century.



Elena y los elementos (1951)
Animal de costumbre (1959)
Filiación oscura (1966)
Lo huidizo y permanente (1969)
Rasgos comunes (1975)
Por cuál causa o nostalgia (1981)
Aire sobre el aire (1989)

{ Alejandro Oliveros, Prodavinci, 30 September 2014 }

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