Rafael Cadenas: “La poesía es poderosa e insignificante” / Javier Rodríguez Marcos

Rafael Cadenas: “Poetry Is Powerful and Insignificant”

                         [Venezuelan poet Rafael Cadenas. Photo: Álvaro García]

If there’s a poet who is pursued by one of his poems, it’s Rafael Cadenas. The poem is called “Defeat,” a landmark of Latin American literature, written by the Venezuelan poet when he was 32 years old. He’s now 84 and smiles timidly when asked if he’s tired of that litany that seems to follow him, that begins: “I who have never had a trade / who have felt weak facing every competitor / who lost the best titles for life / who barely arrive somewhere and already want to leave (believing that moving is a solution)...” and continues with a first person portrait of someone who thought his father was eternal, who was “humiliated by professors of literature” and who has “been abandoned by many people because I barely speak,” or is “ashamed of acts I haven’t committed.”

Cadenas, a timid man who is more stealthy than silent, picks up the book the journalist has placed on the table, he skims over the verses as though they belonged to someone else and concludes: “I’m not tired of it, but this poem doesn’t reflect who I am today. I wrote it in the middle of a personal crisis... well, a depression. If so many people liked it that was because it coincided with the political situation of the sixties and the consolidation of democracy in Venezuela with Rómulo Betancourt.”

Awarded the National Prize for Literature in his country in 1985 and the FIL Prize for Literature in Romance Languages in Guadalajara, Mexico —formerly known as the Juan Rulfo Prize— in 2009, Rafael Cadenas is in Madrid to read his poetry today at the Poemad poetry festival and to participate on Tuesday in a colloquium on his work at the Casa de América. He doesn’t mind traveling —he lives in El Hatillo, in the metropolitan area of Caracas— but he’s not very enthusiastic about interviews. “It has nothing to do with journalists,” he clarifies. “It’s just that I’ve never gotten used to that apparatus,” he says pointing to the tape recorder that’s running. “It’s best if we chat, you take notes and later improve on whatever I’ve said.” Very shortly, in fact, he will publish a book of interviews —“but most of them I answered in writing”— while he is also finishing a new book, En torno a Basho y otros asuntos. It will be published by Pre-Textos, the Spanish house that released in 2007 the more than 700 pages of his Obra entera (previously published by Mexico’s Fondo de Cultura Económica) and which two years ago also released Sobre abierto, his last book to date.

“Don’t disdain anything. / The frog gave Basho / his best poem,” he writes in that book. The new one, Cadenas says, follows that path: reflections on the Japanese haiku master and, as the title says, “other matters.” Which ones? “We’ll see what appears. Sobre abierto is very tied to daily life, but there’s a side of me that’s very close to thought. As Antonio Machado would say, the great poets are failed metaphysicians and the great philosophers, poets who actually believe in the reality of their own poems.”

Rafael Cadenas is the author of classics such as Los cuadernos del destierro (1960) and Falsas maniobras (1966), the book that includes “Defeat.” These were followed by Intemperie, Memorial (both from 1977), Amante (1983) and Gestiones (1992). “I know that title [Managements] seems like a book about administration,” the poet explains, “but I was speaking about other managements, psychic ones.” And he adds: “One never knows why one writes something, I don’t know what has been for me what the frog was for Basho, what I do know is I’ve continued to lose, what would I call it, exuberance? There’s plenty of mystery in daily life.” Slow and laconic, with the gestures of a wise man —he called himself a tightrope walker in a poem—, Cadenas measures each word and uses his shoulders and eyebrows to accompany his answers. That might explain —“so as to not be pretentious”— why he prefers to say mystery rather than transcendence, thought instead of philosophy and sayings rather than aphorisms.

Dichos [Sayings] is the title, precisely, of the book he’s carrying as if he were going to yet another exam instead of an interview. He opens it and reads: “How many collapsed utopias. This opened your eyes. Be thankful.” It’s more than just a lapidary phrase, in the case of someone whose communist activism against the dictatorship of Marcos Pérez Jiménez led him as a twenty-something year old to be exiled on the island of Trinidad. “It’s 30 kilometers from Venezuela. You can get there by motorboat,” he says, downplaying the dramatic element of an event that influenced his most famous book, the previously mentioned Cuadernos del destierro [The Exile Notebooks]. “At first I lived off help from my family; later on, by teaching at a school.” He spent four years there, returning to Caracas in 1957 and a few months later he witnessed the fall of the dictator, “who was a 20th century dictator, now they’re not as blatant.” In 1958 he published La isla, a collection of poems that opens with an epigraph by the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz: “Unhappy under tyranny, / unhappy under the republic, / in one we sighed for freedom, / in the other for the end of corruption.” What do people sigh for today in Venezuela? “The margin of freedom is being reduced on a daily basis in Venezuela. The Government shut down the opposition TV stations and now it’s going after the critical newspapers, they’re being left without newsprint paper to publish. That is intentional. That’s why I insist in defending democracy despite its faults. Of course it needs to be reformed, but accusations against corruption can only be effective when there’s a separation of powers within a government.”

Cadenas emphasizes that he has never been afraid to say what he says —“sometimes they insult me, but there’s never been an act of aggression against me”—, but he is skeptical about the social role of a poem: “Poetry is all-powerful and insignificant. Insignificant because its influence in the world is minimal. Powerful because of its relationship with language. Politics empties meaning from words —democracy, justice, freedom—, and poets call attention to that emptiness. Words lose their value if they don’t correspond with the thing they designate. It’s nothing new. Confucius called it “rectification of names” and that’s what a poet is: someone who rectifies.”

{ Javier Rodríguez Marcos, El País, 17 October 2014 }

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