Fernando Paz Castillo: Nuestro poeta metafísico / Rafael Arráiz Lucca

Fernando Paz Castillo: Our Metaphysical Poet

Fernando Paz Castillo was a Caracas native and this, though it might seem trivial, is important for understanding his work. He sees the light of the world on April 11th, 1893 in the valley presided by Mount Ávila. From a young age he suspects that mountain will be a guardian angel of sorts throughout his very long life, regardless of how many periods of time he’ll spend far from the mountain, taken to other metropolises by the fate of the diplomat.

Thanks to his life in Caracas, he studies at a French school, where they combine a religious education with the language of Voltaire. There he develops a friendship with his future companions in a band of poets: Enrique Planchart and Luis Enrique Mármol, with whom the fire of friendship will keep growing under the flame of the poem’s candle.

The Poet and the Circle

But before the capital event of his formative period, Paz Castillo frequents, like all his generational companions the Circle of Bellas Artes. Already, the painters Manuel Cabré, the Monsanto brothers and the rebellious Armando Reverón were battling with the palette, the legendary Circle had broken with the academicism of Don Antonio Herrera Toro, the director of the Academy at that time, they’d taken their colors and had gone into the open air to paint landscapes. The young Paz Castillo formed part of that period of very close relationships between painters and poets, and there actually are some who suggest that the idea for the name of the Circle is the poet’s, rather than one the painters.

The Circle has contact with the members of the Alborada group: Rómulo Gallegos, Enrique Soublette, Julio Rosales and the enormous poet Salustio González Rincones, when he was in Venezuela. But the painters are also in contact with the members of the poetic Generation of 1918. Perhaps the most significant of poetic generations to have existed during the Venezuelan 20th century.

Paz Castillo is a protagonist of that generation, along with his previously mentioned elementary school friends and Jacinto Fombona Pachano, Andrés Eloy Blanco, Rodolfo Moleiro and the uncomfortable José Antonio Ramos Sucre. The year 1918, as we know, refers to the days when these young men offered public recitals and a poetry collection by Enrique Planchart was published. But Paz Castillo doesn’t lose sleep over the magic of publication. His first poetry collection, La voz de los cuatro vientos, was published in 1931, when the year 1918 was already a memory, and its members were scattered across the national and international geography. The poet was thirty-eight years old when he decided to reveal his poems to the public, although many of the texts in that collection had been read in periodical publications and newspapers.

The following year he travels to Spain, this being the first stop abroad in his journey, but the diplomat still doesn’t begin his functions. It was under the government of General López Contreras that Paz Castillo is sent as Consul to Barcelona, to then become secretary for the Delegation to Paris, and afterwards to Argentina and Brazil. Between 1936 and 1938, four countries receive his luggage, in the exhausting routine of the diplomatic functionary. Later on come London, Mexico, Belgium, Ecuador and Canada, until from 1959 onwards he retires and settles his destiny in the city that saw him born.

The Door That is “The Wall”

During his long and exhausting diplomatic itinerary he never stopped writing and publishing, but his best work doesn’t emerge during those years. Maybe the minutiae of his job are a distraction from the poems of longer breath that await him, maybe the careful attention toward his family distances him from the poem. Once he returns to Venezuela the poet occupies himself seriously with his work: he not only gathers and organizes his substantial production in newspapers but he also saves it from oblivion housing it in books. His valuable reflections on the plastic arts, regarding the making of poems, about the figures of our republican history are saved from the ocean of newspapers. Enthusiasm invades the man who seems to live as though he had regained his freedom, and it’s then the poet’s gift reaches its peak. What had been gestating since his second collection, Signo (1937), and had found its nearly definitive course in Enigma del Cuerpo y el Espíritu (1956), precipitates magnificently in “The Wall” (1964).

This text, which I judge to be one of the best in Venezuelan poetry, is the most finished, the most profound work by Paz Castillo. I don’t disdain the ones that came later, but they can’t be explained at all without the door the poet opened with “The Wall.” From his later period a startling poem shines in particular: “Misterio,” included in the collection Pautas (1973), and also resounding in their depth are the texts that make up Persistencias (1975), a collection in which the cleanness of the verses reaches its purest state. But “The Wall” is the sun of the poet’s planetary system. Curiously, it was written and published when the Caracas native was nearly seventy years old and already considered a poet with an exalted oeuvre.

Everything happened slowly with Paz Castillo: not just the beginning of his literary life, when he first published at the edge of being forty, but also the glory of his major poem arrives when he’s in his seventies. His life, seen from a distance, seems to have been structured by the premonition of its expansion.

Between Light and Penumbra

The poet’s ghosts gather in “The Wall.” Death arrives punctual and plants the flag of doubt. The anguish of uncertainty also plants its flag: what will happen to us once we cross the wall, the wall of death; what is there on the other side of life. A bird, this time a vulture (maybe Poe’s raven) passes from one side to the other with no difficulty. We, who aren’t made for flight, remain facing the dividing line, giving shape to the clay with our hands. But the wall, more than an arrow of certainty, is the figure that inquires, the one who asks a single question on this side. The poem cites that other column in Paz Castillo’s work: God, the sacred meaning of existence and, alongside that, the afternoon, the poet’s favorite time of day, the ambiguous zone between light and penumbra. As we see, in “The Wall” he not only manages to express his philosophy of life but also gathers all his ghosts, all the pieces in the labyrinth of his work.

I want to think, and nothing stops me from this conjecture, that the wall in the poem is Mount Ávila, the guardian mountain of the poet’s childhood and youth. For us Caracas natives who love the mountain and, especially, its silhouette drawn by the light of the afternoon, the mountain seems to us like a dividing line, like a wall that preserves us from the world, like a wall capable of building our urban region, like a hulk that separates us from the sea and, in doing so, makes the sea the horizon’s only scene. We don’t know if we’ve learned how to see the mountain in the manner Paz Castillo’s “The Wall” has taught us or if, instead, when we read the poem we think of the city’s mountain. It doesn’t matter what came first: what is significant is that between nature’s creation and the poet’s, the matrimony is reconciled indissolubly.

There are lives that offer extraordinary similitudes: Cabré, ninety years old, devoted to the mountain; Paz Castillo, eighty-eight, a demiurge of the mountain’s metaphysical possibilities. Both sons of the glorious moment of dialogue: the Circle of Bellas Artes and the Generation of 1918.

A Poet is a Reader

Borges alluded countless times to the pride he felt about the books he had read, more than the ones he’d written. As far as I know, Paz Castillo never affirmed something similar, but he could have, since he was a voracious reader. He didn’t just read the words that books offered him, he also understood the grammar of painters. Reading, though this might not seem true, hasn’t been an extensive habit among Venezuelan writers. This is still the case. Venezuela is a country so slack in some paths, that it’s perfectly possible to be an academic of language and to read a book every time a pope dies, or to be a professor of literature and, deep down, to hate writing and hold up The Poem of the Cid as a contemporary poem and yet be considered a writer, or also, a poet, a word for which slackness is absolute. It was rare then, and it continues to be, for a Venezuelan poet to love reading. The majority affirm, with naive brazenness, that they prefer writing to reading. Contrary to that, Paz Castillo’s oeuvre is the work of a reader.

From the confession where he manifests himself as a devotee of Don Quixote, read several times throughout his long life, until the poetry of Antonio Machado, the universe of readings in Spanish of the Caracas poet include Darío, Manrique, Unamuno and, most particularly, St. Thomas Aquinas. In Shakespeare’s tongue, he drank from the pages of Whitman, Wordsworth and Keats. He stopped in Verlaine, Mallarmé, Apollinaire, Breton, Éluard, manifesting a particular interest in French poetry. He was no stranger to the work of Nietzsche and of the Prague native Rainer Maria Rilke. He was also an attentive reader of his generation. He was able to maintain a writer’s life, no matter how many hours the affairs of the office might steal from him. His reading was guided by pleasure, on the one hand, and by the trembling of a search, on the other. His poetry is marked by the anxiety of discovery: from perplexity, the poet elevates a prayer toward the heights seeking an answer. He was touched by the fervor of the awakened.

{ Rafael Arráiz Lucca, Papel Literario, El Nacional, 29 March 2015 }

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