To somewhat high-mindedly posit a philology of the absurd and yet dare to be comic – the juxtaposition of these extremes creates space to extend authorial reach and keep the reader’s mind limber. Obfuscation and misdirection, the tools of propaganda counterintuitively galvanize the mind to retrace its spoor here. David Huerta’s speculations (via Mark Schafer) are a cure for lazy readers.
— Mandakini Pachauri
The Bombay Literary Magazine
The Mexican poet David Huerta described his recent book of prose poetry, El ovillo y la brisa, as a collection of stories, musings, fables, false myths, and “observations based on an extremely suspicious, flimsy, and borderland philology, that is to say: bordering on the theater of the absurd. A philology for Buster Keaton; better yet: a philology of Buster Keaton.”
A philology of Buster Keaton written in Spanish presents the English-language translator with several challenges. The first and principal one is that a translation of what Huerta says would itself be absurd, for it would either kill or irredeemably flatten his sharp and sophisticated use of language. Rather, one must do in English what Huerta does in Spanish: perform a poetic theater of the absurd on the stage of literary historiography, with particular references to the literature of the Spanish-speaking world from the last six centuries, among other literatures.
Having previously translated a collection of Huerta’s poetry, one might assume that I’d have fine-tuned my strategies for translating his poetic language from Spanish into English. Yet, as Huerta himself put it, El ovillo y la brisa is “different [at the formal level] from all the other books I had written….” Following in his pen strokes, I’ve attempted in these translations to reproduce his prose poetry’s “strange coherence…, [its] broken rhythm” and “to simulate the author’s style,” for, as Huerta noted, the author of these prose poems “knows, perhaps, that style is, or ought to be, a cornucopia of acuity, pure, sharp brilliance, without bluff or disguise.” A tall order indeed. If you laugh while reading these, I believe I’ve succeeded.
— Mark Schafer
Prologue to a Storehouse Hymn
This drowsiness… This drooping of eyelids. This dynamism of torpor and symphony at bay, subject to the trembling of infinitesimal strings, which the demiurge has concealed in the attics to play tricks on me, plucking them, jests of vigor and ecstasy. Orphic eyelids!
These sublime interpenetrations where I can discover, on the fly, naked signs of a slow and tiresome disintegration, a mist of listlessness and confinement.
I wish… But it’s all composed of excise tensions, of insufficient space, of post-industrial patchwork, of myopic regulations, of hypnotic bundles, of recondite corners. No: I must devise a vulgar melody, a taste for the softness of nocturnal chords, a taciturn habit of humming.
I implore… That’s not it either; not moaning, not pathos, not swans’ throats slit nor couplings of angst, not pharmacopoeias of any ego whatsoever, not velvet stridencies for self-absorbed wrappings.
Enough. I shall proceed to the unmethodical contemplation of the great storehouses and to the hymn of their extraordinary flavor.
1. The Buccal Quest
I don’t know where the great storehouses are, but I do know, on the other hand, that I inhabit them like those Cycladic sculptures: feet crossed, a look of stricken frugality on their quiet faces. I don’t inhabit all the storehouses at once, with the unpleasant ubiquity conferred on saints, but rather, in alternating fashion: now awake in one, now in another, exactly like the previous one.
With leaps of dactylic feet, of broken and unwieldy antepenults, silence and the hymn of storehouses tirelessly seek each other in my mouth.
2. Smoke and Whiteness
The walls of the great storehouses have a certain something of holiness. They’re white and never-ending. They were whitewashed for use as an asphyxia and a kind of blindness.
Smoke drifts from the walls and extinguishes itself on my face.
My face—a visage of dozing levity—provides a boundary to the smoke. This round smoke cannot get by me, by my face. This is where it stops: at the arrogance of my nose, at the puckered candor of my lips.
The taste of the great storehouses… I count the days inside them and they are the days.
Its expanses lull me to sleep and in moments of gold, of platinum-plated fatigue, of inundated irises, they exalt me.
I lay down in them as in a linen shroud, but in fact they give me life and truth: a ceremony of altar and defiance.
But don’t think that makes them temples. No, not at all: they are a negative form of speculative churches, but neither mausoleums nor cenotaphs nor haughty pyramids. They are everything I overlook and everything that surrounds me. And I owe them my fugitive wisdom, my contradictory vagabond sluggishness, my viaticum journeying to the luminous shores of the throes of death, my consummatum est by which I’ve continually constructed, in the resurrected atmosphere of the great storehouses, a vocation of bodily calamity in my redemptive seclusion.
4. Ignorance and Doubt
Storehouses of which I know naught. Bazaars, stores, or repositories? Three possibilities. Are the boulevards outside and is Balzac strolling nearby? Is there one or several capitalists behind this storehouse existence that resembles a self-sufficient but suspect cosmos? Is Walt Whitman taking a dictation from its bulging bookshelves? Do the shelves exist, those I’ve never touched, since I survive in the exposed expanse of an idle loading zone, abandoned or forgotten by the warehousemen who no longer attend to the borders of their empire of indoor atmospheres and who, outside the reach of the seductions of power, inhabit with transcendental delight the margin of a page in cheap reprints of Kafka?
Brian Dettmer works in the genre of erasure art. His medium is the world of fat books: encyclopaedias, dictionaries, catalogues, almanacs, art books, coffee table tomes: the fatter the text, the better. Using tweezers, scissors and surgical tools, he removes text with exquisite precision. In his artist’s statement, Dettmer explains that “Images and ideas are revealed to expose alternate histories and memories…. My work is a collaboration with the existing material and its past creators…” It occurred to us the Huerta’s complex and opaque text also is an act of excavation. Not an architectonic discourse a la Foucault but rather the termite’s equally systematic construction, driven by the colony’s need and not any impulse to “understand” the earth. Huerta’s artist is more termite colony than architect, and we felt this was reflected in Dettmer’s remarkable constructions.
Author | DAVID HUERTA
The author of more than 20 books of poetry, David Huerta (d. 2022) was one of the leading contemporary poets in Mexico. He was also a journalist, critic, essayist, translator, professor, and activist. In 2006, Huerta was awarded the Xavier Villarrutia Prize, Mexico’s most prestigious literary award, for his book Version (1978, 2005). Among his other honors are the Diana Moreno Toscano Prize for Literary Promise (1971), one Guggenheim Fellowship (1978), and the Carlos Pellicer Prize (1990). In 2015 he received the National Prize of Literature and became Poet Emeritus.
Photo credits: Arturo Orta.
Translator | MARK SCHAFER
Mark Schafer is a literary translator who specializes in translating poetry and fiction from the Spanish-speaking world (especially Latin America and in particular, Mexico) from Spanish to English. His last four published translations were of two novels by Belén Gopegui (Spain), a book-length poem by Gloria Gervitz (Mexico), and an edited anthology of poetry by David Huerta (Mexico).