Reviewed by E.C. Belli
Lift a stone and find . . . a lyrical fabulist. Anglophone readers have, to date, known very little of Venezuelan poet José Antonio Ramos Sucre. With Selected Works (UNO Press, 2012), poet and translator Guillermo Parra brings us 129 short genre-bending pieces (arguably poetry) from three of Ramos Sucre’s most significant collections, Timon’s Tower, The Forms of Fire, and The Enamel Sky. Parra thus provides a long-awaited glimpse into this discrete yet key writer. Parra’s selection, he explains in his Translator’s Note, is based on what resonated with him as a reader as well as what scholars consider essential in Ramos Sucre’s œuvre. But who is Ramos Sucre, and why should we care?
“Ramos Sucre is a master of succinct prose paragraphs that reveal an astonishing narrative instinct,” Parra explains in his note. “His poetic vision,” Parra continues, “is steeped in an antiquity he rewrites in order to subvert and illuminate the present. His texts blur the distinctions between poetry, fiction and the essay. Before Borges there was Ramos Sucre.” Undoubtedly Ramos Sucre occupies a privileged place in an important tradition of Latin American magical realists. But Ramos Sucre’s commitment is not so much to a genre as it is to a certain syntax. And while narratives do rise to the fore as the reader slips from one short piece to the next, it is an obsessive, repetitive, and adjective-laden line that lives at the heart of Ramos Sucre’s enterprise if we are to regard these pieces as poetry. Consider four lines from four different poems:
“I would like to exist amid empty darkness, because the world damages my senses cruelly and life afflicts me, impertinent lover whispering bitter stories.” (“Prelude”)
“I would lie down in the open air, numbed by the cold. I was glimpsing the messengers of my methodical executioners.” (“The Fugitive”)
“I was defending the water’s repose. I heard it sing, on a certain occasion, a scale of lamentations when it felt itself wounded by a branch fallen from a tree.” (“The Relative”)
“I am hurt by the invincible melancholy of the conquered races. The captives of Muslim barbarism, the persecuted Jews in Russia, the miserable who are piled up at night like the dead in the city of the Thames, are my brothers and I love them.” (“In Praise of Solitude”)
By all accounts, those lines could have been pulled from the same poem. As it stands, they are all pulled from Timon’s Tower (1925), which could explain their similarity. But consider too “The City of Mirages” from The Enamel Sky, which was published some four years later:
“I was unable to shed the ghosts of sleep in the course of the vigil. The morning would invade my florid balcony with livid veneers and I would repose my sight on indifferent willows in the distance, in a Shakespearean reverie.”
Ramos Sucre’s content is unexpected and lyrical, yet the form is unfailingly predictable. What Ramos Sucre elicits in his readers through this formulaic process is first and foremost a sense of security. Page after page, we find ourselves in territory that is familiar: subject, verb, predicate; subject, verb, predicate; subject, verb, and so on. The subject is often an “I.” Who is this “I”? Ramos Sucre, certainly. Humanity, perhaps. When the subject is not an “I,” it is one of the mythical beings that populate his little gardens—the woman, the storm, the doctor, fellow citizens, animals. All almost true to life, but not quite. Who are they? The world in all its indifference. What are they doing? Familiar things that, in the end, are strange things: curiosity induces one to unfortunate nuptials; a graceful lady reads, between smiles, the two pages of one’s invention; the quiet voice of a companion scatters the sirens boasting about some hair, tangled with algae and corals, and quiet in mournful song.
We are the myths. This is the strange world. Look at us, Ramos Sucre prompts. We are stranger than the moon. Our shapes, like Ramos Sucre’s form, are habitual, common, known, mundane; but our content is drawn from a spectral world. We are unreal and worth observing, worth cataloging. Ramos Sucre is picking up where Max Jacob left off with The Dice Box (which would have been around in Ramos Sucre’s late twenties). Ruins of Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen linger too in this cabinet of curiosities, and Ramos Sucre’s helplessly steady syntax is the glass that keeps the creatures in as our willingness, as readers, to let the words seep in, to enter our consciousness, loosens and becomes more complete. Ramos Sucre primes to better maim. This syntax hypnotically weaves its way into the mind of the reader, hunkers down, and only later bites.
In the introduction to Ramos Sucre’s Selected Works, Francisco Pérez Perdomo forewarns of Ramos Sucre’s tendencies: “From his language he only demands the potential and efficacy needed to generate and express those strange and delirious universes that fascinate him so much. In order to approach and make more direct and quick his vision of the world, Ramos Sucre has eliminated from almost all his texts, except for the first ones, the particle that [que], in its different grammatical functions, and undoubtedly, he has achieved with this a language that is more intense, more closed and of greater formal perfection.” This formal “perfection” is also, in its way, rigid and exacting; everything is kept on a tight leash and pulled taut, without letting loose so much as a stray comma. Ramos Sucre has achieved a degree of compartmentalization almost unmatched in its relentlessness; his controlled sorrow, this slow leaking of the imagination into hopelessly organized little partitions is undeniably masculine—if the male is indeed, as it is often said, prone to containing and organizing unsettling matters to prevent their defeat of the reasonable mind .Ramos Sucre clings to these structures in what seems like an attempt to remain sound of mind. Pérez Perdomo calls him “the poet of pain”; and that must be true if pain is the consequence of the mind and the soul’s attempt at moving in opposite directions. Ramos Sucre’s analytical mind sets small syntactical blockades that must withstand the tug of his creatures of pain, which seek to dash through and invade the soul.
While the poet homes in on structural pointedness and concision, his subjects range widely and, it seems, possibly uncontrollably. Here cataclysms are neighbors to violet eyes and expiatory cycles share spotlight with extreme seas, deserted vessels, and unscathed light (“The Treasure of the Blinded Fountain”). Pérez Perdomo correctly assesses that Ramos Sucre’s poems are “vast murals” of sorts “ . . . crossed by conjectures and fables, symbols, allegories and premonitions, curses, rites, liturgies, cruel customs, tales and legends, extravagant tortures, graceless women, plagues and vengeances.” The mythological substance Ramos Sucre pours into each individual piece requires a wide-ranging vernacular to account for it. And this, in turn, invites Ramos Sucre to be regarded as a poet for the poets. This collection is one the lyrical minded should visit as they shop for words and mythologies. In Ramos Sucre’s highly allegorical little catalog of evils and bottled sadnesses, we meet Faust, Dante, old and new poets, the Greeks, the Gods; a Petri dish of cultural inventions that all have in common their ability to diffuse emotions while keeping them safely contained. Morals do appear too, at times, but Ramos Sucre isn’t so much a moralizer as he is an observer to this odd world we call our own.
Regardless of cultural awareness, Ramos Sucre’s work is generously layered—thereby granting access to the charm and beauty of his imagery and allowing his spell to be cast: “I am a quiet sea at the foot of a basalt column, on the shores of a kingdom of shoals, where the oblique sun does not reach” (“Spell”). Unlike a volume of poetry however, the sound of mind will approach this volume one piece at a time, dwelling upon the short, lyrical narratives rather than his obstinate line, lingering in the garden, rather than with each blade of grass.
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