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Jorge Carrera Andrade

“Decade of My Poetry”

a lecture delivered at Vassar College, 1970
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TO SPEAK of oneself is always an audacious act, like entering into a gallery of distorting mirrors, each of which reflects back a different image. But the sympathetic atmosphere of the present occasion gives me the confidence to carry out such a risky undertaking.

Ten years ago during one of my visits to New York, Professor Angel del Rio invited me to present a discussion of my poetry before an enthusiastic audience of students at Columbia University’s Casa Hispanica. I accepted the invitation and undertook a reexamination of my poetry, so closely linked to episodes of my life that my discussion that day could have been subtitled, “My Life In Poetry.” (1) Time has passed since then with its customary rapidity and a decade later I have contemplated the dawns and sunsets of the world, drawing from them the essence of my latest poetry, which attempts to be planetary and cosmic without, however, losing the flavor of its existential philosophy.

In other words, I have followed the course of my life and my poems have continued to flower, because I believe I have a moral obligation toward those who know my poetry to tell the story and explain the significance of my lyric creation in the seventh decade of this century.

To begin with, I must always refer back to previous events. Since the period of my adolescence, poetry has always been the motivating factor in my life. My poetic revelation occurred in the last stages of modernism, when the various schools of the avant-garde were beginning to appear in Latin America. The poetry of things tempted me as a call from the surrounding reality. Submerged in its atmosphere of rural bliss, refined modern extravagance did not harmonize with the rural simplicity of my country.

Among the writers I read in those days, only two books seemed to offer me the key to my own world: Gide’s Nourritures Terrestres and Francis Jammes’ From The Angelus of The Dawn to the Angelus of the Evening. But a vast zone remained inaccessible: the life of the Indians. In some poems I attempted to express the drama and violent coloring of a world in which the word required epic resonances. There is no doubt a future epic poem will depict the pain of the native Indians. Meanwhile, I humbly served my apprenticeship in my explorations of my native land and asked Francis Jammes to send me his news by the celestial airmail of a swallow. (2)

My provincial cycle came to an end with my first trip to Europe. I sent my “bulletins” (3) back from the most diverse latitudes. I saw Dutch windmills (with “their cross on their shoulders”), the German snow (“first communion of the earth”), the Eiffel Tower (“capital letter A of a future alphabet”), and the Barcelona “that goes to sea with iron chimneys and crystal sardanas,” which is to say that the city knows how to harmonize its spirit of industry and artistic feeling, its iron will and delicate refinement. The Catalan region taught me a lesson in sobriety and discipline but also to love its freedom.

In El Tiempo Manual (4) I tried out free forms and autonomous metaphors within the poem. The two principal themes of this book are the loneliness of cities and social struggle of man. Nevertheless the poems are not “extrinsic.” They contain ontological perspectives and metaphysical wonder at the marvels of the world. In the books which followed, I set forth not only a return to my native country but also a return to musical forms. Thanks to a more formal structure I could better communicate my cosmic vision in La Armas de la Luz (5).

My poetic system has always been against those who oppose realism in poetry and who, in general, reject reality as vulgar. All the themes repudiated by Mallarme and his disciples - the family, objects, the natural life, landscapes, dwellings - I have adapted into my poetry, which attempts to exalt the human. It is well known that the dehumanization of art was a European phenomenon that took place during a period of ethical and esthetic crisis. The derivations of this phenomenon have exhausted creative possibilities. Mallarme himself confessed this when he said: “My work is a blind alley without exit.”

The feeling for the human that characterizes the man of America has led me to the humanization of things and of nature in general. In this way each object carries out its function and acts within my poetic world. For my poetry tries to be not only a structure, a fruit of verbal technique, but also the expression of a collective feeling, the interpretation of what is experienced by the universal man confronted by certain physical and moral conditions.

The last ten years science has been through a period of accelerating activity and won resounding victories through its most audacious inventions. It has also been a period of greater affirmation of human consciousness. To universal benefit, man has initiated his navigation of space. The first explorers have now walked the ancient virgin dust of the moon, even as social disturbances have increased here on earth. Man in every region has felt his planetary condition more than ever. My poetry could not escape from this reality, since a work of art, or its ideal, is generally in harmony with its period.

In my book of poetry Hombre Planetario, (6) I try to testify to an ordinary man’s orbit in time. At first he feels as a stranger in the midst of a changing world but later receives the visit of love and discovers deep within himself a feeling of solidarity with all men of the planet. In this sense I have traversed new countries in different latitudes and have returned to others already known, in a pilgrimage as passionate observer rather than as curious traveler. The insect and star, the world of the microscopic and world of celestial grandeur have continued to dazzle me. Deep within me I rediscovered the man of the American tropics, the geographical man accustomed to an intimacy with nature.

Photo of Andrade
Since 1960 I have visited the United States, Chile, Brazil, Venezuela, Nicaragua, France, Belgium, and Holland. Everywhere I came upon places of Babylonian proportions and the labyrinths of traffic which characterize our era. They are the same in Paris as in New York, in Santiago and Brussels, in the Hague and Rio de Janeiro. These are the cities that represent a civilization whose economic foundations are built on the goal of increasing the physical well being of the greatest number of men. I have returned three times to Ecuador, my native land; that is to say, that in my life three verdant parentheses have been opened, in which I have once more felt the deep embrace of the motherland. But it was in flowering and fruitful Nicaragua that the “theory of the macaw” was revealed to me, and I witnessed in wonder the rebirth of my whole being. As I confessed in one of my poems from those days: “It came about, oh marvel, my third birth in the county of forgetfulness.”

I wrote that poem in defense of the tropics. The macaw was for me a symbol of planetary fire, but it also represented earthly love, the “palpitating illusion of desire,” and even more the utopia of human happiness. The presence of the bird with its strident colors and voice was in itself an affirmation of America. I welcomed a return to indigenous American national themes. Did not the ancestors of the men of certain regions adore the macaw, the totemic bird? Wanting to represent the splendor of the New World in one of his paintings, Reubens, in his most brilliant shades, painted an American macaw he observed in Madrid during his diplomatic mission to the court of Spain.

In the lands of America I felt myself wrapped in an atmosphere of legend and epic poetry. In some places it seemed to me I could see men in armor rising from the dust. I felt as though I were still in the period of the conquistadores and encomenderos, the oppressors of the Indians. The centuries had not passed. Everything was at the mercy of tyrants. I wrote my Cronica de las Indias, (8) which I finished in Paris. It seemed to me my country still lived in the days of Gonzalo Pizarro, the defender of the encomenderos. Only the name of the dictator had changed and the encomenderos were now known as “the oligarchy.”

The subject of my chronicle is a chapter in colonial history: Gonzalo Pizzaro, a proud man of the sword, who rebelled against the Laws of the Indies in the first half of the sixteenth century and proclaimed himself dictator. Peoples from Quito to the frontiers of Chile recognized his authority. According to the historian Prescott, Pizarro, the caudillo, spent a million pesos in gold to equip an army to fight La Gasca, the Pacifier, whose fleet was battered by a storm but arrived safely on the equatorial coasts. Abandoned by his rebel troops Pizarro gave up his sword to the victor and was beheaded in Lima as a warning to others who might try “to raise the country,” as was the saying then.

Unfortunately, the lesson was not taken to heart by the new leaders, who repeatedly stole power and tax moneys, or rather “made off with the image of the saint and poor box,” which was another picturesque popular saying of the time. In some strophes of the poem I tried to depict the tempest, followed by the calm of the sea:

Oh clamor at the immense cupola of the heavens
split by roving shattering thunder!
The abysses battle and the clouds battle
burying horizons in their watery tombs.
Blackness spreads its fearsome reign
from the bowels of the fish
to the heart of man and bird
beset by elemental fear
in the great cosmic night.
Dawn of a New World, at last your radiant flower
opens up without haste in the sky,
lifting its white banner in the battle
of sea against cloud. Tranquillity is established
and the waves moderate their azure balances
until they reach the taut level of the horizon.

In my years in Europe I learned to look into the depths of my own self: I also was, in several aspects, the same man of other ages, coming out of the background of the centuries. As other authors have aptly said: “a man is made up of successive personalities,” or more clearly he is successively many men. Such a conviction is apparent in my poem Linaje, where there is also an affirmation of my solidarity with all the men of the world: “I hold in my skull, pitcher of bone,/ all of human history/ the rivers of the earth dissolved in my blood/ and all the marks of the sword on my body.”

Time is a mysterious workshop, a forge where vegetation is reddened and set on fire, winter deposits its whiteness upon the world and the hair of the man pursued by age. In the laboratory of time, subtle essences of disenchantment and pessimism are distilled. The world peopled by signs of hope suddenly appears to be emptied of meaning. The vain and phantasmagoric feasts of the imagination, fleeting ceremonies of love, give way to the daily visit of memories. Journeys of memory to countries already visited in another epoch begin in the forced immobility of the body.

These poems are grouped in the section “Memories of Our Planet.” (9) It includes a variety of geography, regions, things, and customs characteristic of the Japanese archipelago, China, France, Caracas, and California: the lights of the Ginza, Tokyo’s main avenue, “quiver in a network of constellations” while Zen monks meditate under maritime pines; the funeral splendor of autumnal pheasants in France melts into the tropical explosion of the orchids of Venezuela and pistils of fiery volcanoes; and the green light of California parks and flowering flatlands of Holland are flooded by a sky of permanent luminosity. These are the lands of America, Europe, and Asia. When this picture book is closed, the announcement of dawn comes like a knock at the door.

Dawn in general has an illustrious distinguished ancestry in Spanish and Spanish-American poetry. It is the white Lady who appears at the highest point of the castle of night. The first light of day serves the mystic poets as a symbol of religious revelation. Modernism gave it another meaning: the dawn of a new earthly glory. It’s not the snowy dawn or rosy dawn; it’s the “golden dawn” of Ruben Dario, already sonorous with sun like a trumpet call.

The concept of dawn as the end of transitory human life and beginning of the eternal life is traditional in Spanish-American writing. This interpretation considers life as a dark passage, a night of pain, and it gives death the light of limitless day. Dawn is the hour of awakening in order to take up the daily work, or, on the contrary, the hour that puts an end to a nocturnal task. Or it may simply symbolize the reward at the completion of the work.

We must also not forget the social meaning of dawn. In this case it signifies the arrival of the hour of justice or announcement of a better future. My first intention in choosing dawn as a symbol was to express indirectly the awakening of consciousness and exaltation of light, or rather of metaphysical clarity. To awaken consciousness in order to penetrate the metaphysical zone of the most intangible material world: the dew, the wing, the air, and the flower. The tree lets its green syllable fall and articulates its prophetic word. The air of blue feathers feeds itself in space. The drop of the dew is the tear of the leaf, a miniature landscape soon evaporated by “a sun that dissipates the evidence of fantasies.” And yet another vision of dawn is sketched: the identity of dawn-woman or dawn-love. The arrival of the loved woman is like the coming of dawn; it announces absolute light or rather complete happiness. I have tried to express this poetic reality in metaphor:

In your smile dawn rises once more
a song of purity
as of a dovecote emptying itself.

Among those pages about dawn I inserted a more explicit poem on midday, “Dios de alegria.”

God of joy,
I glimpsed you
in broad daylight.

A robe of light
enfolded the tree
without memory of the cross.

Your crystal footsteps
descended the well’s

The sky smiled;
flower and pebble
shared good company.

Everything was a divine
Each wing a journey

toward all light,
God of Joy.
The world was on fire.

The splendor is purely spiritual. There are no fantasies, no torture, no doubt. The tree does not evoke the wood of the cross. The world is no longer a valley of desolation but rather a world blazing with light, crowned by a smiling sky and refreshed by a fountain, where everything constitutes a language in which a God of happiness expresses himself. The corollary of this vision of the world is in the last poem, “El alba illama ala puerta,” in which I confess that during my life I burned like a hot coal and was “wing, root, wheat.” In these symbols are included the permanent restlessness of travel (the wing), the deep communion with my native land (the root), and the fraternal communion with all men (wheat).

Among my lyrical creations is the Libro del Destierro, (10) which I wrote in Paris under adverse conditions. The banishment was real and not metaphysical. The combined feelings of exile and age were converted into peaceful images of how the fig tree has a fruitful old age “greater than any leafy youth, carrying its load of hope” and displays its ancient sweetness. But the implacable wind of banishment brought me other images: solitude, a desert peopled by vultures, the mirage of unattainable oasis:

The country of exile has no water
it is an endless thirst
with no hope of nearby springs
or a sip from the hollow of a stone.

The bread of banishment, the consciousness of human pain, extension, time, numbers are the steps by which this poetry endeavors to ascend to a transcendental metaphysic. The world is in its appearance and everything is mortal. The desert of sand is the image of human solitude that seeks to slake its thirst in the loftiest springs, but it is also the land of the viper, that is to say, a place where curses originate, the poisoned bite that will put a final end to the life of a careless traveler. The empty expanse is also an image of the times:

The ephemeral, the expanse, time, the number
are the four heavy bars of my metaphysic
in which I go round and round
until my leg bones are weary.

Time changes into number and space
and lets itself be eaten away without diminishment,
immense sum of everything,
celestial mathematics.

Time does not pass.
It is we who pass through as do things
for life is only
a mortal affliction.

In the various stages of artistic creation I was intensely preoccupied by the problem of poetic structure. I opted for freedom, though on many occasions continuing to use familiar metric forms, but rejuvenated within the iridescent world of metaphor. In my poetry the image consists of putting two realities face to face through a system of analogies. It is different from surrealist metaphor, in which the characteristic is “distance - t he greater the better - between object and image,” according to the German critic Hugo Friedrich. Friedrich also maintains that “the modern metaphor weakens or destroys analogy; it does not express a mutual relation, but rather forces into unity things which are incongruous with each other.” My poetry rejects all excessive remoteness from reality and takes pleasure in bringing things and men closer in an effort to achieve universal coherence and harmony.

The concentration and rigor of my work have led me to explore the halls and galleries of language in search of the treasure of the authentic word. In our day the false currency of meaningless words has been made to circulate in quantity. Sartre has already said so: “In many cases modern literature is a cancer of words. The purpose of some authors has been to destroy them but now it is necessary to rebuild them. Our first duty as writers is to return dignity to language.” We have all been witnesses to the phenomenon that has curiously marked our times: the explosion of languages and disorderly dispersal of words.

Fragments from that explosion can be seen in some of the books of Apollinaire, Reverdy, Tristan Tzara, and other surrealist and Dadaist poets, as well as the Spanish-Americans Huidobro and Vallejo. There was another example of the destruction of language that happened in an inverse sense: the weakening and extinction of the word assailed by a disease that consisted of the loss of vital feeling. In our day there are poets who use dead and embalmed words. Others make use of words to repoduce a technique of dissonances as a substitute for harmonious norms. My personal preference is for a language rich in meanings, pure and shining like Shakespeare’s sword that could rust from just one drop of dew. Shakespeare advises that good care be taken of words (keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them).

To sum up, the history of my poems in this seventh decade of the twentieth century can be synthesized in the following words: travels, reaffirmation of my faith in mankind, condemnation of political and social injustices, discovery of new aspects of the world, and consciousness of time. My poetry has been enriched by unsuspected contributions. My condition as a planetary man remains intact, although it has been said that banishment cannot exist for a man who considers the planet his fatherland. But in my poetry the identity of banishment-desert clearly appears. It is an exile into a sterile solitude, an empty area where the “burning bramble bush of sacrifices” is the only thing that grows. As a man from the green regions of the world, I cannot feel banished in the desert of eternal thirst without ceasing to be a “planetary man,” a brother to all men on earth.

1. Published in 1962 with Seleccion de Poemas (Caracas, Ediciones Casa del Escritor, 1962).
2. “Epistole to Francis Jammes” in La Guirnalda del Silencio (Quito, 1926).
3. Boletines de Mar y Tierra (Barcelona, 1930).
4. El Tiempo Manual (Madrid, 1955).
5. “Las Armas de la Luz” in Familia de la Noche (Paris, 1952).
6. Hombre Planetario (Quito, 1963).
7. Floresta de los Guacamayos (Managua, 1964).
8. Cronica de las Indias (Paris, 1966).
9. “El alba llama a la puerta” in Poesia Ultima (Nueva York, 1968).
10. Libros del Destierro, bilingual Spanish-French edition (Dakar: Universidad de Dakar, 1970).

Translated from the Spanish by Steven Ford Brown
Photo of Jorge Carrera Andrade as Ecuadorian Consul-General to France, Le Havre, France, 1950s; courtesy Enrique Qjeda, Boston College

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