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Daniel Borzutzky reviews

Immanent Visitor: Selected Poems of Jaime Saenz
translated by Kent Johnson and Forrest Gander

University of California Press, Bilingual Edition, 145 pp. US$19.95. 0520230485 paper.

This review is 1,600 words or about 4 printed pages long.

You can read five poems by Jaime Saenz from As the Comet Passes, and a long selection from Immanent Visitor, translated by Kent Johnson and Forrest Gander in Jacket 8, and a sixteen-page essay, ‘Some Days in the Life of The Night: Notes from Bolivia, June 20-30, 2004’, about a visit to Bolivia in the footsteps of Saenz by Kent Johnson and Forrest Gander, in Jacket 25.

Love and death

There is an anecdote about Paul Celan telling Edmond Jabès that he cannot translate his writing because ‘our silences are too different.’ This paradoxical problem — the ability to give voice to another writer’s silence — is something that all translators grapple with, and though Celan tells Jabès that he cannot voice his silences, he does suggest, optimistically, that another writer’s silence can be voiced. In Immanent Visitor, Kent Johnson and Forrest Gander skillfully voice the many silences of the Bolivian poet Jaime Saenz, whose writing is at once severe in its honesty, and enigmatic in its dark vivacity. Silence is at the core of Saenz’s writing. On one level, it is a literal subject matter engaged by Saenz with an intensity and sincerity that readers of English language poetry will not be accustomed to: ‘May the silence offer a bit of sweetness, break off from forgetfulness/ so it might die in a forgetfulness/ and dilute itself in you and pass away in the pour of rain.’ (65) On another level, silence, for Saenz, is a response to a world of poverty, illness, torture and isolation:

If you have nothing to eat but garbage, don’t say a word.
If the garbage makes you sick, don’t say a word.
If they cut off your feet, if they boil your hands, if your tongue rots, if your spine
    splits in two, if your soul fines down to nothing, don’t say a word.
If they poison you, don’t say a word, even if your bowels slide from your mouth
    and your hair stands straight up; even if your eyes well with blood, don’t say a word.
If you feel good, don’t feel good. If you fall behind, don’t fall behind. If you die,
    don’t die. If you’re sad, don’t be sad. Don’t say a word.

    These lines recall Cesar Vallejo, who, in 1918, before Saenz was born, wrote: ‘There are blows in life so violent — I can’t answer!/ Blows as if from the hatred of God.’ And indeed, Vallejo, as we learn in the book’s helpful introduction, was a hero to Saenz. Vallejo’s influence, and his need to depict unspeakable malice, seems deeply imbedded in Saenz, but the Saenz sentence is often windier and more entangled than the Vallejo sentence. And there is something perhaps less constant in Saenz, whose writing presents a man both in love with life and brutally opposed to it at the same time, an incongruity seen most clearly in ‘To Cross This Distance’ , a fourteen-page poem that contains the most powerful writing in this strange and wonderful collection:

In a burning and pulsing force I long for enchantment.
In the ancient silence of a wind I long for enchantment.
In the isolate world from which nothing flows, save only lost enchantment, which
    returns me to you,
I long for the gallows where once I saw myself hanging to gaze fully at you,
in all your movements, your ways.

      Immanent Visitor excerpts five of Saenz’s books written between the early 1950s and 1973. In these years, Saenz was poor and suffering from alcoholism; he was, remarkably, open and unapologetic about his bisexuality; he almost never left his home town of La Paz, and, as we learn from the introduction, the Latin American literati of his time were uncomfortable with his work, which was too formal for the avant-garde, not politically didactic enough for the literary left, and ‘too weird’ for the magical-realist boom. No one knew where to place Saenz’s writing, which we can assume is why he has not previously appeared in English. Happily, the translators have done a masterful job of recreating his voice and tone, all the while taking the risks and liberties to be expected from Johnson and Gander, formidable poets in the American experimental scene. More importantly, the translators find the rhythm in Saenz’s flowing, repetitive sentences; they find the confidence and self-doubt, the constant ebb and flow of affirmation and negation that make Saenz’s poems feel as if they have gone beyond artifice and into revelation, reminding us of the pleasure that reading provides when we find thoughts we have never had that sound proverbial and familiar, as if we have already understood what we are just experiencing for the first time:

— your extravagance amazes me, drills joy into me, it is my daily bread
— when it rains, at a turn of the head, shouts fly from your shoulders,
and you stroke your cheeks and your applause echoes in the water, in the wind,
    and in the fog
— it amazes me how much I love you!
— I yearn for the moment I hear you,
a sepulchral music vanishes and my death steps out of you,
beloved images become visible to the musicians
when it’s you who is listening
— always, the musicians exult in silence
when it’s you who is listening.

      There is much to comment on these lines from ‘Anniversary of a Vision’ , an extended love poem addressed to an unidentified you. ‘Your extravagance...drills joy into me’: a literal translation (tu recocija) would be closer to ‘your extravagance fills me with joy,’ but the  choice of ‘drills’ appropriately captures the violence-in-love that Saenz’s poems repeatedly evoke.

     The second section of the book, from As the Comet Passes, presents a series of shorter, more controlled pieces, in which emotion emanates more from the unit of the line than from the totality of the poem as a whole. Here the sacrifice love requires is even more violent, as in ‘High above the Dark City’, where the speaker declares:

I’ll cut of a hand for each of her sighs I’ll gouge out an eye for each smile
I’ll die once twice three times four times a thousand times
just to expire on her lips
with a saw I’ll hack through my ribs to hand her my heart
with a needle I’ll draw out my sweetest soul to surprise her

     ‘I’ll hack through my ribs to hand her my heart’: for Saenz this is what love requires, and though the idea here is as old as it gets, the delivery of this message is novel: a form of controlled hyperbole used throughout Immanent Visitor, a device ingeniously acknowledged in ‘Anniversary of a Vision’, whose speaker tells his subject that ‘you exaggerate without exaggerating because you know that my exaggerations make you exaggerate,/ and my exaggerations are invisible so that your exaggerations may be visible.’ (7) In ‘So I Am Persuaded’, Saenz offers a philosophical declaration about the individual’s role in the world: ‘Everyone lives in one/ — I, you, they./ We all live in all, no one lives or dies, and each is on his own/ — -but nobody knows what happens./  The world is conjecture, so I am persuaded.’ (19-20) ‘Your Skull’, in which the speaker craves a past dream of a friend’s skull, inquires if a person can know himself independently of how he is seen by others:

— your skull appeared to me.
And it had an exalted presence;
it didn’t look at me — it looked at you.
And when you were looking at me my skull appeared to you;
It didn’t look at you.
It looked at me.

     Poems from The Scalpel comprise the next section of Immanent Visitor. Here we find work entirely in prose, beginning with ‘Homage to Epilepsy’, a long poem consisting of many short titled sections. These prose poems bring to mind French writers like René Char and Francis Ponge, though comparison does little justice, for Saenz’s take on illness is uniquely cryptic.

     In ‘These are the Little Epileptic’s Hairs’, the opening sequence to ‘Homage to Epilepsy’, Saenz focuses on smallness, on turning what can be barely perceived into something monumental:

     The little epileptic’s hairs grow out darkly at the break of night. Their resins flow into undulant ends and they seem like colossal columns of granite in the glorious and mysterious field of love and death.

     Indeed, love and death are the central preoccupations of Saenz’s poetry. But in Immanent Visitor, both love and death are nebulous ever-shifting concepts that shape all that is real and unreal. On the one hand, Saenz writes, ‘one should strive to be dead.’ (49) And on the other hand, death is needed to make us aware of why we might want to live: ‘The beauty of life/ ,through the miracle of living./ The loveliness of life,/ which remains,/ through the miracle of dying.’ (44) In Immanent Visitor as a whole, and ‘Homage to Epilepsy’ in particular, death is a force that regenerates. For in the eyes of the epileptic child, ‘the dead, just like the living, can die again.’ (28)

     The final section of the book, from Immanent Visitor, begins with another long poem addressed to an unnamed subject. The writing here is rhapsodic, at times almost prayer-like in its declarations and repetitions, and its mystical insistence of how little separates the world of the living from the world of the dead:

     Sink your lips into shared death, sheltered by the fingers above and below it, bury yourself in the unargued and unstated in the half-light of those who die in vacillation (66)

     Grandiose in scale, brutal yet graceful in his depiction of humanity, hallucinatory in vision, Saenz is an extraordinary writer who deserves to be recognized as one of the most important poets to come out of twentieth century Latin America. Fortunately, there are more of his books to come.[∗]


[∗] In 2006, Princeton University Press will publish Jaime Saenz's The Night (translated by Forrest Gander and Kent Johnson).

Kent Johnson’s author notes page gives more recent information about his work.

Jacket’s ‘author notes’ provide direct links to various pages in the magazine that feature more of an author’s work, reviews of their books, and interviews.

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