Esta gran hacienda iluminada,
verde como el pasto se arrodilla
ante la lluvia
reconoce los nudillos blancos
de la luna
extiende sus vertebras,
como los arcos–sauces Shu
This grand illuminated estate,
green as grass bowing
beneath the rain
recognizing the moon’s
its vertebrae extended,
like the arched Shu
willows in springtime.
The brevity is sustained at the exact point where the experience and the poetic project of the author intersect. For it is about capturing a deep image, through the foreign gaze and representing, in the best possible way, a hallucinatory, strange and at the same time, evocative experience. This procedure has been a constant in Arabia’s project. This is how in his first two books, El Enemigo de los thirties and Desalojo de la Naturaleza, we find brief snapshots of a solitary walker who wanders, among other countries, through England, Scotland, France, Belgium and Argentina. They are momentary experiences, but they avoid the fleetingness and evanescence of what is contemplated through a later moment, that of writing understood as a bookish vocation that Arabia establishes with the poets of the Western tradition who best speak of it: mainly Arthur Rimbaud and his rebelliousness, which in Arabian poetry is often associated with the act of walking. But it is not that Arabia imitates Rimbaud, or that he simply reproduces episodes from the life of the poet from Charleville, but rather, it is a matter of glimpsing through a Latin American poet the anti-modern attitude that has permeated all poetry since the end of the XIXth century. Arabia, in this sense, has achieved what no Spanish or Latin American poet has achieved so far; that is, to pulverize the myth of the seer poet in a specific Spanish speaking context, where the poet is not an outlaw yearning for a Western city, as in the first modern Latin American chroniclers, fascinated with the myth of Paris (Casal, Nervo, etc.), nor is he a nosy as in the case of Huidobro, Rubén Darío and Lihn. Much less did he attempt to normalize city life, through a process of optimistic adaptation of poetry in Spanish to the landscape of late capitalism, as it occurs in what, in my opinion, is fiercely misnamed poesía de la experiencia of the Escuela de Granada (School of Granada).
In Juan Arabia that conciliation is impossible, there is only a mere restitution for the reparation of poetry and writing from a specific origin: an Argentine who poetizes reality from his class and racial conditioning, a grandson of Italian anarchist workers expelled by the Industrial Revolution and settled in the countryside, in the bowels of Buenos Aires. The poet then keeps the anti-bourgeois spirit intact in his attempt to destroy everything, in a mission that might seem exaggerated nihilism, but that nonetheless finds certainties and anchor points in the exercises of affiliation with poets who shared the same spiritual adventure against the structures: Dylan Thomas, Coleridge, Blake, Hart Crane, Pound and Rimbaud, to name a few. But it is not a question of mere maladjustment regarding the paternal and social conformations of an epoch like the European end of century, nor of the mere intellectual superiority of Juan Arabia. There are no poses. It is, insistently, the verification of a looted Latin America, founded on strong materialist bases and forged by an extractivist colonial project, whose modernity has never taken place, because it has not been preceded by a Spirit, either the enlightened one of the XVIIIth century or one concerning the myth. The anarchist gaze is then the key on which the observation of the Latin American is based. As the French critic Marc Wetzel rightly points out in the commentary on L'oceán est avare, an anthology in French that brings together poems from the first three books of Juan Arabia, we find ourselves before one of the great living poets of our time, due to the incessant mutual generation of images and ideas. It is the impetuousness of a poet who does not know where he comes from, but who advances digging slopes, jumping meanders and forgetting his origin evenfaster than fire and wind:
C’est comme un torrent de vie: personne ne demande où il veut en venir, mais nous savons qu’on le retrouvera toujours plus loin, creusant les pentes, sautant les méandres, oubliant sa source plus vite encore que le feu et le vent les leurs. L’impétuosité est telle que même chez les grands poètes conservateurs (Valéry, Claudel, Péguy), la voix est anarchiste (elle ne commande rien à la pensée qui l’anime). Alors, quand (avec JuanArabia) l’homme poète est lui-même un anarchiste.(1)
The poet is an impetuous anarchist, I mean, a being who has expelled society from himself, who looks at it without illusions and can live on his own, a free man, unlike the anarchist who always seeks collaboration for his extreme idealism, antagonist of the monarch who dreams of annihilating it and imposing his particular worldly vision. On the contrary, Juan Arabia is a loner who seeks his certainties in the poetic tradition and, unfortunately, must bear the scant poetic foundation of our continent. Thus we understand why in the book before The Bund, Hacia Carcassonne, starting from an ephemeral walk through the Cité, the poet dedicated a full year to studying the Provençal tradition, as a way of establishing a fruitful connection with those medieval poets who, like him, devoted themselves to a distinguished hermetic tradition in the opposition trobar clus / trobar leu. Needless to say, the result is brilliant to the extent that, like few others, Juan Arabia's book moves away from conversational poetry, reconstructing the medieval context in which Arnaut Daniel, Macabrú, Raimbaut D'Aurenga and Alegret wrote, and also incorporates the writing of a sestina, the most difficult exercise regarding the art of the troubadours, to mention one of the many achievements of that work.
Avanzando de pie y junto al sol
de Provenza, degastando las suelas
junto al pan que mojaban los trovadores
con la cerveza del pueblo.
Avanzando, por encima del mástil,
imitando el sonido de los pájaros
mucho antes de que otros poetas
invadieran el cerco con canciones
tontas y estancadas.
[Moving on standing and by the sun
of Provence, wearing out the soles
by the bread that the troubadours dipped
with the village beer.
Moving on, over the mast,
imitating the sound of the birds
long before other poets
jumped over the fence with songs
dumb and stagnant.]
The poem ‘Tensó’ brings together the most important elements of the poetics of Arabia: the poet capturing an impression in the act of walking, the condensation of an image and the allusion to the reproducibility of a sterile poetry signed in the verse canciones tontas y estancadas, a concern already identifiable in troubadour poetry, and that explains in many ways the distinction between a true troubadour and minstrel poetry, and that indicates the orbit from which Juan Arabia conceives his own activity, siding with the former. Added to this are the hidden references, such as the word Register in capital letters, which appears cut off from the first four verses and which may refer to some private vision that Arabia does not skimp on mentioning despite its referential darkness and as long as its incorporation seems poetic. Examples of this gesture abound in the poetry of the bonaerense.
As in Hacia Carcassone, in The Bund, it is also all about a short-lived stay, but now in the busiest commercial territory of Shanghai, the most emblematic point of the city that extends along approximately 1.5 km. around Zhongshan Dong Yi Lu (中山东一路). It is an area that was the heart of colonial Shanghai and even its name is preserved in English –Bund– a word of Anglo-Indian origin that means “pier” or “jetty”. The foreign presence dates back to 1843, when George Balfour, the first British representative, chose this location for the consulate. Initially it housed small ware houses and residences, but at the end of the XIXth century some of the most characteristic buildings in the area began to be built. At the beginning of the XXth century, other countries, such as Russia, Japan, France, Germany and the United States, already had commercial establishments and banks. In this way the Bund became the main financial enclave in Asia. So, if in Hacia Carcassone a cultural immersion should be carried out to rescue affinities, here it seems more important to rescue the visual dimension of the experience, in the midst of an unimaginable market economy in a communist country, as we see in the first poem of the book, ‘South Shaanxi Road 陕西南路’, translated above.
The title suggests the presence of the poet in an exchange station. But Arabia describes at all times a natural landscape. As in Wordsworth and Blake, it is a refusal of the eye -the most despotic of the senses- to invoke, as in Carlyle, "a spiritual optic". Hence the replacement of the station by this grand illuminated estate. Shanghai's Bund area should be thought of as a spectacle of incomparable variety and stimulation, probably matched only by cities like New York and Paris, but where the poet cannot derive visual pleasure. Distrusting images becomes a categorical imperative in a communist country, paradoxically fetishized by the vision of still colonial and increasingly capitalist structures. One cannot but think of the influence that Bergson had on imagist poetry, transmitted by T.E. Hulme to Anglo-American poets like Eliot, Pound, and Williams.
Let us remember that Juan Arabia is the translator of Ezra Pound, and one of the books he has been working on for years is Cathay, so that he is familiar with Chinese lyrics and with the use of the ideogram by the North American author. So there is a synchronicity between the task of translation, of training, poetic preferences, and the images captured by the author on his travels, a completely closed system and rarely observed in a poet of his age, which gives his work a high degree of aesthetic consistency, despite the changes that each project-book has connoted for the Argentine. The Bund is based on the idea of deep image, understood in the sense given by Tony Barnstone in an attempt to understand the nature of the images in Chinese poetry. An operative term also for the poetry of Hilda Doolitle, who is honored in the first and last two lines of ‘South Shaanxi Road’. In both H.D and Juan Arabia there is an impulse to abandon mimetic representation through the juxtaposition of elements that allow taking the pulse of the immediacy of lived experience. Except that Arabia does not turn the image into the intuition of duration (Bergson's la dureé) by borrowing various images, as in Eliot's poetry, for example. Rather, it creates an overlay, an image that goes beyond spatialized forms, an image absolutely devoid of limits that would have to be traced in the search for new visual experiences through surrealism, oriented towards a visionary redemption that follows from the Rimbaudian mandate of becoming a seer. Such an exploration is not new for the author of The Bund. In fact, one of the great lessons that Hacia Carcassone leaves us is that the Trobar Clus is already a way of confusing the senses, of entrebescar, as the Provençals said: intertwining. In such a way, it seems that all the pieces of the poetic project of Arabia were deeply calculated, whether in his readings, in the leaps he takes as a writer and in the places where he travels. Thus we understand speculatively the essential question that the poem ‘The Bund’ poses in its opening verse:
¿Volarán más alto estas canciones?
De una máscara harán un artificio más pobre,
reduciendo las cenizas de su experiencia,
desafilando el cuerno,
agrupando la especie creada.
Nuestro trabajo, el más oscuro,
bebe de ese mismo mar 圆明园路
Tonto es aquel quien no cree en diluvios.
[Will these songs fly even higher?
From a mask they’ll make an even poorer
artifice, reducing the
ashes of their life experience,
dulling his horns,
assembling the created species.
Our work, the darkest,
drinking from the same ocean
Foolish is he who believes not in deluges.]
It is a permanent concern in the poetry of Arabia that it “flies higher”; more than that of the thirties poets, more than Latin American poetry, more than the minstrels of yesteryear and those of our time. Hence the question, “will these songs fly even higher?” This will be possible, it seems, only and as soon as the songs (the poetry) harbor more than one meaning, something that the troubadour Alegret already said: "My verse will seem insane to the fool if he does not have double understanding", sentence that Juan Arabia reverses by "Foolish is he who believes not in deluges". That is to say that the central concern in The Bund is that poetry -the darkest work- be carried out according to its own historical function, and not get stuck in dumb songs, a way of referring to the one-dimensional poetry of our time. The image in Arabia is more than an idea, it is a vortex of merged ideas, endowed with energy in the manner of Pound. The Cantos are Pound's work where the ideogrammatic method and its poetic validity are put to the test, but also the work in which said element ceases to be a literary technique and acquires a complex political charge. Then it is natural to ask ourselves what is the meaning of the use of the ideogram that we see in the poem ‘The Bund’. And it is that 圆明园路 today means Yunminggyuan road, originally Imperial Gardens, a complex of palaces built between the XVIIIth and early XIXth centuries, the main residence and work space of the emperors of the Quing dynasty. These imperial gardens were destroyed by the British and French armies, so we understand that the ideogrammatic inclusion by Arabia is imposed as a way of warning about the idea that China, like Latin America, has also been and is being looted by the powers of capitalism. In fact, the destruction of the imperial gardens is considered a symbol of foreign aggression and humiliation. We discover, then, that the Chinese character in Arabia is a bright spotlight that directly throws attention to the reader's mind and that could well be assimilated to Pound's idea of looking for a resplendent meaning that is linked to the theme of Neoplatonic mysticism. But Arabia differs from the author of Lustra in the sense that he seeks an appreciation that is not evident, patent, obvious, political, as it is in Pound, but from the perspective of a revisionary Marxist backgroung. This way we understand how the poem ‘Old Town: “El loco”’ incorporates a totally new procedure in the poetry of Arabia, which is the inclusion in quotation marks of what seems to be the listening to what a tourist guide says, here connoted as the poisoner . It is about the intention, even assumed in everyday passing speeches, to destroy the ancient city, to replace contraband liquor (the authenticity of a people, its hidden gestures), with a new aroma in China, which must inexorably be annexed to the Western Empire with its silk for winners where the traditional differentiation between base and superstructure, typical of Marxism, is already lost:
Los ministerios quieren voltear
las viejas construcciones”
dijo la envenenadora
“desplomar los rincones sucios
contaminados cangrejos de agua clara.”
Ellos trabajan erigiendo
un mismo imperio
aromas de occidente
la moneda de cambio
sustituye al licor de contrabando.
Seda de ganadores
edificando y edificando sus resultados
gusanos de Base y Superestructura
y para un mismo lado
los peces cegados en su fosa.
[“The ministers want to tear down
the old buildings”
said the poisoner
“collapse the dirty corners
contaminated crabs from clear waters.”
They work to erect
the same empire
aromas of The East
substitutes as smuggled liquor.
Silk for the winners
the worms building and building
their results of Base and Superstructure
blind fish in a their graven trench.]
I would like to conclude by pointing out that the poems of The Bund, in their condensation and brevity, imply a step forward for the poetry of Arabia, because they condense through the deep image an articulated experience where thought is not opposed, in any case, to the immediacy of vision. It is a writing that aims to communicate without neglecting a high degree of self-referentiality. It should be remembered, at this point, that the obscurities of poetry are due to the fact that writing is not simply a vehicle that narrates experience, but that by working with words that are carriers of inherited meanings, they imply a permanent process of redefinition of those meanings. Hence the high degree of experimentation in the project of Arabia, which seeks to abolish the one-dimensionality of the language of power, but also of poetry devoid of symbols by appealing to the visual structure of experience where seeing is the key to directly apprehending a world of objects that, since the implantation of capitalism as a world system, is far from always being transparent.
(1) "It is like a torrent of life: no one asks where it comes from, but we know that we will find it beyond, digging the slopes, jumping the meanders, forgetting its origin faster than fire and wind. The impetuosity is such that even among the great conservative poets (Válery, Claudel, Péguy), the voice is anarchist (it controls nothing in the thought that animates it)". Wetzel’s text can be found at http://www.lacauselitteraire.fr/l-oceanest-avare-juan-arabia-par-marc-wetzel
Gwendolyn Osterwald (United States, Hofstra University, Hempstead, New York) is a linguist and translator. A Spanish, Chinese, Chinese Studies, and Forensic Linguistics student, she has previously published an article in IAFOR Journal of Arts and Humanities about queer identities. She has studied in Granada, Spain, and Shanghai, China as well as traveled the world.
Juan Arabia (Buenos Aires, 1983) is a poet, translator and literary critic. In addition to publishing four books of poetry, he has written extensively on John Fante and the Beat Generation. He has translated Arthur Rimbaud, Ezra Pound, and a book-length anthology of Beat poets, among many others. Juan Arabia has published books of poetry throughout Latin America, Europe and China: El Enemigo de los Thirties (Buenos Aires Poetry, 2015 / Samuele Editore, Italia,2017 / L´Océan Avare, Al Manar, Francia, 2018), desalojo de la naturaleza (Buenos Aires Poetry, 2018) and Hacia Carcassonne (Pre-Textos, España, 2020), among others. He is a graduate of the Faculty of Social Sciences of the University of Buenos Aires, and the founder and director of the literary journal and press Buenos Aires Poetry.