RIVER, SEA, MOTHER AND PROSTITUTE:
THE POETRY OF FREDI GUTHMANN, by Ricardo Nirenberg
To Natacha Guthmann
We are born, issued from Eternal Being or Nothingness, our lives flow for a while, till we die and return to Eternal Being or Nothingness. It was perhaps inevitable that our lives, and flowing time, would be likened to rivers. Heraclitus does so in three of the remaining fragments, and Apollinaire in Le Pont Mirabeau. Since rivers flow into the sea, and, less obviously, originate from it, the sea had to be likened to Eternal Being or Nothingness.
"Nuestras vidas son los ríos
que van a dar en la mar
qu’es el morir"
(Our lives are rivers which, dying, run into the sea), wrote the Castilian poet Jorge Manrique (Coplas por la muerte de su padre) in the fourteen-seventies, and from the eighteen-seventies we have Rimbaud’s hallucinated Bateau ivre. A slightly later poem by Rimbaud, titled L’Éternité, begins:
"Elle est retrouvée,
C’est la mer allée
Avec le soleil."
(It is recovered, What? Eternity, It’s the sea eloped with the sun.)
In French, however, the best-known poetic identification of the sea with Real Being, Eternity and Nothingness, is Valéry’s Le Cimetière marin:
"La mer, la mer toujours recommencée!
O récompense après une pensée
Qu’un long regard sur le calme des dieux!"
(The sea, the sea starting always again! What a reward after a thought, a long look on the calm of the gods!) The sea around Valéry is a "stable trésor" and a "Temple du Temps," and when, towards the end, he exclaims: "Zénon! Cruel Zénon! Zénon d’Elée!," naming, out of the blue, the famous disciple of Parmenides, this line and the ones that follow, though they disgusted Yeats, are conceptually just, for they name the Eleatic arrow that left a cruel wound in the heart of Western man.
The natural, oldest and most universal image for Eternity, for the time both before and after our lifeflow is not the sea, however, but Mother and the Mother’s Womb. At the farthest remove from the West, we try to hear Lao Tzu:
"The valley spirit that does not die we call the dark womb, the dark womb’s mouth we call the source of creation, the root of heaven and earth; as real as gossamer silk, it endures forever, we can’t exhaust it and we can use it without pain."
But we can hear this only faintly, because the Fathers of Western thought and feeling have made us deaf to such songs. When I get to write my Treatise on Metaphysics, even before the chapter on the Eleatics, I’ll have one on Aeschylus and his hysterical fear of the womb. How could he be reconciled to Lao Tzu’s use of the womb without pain, he, the first tragic poet, whose choruses moan, "We only learn through suffering"?
To realize the tremendous influence of the antique moan on modern European poetry, it is enough to read Rimbaud’s famous letter to Demeny of May 15th, 1871, where the poet, keen and subtle reader of Aeschylus, outlines his own poetic method:
"Le Poète se fait voyant par un long, immense et raisonné dérèglement de tous les sens. Toutes les formes d’amour, de souffrances, de folie; il cherche lui-même, il épuise en lui tous les poisons, pour n’en garder que les quintessences. Ineffable torture où il a besoin de toute la foi, de toute la force surhumaine, où il devient entre tous les grand malade, le grand criminel, le grand maudit, et le suprême Savant!"
(The poet becomes a seer by a long, huge and systematic disturbance of all senses. All forms of love, of suffering, of madness; he seeks them, he quaffs off all the poisons and keeps but the quintessences. Ineffable torture where he needs all the faith and superhuman strength, where he becomes the sickest, the greatest criminal, the most damned— and the supreme Sage!)
In the same letter, Rimbaud identifies the poet with Aeschylus’ Prometheus: "Donc le poète est vraiment voleur de feu" (Hence the poet is truly a fire thief).
Despite Aeschylus and our other Hellenic Fathers, the Greek language kept, in its wisdom, the two ideas fused: already in Homer kólpos meant the female bosom or lap (and later, explicitely, the womb), the folds of the female robe, as well as the sea. In the Sixth Book of the Iliad, the terrified god Dionysos flees murderous Lykourgos by plunging into the sea, and Thetis receives him in her kólpos; Hephaistos, in Book Eighteen, is saved in the same way, in Thetis’ kólpos, that is, inside the sea. Our word "gulf," and our wonderful word "engulfed" come from kólpos, as does the French "gouffre," so dear to Baudelaire. Thus, a Greek poet could, in the same word, say mother and sea. Of the modern European languages, only French, as far as I know, has kept this possibility: mère and mer look slightly different but sound the same.
Our symmetry instinct demands another female image, one for time in flux, the time that’s not a haven but a killer, the pre-eminent assassin, and we don’t have to look far, for prostitutes have always been with us. The prostitute makes love fleetingly and, at least in theory, never comes back. Like flowing time, she is mysterious: one can’t hold her, she belongs to no one but, for a moment, to anyone who pays; yet that moment may be memorable. Her infertile love, turned away from enduring and Eternity, shuns progeny and concentrates on present enjoyment. A man may remember her, but a healthy prostitute, not infected by the Romantic Bug, will not remember him, and that is precisely how Time the Killer deals with men.
Some Gnostics have fused Mother and Prostitute, but the two have remained mostly antithetical in the Catholic West, and this antithesis immaculate-maculate shines splendidly in Baudelaire, the poet whose poetic recipe is, precisely, the bizarre fusion of the permanent and the passing, the ideal and the private. All over the first part, Spleen et Idéal, longest of Les Fleurs du mal, prostitutes and courtesans "femme impure", "la femme stérile", "O fangeuse grandeur, sublime ignominie!" recline on beds of boredom, ennui, the acute consciousness of the slow, too slow passage of time. Often the poet makes this thematic:
"Et le Temps m’engloutit minute par minute" (Le Goût du néant),
(And Time engulfs me by the minute) and Oblivion, Time the Killer, identified to the courtesan in Le Léthé:
"L’oubli puissant habite sur ta bouche,
Et le Léthé coule dans tes baisers".
(Powerful oblivion dwells on your lips, and Lethe flows in your kisses.) In the last lines of the last part of Les Fleurs du mal, the poet’s voice implores Death to take him out to sea, to what’s beyond Time’s awful flow:
"O Mort, vieux capitaine, il est temps! levons l’ancre!",
(Old captain Death, it’s time! Let’s sail off!) so he, like the Homeric Hephaistos or Dionysos, can save himself from the ennui of Time the Killer "l’ennemi vigilant et funeste" by plunging in:
"Plonger au fond du gouffre, Enfer ou Ciel, qu’importe?
Au fond de l’Inconnu pour trouver du nouveau!"
(Plunge into the abyss, whether Hell or Heaven we don’t care, into the bottom of the Unknown to search for something new!) Sea, gouffre, kólpos, the haven of Eternity, the refuge from Time and boredom.
A refuge for the gods, certainly, but we may find it too magnificent, too gigantic, too Wagnerian, too beyond. Even with the motherly resonance of gouffre/kólpos, we miss the Mother. In Les Fleurs du mal, Mother is tucked in between. In the marvelous second part, like a serene, human haven in the midst of the "fourmillante cité", in the only two untitled poems of the book, numbers 14 and 15 of Tableaux Parisiens. "Je n’ai pas oublié, voisine de la ville...", I have always found the most moving of all. Eternity is not beyond: it is here. It would be wrong to speak of nostalgia: we know, since Baudelaire said so in a letter to his mother, that the small, white house ("Notre blanche maison, petite mais tranquille") is where the poet and his mother used to live before she remarried, but nostalgia is the longing for return, which moves the adventurer, the sailor Odysseus back home from other shores, through the sea and through the time in between. Nostalgia is the mover back through the in between. But this short poem is already in the in between: the quiet house and its serge curtains are already safe, here and now, surrounded by the maelstrom, yet miraculously untouched. Nothing more can be asked of a poem.
The foregoing is intended as an approach to the poetry of Fredi Guthmann (1911-1995). Poetry in French which is being published only now, posthumously, thanks to the devotion of Natacha, his widow, and of the French writer Louis Soler: a selection has recently appeared in Buenos Aires (La gran respiración bailada, Atuel/Poesía, 1997), with translations into Spanish by Rafael F. Oteriño, and another selection is appearing in Paris in April 1998, titled Le Grand matin définitif, published by Paroles d’Aube. An article by Louis Soler in the French journal l’Âne (October 1996) first announced the discovery: Soler visited Natacha’s home in Buenos Aires, was shown the yellowing sheets of paper kept in an old suitcase, and was overtaken by Fredi’s texts, as was I. In 1997 two articles followed in the literary sections of Argentine newspapers.
Fredi Guthmann was born in a Jewish family of émigrés from Alsace who had settled in Buenos Aires in 1890 and established an up-scale jewelry store. Fredi was two when he lost his father, whereupon he and his mother moved back to France, and Fredi was educated in Strasbourg. By all accounts, he was a rebellious and brilliant adolescent. At age fourteen he lost his mother, and in 1929, refusing to work at the family jewelry store, he became a sailor, an adventurer, and traversed the Pacific in a ten-meter sailboat, the Pacific Moon. He visited many islands, spent two years in Tahiti, wrote poems, and, like Odysseus, "learned the minds of many distant men and weathered many bitter nights and days." His knowledge of the sea was immediate and intimate, as was his knowledge of the beloved mother he had lost.
"Hereux qui, comme Ulysse, a fait un beau voyage, / Ou comme cestuy là qui conquit la Toison, / Et puis est retourné, plein d’usage et raison, / Vivre entre ses parents le reste de son aage!" (Happy he who has made a grand voyage, like Ulysses, or like the one who won the Fleece of Gold, and then returns, experienced and sensible, to live with his family for the rest of his days!) I have often wondered, if Jason the Argonaut be the one who won the Fleece of Gold, how du Bellay could write that he returned home "plein d’usage et raison"; but be that as it may, it is doubtful that Fredi himself returned so: he still refused to settle down and to take care of the family’s jewelry store. He lived part of the time in Paris, frequented the cafés, met André Breton who wanted to publish Fredi’s poems (Fredi refused), lived the rest of the time in Buenos Aires, and stayed in Argentina during World-War-Two. He also frequented the brothels. In the 1920s and 30s there were many in Paris, but there were even more in Buenos Aires. According to the French journalist Albert Londres, who wrote a book on the subject, there was a brothel in almost every city block of the Argentine capital: the up-scale whores were mainly French, and there were many Polish Jews among the cheap ones. Fredi acquired an immediate and intimate knowledge of prostitutes. In the following poem (Guthmann’s poems are untitled and undated: we can only say that they were written between 1928 and 1948), prostitutes and the river, the two images of Time the Killer, are set face-to-face. I fancy the river is the River Plate, for at that time in Buenos Aires, "el Bajo", the lower riverside, was associated with the sinful life. The free translations and falsifications are, as usual, mine.
En ai-je vu
Many have I seen
Qui étaient nues
Who were bare
Rien que dans la peau de leurs lèvres
Only at their lips
Quand elles souriaient
When they smiled
Qui portaient dans leurs yeux
Who carried in their eyes
Qu’elles dussent être nues un jour
That one day they would be naked
Plus tôt leur saison
Come their season
Ignominieusement vraiment nues
Truly infamously naked
Avec leur triangle mat et la longue evanescence
With their dull muffs and the long fading
Des cuisses filantes
Of their scurrying thighs
En bas nues debout et offertes
Stockinged bare standing on offer
Nues debout sous une porte cochère
Standing bare under the stately archways
En face d’un fleuve violent comme un monsieur
Before a river violent like a gentleman
Dans la ville la nuit épaule contre épaule
In the citynight shoulder-to-shoulder
Le fleuve qui coule plus obscènement
The river that flows more obscenely
Plus animalement que mille regards de messieurs.
More beastly than the gaze of a thousand gentlemen.
The great shroud of the sea lies in ambush, rolling as it has always been, ready to roll us over and away. We walk on the shore, helpless before Eternity, i.e. Nothingness, the darkness into which we cannot look. In the following poem of Fredi Guthmann, flowing time, Killer but also Bringer of Delights, beckons us, its maculate flesh perfumed like a whore.
Je viens d’un pays dont les yeux sont
I come from a country whose eyes are
Au bord d’une mer qui se tient comme un animal
By a sea standing like an animal
sur une jambe
on one leg
et qui guette
lying in ambush
Et les paupières baissées
y perle une goutte d’androïde une
a drop of android glitters there a
drop from the orange tree
Ah le luxe des tigres
Ah the luxury of the tigers
nous prenait le soir en coup de vent
would suddenly overtake us
et nous étions emportés dans un parfum de chaire mouchetée.
and on a whiff of maculate flesh we were carried away.
No Baudelerian ennui in Fredi Guthmann. The vast war between Eternity and Time is played out, ferocious, between beasts, one waiting on one leg, the other beckoning from inland, claws ready from a jungle of images. "A drop from the orange tree" glittering on the half-closed eye of Eternity or the Sea, a bright orange suspended on the immense expanse of blue, is a Rimbaldian image we’ll encounter again below, in a poem by Cortázar, an image of presence against the background of Nothingness and Oblivion. Let us sample a third poem by Fredi Guthmann, where the Mother, as in Baudelaire, is a more human haven than the Sea.
La mère est partout
Mother is everywhere
Elle est tout
All is in her
Jusqu’à la moindre nuance de moi
Down to the least nuance of mine
Et de tous les "moi" ô hommes
And of every single "me" O men
Depuis l’aurore aux grilles d’atout
From dawn’s grille of wildcards
Jusqu’au bleu provisoire
To the ephemeral blue
Entre la jupe fleurie et la cuisse haute de la jeune fille
Between the girl’s flowery skirt and her unfettered thigh
Que craindre, ô mère?
O mother what is there to fear?
J’ai crié une trop grande guerre
I have cried a war too vast
Que diront les hommes des générationns apaisées
What will the men of pacified generations say
Des frères endigués
Those pent up brothers
Des digues fraternisés?
Those brotherly pens?
Mais pour retrouver ce soldat
But to retrieve this soldier
Peut être sauront-ils se pencher vers la terre avec ses insectes
Will they know how to stoop to the earth and to the insects
Vers le sang avec ses stratégies
To the blood’s trickeries
Vers la mémoire avec ses riverains engloutis
To memory and the engulfed dwellers of the waterside
Vers quoi de plus éternel que l’agneau inguérissablement?
Stoop beyond all healing to what that’s more eternal than the lamb?
What’s there to fear, when the Mother is there? The poet is explicit: he has been a soldier in a war that’s too vast. Had he waged a humbler, more local war— we call it a career— he could perhaps have hoped to be safe, for a while, from dismissal and absolute oblivion. The men of future generations will smile, perfidly or indulgently, at such arrogance. Will there be anyone still able to appreciate earth, insects, blood, memory, sacrifice? Even though the Mother is there, the poet is unsure. He is still waging his war, in a jungle of images. He has not acceded, not here in any case, to the safety, the serene affirmation in Baudelaire’s "Je n’ai pas oublié, voisine de la ville..."
In 1949 Fredi married Natacha Czernichowska and the couple left for India, where, in the ashram of Ramana Maharishi, the poet and his wife found peace. Time and Eternity stopped fighting in the poet’s soul, and he stopped writing poems: poetry, for him, was the Western war, finally dissolved by the light from the Orient.
Friendship, the peaceful art, he never stopped practicing. Among Fredi’s friends, the Rumanian-French poet Benjamin Fondane (they met in 1936, when the latter went to Buenos Aires to make a movie: I have written about Fondane elsewhere), the Rumanian-French aphorist Cioran (about him, too, I have written elsewhere; Cioran used to say that no one had explained to him Indian philosophy better than Fredi), the Argentine poet Oliverio Girondo, and the novelist Julio Cortázar. For reasons of Time, I will concentrate on the latter. In 1940, when young Julio arrived in Buenos Aires from Mendoza, Fredi showed him around the outskirts of the big city, margins "pleins de rêves." Twenty-seven years later and now famous, Cortázar wrote briefly about those walks with Fredi in the book La vuelta al día en ochenta mundos (Around the Day in Eighty Worlds); there, Fredi is called "maestro" (master) and "coleccionista (collector) y pararrayo (lightning rod) de piantados." The Buenos Aires colloquialism "piantado" deserves its own paragraph.
There can be little doubt that, as many slang words of the River Plate, "piantado" comes from the Italian, where piantare means to plant, to set, to drive or thrust in, and familiarly, to abandon, to desert, to quit, to leave in the lurch. "Il fidanzato l’ha piantata" means "her boy friend jilted her." In Buenos Aires, "piantar" or "piantarse" mean to leave, so "piantado" is one who has left. Left what? The world of common sense. "Piantado" means crazy, as when we say in English, "he has taken leave of his senses." Even though he stayed mostly in France, Cortázar had an excellent ear for the nuances of Buenos Aires colloquial speech; when he writes that Fredi Guthmann was "a collector and lightning rod of piantados," he does not merely mean crazies in some clinical sense, but crazies who, by their crazy communication, allow us to penetrate into worlds beyond, or rather in between, in the interstices of our regular world of common sense, which is common, flowing time; the crazies who have jilted the Time scientists identify with the real number line.
Explicit proofs of this abound in the book I just cited; in addition, I mention that Cortázar calls Fredi "The Shaman of Santa Fe Avenue" (where Fredi used to live, in Buenos Aires), and shamans, we all know, are those who travel to, and come back from, other worlds. Fredi the master and Julio the disciple (we are told in the book) walked in Barracas, on the southern margins of the city, at two in the morning, when suddenly Fredi noticed a stick moving, going in and out of a tiny hole at the base of the long wall which, still today, pens in the "alienados" (clinical word for "piantados" or crazy ones). I have been, once, to the Municipal Madhouse on Calle Vieytes, an unforgettable experience which Cortázar, too, must have had: those who have read his masterpiece novel, Rayuela (Hopscotch), will remember that the second part takes place in a private lunatic asylum. But Fredi didn’t need to go in: he communicated, through the hole and tunnel, with the lunatic who had dug it from the other side of the wall. Pushing and pulling sticks, Fredi now pushing in a cigarette, now a ten-pesos bill, he and the inmate became friends, a friendship and communication which lasted many weeks, until one night the absence on the other side put an end to it.
This is what Cortázar published, and, while we wait for the publication of the letters between him and Guthmann, I shall add two reflections of my own, bearing on Buenos Aires and Time. If you are prepared for the unexpected, walking through the city— I mean through its margins, the low-class barrios of low houses, definitely not the downtown and still less the elegant or gentrified quartiers—can be an intense metaphysical experience. Guthmann, Cortázar, certainly Borges, attest to it. Paris, "où le spectre en plein jour raccroche le passant," may provide a fantastic experience, but fantastic is different from metaphysical. Starting a long walk in Barracas, as Fredi and Julio did, is an expert touch. In the History of Eternity, where Borges, true British Empiricist, treats Eternity with amused contempt, he tells, at the end, that he encountered it once. That afternoon he had started in Barracas; after much walking, and in a place he doesn’t name, he stood at moonlight before low houses, a pink wall, the foliage of a fig tree, the smell of honeysuckle, and right then and there the illusory nature of Time and the reality of Eternity became patent.
My second reflection turns to those poetic images, River, Sea, Mother and Prostitute, as they appear in the regions around the River Plate (W. H. Auden’s The Enchafèd Flood, 1950, should be consulted for a more universal account of the Sea as poetic symbol). The Río de la Plata, River of Silver, is ambiguous: so wide that the European conquerors called it Mar Dulce, Sweet Sea, yet too muddy for a genuine sea. One may ask how this ambiguity is reflected in the metaphysics of Buenos Aires and in the soul of the porteños; those who have written about it seem to agree that in their soul the Sea is not the river, nor yet the Atlantic Ocean, but the Pampa. Traditionally the kólpos, the refuge of fugitives, the roadless, immense waste, the domain of "barbarians" who threatened "civilization," most importantly the Pampa was where cows and bulls roamed in the wild and by the millions, chief source of Argentine wealth and power. What about the female images? The binary division Mother (not quite a singleton, for it may include Sister, and certain old women) and Prostitute obtains chez Baudelaire, but things are more complex in Buenos Aires, where the River is like the Sea and the Sea like the Pampa; there, women must be divided into three types: Mother, Prostitute, Cow.
The genealogy of Woman as Cow may be long and illustrious: think of Aeschylus’ Io and the Isis of late Egypt but, I repeat, I am minimally concerned with history: as regards the Argentine (male) soul, we must go back only to the Spanish conquistadors, their sons, and their dealings with the aboriginal female. She was chattel, used like the cows for her skin and fat, and for the rest, left to rot on the ground. In the 20th-century-male soul, and in his glands, the role of Woman as Cow was taken over by the mestizo female house servant. Her domesticity, submissiveness and total lack of professionalism distinguishes her sharply from the Prostitute; but, as always with classifications, there are gray areas in between. For the cafishio, the pimp, Whore and Cow may be hard to distinguish (indeed, Classical Greek, in its irrepressible wisdom, called pimps pornobóskoi, whore-herders) and, on the other hand, an obsessive, neurotic fusion of Mother and Cow is not rare among Argentine men. This last fusion is structurally logical, for, as we saw, Mother and Sea have been traditionally identified; furthermore, for the Argentine, the sea is the Pampa, and finally, the most important thing in the Pampa is the cow... Q.E.D.
Argentine fiction abounds in examples of Woman as Cow: to my mind the most memorable is Borges’ short story La intrusa (The Intruder), where two gaucho brothers end up by slaughtering their bovinely submissive concubine, not without first selling her to a brothel. But I find it surprising that Woman as Cow has not attained the status of poetic image, that I have not found her anywhere in Argentine lyric poetry. Take tango, whose music is now played by world-famous instrumentalists on best-selling CDs, even though it was born in the brothels. The lyrics were born later, in cafés or on the desks of poets, and they are much harder to export. Nothing more ridiculous than the lyrics of Mano a mano, for instance, translated into German; my high-school friends and I cracked up at our own attempts. Whether or not scholars have traced their literary history; to me it is clear that the lineage of those lyrics goes back to Baudelaire and his French followers, through their influence on Latin-American modernist poetry, and I offer the following as partial proof: in all great tango lyrics, as in Baudelaire, the courtesan, the woman who trades her love for money is invariably the image of Time the Killer, while Mother stands for Eternity. As for Woman as Cow, she’s never there.
With those reflections out of the way, we return to my dispatch from the Argentine front of the gigantomachy. I mean the friendship between Guthmann and Cortázar, their conversation. One may say I have a vested interest in it, because Cortázar’s Rayuela showed my generation (the one that came of age in Argentina around 1960), more so than films, even great films, the possibilities of conversation. And Cortázar acknowledged, in some of the still unpublished letters, that he had Fredi in mind when he wrote the conversations and ruminations in Rayuela. Here is a poem Cortázar wrote in Rome, in September of 1953, and dedicated to Fredi Guthmann. It was published in the recent book already mentioned, La gran respiración bailada, as an envoi.
Un canto italiano
An Italian Canto
A Fredi Guthmann
To Fredi Guthmann
El presente como un cuarto de estucos y tapices, con muros
Present time, like a stuccoed, tapestried room, whose walls
falsamente profundos para ojos que consienten.
are falsely thick for eyes consenting.
La puerta, ahí, y también una ventana.
There, the door, and also a window.
¿Cuál devuelve al pasado, cuál contiene el futuro?
Which returns to the past, which holds the future?
Esta columna socavada sabe más
This dug-up column knows more,
pero no cede su lenguage de ceniza
but its ash language is unyielding,
como si para abrirse paso de la moldura cruel
as if to go through the cruel scrolls
nos fueran necesarias otras manos que estas pobres
we should need other hands than these poor
sostenedoras de manzanas y cuchillos.
holders of apples and knives.
¡Identidad, reunión! ¡Oh exilio hermoso!
Oneness, reunion! Oh beautiful exile!
Es dulce este divorcio que nos quema despacio
This sweet divorce consumes us slowly
y luchar con el tiempo sigue siendo
and the struggle with time still is
la luz en cada hoguera, la gracia en cada paso.
the light of every fire, the grace in every step.
Barca al mar, ¡oh naranja colgando del azul,
Boat to sea, oh orange suspended in the blue,
brillo de peces contra lo profundo!
glimmer of fix against the deep!
Veo en la ola un signo sin objeto, crece
In the wave I see a sign with no object, it grows
como la muerte en cada fruta, ¡estruendo
like death in each fruit, din
de aire en pedazos! Quémate, cigarra.
of shattered air! Burn, cicada,
nada transcurre mientras cantes, mientras
time does not flow as long as you sing, as long as
el día suspendido de tus élitros
the day suspended from your wings
sea una baya dulce de guitarras.
is a sweet grape of guitars.
Doy nombre a cosas claras: este trozo
I name but clear things: this piece
de pensar es Italia. ¿Qué presente
of thought is Italy. Is there a present time
menos manchado de pared, menos opaco?
less stained by walls, or less opaque?
Esponja meridiana, calabaza sonora,
Midday sponge, sonorous gourd,
y en el continuo de las rutas, entre laureles rosa y piedras
and in the flowing roads, among bay-laurel and stones
este poroso ser, este instante que dura.
this porous being, this instant that endures.
Entonces, que el desgarro del amor desahuciado,
Let then the gash of hopeless love,
la sandalia quemada por el viento, la noche
the wind-scorched sandal, the night
con todas sus estrellas pesando en las espaldas,
and all its stars heavy on our shoulders,
sean reunión. El grillo asoma,
be reunion. The cricket breaks out singing,
se quiebra un mimbre. ¿Y esto fue, será,
a wicker twig has snapped. And this has been, shall be
o solamente está ocurriendo? Mira,
or is it only happening now? Look,
bebe de cada fuente. En ti beben los muertos
drink from every fountain. The dead drink through you
y la sed del futuro. No te olvides
as does our thirst for future time. Do not forget
sin que un nuevo verano de gavillas
before the sheaves of a new summer
te dé el derecho de olvidar. Ni añores
give you leave to forget. Nor grieve
los viejos años. Ellos duermen
for years past. They sleep
en tu vigilia, y se despertarán como ese grillo
in your wakefulness, and will awake like that cricket
en la penumbra de tu sueño.
in the half-shadow of your dream.
El aposento con estucos y tapices
The stuccoed, tapestried room
cede al ser que lo habita, como cede la jaula
yields to its dweller, as the cage yields
si su pájaro canta.
if the bird sings.
Rome, 1953: by then, Fredi was back from India, had retired from the War and had stopped writing poems. Moved by Roman palazzi, classic ruins, and the fresh charity of ubiquitous drinking fountains, Julio exhorts his friend, advises him about Time in the manner of Horace, and with heartfelt rhetoric asks him not to desert his Southwestern post, not to quit the battle for presence, for the War can be won "if the bird sings."
Julio’s profusion of poetic images is hardly Horatian, rather the symptom of an age of high speeds and semiotics. The Sea, of course, and the boat, the wave, the flashing fish, the orange suspended in the blue; the River as flowing road; the summer insects: the cricket, the cicada with its echoes of Plato and La Fontaine; the sponge, the gourd, the wicker twig. They all belong to an old repertoire; even his dominant image of Time, the stuccoed, tapestried room, harks back to Baudelaire’s room in La chambre double (Le Spleen de Paris), but it gives us an opening into Cortázar’s poetics. We are surrounded by stuccoed walls, billions of marble fragments joined by the gypsum of consciousness, tapestries woven with countless images, perhaps of courtly love and the hunt, yet to the poetic dweller’s disciplined eye, those walls are falsely thick: sing, and somehow multiplicity will yield to oneness, fragmentation to reunion. The Western War can be won, Parmenidean Eternity can be attained in a way that would have puzzled the Eleatics: by adding yet more images, my own, my modern own, to the countless already there on the walls. Not, certainly, by adding yet more tapestries of courtly love or the hunt, but images of multiplicity and fragmentation, images expressive of our being surrounded by tapestries and stucco, in a palazzo strewn with ruins. "Look, drink from every fountain": sing by inspired juxtaposition, by collage. Those poetics, brilliantly inaugurated in English by Eliot’s (and Pound’s) Wasteland, are based on a total trust in the beneficent powers of the image. I mean the pure image, with no transcendent reference.
Guthmann’s poems, too, show great trust in the poetic image; maybe because of this, Louis Soler has written of him as a Surrealist poet. What himself would have thought of it, I do not know, nor do I know how Fredi responded to his friend’s exhortation of 1953. Perhaps by saying, "No, Julio, whether you notice it or not, you are stuck inside that stuccoed, tapestried room: through images there is no way out of the image; the way lies elsewhere." And I would like to speculate further on Fredi’s reaction, fifteen years later, to Cortázar’s La vuelta al día en ochenta mundos, showpiece of the poetics of collage. I am inclined to think Fredi was grateful for the recognition, pleased to see himself called "collector and lightning-rod of piantados," "master" and "Shaman of Santa Fe Avenue." What might have been his feelings, though, while reading other sections of the book?
Take, for instance, the one titled in English, "What Happens, Minerva?" On the margin, Cortázar recommends Something Else Press, of New York, especially to "those Latin-Americans who still believe that John Coltrane, Ionescobeckett (sic), Jim Dine or Heinz Karel (sic!) Stockhausen are the avant-garde of something, when the poor guys can do nothing now but remove the moths from their vest." In larger font, Cortázar recommends certain "happenings" as truly avant-garde, as activities which, much to the disgust of humanist bourgeois, "bore a hole into the present time, peeping through which we glimpse at something less unbearable than what we bear every day." His examples: one titled Lawful Dance, where you stand on a city corner and wait for the green light, cross the street, wait again, cross the street again, and so on. Another: you take the métro at Vaugirard and get off at Châtelet. Another: you read Le Monde while walking under the arches of the rue de Rivoli. These last two are called "anonymous theater," and its creators, "playwrights." Cortázar waxes lyrical in praise of a "concerto" by Philip Corner, consisting in tearing a grand piano to pieces and auctioning those among the "audience." These and similar activities are deemed "a necessary terror."
I think Fredi must have sadly shaken his head, and perhaps recalled André Breton once writing that the most artistic act is to shoot into a crowd. Why should terror be necessary, Fredi must have asked, if simply by singing like the cricket, the cicada or the bird, we may attain to Presence, Oneness and Reunion? No, something’s gone terribly wrong: the way through images, through images of images, images with nothing behind them, images shining with their own prestige, that way leads to terror, and this terror is not a sombre idiot destroying a Steinway, nor Breton threatening to shoot into a crowd; it is the old, old terror of Time the Killer and its attendant thugs, Fashion and Boredom. Terrorists who, in their desperate scramble for the new, fail to notice that they are merely repeating Baudelaire's "Plonger au fond du gouffre pour trouver du nouveau!" and mimicking Rimbaud. The whole thing about avant-gardism, an avant-garde devouring a previous one, reducing it to moth-eaten gilets, only to be devoured by the next one, what is it if not the very essence of Time the Killer? Is this, then, the promised victory? I imagine Fredi must have asked such questions, with growing sadness, around 1968.
By that time, when someone suggested he should publish his poems, Fredi would reply, "Mon heure est passée". I have this from Natacha, but I wonder if he truly meant it. He might have been understandably reluctant to face the childish games, the humiliations, the shame that never fail to pester the poet (especially of a certain age) who tries to get his poems published. Or did he mean that poems necessarily belong to certain moments, and that the moment for his poems had passed? Then poetry, as well as the other arts, would be forms of the art of prostitution; minor, pale forms at that, for if Time the Killer reigns supreme, if all hope for Eternity has vanished, poetry is a game with symbols which are only shadows of the flesh, poor substitutes for la vraie vie, la vraie jouissance.
Fredi Guthmann died in 1995; I am sorry I never met him. Or perhaps I did: in the early 60s I frequented the house of Félix Gattegno and his French bookstore on Calle Viamonte, in Buenos Aires, and since he was a friend of Fredi’s, it is likely that Fredi and I shook hands and said civilities. I was very young, and had Fredi whispered in my ear, "I have cried a war too vast," probably I would have just smiled, as he feared. Thirty-something years later and having read his poems, typed on large sheets with black ribbon, I assure him now that we of younger generations are not pacified, we have not become pent-up brothers, not entirely, not yet. We may have abandoned the typewriter for word processors, we may be of middling, maybe dwarfish stature, but the battle between the giants and the gods, the gigantomachy about presence and being, still goes on, unabated, ferocious, and we are sticking to our guns. Here, at the end, it occurs to me that the title of this skirmish could have been: Retrieving the Soldier Fredi Guthmann.
Fredi at a poetry reading, 1939