I can’t pretend to understand the writing of Bolivian poet Jaime Saenz. It seems to arise from the imaginal without taking on the perceptual particularities we’ve come to expect from poetry in the long wake of Imagism and Objectivism (no, not the silly philosophy of Ayn Rand). For me, reading Saenz is similar to reading Blake‘s prophetic books, but Saenz doesn’t seem to be presenting a coherent visionary system; his poems are more surreal than symbolic—but in many ways even stranger and more compelling than almost any surrealist poetry I can think of. In Mexico I read him in a hammock swayed by strong sea winds, in a bed at night while the same wind pummeled the palm trees around our bungalow, in a beach chair, on a bar stool, even while dragging my bare feet through hot raw-sugar sand: I couldn’t put the book down! But when I was finished I couldn’t have said, and can’t say now, exactly what the experience was like.
Most of Saenz’s poems, as presented in this collection edited and translated by Kent Johnson and Forrest Gander, take the form of long-lined sequences and prose paragraphs; but all share an incantatory quality that makes them feel both hieratic and (for want of a better word) experimental at once. Here’s an example, the first section of “Anniversary of a Vision”:
The floating world is lost, and the whole of life catches in the
spring light of your looking,
—and while you repeat yourself in the echo, horizon bound
in smoke, I regard your departure,
clear substance and hope dehiscing into distance:
you live on that sweetness when beauty, sorrowing, glances your
and you emerge in half-profile
to the iron ringing of nighttime instruments, golden and blue, a
music shining and throbbing and taking wing
in the hollow of my heart.
I don’t dare look at you lest I not be inside you, and I don’t praise
you lest joy steal away
—I’m content just to watch you, and you know this and pretend not
to look at me
and you bounce around, exaggerating everything with divine
as if you were riding a horse or a motorcycle
—your extravagance amazes me, drills joy into me, it is my daily
—when it rains, at a turn of the head, shouts fly from your
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 you 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.
Who is “you”? A lover? A wished-for lover? God? We know no more after reading all seven sections of this poem than we do after reading this first one, doubtless because Saenz has no interest in the everyday details of autobiography. Saenz doesn’t give his “you” a name, as Bonnefoy, for example, does in On the Motion and Immobility of Douve, and yet both poets seem to be wrestling with a similar experience: a love that exalts to the brink of annihilation.
Unlike his poetry, Saenz’s prose doesn’t seem to irrupt from a trance; it is more meditative, more reflective. Take this section from the poet’s first book, The Scalpel, a prose section from “Homage to Epilepsy” entitled “The Door that Opens to Mystery”:
It’s possible to conjure a door, not a door through which children pass into a timeless room, but an authentic door that opens into mystery.
To conjure a preamble to lunacy, so that all those who fabricate nothing have no idea what to do.
That child, I know, harbors secrets to a door that might lead into mystery while bypassing, let me be clear, the attendant putrefactions.
There is a door. That door is open to you, to me, to everyone. It is open to the rats considering you night after night from the moon.
The child must be allowed to go on with some of his hairs and apiece of the door to mystery before he stops recognizing the streets and rocks.
(This is the secret of the door.)
“Real life rears its head and goes under,” Saenz writes in “To Cross This Distance,” and also: “I long for enchantment.” The ground note of his poetry seems exactly that: the longing for enchantment. The intensity of longing recalls Vallejo‘s, but Saenz—at least in these translations—never seems desperate. He has something of the Sufi about him, a wildness at heart that cannot swallow “things as they are.” I imagine Saenz would read Stevens and bark, “But the blue guitar changes nothing!” Saenz, as Jerome Rothenberg notes in his jacket blurb, writes “relentless” poetry, a poetry of ultimate things. I could not bring myself to love it, but I see the genius in it and hope that Saenz, who died in 1986 after a decades-long battle with alcoholism, finally fulfilled his “passion for goodbye.”