A review is a small thing, ephemeral, nothing to duel over, yet in Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives an author preemptively challenges a reviewer to a duel for a negative review which he firmly believes the reviewer intends to give his new book. I am safe from Manuel Maples Arce—he died before I was born—but I try to be conscious of the snares of reviewing, one of which is the urge to organize people into movements. Sometimes authors coin movements to assert or create a group identity, or to criticize other authors, but this approach can backfire (see: Impressionism). I’ve done it myself, in print and especially in conversation, so I can see why it’s done. It’s reductive, and small things are easier to handle. Movements are composed of individuals, who might embrace the movement at the time, but who frequently proceed to transgress, renounce, or grow out of it.
And yet, one never merely reads, but always reads in relation to, whether after (the book before) or alongside (other books stuffed in one’s bag) or in advance of (the next book, whether one is reading or writing it). As such, when I prepared to write about Brandon Holmquest’s translation of Manuel Maples Arce’s CITY: Bolshevik Super-Poem in 5 Cantos, I searched for context: Stridentism, the movement Maples Arce co-founded; the Mexican Revolution, ground from which Stridentism sprung; modernismo, the aesthetics against which Stridentists positioned themselves, and European avant-garde Modernists, the Stridentists’ peers. Much of this context can be found in Holmquest’s brief but enlightening notes and afterward, “On Stridentism and the poem,” but I was also left with questions about the reception of CITY, Maples Arce, and Stridentism in the intervening years.
Eighty-one years after Dos Passos first introduced Maples Arce to anglophone audiences, the popularity of Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives makes easier Brandon Holmquest’s task of putting Arce’s “Bolshevik Super-Poem” back in this public eye. Much of the novel focuses on the Visceral Realists (a movement based on Infrarealism, which Bolaño co-founded) and their obsession with the Stridentists (Cesárea Tinajero in particular—on this, more later). Bolaño puts a parable into the mouth of his character Iñaki Echevarne which I think makes a good starting point for conversation about CITY:
For a while, Criticism travels side by side with the Work, then Criticism vanishes and it’s the Readers who keep pace. The journey may be long or short. Then the Readers die one by one and the Work continues on alone, although a new Criticism and new Readers gradually fall into step with it along its path. Then Criticism dies again and the Readers die again and the Work passes over a trail of bones on its journey toward solitude. To come near the work, to sail in her wake, is a sign of certain death, but new Criticism and new Readers approach her tirelessly and relentlessly and are devoured by time and speed. Finally the Work journeys irremediably alone in the Great Vastness. And one day the Work dies, as all things must die and come to an end: the Sun and the Earth and the Solar System and the Galaxy and the farthest reaches of man’s memory. Everything that begins as comedy ends as tragedy. (513)
I think we are at the period in the life cycle of Maples Arce’s work in which it gains new readers and new criticism. Consider CITY’s first two pages in light of contemporary aesthetic and political landscapes:
When Maples Arce speaks like this, I feel him to be a force, or an I empowered to we from the confidence of speaking from a collective energetic body. I wrote that a movement is composed of individuals in order to avoid doing textual violence to Maples Arce. But when a writer asserts revolutionary consciousness, whose operative number is plural, then perhaps the really violent act is to enforce individualism. Maples Arce: “Whose voices are those,/that swim in shadow above me?” (19) and “the scene is inside us” (21). How has this enfolding into plurality moved into Postmodern writing?
Assorted critics as (in)famous as Marjorie Perloff have argued against the notion that experimental literary Modernism changed at some point into experimental literary Postmodernism, in favor of the idea that many writers who self-identify as avant-garde continue to use many of Modernism’s forms and strategies. After a century of use, how advanced can these forms be? However, there is something to be said for the idea that late capitalism does not essentially differ from its earlier form but rather intensifies it. Maples Arce wrote at a time when municipal trolley and rail lines were being bought up and dissolved in favor of buses for the specific purpose of undermining the strength of organized labor. I don’t have to walk very far to see the results of the same process in Oakland. I guess what I’m getting at is that Maples Arce’s world feels more familiar than unfamiliar; likewise his critique. One substantive change from the early 20th century to the early 21st is contemporary writers’ diminished confidence in the efficacy of poetry to effect political change. Maples Arce doesn’t suffer from this lack of confidence: “Tomorrow, perhaps,/only the living fire of my verses/will light these humbled horizons” (11).
Another aspect of Maples Arce’s revolutionary consciousness appears as he repeats: “here is my poem” and as I read it I wondered if this refrain is a way of beginning again, demolishing the previous poem, or whether it corrects or adds to it, like a second story added to a house without permission from the city, but irrefutable in its existence. Ultimately, this repeated phrase emerges as a signal of revolutionary consciousness’s tense: the present progressive. It’s happening. It’s happening, and between precarity’s rock and austerity’s hard place, a new audience arises for whom Maples Arce’s work has relevance, timeliness.
Since Bolaño has sparked interest in recovering or inventing the histories of Infrarealismo for a contemporary readership, other texts have emerged, notably Wave Books’ 2013 publication of Cole Heinowitz and Alexis Graman’s translation of ADVICE FROM 1 DISCIPLE OF MARX TO 1 HEIDEGGER FANATIC and Everybody Suffers: The Selected Poems of Juan García Madero, translated by Matt Longabucco from O’Clock Press. I wonder if the same energy will embolden more translators to take on texts by other Stridentists, such as Germán List Arzubide, Salvador Gallardo, and Arqueles Vela, whose intersection of political radicalism and formally experimentation could provide a model in much the same way as the Paris Commune has for many Bay Area writers.
However, as much as Maples Arce’s city looks familiar so, unfortunately, does the Romantic misogyny creeps from the corners of his poem. He addresses the city, the bay, the continent as women. This is another commonality with other exponents of avant-garde Modernism at the time (and today). I wrote that I would return to Bolaño’s character Cesárea Tinajero, The Savage Detectives’ lost Stridentist, whose absent presence (one published poem) in the limited record of Stridentism so captivates the Visceral Realists that they go in quest of her. As I read the novel, I found this act of devotion to be inconsistent with my general sense of many poetry communities’ entrenched misogyny, whether directed toward the women in these communities or toward poetic ancestors who are at a heightened risk of being lost. In Rashkin’s The Stridentist Movement in Mexico, she discusses the relationship of Stridentists to women:
The Stridentists embraced the New Woman much as they embraced the automobile and the airplane, but that did not mean that their relationships were much different than those of men and women in the past. Thus, even though the Stridentists considered themselves to be on the cutting edge of culture, neither liberal feminism nor the women’s rights agenda of the radical left entered their radar. (138)
However, leveling charges like these across culture and time requires great sensitivity. I believe that we must acknowledge that Maples Arce and co., already othered in the US racial imaginary by being Mexican, are susceptible to more intense scrutiny around these issues. Thus, I enjoin contemporary poets and readers to ask: how can we challenge ourselves to learn from the poetic revolutionary consciousness of writers like Maples Arce while simultaneously perceiving and acting against misogyny embedded in today’s literary cultures, especially ones which aspire to radicalism?
However, this is certainly not a critique of Holmquest’s translation, which stands in much needed opposition to the dearth of translation in the US literary marketplace. Much has been made of US monoglottism, especially in literature, so I will refrain from comment except to agree with the much circulated thesis that this state of affairs screams for change. Ugly Duckling Presse has demonstrated a strong commitment to this need through their publication of authors, historical and contemporary, who are unknown or little known in the US (though often well-known elsewhere). If we only have the works of Rubén Darío to read without the remixed Romanticism of Maples Arce and others, then our sense of the literary climate of this time is greatly impoverished.
CITY is available for free from Ugly Duckling Presse
Zoe Tuck lives, writes, and reads poetry submissions for HOLD: a journal in Oakland, CA. Her chapbook Terror Matrix is forthcoming in the Spring of 2014 from Timeless, Infinite Light. Recent work can also be found in Textsound and Dusie.