Eugenio Montejo: Chronicler of Time

Upon the first anniversary of the death of the most outstanding of Venezuelan poets, we pay tribute to his fine literary career.

Eugenio Montejo (1938 – 2008) – conjurer of words, curator of the language, suitor of life and compulsive observer of the wanderings of time – built throughout his career a literary corpus that is more dense than vast, more beautiful than intimidating, integral and yet defiant. His contributions are sure to count among the most valuable ones to the literature, the folklore and the tradition not only of Venezuela as a country, but of the Spanish language as the common cultural ground shared by many countries.

 

For Montejo, the creation of an individual identity is necessarily shaped by the two-way relation between the self and the environment where it is found, such that the individual recognizes itself as the meeting point between history and what lies ahead, the instant of interaction between the future and the past. In this sense, the individual becomes the catalyst of this exchange, both essential to the transaction and, at the same time, a passive element of it, like a passenger, ‘aboard, almost adrift’.[1] Only if we bear this in mind can we understand the paradoxes evident in statements such as those from ‘El rezagado’ (‘The Straggler’), who declares that ‘Through this road my funeral has already passed / With its pathetic speeches / … I follow it from afar / As the years go by’,[2] or from ‘Mis mayores’ (‘My Forbears’), who ‘Underneath my skin look at each other’ and ‘come and go inside my body’.[3]

 

Montejo gestures towards a related concept in his third collection, Algunas palabras (Some Words) (1976), when the narrator of ‘Vecindad’ (‘Neighbourhood’) walks through the city together with his body, ‘Him bearing the shape of my parents/ Their blood, their substance/ I, with what is left of their dreams’. This idea won’t reach its full potential for almost another twenty years, until the narrator of ‘En el parque’ (‘At the Park’) sees his son play – ‘The son that awaited me here on earth / Before I was born…’[4] The message Montejo wishes to convey becomes clearer when this idea is combined with his teachings in ‘Lo nuestro’ (‘What Belongs To Us’), where he explains that ‘Yours is the time that your body spends / With the tremor of the world, / The time, not your body. / Your body, dyed by the sun, was here dreaming.’[5]

 

Montejo is concerned with the multiplicity of the self and the paradox of being, of existing. For him ‘There is not one path over the sea / Without its opposite, / There are no ways to be and not to be where one goes’.[6] That is why he suggests in the same collection: [7]

 
 
Never to be the one who leaves nor the one who comes back
But something between the two
Something in the middle;
What life takes away, and it’s not absence
What it gives, and it’s not dreams
The lightning it leaves in between the hands
The crack in the stone.
 

 

Yet, despite his intimations and advice, despite the dejection prevalent in his work, Montejo’s poetry is most palpably inflected with the anxiety of an intellectual who has something to say, but who, beyond anything else, is most concerned with saying it well. It is here where the crucial distinction between the artist and the thinker must be made, and it is precisely such distinction which firmly places Montejo within the literary tradition of the Spanish language: a poet committed to the exploration of the truth, of the mysteries of life and love, of the burden of history and of culture – but above all, a poet.

His devotion to the written word is wholehearted, to the point where:[8]

 
 
What is left to us in the word, when something remains:
What we come to say, if we say it,
If our dream is long enough,
Shares the tremor of the corolla
Before the abyss.
The undefeated light congealed when it blossoms

Outside the realm of time.

Out of Montejo’s entire corpus, the tension between structure and content, between intellectual proposition and linguistic experimentation, becomes most palpable in the 1972 collection, Muerte y memoria (Death and Memory). For instance, in the remarkable poem “Orpheus”, the assertions put forward by the words on the page are repeatedly questioned by conditional clauses which are placed somewhere, neither fully inside nor fully outside the poem, by the framing brackets:[9]

 
 
Orpheus, whatever is left of him (if anything’s left),
Whatever on Earth might still be able to sing,
Which stone, which animal does it manage to move?
… Orpheus, whatever in him dreams (if anything dreams),
The utterance of plenteous destiny,
Who hears it now, on their knees?
… He comes to sing (if he sings) to our door,
Outside all doors. Here he stays,
Here he builds his home and serves his time
Because we are Hell.
 

It is precisely this concern for the written word, this inclination towards linguistic experimentation, which leads Montejo to explore the possibilities of heteronomy. This technique allows him to deploy, just like his beloved Fernando Pessoa before him, a complex imaginary world in which a number of characters push, not without a sense of humour, the boundaries of formal constraints that trouble his mind. Among these characters Blas Coll constitutes the most important persona: the undisputed centre around which the rest of the intellectual scene of Puerto Malo gravitates, he is a conscientious typographer devoted to the analysis of words and to the development of an optimal written language that could compress the content of a full sentence into a single syllable. El Cuaderno de Blas Coll (Blas Coll’s Notebook) is the only one of his writings that ever gets to see the light of day. Little more than a compilation of aphorisms, assertions and opinions, it is a faithful reproduction of the spirit that guided the long discussions that he and his followers (among them Montejo’s remaining heteronyms: Lino Cervantes, Tomás Linden, Eduardo Polo and Sergio Sandoval) entertained during those mythical evenings of studious experimentation.

While Coll advocates for the dissemination of the concept in its pre-linguistic shape and Cervantes is concerned with the transcription of some of his master’s reductive exercises into La caza del relámpago (The Chase for the Lightning), Sergio Sandoval and Tomás Linden, the Swede from Patanemo who ‘wrote in Spanish with eighteen vowels in mind’, seek to highlight, with more or less success, the artistic merit of traditional structures, such as, respectively, the couplet and the sonnet. Meanwhile, Eduardo Polo carves a name for himself as an author of children’s books with his Chamario, published in 2004. Thus, the creation of an alternative intellectual circle allows Montejo to delve into diverse genres and to develop an additional facet that eventually complements his poetics without compromising the coherence of his proposition.

Passionate about pebbles, enamored with the music sung by stones, Montejo was a poet of cities: he paid tribute to the Caracas of his childhood; he mused about some distant Lisbon, home to its very own Ulysses; he wrote about the mythic Ithaca, inhabited by us all. He was awarded the Venezuelan Literary Prize in 1998 and the prestigious International Prize for Poetry and Essays Octavio Paz in 2004. But his legacy will be carved in far greater terms than simply literary. Eugenio Montejo was a gentleman, in the most positive sense of the word: his bearing was humble and his manner kind; he kept a low profile even after international fame finally greeted him – late, too late – when a passing reference to one of his poems in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film, 21 Grams, immediately made the headlines.

A few years after that, I was fortunate enough to have an exchange with the maestro, in relation to an insignificant literary occurrence I had produced based on Lino Cervantes’ La caza del relámpago (The Chase for the Lightning). The generosity, courtesy and good nature showed by Montejo towards a complete stranger far overshadowed his humbling erudition during the short course of our correspondence. Still today, his note of gratitude remains the only compliment I have ever received by which I have been flattered.

His teachings will continue to open new paths in Latin American poetry for many years to come. The memory of such remarkable human being will outlive him by much longer than one year. So will the uncomfortable sense of dearth that comes with the loss of one of his kind. We will never know why the best ones are always the first ones to depart, but in a vile attempt to find solace in pointing fingers, it might be convenient to emulate Montejo and to blame it all on the snow, on its absence – that, and the coats we never remove from their hangers.

 
[1] ‘A bordo, casi a la deriva’. ‘Terredad’ (‘Earthdom’), originally included in the 1978 collection that bears the same name. (This and all further translations mine).
[2] ‘Por esta calle ya pasó mi entierro / con sus patéticos discursos / … lo voy siguiendo desde lejos / al paso de los años’. From Partitura de la cigarra (The Cicada’s Score) (1999).
[3] ‘Bajo mi carne se ven unos a otros’; ‘van y vienen por mi cuerpo’. From Trópico absoluto (Absolute Tropic) (1982).
[4] ‘El hijo que me esperaba aquí en la tierra / antes de yo nacer…” From Partitura de la cigarra (The Cicada’s Score).
[5] ‘Tuyo es el tiempo cuando tu cuerpo pasa / con el temblor del mundo, / el tiempo, no tu cuerpo. / Tu cuerpo estaba aquí, teñido al sol, soñando.” From Adiós al siglo XX (Farewell to the Twentieth Century) (1992).
[6] ‘No hay un solo camino sobre la mar / sin su contrario, / no hay maneras de estar y no estar donde se viaja’. ‘Partida’ (‘Departure’), from Terredad (Earthdom).
[7] No ser nunca quien parte ni quien vuelve
sino algo entre los dos,
algo en el medio;
lo que la vida arranca y no es ausencia,
lo que entrega y no es sueño,
el relámpago que deja entre las manos
la grieta de una piedra.
 
‘Mudanzas’ (‘Mutations’).
[8] lo que nos queda en la palabra, cuando queda:
lo que venimos a decir, si lo decimos,
si nos alcanza el sueño,
tiene el temblor de una corola
ante el abismo.
La invicta luz que se coagula al florecer
fuera del tiempo.
 
‘Al aire Náhualt’ (‘To the Náhualt’ Air’), Adiós al siglo XX (Farewell to the Twentieth Century).
 
[9] Orfeo, lo que de él queda (si queda),
lo que aún puede cantar en la tierra,
¿a qué piedra, a cuál animal enternece?
… Orfeo, lo que en él sueña (si sueña),
la palabra de tanto destino,
¿quién la recibe ahora de rodillas?
…Viene a cantar (si canta) a nuestra puerta,
ante toda las puertas. Aquí se queda,
aquí planta su casa y paga su condena
porque nosotros somos el Infierno.

 

ABRIDGED VERSION PUBLISHED BY THE WEEKENDER SUPPLEMENT OF THE DAILY HERALD, SINT MAARTEN ON JUNE 13, 2009.

SPANISH VERSION PUBLISHED BY LETRALIA ON JUNE 15, 2009.

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2 thoughts on “Eugenio Montejo: Chronicler of Time

  1. Thank you for this insightful piece. I am enchanted with Eugenio Montejo. No es MUY bien, mi Espanol, para estoy triste para hente no leer o entienda espanol. No es lo mismo in otro idomas.

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    1. You're right –it's not the same in other languages. But it is better than nothing at all, and Montejo is truly essential. That's why I honestly appreciate the work of Salt Publishing, producing an anthology of Montejo's work, translated in English (The Trees, 2004). Pero si lo puedes leer en español, pues mucho mejor!

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