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7—Modernismo' s Legacy in Three Poets: Vallejo, López Velarde, and Storni
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Modernismo' s Legacy in Three Poets:
Vallejo, López Velarde, and Storni

Many modern readers, except for those who treat fin de siglo poetry as period pieces, find little interest in modernismo . Yet there is a way to view this poetic production other than as a historical relic or as a series of ornaments to be brushed aside in the dedication to newer, sparser styles. The very elements of staging, theatricality, and pictorial intensity which make modernismo seem distant offer us a point of entrance into another way of viewing modernismo' s creations. Unlike José Enrique Rodó's "reino interior," the richly decorated scenes of modernismo are designed with a twist. Their purpose is not to offer us a soul's rest but to intensify our consciousness of the artisan and the artist's tools, the poems' scaffolding, and the endless permutations of design. While Rodó's "reino interior" of Ariel asks us to still our thoughts, most modernista techniques ask us to notice what could be called the consumerism of this art.[1] Its poets are collectors, connoisseurs, magicians, who invite us into their decorated and stylized scenes or interiors and ask us to suspend our sense of everyday reality. Their tricks and feats are not all innocent sensuous plays of light and color, despite the emphasis on staging and pictorial qualities. Within the clearly bounded scenes (framed like a picture in a museum) there moves a wayward energy, a distancing effect that calls to the spectator who also knows the rules of the game.[2] Because they are working with highly conventionalized forms (just as the Pre-Raphaelites asked their viewers to see the long heritage of medieval and romantic painting in their canvases), they make the trained observer notice the flattening out of perspectives, the not-complete figure, the jarring element of decor that calls us away from a total im-


mersion. What creates this wayward energy, this note of violence that often disturbs the placid scenes? Is it a willful toying with the "bourgeois" reader, the one whom Rubén Darío so disdained? Is it a subtle rejection of the oppressive yet enchanting heritage of European influence? It is clear that the modernistas made a peculiar reading of their European precursors. Does their slavish imitation contain the seeds of a subtle subversion of such a transposition?

Although more recent poets clearly use their work to decry the urfeit and debris of mass production and the artificial impetus to consume, the modernistas' questioning of their world's values is perhaps less apparent to us as modern readers. In "Los nueve monstruos" from Poemas humanos, Vallejo writes:

El dolor nos agarra, hermanos hombres,
por detrás, de perfil,
Y nos aloca en los cinemas,
nos clara en los gramófones,
nos desclava en los lechos, cae perpendicularmente
a nuestros boletos, a nuestras cartas;
y es muy grave sufrir, puede uno orar. . . . [3]

(Pain grabs us, my brothers,
from behind, in profile,
and drives us crazy in the cinemas,
nails us up in the gramophones,
pries us loose in bed, falls perpendicularly
to our tickets, to our letters;
it is very painful to suffer, one can pray. . . . )

Here, we understand quite clearly that this suffering is entwined with the world of objects, with a disaster made out of an excess of useless goods that are badly distributed. Clearly there is no refuge in the machines created to amuse us, to make us forget the hungers of both the body and the soul.

Vallejo's prose poem "Aquí no vive nadie" not only suggests possibilities for a reading of his poems, but the house of which he speaks could be used as a metaphor for the habitable spaces of poetry itself: "Una casa viene al mundo, no cuando la acaban de edificar, sino cuando empiezan a habitarla" (CV, 200) ("A house comes into the world, not when they finish building it,


but when they begin to live in it"). Such a comparison can be extended to speak of the overwrought mansions of modernismo:

Todos han partido de la casa, en realidad, pero todos se han quedado en verdad. . . . Lo que continúa en la casa es el órgano, el agente en gerundio yen círculo. Los pasos se han ido, los besos, los perdones, los crímenes. Lo que continúa en la casa es el pie, los labios, los ojos, el corazón, las negaciones y las afirmaciones, el bien y el mal, se han dispersado. Lo que continúa en la casa, es el sujeto del acto. (CV, 200)

(All have actually left the house, but all truly have remained. . . . What continues in the house is the organ, the gerundial and circular agent. The steps have gone, the kisses, the pardons, the crimes. What stays on in the house is the foot, the lips, the eyes, the hearts; the negations and affirmations, the good and the evil have scattered. What stays on in the house is the subject of the act.)

How can we define this "subject of the act"? I choose here to use Vallejo's term—"the organ, the gerundial and circular agent," and by extension its absence, the beckoning, empty spaces in modern poetry that tell us that something has been taken away.

Like the house in Vallejo's poem, the house of modernismo finds few inhabitants today. Its elegant contours, its interiors draped in rich fabrics and populated by mysterious and seductive females, its gardens enlivened by strange animals such as peacocks and swans, find parallels in the architecture of the poems themselves. Ornately wrought of the finest poetic materials of antiquity and from contemporary European fashion, these poems appear to invite the entrance of only those schooled in the intricacies of poetic value judgment. Yet modernista poets, like newcomers to aristocracy, insert strange and contradictory elements in their constructions. Though they leave the foundations intact, they rearrange color schemes, substitute chickens for peacocks, and even at times point out that they are clearly imitating others' work, as one would leave a manufacturer's tag on a piece of furniture.

What links the poetry of Leopoldo Lugones and Julio Herrera y Reissig to later poets is their explicit revelation of the physical nature of the objects (animate and inanimate) they present. Lugones and Herrera y Reissig insistently push forth the palpa-


ble presence of their erotic subjects, minutely paint landscape and domestic scenes, have their pastoral animals bray out of turn, and show the fraying threads of the sumptuous damask furnishings. At the same time that they reveal the tangible nature of stylized scenes, they are lifting off the covers from the grinding gears beneath the poetic machinery. The clanking of the rhyme, the heavily laden lines of esdrújulos, and the top-heavy towers of extended metaphors stand out like a show of fabricated goods in the spirit of the industrial expositions favored in the late nineteenth century. In this display of stylish wares, strange worlds are brought closer together. Amid the shawls from India, the chinoiserie, the porcelain from France, stand the machines of a faster-paced type of production. The gentle bestiaries of modernismo —swans, doves, fawns, peacocks, owls—find their new substitutes to be of a different nature. Sheep and cows stand alongside railroad tracks, and the "cubo de ranas" ("bucket of frogs") spills over Lugones' festival scene while a dog madly howls over an unromanticized lunar cityscape.

In the following sections the selected works of three poets, César Vallejo (Peru), Ramón López Velarde (Mexico), and Alfonsina Storni (Argentina), illustrate important rewritings of modernismo' s landscapes and embodied values. These studies will examine the heritage of modernismo in the twentieth century. They do not pretend to be comprehensive. Instead the focus is on aspects of the poets' works that reveal the continuity and enduring presence of a poetic tradition.

César Vallejo

César Vallejo's first book of poetry, Los heraldos negros (1918), shows modernismo 's influence, with the special imprint of Darío, Lugones, and Herrera y Reissig.[4] Less apparent is modernismo' s presence in Vallejo's later works, Trilce and Poemas humanos . Vallejo was drawn to the experimental aspects of modernismo, its fascination with writing as a nontransparent medium and its elaborate sound systems. Unlike the modernistas in general, however, Vallejo introduces a social consciousness that makes the reader look past the elaborate linguistic and scenic displacements in his poetry. His peculiar combining of a prosaic and


conversational tone with exalted language, a broken allegorical framework, and palpable eroticism reappears in all three collections. Mythical figures, allegorized words ("Vida, Hembra, Miedo" ["Life, Female, Fear"]), once emptied of meaning by endless repetition in contexts of ornamentality and preciosity, are shocked into signification by the abruptness of their presence in new contexts, especially in Los heraldos negros and Trilce.

Many of the poems from the section "Nostalgias imperiales" of Los heraldos negros are reminiscent of the sonnets of Los éxtasis de la montaña, where Herrera y Reissig creates pastoral scenes and adds symbolist and decadent images. In "Nostalgias imperiales" Vallejo includes concrete elements from his own local setting, the Inca heritage of the Andes. The first three sonnets of "Terceto Autóctono" present bucolic scenes interrupted by specific details pointing out the harsh realities of rural life. The first sonnet begins, "El puño labrador se aterciopela" ("The peasant fist becomes like velvet"), and the "nostalgias" and "raras estampas seculares" ("odd secular engravings") repeat some of modernismo 's iconography. In all three poems, however, the idealized and distant past is now not a classical golden age but a lost indigenous heritage, contrasted with the indignities of daily poverty as in the third sonnet:

Madrugada. La chicha al fin revienta
en sollozos, lujurias, pugilatos;
entre olores tie urea y pimienta
traza un ebrio al andar mil garabatos.
                         (CV,  53)

(Dawn. Finally the chicha bursts
into tears, lust and heated controversy
amid the smell of urea and pepper
the drunk traces a thousand scribbles as he walks.)

Here the local situation cannot be harmonized with the sonnet's closing melodies, where the river "anda borracho y canta y llora / prehistorias de agua, tiempos viejos" (CV, 53) ("runs drunk and sings and cries / prehistories of water, old times").

Vallejo's departures from the works of Herrera y Reissig and other modernistas show the extent of his changes. Vallejo weaves


the subversive effect of dislocating Herrera y Ressig's and Lugones' poetic world into a larger landscape. The sights, smells, and sounds of rural existence are further naturalized, taking their place in the tapestry of an enlarging poetic surface. Phrases from the "Truenos" section of "Aldeana" such as "Sangra su despedida el sol poniente" ("The sun bleeds its farewell") "el ámbar otoñal," ("the autumnal amber"), and "el tiempo con sus garras torna ojosa" ("time with its claws returns full of eyes") let us know that the landscapes of modernismo are still in memory. Yet the same sun spilling its glory over a rustic, not a magical, house, the distant echo of"el dulce yaraví de una guitarra" ("the sweet yaraví of a guitar") and the sad voice "de un indio" ("of an Indian"), show a new fusion of modernismo 's exotic strains with the more local tone of mundonovismo. In fusing these two currents, Vallejo then departs from both of them.

"La voz del espejo," also from "Truenos," surely asks us to remember the works of Rubén Darío, who viewed life as procession, change, and delight as well as pain: "Así pasa la vida, como raro espejismo. / ¡La rosa azul que alumbra y da el ser al cardo!" (CV, 65) ("So life passes, like a strange mirage. / The blue rose that illuminates and gives being to the thistle!". Though its conversational tone is ironic, its faltering notes revive what has become a deadened image:

Así pasa la vida,
con cánticos aleves de agostada bacante.
Yo voy todo azorado, adelante . . . adelante,
rezongando mi marcha funeral.
                         (CV,  65)

(And so life goes by,
With treacherous songs of the withered bacchante. 
I go on . . . and on, totally bewildered, 
grumbling my funeral march.)

The fearful march pushes onward with "adelante . . . adelante" ("on . . . and on"), and in Vallejo's treatment of the scene, with its "sórdido abejeo de un hervor mercurial" ("sordid droning of a mercurial fervor"), the procession has lost its magical colorful qualities. Its troubling "olvidados crepúsculos" ("forgotten twi-


lights") cause not just a tightening of the throat but put a "cruz en la boca" (a "cross in the mouth"), a betrayal of faith's promises. The orchestra (of Sphinxes and forgotten twilights) brings forth memories of earlier poetic visions of life's journey, but the exhaustion of the fund of imagery from which he must draw for poetic expression has become "el manzano seco de la muerta Illusión" ("the withered apple tree of' dead Illusion"). In "Retablo" (also from the section "Truenos") Vallejo refers directly to Darío, and in the encounter in "la nave sagrada" ("the sacred ship") with "la dulce Musa" ("the sweet Muse"), the visions that appear are swathed in the cherished dress of modernismo (CV , 78). Yet again the exhaustion of these images, as well as the values and sensations they are to embody, are seen by eyes that have lost faith in these powers:

Como ánimas que buscan entierros de oro absurdo,
aquellos arciprestes vagos del corazón,
se internan, y aparecen . . . y, hablándonos de lejos,
nos lloran el suicidio monótono de Dios!
                                   (CV,  78)

(Like souls in search of burials of absurd gold,
those vague archpriests of the heart,
confine themselves and reappear . . . and, speaking to us from
  far off,
they cry to us the monotonous suicide of God.)

"La cena miserable" brings the anguish home to the most elemental sensations, to childhood hunger and tears. The sight of food is more powerful than abstract formulations of the resurrection scene—"al borde de una mañana eterna, desayunados todos" (CV, 74) ("on the edge of an eternal morning, everyone finished with breakfast")—and is a spectacle more luminous than any array of fantasmic lights. The dark night of the soul is to be hungry with no supper and be obligated to suffer the special presence of a drunken man, whose distance threatens, "como negra cuchara / de amarga esencia humana, la tumba" ("like a black knife / of bitter human essence, the tomb"). The scene of abandonment as well as the joy of reunification are seen through the child's eyes: "con la amargura de un


niño / que a media noche, llora de hambre, desvelado"" ("with the bitterness of a child / who in the middle of the night, cries of hunger, unable to sleep"). The vale of tears is one of desolation and hunger, and the concept of injustice is a simple one—to be in a place "a donde / yo nunca dije que me trajeran." ("where I never told them to take me"). The alternation of these elemental scenes with traces of more highly wrought, traditional images makes the novelty of Vallejo's work even more apparent. Working with the remnants of the poetic system he inherited, he goes many steps farther than his discordant predecessors in shocking these patterns out of their accustomed contexts, forcing the reader to see not only the loss of power of these images but also the devaluing of the ideologies that shaped them. The realities of a world of economic and political violence make more turbulent a personal crisis of faith.[5]

Vallejo often frames his poems within the setting of the domestic household, the lovers' encounter, or the prison of the body, as well as within the world's real prisons. Enclosure, through the child's eyes, is protection, security, maternal presence: everything that fragments this enclosure, that slips in surreptitiously, is likened to the presence of fear. The fixed focus constantly disappears; the eye ranges without transition from the apocalypse to the fly on the wall. Such a passage through space, time, and intellectual struggles is disturbing and frightening. Familiar contours, even the reassuring frames of poetic tradition, have been broken. On the most elementary levels of delight and suffering, Vallejo returns to the bliss and terror of childhood, from memories of maternal protection to crying in the night.

One of Vallejo's more optimistic poems "Enereida," repeats the idea of resurrection and completion as the satisfaction of childlike hunger. The father, returned by the cycle of time to the innocence of childlike clarity, and the "caravanas" of "La voz del espejo" here find another context:

Día eterno es éste, día ingenuo, infante,
 coral, oracional;
 se corona el tiempo de palomas,
 y el futuro se puebla
 de caravanas de inmortales rosas.
                         (CV,  95)


(Eternal is this day, ingenuous, infant day,
 choral, prayerful
 time is crowned with doves,
and the future is populated
by caravans of immortal roses.)

The emphasis on the family scene and childhood longings is a focus not often seen in modernista poetry, except in the works of José Martí and José Asunción Silva. Like William Butler Yeats, Vallejo goes to the "rag and bone shop of the heart" and to everyday needs to find expression for power and sorrow. More powerful images of plentitude and loss are difficult to imagine than those of childhood abandonment, hunger, or happy reunion. So total are the extremes, so common to every human being, that the memory of these images resonates throughout his entire work, even in his most difficult poems.

The female is a powerful and often anguished presence in Vallejo's early poetry. From "el femenino en mi alma" ("the feminine in my soul") to the distant and inaccessible "Eva" ("Eve"), Vallejo shifts from pleasure to pain and destablizes the dichotomy of male and female. He combines the feminine image of Christian tradition with the mother of his childhood and the legendary femme fatale . In "Los pasos lejanos" the mother's portrait receives lavish verbal treatment in a sparsely described physical setting:

Y mi madre pasea allá an los huertos,
 saboreando un sabot ya sin sabor.
 Está ahora tan suave,
 tan ala, tan salida, tan amor.
                         (CV,  92)

(And my mother strolls over there in the orchards,
 savoring a taste already tastless.
Now she is so gentle,
 Such wing, such leaving, such love.)

He takes modernismo's femme fatale and expands her to a towering life enigma, whose violence and power are protean, as in "Pagana":


¿:La vida? Hembra proteica. Contemplarla asustada
escaparse en sus velos, infiel, falsa Judith;
verla desde la herida, y asirla en la mirada,
 incrustando un capricho de cera en un rubí.
                         (CV,  79)

(Life? Protean female. To contemplate her terrified
 escaping in her veils, unfaithful, false Judith;
 to see her from the wound, and seize her in a gaze
 incrusting a wax whim on a ruby.)

Religious language gives powerful emblems of human needs, and Vallejo materializes their iconic value, even pluralizing María and humanizing God in "Los dados eternos":

Dios mío, estoy llorando el ser que vivo;
me pesa haber tomádote tu pan;
pero este pobre barro pensativo
no es costra fermentada en tu costado:
tú no tienes Marías que se van!
                         (CV,  80)

(Dear God, I'm weeping the being that I am;
I regret having taken your bread;
but this poor thinking clay
is not a fermented scab in your side:
you don't have Marias who leave you!)

As Trilce will make more explicit, desire and fulfillment are dangerous and dislocating experiences, as expressed in the fear of the female in "Desnudo en barro": "La tumba es todavía / un sexo de mujer que atrae al hombre" (CV, 71) ("The tomb is still / a woman's sex which attracts man"). Using religious, literary, and childhood visions of the female, Vallejo combines these areas of experience into a single, perplexing plane of daily questioning, desire, anguish, and hope.


In Trilce Vallejo so physicalizes the abstract that the usual poetic markers, the ways of mapping meaning, are completely turned


around: streets bleed, spiritual revelations are like the opening of a wound, the leap of faith is the anguished push through the needle's eye, philosophy has black wings, and "Es de madera mi paciencia, sorda vegetal" ("My patience is wooden, mute, vegetal"). Death itself oozes white blood, earliness "lacerates like an explanation," light is comsumptive, shade fat. Spiritual pain creates bonds like family ties, and God is like the horse who stamps outside the door:

Dios en la paz foránea,
estornuda, cual llamando también, el bruto;
husmea, golpeando el empedrado. Luego duda
orejea a viva oreja.
                         (LXI, CV,  164)

(God in alien peace,
the animal sneezes, as if also calling, the brute;
sniffs, pounding the stone pavement. Then hesitates
pricks up his live ears.)

It is not just on a thematic level that Vallejo physicalizes abstract elements. Language itself shows itself to be part of the body of existence. Like the allegorical body of the communion supper (an important element in Los heraldos negros ), words are broken apart and syntactical elements become interchangeable. In Trilce XXXVI, changing lexical and grammatical functions accompany changes in allegorical meanings.Just as physical impossibilities are stated as fact—"Amoniácase casi el cuarto ángulo del círculo. / ¡ Hembra se continúa el macho, a raíz / de probables senos, y precisamente / a raíz de cuanto no florece!" (CV, 138) ("The fourth angle of the circle turns to ammonia. / The male remains female, at the root / of probable breasts, and precisely at the root of what doesn't flourish !")—so language shows itself to be reversible. In the same poem there are "aunes que gatean" ("yets that creep on all tours") and other adverbs that begin to take on verbal action: "todaviiza / perenne imperfección" ("it alreadys / perennial imperfection"). Following modernista experiments of verse construction, with overloaded rhyme and allitera-


tive patterns, Vallejo extends much farther the attention to language itself and, most importantly, to its limitations. In Trilce LV, which begins "Samain diría el aire es quieto y de una contenida tristeza" ("Samain would say the air is still and has a contained sadness"), Vallejo continues by rejecting any such containment, either of the physical scene itself or of the language to express it:

Vallejo dice hoy la Muerte está soldando cada lindero a cada hebra de cabello perdido, desde la cubeta de un frontal, donde hay algas, toronjiles que cantan diviños almácigos en guardia, y versos antisépticos sin dueño.
                                                       (CV, 157)

(Vallejo says today death is welding each boundary to each strand of lost hair, from the cask of a frontal, where there are algae, lemon balms that sing divine seedbeds on guard, and antiseptic verses with no owner.)

The framing landscape of Parnassian scenes can in no way contain the dispersal of either nature or poetry, nor reflect the simultaneity of time:

El miércoles, con uñas destronadas se abre las propias uñas de alcanfor, e instila pot polvorientos harneros, ecos, páginas vueltas, sarros, zumbidos de moscas cuando hay muerto, y pena clara esponjosa y cierta esperanza.
               (CV, 157)

(Wednesday, with its dethroned fingernails opens its own nails of camphor, and pours drop by drop through the dusty sieves, echoes, turned pages, crusts, the buzzing of flies when there is a corpse present, and clear and spongy sorrow and a certain hope.)

Vallejo makes palpable the contained erotic violence of modernismo by showing explicitly its fetishistic nature.[6] Just as he draws attention to the breakdown of language, the dispersal of its building blocks, he extends the parceling out of the feminine


image, as in Trilce XIII where the clichés of modernista erotic scenes are absent:

Pienso en tu sexo.
Simplificado el corazón, pienso en tu sexo,
ante el hijar maduro del día.
Palpo el botón de dicha, está en sazón.
Y muere un sentimiento antiguo
degenerado en seso.
                    (CV,  113)

(I think about your sex.
My heart simplified, I think of your sex,
Before the ripe flank of the day.
I grope at the button of bliss, it is at its ripest
And an old sentiment dies
degenerated into brain.)

By dismantling modernismo 's erotic scenes, Vallejo destroys the kind of perspectivism that allows their containment in bejeweled interiors and formal gardens. The human body itself becomes the landscape, and physical boundaries no longer mark separate entities, as in Trilce XLVII:

Ciliado arrecife donde nací,
según refieren cronicones y pliegos
de labios familiares historiadosm
en segunda gracia.
                         (CV,  149)

(Ciliated reef where I was born,
according to the brief chronicles anti documents
recited from the lips of family
in second grace.)

And as landscapes merge into bodies and into time, language shows its part in the transformation; in Trilce IX it loses its written boundaries:

Vusco volvvver de golpe el golpe.
Sus dos hojas anchas, su válvula
que se abre en suculenta recepción,
de multiplicando a multiplicador,


su condición excelente para el placer,
todo avía verdad.

(I want to pusssh back thrust for thrust.
Her two wide-spreading leaves, her valve
opening in succulent reception,
from multiplicand to multiplier,
her excellent condition for pleasure,
everything still waz true.)

Poemas Humanos

In Poemas humanos the dispersal of human existence grows and threatens to break down all symmetries. Vallejo breaks apart and reassembles stereotypes such as the Paris of legend, the decorated and alluring body, and the framed theatrical scene. Poemas humanos, which includes poems written over a period of many years, reflects Vallejo's growing political commitment. In this collection he reorganizes and reshapes his broken language to incorporate a recognizable, social universe, where the exchange between and yo is not a reversible play of signifiers. Like Pablo Neruda's "Walking Around" from Residencia en la tierra, Vallejo's "Considerando en frío, imparcialmente" details the emptiness and terror of everyday existence:

Considerando en frío, imparcialmente,
 que el hombre es triste, tose y, sin embargo,
se complace en su pecho colorado;
que lo único que hace es componerse
de días;
que es lóbrego mamífero y se peina . . .
                         (CV,  249)

(Considering coldly, impartially,
that man is sad, coughs and, in spite of it all,
takes pleasure within his ruddy chest;
that the only thing he does is to compose himself
with days;
that he is a gloomy mammal and combs his hair . . . )

Ironically cataloguing the insufficiency of existence, the poem nevertheless ends with a recognition that reestablishes a logic of


existence, a relationship with the other that cancels out the previous parceling into separate parts:

le hago una seña,
y le doy un abrazo, emocionado.
¡Qué más da! Emocionado . . . Emocionado . . .
                         (CV,  250)

(I make him a sign,
he comes,
and I embrace him, moved
What more can you do! Moved . . . Moved . . . )

However tenuous and ironic the poem's final lines may be, they illustrate the recurring summation gesture in many selections from Poemas humanos, a reframing of a scene whose boundaries have been dissolved.

Vallejo brings forth the physical nature of language by showing the generation of his metonymies. Substantiation, the process by which all things become united, is forever frustrated in his poems. The impossible journey to fulfillment is like the push through the needle's eye in Trilce XXXVl: "Pugnamos ensartarnos por un ojo de aguja" (CV, 138) ("We fight to thread ourselves through the needle's eye"). The endless proliferation of signifiers, in the end, cannot put into any meaningful order the chaos that lies beneath the surface. Like the body that betrays the mind's directions, language is resistant to intention. In the same poem from Trilce, Venus de Milo's absent arm reminds him that his little finger is superflous and that the "brazos plenarios / de la existencia" ("full arms / of existence") are perennially imperfect. Time also disintegrates like bodies in Trilce XXVI:

Nudo alvino deshecho, una pierna por allí,
más allá todavía la otra,
Deshecho nudo de lácteas glándulas
de la sinamayera,
bueno para alpacas brillantes,


para abrigo de pluma inservible
¡más piernas los brazos que piernas!
                    (CV,  126)

(Alvine knot, untied; a leg over there,
way over there another,
Dissolved knot of lacteal glands
of the woman cloth seller,
good for bright alpacas,
for an overcoat of useless feathers
the arms more legs than legs!)

In his fascination with time and numbers, the reversibility of language, and the shapelessness of human existence, Vallejo shows the indeterminacy of all organizing systems. Time, physical space, bodies, numerical systems, and the body of language take on each others' shapes.

In "Los nueve monstruos" the listing of objects, recited like a biblical chant, is not an expression of the absurdity of the world's objects, bodies, and acts. It is tied to a call to action, a call to recognize pain's relationship to surrounding circumstance. The oxymoronic structure, so favored by Vallejo, is here not an arbitrary construction:

Jamás, hombres  humanos,
hubo tanto dolor en el pecho, en la solapa, en la cartera,
en el vaso, en la carnicería, en la aritmética!
Jamás tanto cariño doloroso,
jamás tan cerca arremetió lo lejos,
jamás el fuego nunca
jugó mejor su rol de frío muerto!
Jamás, señor ministro de salud, fue la salud
más mortal
                                   (CV,  242)

(Never, human men,
was there so much pain in the heart, in the lapels, in the wallet,
in the glass, in the butcher shop, in the arithmetic!
Never so much painful affection


never did distance assault so close,
never, the fire never
acted better its role of cold death!
Never, Mr. Minister of Health, was health
more mortal)

Making explicit the relationship between presence and absence, cause and effect, Vallejo also makes explicit language's metonymic power. He again uses food symbolically to represent the interconnection between loss and possession, need and plenitude:

Y también de resultas
del sufrimiento, estoy triste
hasta la cabeza, y más triste hasta el tobillo,
de ver al pan, crucificado, al nabo,
llorando, a la cebolla,
al cereal, en general, harina,
a la sal, hecha polvo, al agua, huyendo,
al vino, un ecce-homo,
tan pálida a la nieve, al sol tan ardio!
                         (CV,  244)

(And also from the effects
of suffering, I am sad
up to my head, and sadder down to my ankles,
to see the bread, crucified, the turnip,
crying, the onion,
the cereal, in general, flour,
the salt, turned to dust, the water, fleeing,
the wine, a behold-man,
the snow so palid, the sun so burning!)

The use of the personal a with inanimate objects, along with the "pan crucificado" ("crucified bread"), suggests what will become explicit with "un ecce-homo" ("a behold-man"). Vallejo plays with sound resemblances ("hecha polvo" and "ecce-homo" ["turned to dust" and "behold-man"]) to suggest the finality of


human existence. The same elemental symbols function in "Intensidad y altura" to express lack of power in writing:

Quiero escribir, pero me sale espuma,
quiero decir mucho y me atollo;
no hay cifra hablada que no sea suma,
no hay pirámide escrita, sin cogollo.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Vámonos, pues, por eso, a comer yerba,
carne de llanto, fruta de gemido,
nuestra alma melancólica en conserva.
                              (CV,  261)

(I want to write but all I get is foam,
I want to say so much, and I bog down;
there is no cipher spoken that isn't a sum,
there is no pyramid written without a core.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Let's go there, and feed on grass,
sob meat, groan fruit,
our melancholy soul canned.)

The absurdity of the rhyme's direction, like speech's foaming babble, points up language's insufficiency.

Vallejo, like the modernistas, pushes forward the artificiality of his medium, poetic language, and shows its limits. His theater of language is nevertheless one of constant dispersal and renewal. Carrying to extremes the reversal of roles and the subversive entrance of the absurd, Vallejo shifts the viewer's vantage point completely. As Roberto Fernández Retamar has stated, "[E]n Vallejo, la poesía no surge del calco, sino de una situación vital, y por lo tanto histórica, irrespirable" ("In Vallejo, poetry doesn't come out of tracing an old pattern, but out of a vital, and therefore historical, situation not fit to be breathed")[7] Vallejo opens up new habitable spaces for poetry by reinserting a historical referent. By completely exposing the fabricated nature and fleetingness of language, he regains the freedom to reestablish a new chain of signification, to reorder the surface of language in reference to its context. The vital situation is indeed historical, and Vallejo reveals language's shape within the body of history.


Ramón López Velarde

Ramón López Velarde, best known as a poet of the Mexican Revolution, reshaped modernismo 's canon to write poetry with a distinctly local and personal stamp. Octavio Paz has described the essential themes of López Velarde's work as provincial life and eroticism, while noting also the influences of Laforgue and Lugones on the amalgam of the provincial theme with eroticism.[8] Pablo Neruda calls the force of López Velarde's poetry, "el líquido erotismo" ("the liquid eroticism") that circulates deeply throughout all his work, and names López Velarde as modernismo 's final master:

En la gran trilogía del modernismo, es Ramón López Velarde el maestro final, el que pone el punto sin coma. Una época rumorosa ha terminado. Sus grandes hermanos, el caudaloso Rubín y el lunático Herrera y Reissig, hah abierto las puertas de una América anticuada, han hecho circular el aire libre. . . . Pero esta revolución no es completa si no consideramos este arcángel final que dio a la poesía americana un sabor y una fragrancia que durará para siempre. Sus breves páginas alcanzan, de algún modo sutil, la eternidad de la poesía.[9]

(In the great trilogy of modernismo, Ramón López Velarde is the last master, the one who closes an entire period. A noisy epoch has come to an end. His two great brothers, the opulent Rubén and the lunatic Herrera y Reissig, have opened the doors of an antiquated America; they have brought a breath of fresh air. . . . But his revolution would not be complete if we didn't consider this last archangel who gave to American poetry a flavor and a fragrance that will last forever. His few pages achieve in some subtle way, the eternity of poetry.)

According to Neruda, López Velarde captures the scenes of his poetic heritage in a sidelong glance, "como si alguna vez hubiera visto la escena de soslayo y hubiera conservado fielmente una visión oblicua, una luz torcida que da a toda su creación tal inesperada claridad" ("as if at some time he had glimpsed the scene out of the corner of his eye and had faithfully conserved an oblique vision, a twisted light that gives to his whole creation such unexpected clarity")[10] The question of perspective is crucial in understanding López Velarde's relationship to his modem -


ista predecessors. Abbreviating modernismo 's stylized descriptions, he clearly sets forth the contrast between the old and new worlds, identifying his personal voice with the unsettling pendulum swing between two worlds, as in "El son del corazón":

Yo soy el suspirante cristianismo
al hojear las bienaventuranzas
de la virgen que fue mi catecismo.

Y la nueva delicia que acomoda
sus hipnotismos de color de tango
al figurín y al precio de la moda.

La redondez de la Creación atrueno
cortejando alas hembras y alas cosas
con un clamor pagano y nazareno.

¡Oh, Psiquis, oh mi alma: suena a son
modemo, a son de selva, a son de orgía
y a son mariano, el son del corazón![11]

(I am sighing Christianity
as I leaf through the beatitudes
of the virgin which was my catechism.

And the new delight arranges
its tango-colored hypnotisms
on the dummy model and at the price of fashion.

I thunder out the roundness of Creation
courting females and courting things
with a pagan and Nazarene clamor.

Oh Psyche, oh my soul: play a modern
tune, a tune of the forest, a tune of orgy,
and a Marian tune, the tune of the heart.)

López Velarde wrote three books of poetry: La sangre devota (1916), Zozobra (1919), and El son del corazón (published posthumously in 1932), as well as many essays. Profoundly influenced in his early poetry by Lugones, he integrated the legacies of Baudelaire and Laforgue, filtered through the eyes of a Mexican provincial reality and years of harsh revolution. Xavier Villarrutia also finds López Velarde's poetic antecedents in Luis Carlos López and Julio Herrera y Reissig.[12]


In his essays, López Velarde devotes special attention to Leopoldo Lugones, Enrique González Martinez, and José Juan Tablada. In defending Tablada's spare experimental verse against its critics, he writes what could be his own art poétique;

Ciertamente, la Poesía es un ropaje; pero ante todo, es una sustancia. Ora celestes éteres becquerianos, ora tabacos de pecado. La quiebra del Parnaso constitió en pretender suplantar las esencias desiguales de la vida del hombre con una vestidura fementida. Para los actos transcendentales—sueño, baño o amor—nos desnudamos.[13]

(Certainly Poetry is a dress; but above all, it is a substance. Whether celestial Becquerian ethers, or tobaccos of sin. The shattering of Parnassus came about by trying to supplant the unequal essences of man's existence with a dress that didn't quite fit. For all transcendental acts—sleeping, bathing, or love-making—we undress ourselves.)

For López Velarde, there are no objects that enter into poetic language in a totally innocent state. Even childhood or virginity form their own codes. Following Lugones and Herrera y Reissig, López Velarde chooses the provincial, the quiet side of Mexico, as the range of the unmarked, the space still undefiled by a weighted, cosmopolitan scheme of values. In his literary critisism, López Velarde is always clear about his contextual scheme of values:

El hecho próspero consiste en que se ha conquistado el decoro de los temas con el hallazgo de lo que yo llamaría el criollismo . No lo criollo de hamaca, de siesta tropical. . . . Eso queda en devaneo. No; trátase de lo criollo neto, expresión absurda étnicamente, pero adecuada para contener el sentido artístico de la cuestión que someramente voy fijando, como un prendido de alfileres. Trátase de lo que no cabe ni en lo hispano ficticio ni en lo aborigen de pega. Trátase de lo criollo nero: las calles por cuyo arroyo se propaga la hierba; . . . las anilinas de la botica que irradian rojas y verdes y enorgullecen a los paseantes nocturnos de la plaza. . . .[14]

(The happy deed consists of the fact that the propriety of themes has been conquered by the discovery of what I would call criollismo . But not the criollismo that relies heavily on visions of hammocks and tropical siestas. . . . That ends up becoming total nonsense. No, I'm talking about the genuine criollo, an absurd expression in ethnic


terms, but quite appropriate in expressing the artistic meaning of the matter that I'm trying briefly, and somewhat loosely, to establish. It deals basically with the elements that don't fit within what is considered false Hispanism or patched-up indigenous characteristics. It deals with what is genuinely criollo: the streets with their water courses full of grass; . . . the anilines of the drug stores radiating red and green, filling the nocturnal stroller of the plaza with pride. . . . )

For López Velarde, the child, the native past, the woman, and the elderly may participate in this special world.

Deeply marked by the devastation of the Mexican Revolution, the move from quiet provincial life to the city ("ojerosa y pintada" ["hollow-eyed and painted"], as he describes it in "La suave patria"), and by a tormented religiosity, López Velarde shows the distance between the two worlds. City/country, purity/ transgression, and tranquillity/violence are the thematic oppositions he draws in his portraits. On a technical level, one can see other contrasts in his verse construction. His poems show traces of conversational prose and parenthetical, densely wrought syntax. Like Lugones, López Velarde often departs from fixed meter and, unlike Lugones, leaves behind rhyme. He moves between fixed meters and versolibrismo and experiments with subtle rhymes, internal assonance, and alliteration. Like Lugones and Herrera y Reissig (as well as Vallejo) he sets side by side the modernista paradigm with a prosaic detail, often mixed with a nostalgic religiosity, as in "El son del corazón":

Una música íntima no cesa
porque transida en un abrazo de oro
la Caridad con el Amor se besa.

¿Oyes el diapasón del corazón?
Oye en su nota múltiple el estrópito
de los que fueron y de los que son.
                         (SV,  233)

(An intimate music doesn't cease,
because fainting in a golden embrace
Charity and Love kiss.

Do you hear the diapason of the heart?


Hear in its multiple note the deafening sound
of those who were and those who are.)

López Velarde's verses are rarely as explicit as these, however. Elliptical expressions, hyperbaton, and syntactical breaks make comprehension difficult. His poetry resists overt signification, and the language of dreams or the ramblings of childhood memory make their own logic, as they do in Vallejo's poetry. This is why "El retorno maléfico" is such a threatening poem. Its silences and ambivalences are the response of a village that does not know how to speak to an intrusive attack by forces which partake in other dialogues, those of revolution and politics. Like the prostitution in the city, the mutilation of the town at the hands of an enemy from without leaves it mute. The town can no more marshal itself against physical devastation that it can call forth a discourse to describe it.

Like Vallejo's house in "Aquí no vive nadi," where only sounds and gestures of past lives resonate, the return to the village in "El retorno maléfico" is an impossible one: "Mejor será no regresar al pueblo, / al edén subvertido que se calla / en la mutilación de la metralla" (LV, 174) ("lt will be better not to return to the village / to the subverted Eden / hushed in the machine gun's mutilation"). The return of the prodigal son to the "edén subvertido" ("subverted Eden") removes all blame from the village itself and attributes its destruction to an outside force, a tangible one that comes in the shape of military violence. The elliptical questioning of a destroyed past echoes in the complexity of the poem's sound patterns. For example, the repetition of sounds takes on the effect of an incantation: "un cubo de cuero, / goteando su gota categórica / como un estribillo plañidero" ("a leather bucket, / dripping its categorical drop / like a mournful refrain"), "el lloro de recientes recentales / por la ubérrima ubre prohibida / de la vaca" ("the crying of recent calves / for the plentiful forbidden udder / of the cow"), and "el amor amoroso / de las parejas pares" ("the amorous love / of the even-numbered couples"). The most prosaic elements are those that receive the most "poetic" treatment, either by latinate construction ("ubérrima ubre" ["plentiful udder"]) or by the distance between terms of the metaphor ("muchachas / frescas y


humildes, como humildes coles" ["young girls / fresh and humble, like humble cabbages"]). The Edenic, timeless atmosphere so lovingly detailed contrasts with the tomblike entrance of the village. The town's present, broken state—locked, closed, and sealed off as if by death—must be left alone, unentered. Its evocation must respond to "una íntima tristeza reaccionaria' ("an intimate, reactionary sadness") which closes off any possible entrance. This last verse reestablishes an intellectual distance, combining the personal and political into a present that cannot return.

The oscillation between extremes and the impossibility of resolution mark López Velarde's poetry. Like "Dos péndulos distantes / que oscilan paralelos" ("Two distant pendulums / that oscillate parallel"), the dualities are never to be resolved. Erotic love and death are intimately connected in "Hermana hazme llorar." Fuensanta, his love of the province, is the emblem for the woman left behind, and she embodies the longing for purity and innocence of the past:[15]

dame todas las ágrimas del mar
Mis ojos están secos y yo sufro
unas inmensas ganas de llorar.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Hazme llorar, hermana,
y la piedad cristiana
de tu mano inconsútil
enjúgueme los llantos con que llore
el tiempo amargo de mi vida inútil.
                              (LV,  89)

give me all the tears of the sea.
My eyes are dry and I feel
an overpowering need to cry.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Sister, make me cry,
and let the Christian mercy
of your seamless hand
wipe the tears with which I lament
the bitter time of my useless life.)


The figure of Fuensanta always evokes the communion with the past and with wholeness, and contrasts with later loves.

"Mi prima Águeda" from La sangre devota highlights the memories of childhood, and the poem's parenthetical condensations show only fragments of the femme fatale in the transformation into her rustic counterpart: "Águeda era / (luto, pupilas verdes y mejillas / rubicundas) un cesto policromo / de manzanas y uvas / en el ébano de un armario añoso" (LV, 59) ("Águeda was / [black dress, green pupils, and rosy / cheeks] a polychrome basket / of apples and grapes / in the ebony of an old armoire"). Seen through the child's eyes—"Yo era rapaz / y concocía la o por lo redondo" ("I was a young boy / and I knew the o by its roundness")—Agueda represents the inaccessible distance and beauty of female power. However, the trappings of her power are the most common traits of everyday village dress, "con un contradictorio / prestigio de almidón y de temible / luto ceremonioso" ("with a contradictory / prestige of starch and of fearsome, / ceremonious mourning dress"). In this poem the mixture of colors, sounds, and bewitching movement—"me iba embelesando un quebradizo / sonar intermitente de vajilla / y el timbre caricioso / de la voz de mi prima" ("I was becoming enchanted by the brittle / intermittent sound of silver on porcelain / and the caressing tone / of my cousin's voice")—is no less complex than modernismo 's compositions, but the effect is one of simplicity. Taking his direction from Lugones and Herrera y Reissig, López Velarde transforms interior landscapes and the idealized female figure within contexts of provincial life and a child's experiences.

In López Velarde's "Mi corazón se amerita," the last strophe could be read as a commentary on Herrera y Reissig's Tertulia lunática:

Así extirparé el cáncer de mi fatiga dura,
seré impasible por el Este y el Oeste,
asistiré con dura sonrisa depravada
a las ineptitudes de la inepta cultura
y habrá en mi corazón la llama que le preste
el incendio sinfónico de la esfera celeste.
                              (LV,  156)


(And so I will destroy the cancer of my harsh fatigue,
I will become impassive from East to West,
I will respond with a harsh, depraved smile
to all the ineptitude of the inept culture
and there will be in my heart the flame lent by
the symphonic fire of the celestial sphere.)

The element of pose, the Baudelairian disdain, the emphasis on hardness and ugliness, is turned around by an equally exaggerated proclamation of faith: "el incendio sinfónico de la esfera celeste" ("the symphonic fire of the celestial sphere"). It honors the pendulum's swinging back and forth, and by plainly placing side by side two extremes of now-familiar phrasing, as if they were pieces unto themselves, he acknowledges the reality of both theatrical modes.

"Te honro en el espanto . . . ," from Zozobra, is a tribute to death, as well as a collection of all the usual images that fill up "una perdida alcoba / de nigromante" ("the lost bedroom / of a necromancer"). As the yo binds together the memory of a woman, reclaiming her from death's funerary fetishes, the eroticism and lightness return in a strangly playful image of a game:

mis besos te recorren en devotas hileras
encima de un sacrílego manto de calaveras
como sobre una erótica ficha de dominó.
                    (LV,  214)

(my kisses travel your body in devout rows
above the sacrilegious cloak of skulls
as if over an erotic domino chip.)

Here López Velarde takes modernismo' s fetishistic attraction to rare objects and clearly shows their elaboration, and thus destroys their power as objects "bewitched".[16]

In "Suave patria" López Velarde celebrates the grandeur of Mexico's simple, rustic life, as well as its glorious indigenous past. In this long poem, divided into "Proemio," "Primer acto," "Intermedio: Cuauhtémoc," and "Segundo acto" ("Preface," "First Act" "Intermezzo: Cuauhtémoc," and "Second Act"), Mexico's daily life is pictured against its enormous expanses as well as its turbulent history. In the "Proemio," the narrator


states his purpose, "Para cortar a la epopeya un gajo" ("To cut a branch from the epic"). Rejecting the grandiloquence of past national epics, "Diré con una epíca sordina: / la patria es impecable y diamantina" (LV, 264) ("I will say with a muted epic: / the homeland is impeccable and glittering"). As in "Mi prima Águeda," López Velarde shows the astonishing beauty of the mundane in the "Primer acto":

Patria: tu mutilado territorio
se viste de percal y de abalorio.

Suave Patria: tu casa todavía
es tan grande, que el tren va por la vía
como aguinaldo de juguetería.
                    (LV,  265)

(Homeland: your mutilated territory
dresses in calico and glass beads.

Gentle Country: your house is
still so vast that the train runs along its track
Like a Christmas present in a toyshop.)

Here the train is not modernismo' s mythological monster; it is a toy dwarfed by natural and human splendors. In the "Segundo acto," López Velarde continues his exaltation of the commonplace:

Suave Patria: te amo no cual mito,
sino por tu verdad de pan bendito,
como a niña que asoma por la reja
con la blusa corrida hasta la oreja
y la falda bajada hasta el huesito.
                         (LV,  268)

(Gentle Country: I love you not as a legend,
but for the truth of your blessed bread,
as I love a young girl appearing at the railing
with her blouse reaching her ear
and her skirt down to her ankle.)

Like Vallejo's evocation of childhood scenes, there is a reverence for elemental satisfactions and a reduction of the grandi-


ose to the commonplace. López Velarde's portrait of Mexico is a kaleidoscope of past and present. Even though his experiments in lexical and syntactical distortion in no way approach Vallejo's innovations, his expansion of content boundaries has been an important source for later poets.

In López Velarde's work the heritage of his modernista predecessors is clearly apparent, and he pays tribute to them as well in his literary criticism.[17] But like many of his generation, López Velarde will transform the provincial setting and the dynamics of eroticism with his apparent "simplicity." In this way he closes the modernista chapter and paves the way for another generation of Mexican poets. In his swings between the pull of a provincial past that can no longer be recaptured and the attraction of cosmopolitan temptations, López Velarde does not parody his poetic models as does Lugones. Leaving the paradigms to coexist side by side, he shows their incongruity with a fleeting sidelong gesture. As Neruda describes his practice:

Como si alguna vez hubiera visto la escena de soslayo y hubiera conservado fielmente una visión oblicua, una luz torcida que da a toda su creación tal inesperada claridad.[18]

(As if at some time he had glimpsed the scene out of the corner of his eye and had faithfully conserved an oblique vision, a twisted light that gives his whole creation such unexpected clarity.)

With no need of twisting the swan's neck, a gesture enacted previously by Enrique González Martínez, López Velarde changes the perspectives in viewing many of modernismo' s favored scenes. He redecorates their interiors, sees them with the rapt wonder of a child, and changes their profusion of harmonies to sing to "el son del corazón."

Alfonsina Storni:
New Visions of the City and the Body of Poetry

The poetry of Alfonsina Storni, especially that part which is most often presented in anthologies, reads like an inventory of the concerns of nonconformist women, with its rage at male expectations, the seeming impossibility of equality in love, and


dissatisfaction at the traditional roles imposed on women. It is as if the female voice in her poetry speaks from (and against) the vision of the woman embodied in a male discourse. The earth, the sea, the female body, and love are seen in terms of passion, despair, and yearning for fulfillment on an ideal plane. These are the traits that have helped make Alfosina Storni one of Latin America's best-known poets, make her poetry accessible to a large audience, and serve almost as "thesis" poems to illustrate the plight of the woman. Yet the real ringing of independence, the move to refocus these issues and to develop another kind of voice in her poetry, is the voice less often heard.

Though Storni is better known for her erotic verse and the death poems, there is a side less recognized, the sharp-edged hand of humor and the quick eye that notes the contours of the cityscape and of the body. Her ironies, concise and cutting, move in the shortened phrase, interrupting the flow of what start out to be rapturous love poems. Mascarilla y trébol (1938) and many of the selections from her uncollected poems show the growing distance from the earlier modernista -influenced poetry. Here I shall discuss Storni's reinscription of the erotic in another series of gestures and body heraldry, to show its representation leaves the symbolic order of her previous poetry and takes on a coherence sufficient unto itself, seemingly distanced from the external determinations of desire.

In the introduction to Mascarilla y trébol Storni describes the development process of "estos antisonetos de postura literaria" ("these anti-sonnets of literary posture"), stressing the spontaneous nature of their creation, "la exaltación de aquel micromundo" ("the exaltation of that microworld"). Yet viewing her poetic production in its entirety (and within its literary context), it is clear that the later concision and apparent spontaneity are the results of a long process of adaptation and disavowals of a poetic language that can no longer serve her purpose.

Some of the poetry of Mascarilla y trébol is stunning by its lack of attachment to old wounds. Though it does not leave the sea as the deep site of spiritual ferment and holds to the body as the testing ground of the spirit, the changing focus allows for the incorporation of elements outside the personal sphere. The doleful yo of the earlier poems (often associated with the bless-


ing and curse of writing) moves from the position of the body observed, shifting to watch from the sidelines with a sharp eye. It is the decentering process, or off-center stance, which allows perspectives to be arranged. The insistent framing voice gives way to the fleeting glimpse and to the rearrangement of visual hierarchies. And ultimately it moves to a new constitution of the self. The poem "A Eros" with its trivialization of the all-powerful god, its "coro asustado de sirenas" ("frightened chorus of sirens"), and gesture of dismissal at its close, signals this new treatment of a landscape that once pulsated with response to personal emotions. Its staginess and theatricality will be unmasked, just as the cityscape will be examined from all angles, as if its voracity and coldness were an object of observation rather than a mirror of personal interiority.

In one of her early poems, "Tú me quieres blanca" from El dulce daño (1918), Storni formulates an insolent answer to the romantic—modernista aesthetic from the victim's point of view, but still responds as the object viewed, the one observed:

Tú me quieres alba,
Me quieres de espumas,
Me quieres de nácar.
Que sea azucena
Sobre todas, casta.
De perfume tenue
Corola cerrada.[19]

(You want me white,
You want me to be foam,
You want me to be mother-of pearl.
To be a delicate lily
Above all others, chaste.
With subdued perfume
closed corolla.)

The she addresses is the full possessor, not only of the vision that frames her intact and immobile, but of a different, more structured kind of physical existence:

Tú que el esqueleto
Conservas intacto


No sé todavía
Por cuáles milagros,

Me pretendes blanca
(Dios te lo perdone)
Me pretendes casta
(Dios te lo perdone)
¡Me pretendes alba!
               (AS,  108)

(You who keep
your skeleton intact
I still don't know
by what strange miracles,

You expect me to be white
(God forgive you)
You expect me to be chaste
(God forgive you)
You expect me to be snow white!)

It is the change from being the observed, as in this poem, to being the observer that marks a transformation in Storni's later poetry. Moving from the position of only responding to the conditions of formulaic notions of viewing woman's eroticism, she turns to become the observer. And it is no surprise that many of the preoccupations with love, always elusive and disturbing, and the guilt of passion are transformed. Just as the Medusa image has been the representation of a theme of diabolical fascination, of entrapment incarnated in the figure of the woman who seduces and turns men into stone, it has also served as an entrapment for women attempting to write within male discourse.[20] The powers of attraction, the perils of bewitchment by the female nature, are assumed as a burdensome sin from which to expiate themselves.

In "Women in Space and Time" Claudine Herrmann points out the respective values accorded to the idea of a void, or vacuum, by men and women over the centuries, and relates it to a presence or absence of grammar: "Women, who for centuries have been cut off from space, subjected to time without any means of recuperating it through action, have written poetry, uniquely, much longer than men. . . . However, as soon as


woman conceives of space as a function of rapprochement rather than in terms of its separating function, she becomes an intrepid traveler."[21] And in her later poems we see Storni moving to new landscapes, to the close-up microscopic focus that unbinds the body from its previous settings.

In Storni's change of stance, the alterations occur not only on the thematic level. There is a perceptible difference in the visual perspectives that frame, or leave unframed, these poems. Just as landscape painting created expectations for Parnassian and modernista poetry, so previous poetry prepares us for a landscape in which to speak of the body. Storni's early precursors were the modernistas . Favoring exotic interior settings or blue-tinged seascapes and landscapes, the modernistas often fitted these interiors or landscapes as a setting for a close-up focus on the female body. This focus, with its distortion of perspectives, seeks to freeze the finality of the erotic body, rendering it static. In general, this plenitude is seen as a treasure of physicality, often implying robbed or stolen treasure. modernista poets insist on showing the physicality of the referent, pushing it to the forefront and accentuating as well as the physical nature of the words themselves. In the case of the feminine icon, the litany of these parts and the bodily dismemberment underscore the traditional fetishization of the erotic image of the woman. The body of the woman is used by poets like a Parnassian sunset, a canvas on which to cut, decorate, and engrave its images.

Storni begins the process of taking the body outside the gilded cage and initiates a restoration process by turning it over to a less rarefied setting. In "Trío" from Poesías inéditas, "la pobre literata" ("the poor woman of letters") recounts an interior tragedy within the beauty of a domestic setting:

Olor a pan del horno
Olor a pan del horno . . .
Y yo quieta y opaca.
Casero. Movimiento.
                    (AS,  529)

(The smell of bread from the oven
The smell of bread from the oven . . .


And I motionless and opaque.
Homelike. Movement.)

The scenes of the house, with its smells and sounds, describe an inner setting far removed from the earlier cosmic imagery.

The sonnet "Gran cuadro" (Mascarilla y trébol ) exemplifies the process Storni uses to dismantle the formulas of her predecessors. The idea of a painting is significant—its static imagery, iconographic possibilities ("la luna," "un cuervo herido" ["the moon," "a wounded crow"]) pretend to be self-contained, bordered, finished. As with so many modernista landscapes and interiors, the stylized setting is meant to evoke an air of impassibility, refinement, and suggestive eroticism. But just as many modernistas intrude upon the exotic enclosures with disconcerting objects and voices, so Storni shows the overt movement of the disturbing hand:

No; no era un cuadro aún para pintores
de mucho fuste, pero entré en la tela
y ágil movió la muerte sus pinceles.
                         (AS,  376)

(No; it wasn't a picture even meant for painters
of great substance, but I penetrated the canvas
and death, agile, moved his brushes.)

The same process of stripping down the enchantments of Eros—in "A Eros": "destripé tu vientre / y examiné sus ruedas engañosas" (AS, 359) ("I disemboweled you / and examined your deceitful wheels")—is repeated with other stock poetic scenes. The series of cityscapes, "Río de la Plata en negro y ocre," "Río de la Plata en gris áureo," and "Río de la Plata en arena pálido," disclose the underside of a city whose cavernous mouth opens to receive and discharge its wares:

La niebla había comido su horizonte
y sus altas columnas agrisadas
se echaban hacia el mar y parapetos
eran sobre la atlántica marea.

Se estaba anclado allí, ferruginoso,


viendo venir sus padres desde el norte;
dos pumas verdes que por monte y piedra
saltaban desde el trópico a roerlo.
                         (AS,  360)

(The fog had devoured its horizon
and its tall, greyish pillars
cast themselves into the sea and were
ramparts over the Atlantic tide.

It remained anchored there, ferruginous
seeing its forefathers come from the north;
two green panthers that jumped from the tropics
through the hills and rocks to gnaw at it.)

The devouring mouth, while metonymically referring us back to the moon, is detached from a personal and individual expression.

Poems such as "Una oreja," "Un lápiz," and "Una gallina" use the grand scope of vision to celebrate small, concrete, and earthy elements. Prefiguring Neruda's Odas elementales, they document the magic power of everyday objects. The heavily laden vocabulary of modernismo, once used to adorn the picture of the femme fatale and the sumptuous interior setting, performs its magic now on a close-up of a bodily part, the ear, in "Una oreja" from Mascarilla y trébol:

Pequeño foso de irisadas cuencas
y marfiles ya muertos, con estrías
de contraluces; misteriosa valva
vuelta caverna en las alturas tristes

del cuello humano; rósea caracola
traída zumbadora de los mares;
punzada de envolventes laberintos
donde el crimen esconde sus acechos.
                    (AS,  389)

(Small well of irridescent valleys
and long dead ivories with black-lighted
grooves; mysterious valve
turned into a cavern on the sad height

of the human neck, rosy conch
brought buzzing from the sea;


punctured by enveloping labyrinths
where crime hides its ambushes.)

In "La oreja," the luxuriant, erotic nature of the ear's description stands even more independently in its self-sustaining eroticism. Here mystery and crime are deeply buried in the curving richness of the body. As some critics have suggested, the mention of crime may refer to the notion of inherited characteristics, of an "ear type" associated with the born criminal.[22] More suggestively, however, it may also refer to Cassandra's gift of unheeded prophecy. Licked on the ear by a serpent while sleeping, Cassandra was given the blessing and curse of prophecy, condemned to decipher the songs of birds and the voices of the air.[23] Nonetheless, most powerful is its evocation of the female—mysterious, prone to crime, and linked to the sea. The poem lingers in the erotic intricacy of such mystery. An interesting comparison can be made between this poem and the title poem of Mundo de siete pozos, where the description of the ear mixes graphic and abstract elements:

pozos de sonidos,
caracoles de nácar donde resuena
la palabra expresada
y la no expresa;
tubos colocados a derecha e izquierda
para que el mar no calle nunca,
y el ala mecánica de los mundos
rumorosa sea.
                    (AS,  286)

(wells full of sounds,
mother-of-pearl spiral shells where
the uttered and unuttered word
tubes arranged to the right and to the left
to keep the sea from ever turning silent,
to keep the mechanical wing of the worlds
full of sound.)

The section is framed within a more extensive examination of the head ("el mundo de siete puertas" ["the world of seven


doors"]), and parts of the body are also framed in landscape terms—"planetas," "bosque," "mansas aguas," "pozos," "montaña," "cráter," "praderas rosadas," "calles de seda" ("planets," "forest," "smooth waters," "wells," "mountain," "crater," "rosecolored meadows," "silken valleys"). At the end, its summing-up comes as a landscape vision:

Y riela
sobre la comba de la frente,
desierto blanco,
a luz lejana de una luna muerta . . .
                    (AS,  287)

(And it flickers
over the curve of the forehead,
white desert,
the distant light of the dead moon . . .)

Rather than seeing this lunarlike landscape as a bleak, disturbing vision of the human form, it can be seen as an early reorientation of the landscape as frame of the human figure. Like contemporary art photography's deliberately perverse framing with its cut-off limbs, crazy horizons, and the photographer's shadows and footprints which litter the frames of extraterrestial photographs,[24] so Storni points the function of the poet not just as a meditative seeker but as a cooly calculating fabricator. She becomes a knowing and stalking voyager through new landscapes of the body.

"Flor en una mano" from Mascarilla y trébol registers this same dispersal of bodily parts, inscribed in its own logical universe. The delicate flower rests in a hand, "blanda, casi dormida" ("soft, almost sleeping"). The hand, like the flower, has five petals. "Cuán gemelos sus pálidos perfiles!" (AS, 379) ("How twin their palid profiles!". The identification of woman—flower is displaced and the flower's vulnerability, as opposed to the hand, resides in its lack of bones:

Y ésta ungulada, presta a la rapiça,
con lacres de Satán aleccionada
en viejas artes negras sabedoras.
                         (AS,  379)


(And this ungulate, ready for pillage,
With sealing wax from Satan and instructed
in ancient, knowing, black arts.)

Its microscopic context deprives us of the symbolic framing we might be eager to assume. The reading eye can not make clear identity pictures from so small a context. The flower in other poems takes on new dimensions, as in "Mar de pantalla" where the flower and the hand transform the enduring images of the sea and the mystic flower, revealing not only the trickery of the cinema but of the changing place of these images in poetry:

Se escapa el mar que el celuloide arrolla
y en los dedos te queda, fulgurante,
una mística flor, técnica y fría.
                         (AS,  388)

(The sea, which the celluloid rolls up, escapes
and in your fingers remains, resplendent,
a mystical flower, technical and cold.)

Storni turns around poetic icons, strips them of an accustomed mystery, and delivers them back to wander in unfamiliar territories.

In her earlier poetry, Storni continues the fetishization of the female body in line with many of her predecessors, and this fetishization is like the detached sign of a more encompassing ideology. The duality of the jeweled cage, its inhabitant "blanca y casta" ("white and chaste"), or its inversion, the Medusa-like Salomé or femme fatale, created a subterranean ferment in Storni's earlier poetry. But with changes in perspective of time and distance, like those of cinema and photography, these poems decentralize the bodily focus, opening up stunning and unsettling vistas. Rather than reading these poems as a last mournful cry of bleakness and despair at the world's disjointedness, they may be read as a voyage outward from the bodily cage, voyages that create temporal and spatial innovations in Storni's poetic landscape.



The practices and cherished ideals of modernismo have provoked passionate commentary, including voices of enthusiastic acclaim and equally scornful derision. Rarely has a literary movement in Spanish America been the object of so much discussion, and few literary models have stamped themselves to firmly in literary consciousness. In effect, a Spanish American writes always against the backdrop of the inescapable scenic and textual surfaces of the modernista legacy. Considering that modernismo claims, to a large extent, to be a nonreferential practice (especially in regard to daily social and political realities), the vehemence of its defenders and detractors is especially notable. For beneath the presumed absence of external conflict in modernista poetry, readers have sensed its turbulence, signaled by its extraordinary feats of verbal construction and exaggerated exoticism.

Although Rubén Darío is the undisputed master of the movement, many later poets have found the complex, sometimes troubling, poetic experiments of Leopoldo Lugones to signal openings for a renewed poetic practice. His ever-changing combinations of technical prowess, disturbing and often violent eroticism, and the inclusion of daily life (both urban and rural) inspired others to break new poetic ground. Contradictions and conflicts only hinted at in other modernistas come to the fore in Lugones' works. In his poetry the clash of Parnassian sculptural forms and their representation in a newly energized Spanish American language, an older European value system transplanted in an American ground where a renewed consciousness of americanismo was beginning to take shape, and the reflection of a rapidly shifting social-class dynamic, give a problematic legacy for later poets. Lugones accentuates the speed, energy, and resistance of such changes in his early poetic works, extreme in his innovation and in his resistance as well.

In Las montañas del oro Lugones pairs grotesque physicality and sublime transcendence with experimental verse forms, including praise of scientific and technological advances within an ostensibly Dantesque journey. In Los crepúsculos de jardín the overwrought twilight scenes of erotic display stand in contrast to other poems and lead to a parody of many of modernismo 's


most cherished tenets. In Lunario sentimental he deals a resounding blow to modernista practices and, at the same time, opens the way for the representation of urban speech, the depiction of the unglamorous middle class, and declares that experimentation with metaphor is to be the motor of poetic practice. Yet here Lugones most clearly reveals the tension between the poetry he espouses and the nostalgia for the past. Just as he rips apart in his verses the dangerous and beautiful sirens, symbolic of a world of mystery and beauty, he tempers the prosaic quality of his new poetry with an extraordinary lyricism and ambiguity. In twisting the swan's elegant neck, he makes palpable its extraordinary power. It is this hesitation, a footing poised between two worlds, that gives a special poignancy and power to the volume. Though many of these changes in his work seem inexplicable, a reading of his early prose and literary criticism forecasts these poetic changes, and predicts as well his renunciation of his own innovations.

Although Lugones does not continue on the paths he marked out, except on rare occasions, other poets perceived the energy released in his fracturing of modernismo . Uruguay's Julio Herrera y Reissig, like his compatriot Delmira Agustini, is a recognizable modernista poet, straining its poetic practices with the almost frenetic energy of his amazing constructions. Herrera y Reissig makes explicit the violent, troubled eroticism and physicality that lurked so close to the surface in Lugones' poetry. Within conventional landscapes he inserts characters and descriptive detail that draw his readers away from these scenes, forcing them to confront the ludicrous nature of much modernista scene painting. Like Lugones, he fervently believed in the necessity of metaphoric renewal and experimentation, and he extended such experiments to sound patterns themselves, veering off at times into the incomprehensibility that would mark much vanguardista poetry.

Three later poets—Ramón López Velarde, César Vallejo, and Alfonsina Storni—inherit the contradictions of modernismo . Given the individual nature of their works, marked by distinct nationalities, by gender, and by differing levels of political involvement, it would be foolish to declare them mere continuers of the vestiges of an earlier poetic tradition. Yet the resonance of modernista language and tenets reappears in their poetry in extra-


ordinary patterns. In their works they make clear modernismo 's contradictions, its focus on eroticism, and its profound striving to forge a new poetic language to represent a changed world.

Ramón López Velarde's work hauntingly evokes the battle between carnal and spiritual attractions and portrays a provincial Mexico mutilated by war. His national poem, "Suave patria," has changed the nature of patriotic verse. Clearly linked to the mysteries of modernismo, he creates extraordinary combinations of provincial life, urban sorrows, and an acute sense of being Mexican in an era of upheaval. Without the type of parody so evident in the works of Lugones and Herrera y Reissig, he builds his poetic universes with unexpected twists, combining modernista exoticism with the echoes of popular and liturgical language, and an aching awareness of the massive encroaching changes that will transform a previous way of life.

No other poet of the twentieth century has so revitalized poetic language in Spanish as César Vallejo. Aware as no other of the radical discontinuities between an inherited poetic tradition and its insufficiencies for expressing his own visions, Vallejo shows only the leftover fragments of a modernista tradition. It is precisely this character of inherited language as deadened, almost unintelligible artifact that creates many of Vallejo's most powerful ironies. Although his first volume, Los heraldos negros, is often labeled "modernista -influenced," his subsequent verse speaks equally powerfully of this tradition in disarray. Joining artifacts of this fading poetic language to raw physicality, family nostalgia, and juxtaposing its luxuries to scenes of hunger and to calls for social and political change, he strikes a discordant note that few subsequent poets have been able to ignore. If for the modernistas, Europe was the nostalgic focus of longing and beauty, for Vallejo the scenes of Andean childhood and American legacy contrast with an impoverished and desperate European present. He erases the myths that bound Latin Americans to a mythic European homeland and, with the gaps in his language and anguished ironies, he asks for a radically new poetic practice.

Alfonsina Storni, so often seen in isolation from any poetic tradition other than a narrowly defined feminine one, explicitly calls into question the place of the body, specifically, the female


body, in modernista and postmodernista poetry. In her reversal of the typical subject—object relationship, the viewed female critically returns the voyeuristic gaze. Her poetry, when read in contrast to that of her immediate predecessors, incorporates their emphasis on eroticism and physical detail. With its unmistakable female stance, her poetry dismantles and subverts this poetic discourse as surely as Vallejo disrupts its sonority and luxury, if the female body at center stage is the focus of many modernista scenes, in Storni's work the viewer or reader shifts position to occupy the center, thus rearranging all other relationships. Her poetry carries to an inevitable, ironic conclusion the vision so apparent in Lugones' and Herrera y Reissig's work.

While López Velarde, Vallejo, and Storni are clear in their dismantling of modernismo 's stock scenes and impossible, elaborate settings, they are also clear in their rejection of its detachment from current American realities. Yet they are also inheritors of the uneasy ironies of poets such as Lugones and Herrera y Reissig, who began modernismo 's dismantling from within. These two late modernistas, with the hollow brilliance of their elaborate poetic language and their harsh evaluations of a more technological and egalitarian world, give an unhesitant and seething portrayal of a poetry in the making. In their works, the physical or mechanical apsects of poetic construction rise to the surface in dazzling bits and pieces, while the unity of the poem begins to dissolve. Each stream of images that begins to achieve coherence is quickly dismantled, and no single edifice or body is seen in its totality, framed by an appropriate setting. Over and over again we are drawn away from the picture to notice the craftsman who modifies details, as well as the ironic observer who makes his sideways remarks. Our willingness to suspend disbelief, so necessary for modernista poetry, is constantly tested by this intrusive activity. The body and the city take on this sense of artifice in the dissonant modernistas . And as these elements are divided and detached, traditional notions of perspective lose ground. Through their radical experiments in poetic language, and their dissonance within their epoch, they surreptitiously dismantle the language of modernism . In their experiments, ironies, discordance, and ambiguities, later poets will find the legacy from which they will construct new poetic languages.


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