Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence. / From these contraries spring what the religious call Good & Evil. Good is the passive that obeys Reason. Evil is the active springing from Energy. / Good is Heaven. Evil is Hell.
– William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
As I contemplate Lucina Schell’s scintillating new translation of the Argentine symbolist-poet Miguel Ángel Bustos’s Vision of the Children of Evil (2018. Normal, IL: co•im•press. 304 pages), I find myself thinking of the late-eighteenth, early-nineteenth-century artist and poet William Blake.
Not that there is any direct connection between the two poets. Bustos’s particular muses are the French poètes maudit – in particular Antonin Artaud and Gérard de Nerval, whom he specifically honors with epigraphs, and Arthur Rimbaud (not to mention Edgar Allan Poe, who by means of Baudelaire’s French translation is similarly honored).
Still. Blake was himself, after all, something of a cursed or damned poet, working against the grain of his society’s version of social and religious respectability. I am making note, merely, of a correlation. My tendency, as a reader, is always toward synthesis, toward a recognition of likenesses and even a reconciling of contraries. And that – the reconciling of the sacred and the profane, for example – is what Blake is struggling toward even in his more palatable and popular Songs of Innocence and Experience (“Tyger Tyger burning bright …”), though most vividly in his strangest and most obscure work like the The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and Visions of the Daughters of Albion.
Speaking of the Daughters of Albion, one more thing: another correlation, if you will. I am quoting from the editors’ introduction to the poem, as I encounter it in their anthology of Blake’s artistic and poetic work:
Although Visions is primarily a critique of constraints on love and sexuality, it also denounces the enslavement of Africans and laboring children; and insofar as Oothoon is ‘the soft soul of America,’ it symbolically condemns exploitation of the unspoiled American land, its resources, and – by implication – its native people. […] Oothoon comes to recognize oppression as an interlocking system of the sort that the Chimney Sweeper of Experience identifies as ‘God & his Priest & King.’ Liberty, by contrast, is absolute: there is no such thing as freedom for only certain people, like white men.i
That is Miguel Ángel Bustos’s project, precisely. As Schell writes in the translator’s note following the bilingual text, the two books contained in this new volume – Fantastical Fragments(1965) and Vision of the Children of Evil (1967) – “represent the same grand project”:
a sweeping critique of colonialism and the horror of the postcolonial political and social situation in Latin America through the motif of divine descent. […] Bustos’s critique reverberates throughout the Americas – certainly into the United States, with our own parallel history of indigenous genocide. Innocence becomes the underlying subject of these books: repurposing biblical rhetoric, Bustos compares the conquest of the Americas to our own paradise lost. His is a quest to recuperate innocence, but also an interrogation of the false innocence implied by national mythologies of countries like Argentina and the United States that define their culture as white European and Christian – mythologies that are currently experiencing an ascendance like that in Bustos’s time. (pp. 284-85)
And part and parcel to this anti-colonialist project, Schell explains, is the poet’s linguistic task, in which he
takes up Rimbaud’s quest to discover a universal, synesthetic language. “All language being idea,” said Rimbaud, “the day of the universal language will come… This language, the new or universal, will speak from soul to soul, resuming all perfumes, sounds, colors, linking together all thought.” Bustos is aware of the violence of language as a colonial tool – but also the rich possibility of interlinguistic encounter. Like Rimbaud, Bustos is a symbolist poet, but his symbols – metals, moon, sun, night, heart, soul, earth, water, and biblical verses such as the repeated, “Why have you forsaken me” – take on different inflections in his postcolonial context. This linguistic in(ter)vention – and its underlying politics – make Bustos a very exciting poet to translate, and also extremely challenging. Across both books, Bustos experiments with different forms and voices, mixing the conversational and cutting edge with the hyperbatonii of Golden Age Spanish poetry and the high rhetoric of religion. Bustos unmakes the inherent power structures of language to create a supremely powerful language of his own. (pp. 288-89)
An important figure in the Argentine Generation of 1960, Bustos was also a literary and cultural critic and a talented illustrator, as is evident in the darkly luminous art that decorates the covers of this volume. But then, in 1976, within the first months of the existence of Jorge Rafael Videla’s military junta, he was “disappeared” and promptly executed. “His physical disappearance,” as Schell writes, “was followed by a symbolic disappearance; his work was suppressed, his name erased” (p. 284).
Only in 2008 was that work fully restored, when his son, the poet Emiliano Bustos, who was only four years old at the time of his father’s disappearance, published his collected poetry. And now, thanks to Schell’s translation – she discovered the work in 2010 while studying in Córdoba, Argentina – we have in one volume (for the first time in English) both portions of this “grand project” of poetic interrogation of our imperial myths.
Bustos’s form is the prose poem. It may read sometimes like flash fiction, but its principal device is what Schell calls “the broken logic of fragment” (p. 291). Sometimes it might drift into a sort of verse: a verse constructed, nonetheless, on a scaffolding of fractured speech, never far divorced from some sliver of narrative. Other times it might lurch from thought to thought, bedeviled by that inverted syntax of Spain’s Golden Age of poetry and a more modern absence of punctuation, landing in the oddest and most unsettling paradoxes. Or its story may flow along smoothly, in perfect sentences and paragraphs, occasionally even going on for pages. But even so all the parts fit together imperfectly, like pieces of a puzzle that can never be completely solved: a riddle wrapped up in an enigma.
Such a book – even more so than a book of poems by Robert Frost or Emily Dickinson, which invite slow reading and thoughtful reflection – is not an easy read, but is at once challenging, exciting, and rewarding. It invites more than one reading. In my case, on the first time through, I would read whole passages and sequences in both languages, then go back to make careful comparisons of the original and the translation. I might suggest a similar strategy to the English-language reader: read through the whole segment or section or chapter to get the feel for the whole, then go back to puzzle out the smaller details.
However you approach it, in any case, Lucina Schell is an able and perceptive guide through those subtleties and nuances. And in her translator’s note, she elaborates at considerable length on the linguistic challenges that she faced in bringing Bustos’s language through the necessary transformations into an English that can still do justice to the juxtaposition and reconciliation of Old World and Bustos’s “new and universal” language in Spanish.
As to the “divine descent” of Miguel Ángel Bustos’s children of evil, it occurs to me that all of us who have ever benefited from regimes of purported good foisted upon those who call them evil – beneficiaries, say, of White North America’s manifest destiny upon the children of African slaves and still-oppressed First Nations; or those of Milton Friedmanian economics on the willingly socialistic political children of Allende in Chile or Chávez in Venezuela; or of the Israeli State’s ongoing genocide against Arab Palestinians imprisoned in the bloody Gaza, against all pretense of international law or the morality of Hebrew prophets – it occurs to me that those children of evil are really angels of the purest light. Like mischeivous devils in the false dualism of Blakeian Heaven/Hell, angels of light whose demented blasphemies – wielded once more against all the religious and political pieties of our benighted national mythologies of conquest and subjugation – illuminate this ascendant darkness a full half century after the initial publication of these luminous books. Which, along with their author, in the shadow of Argentina’s own “dirty war,” were almost disappeared from human memory.
iBlake’s Poetry and Design, selected and edited by Mary Lynn Johnson and John E. Grant. 2008, 1979. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. A Norton Critical Edition (Second Edition), p. 55.
iiHyperbaton: “A figure of speech […] using deviation from normal or logical word order to produce an effect,” from The American Heritage Dictionary. 2000. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company (Fourth Edition), p. 863.