This text comes courtesy of Antonio Ochoa, the editor of a new collection of Milán’s essays in translation, forthcoming from Shearsman Press in Bristol. Ochoa also edited a translation of selected poetry by Milan in 2012.
Milán’s essay addresses the role of the poet as witness in historicity, both in the present time, and in conversation with the radical aesthetic independence of poetry from politics.
The ‘now’ of Testimony
Without a doubt poetic writing is a specific language, not an exclusive one, as it does not need to limit itself to pre-established themes or forms. It is specific because it needs, once more and always, to identify itself before the reader’s eyes as what it is. Not for fear of producing a misunderstanding of genres but, rather, for the necessity of not incurring in any ethical omissions. Poetry is poetry—like that, tautologically—and not out of convention that dictates that the thing in front of us with a certain intentional linguistic arrangement is poetry. Poetry is not convention. It is a deep necessity. We know what convention is.
For the whole of the twentieth century true poetry was also poetry. But it had to systematically face the constant interference of history. In the century of extermination and massacres, of decentralised ceaseless wars, of extreme manipulation of conscience—symbols of a century which, everything seems to indicate, will be perpetuated in the present one unless we try from now on to do something to prevent it—the poetry that survived did it by reminding itself that it was poetry. That memory, a resistance against forgetting its own being, rescued poetry from the persistent dragging of history. That was part of the rescue of poetry, the proper rescue by its being a specific language.
There was another part that already impregnated poetry with a kind of irreversible pneuma: its consciousness of being made by a historical man and not just ‘by man’, a category that, almost like ‘poetry’, presents itself as a given. It is not only that, in incorporating that human condition that has been put into question, poetry would remember punctually and through its specific attributes that it is a manmade language. Vallejo, who was aware of this problem, even in his most ‘human’ poems took some distance from the demanding and insistent humanisation which reclaims what it persistently tries to forget and that emotionally blackmails when it is not mediated by man’s critical consciousness. In the same way that poetic writing emotionally blackmails when it is its own mediating role between man and the world.
It happens, however, that the present time, today, is radically threatened in its ability to become—this is how I understand it—a time in which human life—not to speak of life in general—can manifest itself without fear. I’m not talking about insinuations or indirect manifestations here, but of concrete evidences and emergencies. Of course, it is not about sudden bursts of dread or epiphanies of fear. No, this matter has a history behind it. And it has a history as long as we remain aware of the presence of history. And then, this awareness of history not only as a more or less coherent relation of events, but also as the planned hegemonic discourse that includes the denial of history itself and the consideration of the present time as perpetual, as a straitjacket or a grid to our conscience before which only an abnegated acceptance is possible, as an already open game of interests and political, geopolitical, economic, social and mental dominance or control; and artistic and aesthetic as well.
I am speaking of a project, not of a fatality. I am speaking of an intention—an extraordinarily well-orchestrated one, of course, as became clear after the criminal assaults of September 11, 2001, in New York. Yet I am not speaking of a commandment. Any particular game of economic and political interests can acquire an aura of sacredness, as we know too well. Over the last three or four decades there have been insistent discussions in the cultural milieu about man’s necessity to re-encounter the sacred, so why not again, and why not now, ‘sacred’ being a term that can lend itself to any interpretation and any manipulation? Everything can be considered sacred; and above all the use of the concept, the use of the sacred for the sake of projects of control, and especially when the concept is placed in lieu of a consciousness, that cannot be discerned from concrete events.
But the proposed topic was, once more, the testimony and creativity from the writer’s point of view, not from the agents of control— even if the agents’ point of view is dominant and if their discourse seems like a fable. It is due to this, due to impregnation, due to the aura of fable with which the dominant discourse pretends to coat an abominable reality, that testimony, as a corroboration of a truth that is genuinely at stake, and at the same time as a parcel sent to a future memory, becomes unavoidable.
Yet testimony cannot just be the neutral retelling of events but must be also an attempt to transform horror into narrative, like a translation for the children of all this ignominy. How to bear that testimony in literature? What must each genre do in order not to become a mere imaginary resonance? How should this conscious writing—aware of itself and of historical reality, this historical reality—be written? What must a writer do in order to bear testimony yet not disappear within it or right after it? How can language stand up in the face of the facts— without ‘dampening’ the facts through a methodical and safe distance from its own language—and not only save itself as language but also avoid the historical fault of not having been sufficiently explicit, a well-known offence which, unless it gets transformed, like in Kafka, into prophetic imagination, is pure and simple submission to fear? And there is too much fear already. I could not answer all these questions.
To be continued…
Helena Miguélez is Senior Lecturer in Hispanic Studies Bangor University in Wales.
Eduardo Milán is the author of over thirty books of poetry, essays, and translations. Born in Uruguay in the border city of Rivera in 1952, he shared the geographical and cultural closeness of Brazil and through his mother he inherited its language also. In the late 1970s he left Uruguay due to the repressive political climate and the incarceration of this father. He settled in Mexico City where he still lives.
Born in Mexico City, Antonio Ochoa is a poet, essay writer, and translator. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.