Carlos Oquendo de Amat’s cult object-book 5 metros de poemas is an excited and sometimes surrealist counter-point to the Latin American poets of his time. Urayoán Noel reflects on the new edition by Ugly Duckling Presse and what low-tech book/objects mean in a literary culture whose loudest voices are Neruda and Vallejo.
Latin American poets don’t do object-books. Or, at least, the iconic ones don’t. We cherish modern masters like César Vallejo and Pablo Neruda for their imprint, their capacity to refashion vanguard motifs into a personal and political style. These poets helped build what critic Ángel Rama famously called the “lettered city” of Latin American literature, and, in the case of Neruda, a cottage industry, even a global brand.
But what about the back alleys of that lettered city? Recently, some younger Latin American poets have reclaimed the low-tech book/object (see Argentina’s Eloísa Cartonera), seemingly in an attempt to irreverently highlight the streets of that city less written. Knowingly or not, these poets are covering ground first trekked by Peruvian poet Carlos Oquendo de Amat (1905-1936) in his accordion-fold book 5 metros de poemas (1927), now reissued in a bilingual edition by Brooklyn’s Ugly Duckling Presse.
According to the biographical note on the book jacket, Oquendo de Amat moved from “provincial genteel comfort to a life of poverty in Lima,” where he was imprisoned for dissent, eventually abandoning poetry for Marxism, and dying of tuberculosis at age 32. 5 metros de poemas was his sole book, and he apparently wrote very little else—the Ugly Duckling edition includes four additional poems and claims to be a “complete presentation of Oquendo de Amat’s known writings.”
Far from the ruminative, pained, world-disclosing of Vallejo, 5 metros de poemas reads like the work of his excitable younger brother. There’s a giddiness about the modern world, somewhat tempered by surrealist inversions, as if to ward off a certain kind of futurist “technophilia.” What we have here is not the radical syntax of Vallejo’s Trilce, with its tricky indents, neologisms, and experiments with spelling, and punctuation. More conventional in its language, yet evidently inspired by the visual poetics of film, Oquendo de Amat’s book reveals a commitment to plasticity of expression and of experience, embodied in the book’s format: pages fold out so that each poem is a work in itself and the distinction between unit and series is blurred. The stock images of the modern world (steamships, skyscrapers, etc.) are resignified though the use of synesthesia, and the experiments with line and layout echo the jump cuts and slow dissolves of film, as images alternatively freeze and melt:
The perfume became a tree
and colors fly
from the transatlantics(“port”)
In its at once celebratory and ironic evocations of Americana, and especially of the U.S. West and Southwest, 5 metros de poemas harks back to Vicente Huidobro’s landmark poem “Cow-Boy,” included by Tristan Tzara in Dada 3 (1918), except that here the landscapes keep dissolving until we’re left with an inscrutable ambient, a projection, between a freeze-frame and a frieze:
From a tavern
removes ribbons from bottles, projected from infancy
He is now Jack Brown chasing the cowboy
and the whistle is a horse in Arizona
A SIGH BEHIND THE MORNING(“port”)
Many of the most successful moments in the book are short bursts of two or three lines that read like damaged couplets, or faux-epigrammatic, like surrealist haiku. At their most charmingly deadpan, these snippets anticipate the playful antipoetry of Nicanor Parra:
The landscape is lemon
and my beloved
wants to play golf with it
(“film of the landscapes”)
Not all of the book holds up as well. Oquendo de Amat’s cinematic poetics is better suited to the short poem that sets a scene, the Cubist still-life, where each page is a tableau. Some of the longer pieces sag under the imagistic weight. Such is the case of “new york;” despite some evocative couplets about Coney Island and Wall Street, and some very clever stabs at concrete poetry that nicely riff on Manhattan’s spatiality—the poem ends with a text box that reads “FOR RENT THIS MORNING”—, it never resolves into more than a roll/role call, featuring “Rudolph Valentino,” “Mary Pickford,” “hoop games,” “park rangers” and a cast of countless others. Still, even if overwrought as poetry, “new york” might work as a foreshadowing of various kinds of contemporary detritus poetics: Flarf, spam, infomercials. The title pun pays off, as the book reads like a fractal of poetic meters. Of course, the titular “metros” also evoke subway tracks that link underground distances, from New York to Paris to the dream-ports where poetry docks.
The experience of reading this book is an experiment in its own right: with the Spanish original on one side and the English translation on the back, comparing the two versions requires constant folding and unfolding, which is somehow appropriate, given the poet’s polymorphous aesthetic, and the intricacies of translating a book this conceptual. Translators Alejandro de Acosta and Joshua Beckman make one fortuitous decision: they go colloquial, choosing idiomatic phrasings to render the images clearly, and simplifying the syntax when necessary. (This is, after all, a deliberately minor poet, not one, like Clayton Eshleman’s Vallejo, who would seem to require some sort of wonderfully over-invested, tour-de-force translation.) The result is, for the most part, lively, entertaining, readable, and true to Oquendo de Amat’s breezy, unenjambed line.
There are, however, some perplexing decisions and/or oversights. In “film of the landscapes,” the place name “Campo de Marte” (the “Champ de Mars” in Paris) is left in Spanish. In “antwerp,” a line from the original is omitted and the line “E l c a l o r e s c o m o u n p e n s i o n i s t a” is rendered as “H e a t i s l i k e a n o l d t i m e r” (I think the poet means “boarder” or “lodger” here, since the heat stays for the summer and then leaves suddenly; either way, “oldtimer” is an odd choice). Elsewhere, in the aforementioned poem “new york,” the phrase “La brisa dobla los tallos / de las artistas de la Paramount” becomes, confusingly, “A breeze hurries the growth / of Paramount actresses,” instead of what I would render simply as “A breeze bends the stems / of Paramount actresses” (I’m guessing the translators interpreted “doblar” as “to double” rather than “to turn/twist/bend”). There are a few more weird choices and awkward phrasings sprinkled throughout the book.
Still, the translators and publisher are to be commended for their labor of love, which brings a long-lost cult book into the kind of transnational circulation it both celebrates and mocks, but which it ultimately deserves, if only as a reminder of the diversity and complexity of modern Latin American poetry. How cult is 5 metros de poemas? Well, I had been hearing about it for almost 15 years, since my undergraduate days at the University of Puerto Rico, but had never seen a copy, only anthologized poems here and there. (There is no copy at the New York Public Library, which is saying a lot.)
Ugly Duckling is known for its elegant yet quirky letterpress editions and artist’s books, and for its expansive, international list of innovative writers. While they have a successful Eastern European poets series, this book represents their first foray into Latin American poetry in translation. It is a promising start. Beautifully presented, 5 Meters of Poems is a joy to read, and a significant contribution to our understanding of Latin American vanguard poetry beyond such canonical figures as Neruda and Vallejo. Here’s hoping for many more meters!
5 Meters of Poems is out now from Ugly Duckling Presse.