Cadavers, by Néstor Perlongher, translated from the Spanish by Roberto Echavarren and Donald Wellman, Cardboard House Press
“In the nets of fishermen
In the tumbling of crayfish
In she whose hair is nipped
by a small loose hairclip
There Are cadavers.”
0. Cadavers is the best-known poem by Argentinian Néstor Perlongher and it is one of the representative works of a Latin American postmodern poetry movement dubbed neobarroco, Neo-Baroque. José Kozer, a Cuban poet, describes neobarroco as: “The second line [of Latin American poetry; the first one is a thin, familiar line], meaning the thick line, I associate with international poetry, a stronger convergance and diversity, indeed more opaque, but, in spite of its thickness, more encompassing. This international poetry includes aspects of twentieth Century [North] American poetry, as well as a basic source rooted in the Spanish Golden Age Baroque, Góngora, and Quevedo above all.” Poetry that is written with a thick line demands texts about it to be thick-lined as well. The following text is my attempt at complicating the all-too-familiar form of the book review. There Are Cadavers.
1. There Are Cadavers. This is the somber fact insisted throughout the poem, at the end of almost every stanza. It is its pulse, the beating of a death drum. If the poem were even longer, it would repeat it as many as thirty thousand times: the estimated number of desaparecidos during Argentina’s military junta regime during the seventies. And even longer, but darker all the same, if it were to include the victims of the Mexican Drug War, the Somoza and Pinochet Dictatorships, and many other CIA-sponsored tragedies throughout Latin America. There Are Cadavers.
2. No place is safe enough, no circumstance untainted, no person untouched. Violence has become the measure of the Latin American reality, perhaps the defining event. Latin American memory moves from one bullet wound to another, weaving a dense web of hauntings. This circumstance of violence-as-form has intensified in the first decades of the new millennium—all ten of the deadliest cities in the world are in the region. Néstor Perlongher’s poem bears witness to this tragic number, and has the fanged form of violence itself. “Under the brush / In the scrub / Upon the bridges / In the canals,” “When the horse steps over / muddy polders,” “Yes in the camphor box on the chest of that / pretty teacher.” There Are Cadavers.
3. The poem’s exuberant anxiety and nervous surfaces—a brand of neobarroco (Neo-Baroque) Perlongher called neobarroso, which fused the baroque with the mud, barro, of La Plata River—is not merely for aesthetic effect or derived from some finely wrought abstraction, as other avant-gardes would have it. It is political, rooted in real state oppression against subversive bodies. The poem thrusts its language fiercely against the death-operations of the military junta. Perlongher is precise in his attacks, and the proliferation of cadavers in his poem is also the proliferation of his radical critique. It is with this barro that Perlongher gives presence again to the Argentinian desaparecidos, the disappeared, the unrecovered.
4. Cadavers is the raunchiest daughter of Federico García Lorca’s Poet in New York, which I consider the first neobarroco book of poems, or at least the first neobarroco poems are to be found there, and not in the Cuban José Lezama Lima’s work, which is generally considered to be the first example of the style. You can hear throughout the poem amplified spades of Lorca’s “Cry Toward Rome (From the tower of the Chrysler Building)” and “New York (Office and Denunciation).” There Are Cadavers.
5. Néstor Perlongher himself was a subversive body. Being one of the founders of the Frente de Liberación Homosexual, the Homosexual Liberation Front, brought him under government persecution. His sexual identity did even more than his political activism. Perlongher was detained and processed in 1976. In 1981 he took a night bus to Brazil, never to return to Argentina. Legend has it that he wrote “Cadavers” during that bus trip. The poem itself is a long bus ride into the Latin American nightmare birthed in 1521. There Are Cadavers.
6. Néstor Perlongher died of AIDS-related complications in 1992. He wrote six books of poetry. “Cadavers” originally belongs to Alambres (Wires), his second book published in 1987. To publish this long poem as a bilingual chapbook was a bold decision; it gives it a renewed intensity. I dare say the ideal way of publishing and reading “Cadavers” today is in an uncluttered, slim format you would easily read during a bus ride. There Are Cadavers.
7. To translate such a poem into our uncertainty-riddled twenty-first century is activism. Every language has its cadavers, and it must come to terms with it—be it through art, politics or any other medium. Roberto Echavarren and Donald Wellman have successfully managed to translate into American English not only the words, but the absences inscribed in the disheveled Rioplatense Spanish of Perlongher. The impish tones that swerve from denunciation to joke, and from the obscure to the erotic, is almost entirely preserved. The translators have come up with skillful solutions to difficult passages such as translating “laz zarigüeyaz de dezhechoz,” as “the possumz in ze garbage.” Even for the non-Argentinian Spanish speaker there are a number of words that are unfamiliar, especially those coming from gaucho or tango contexts: colimba, cachafaz, catinga, fiólos. Maybe this flavor is somewhat lost when those words become regular English: “who’s been drafted,” rascal, stink, pimp, respectively. Hay Cadáveres. There Are Cadavers.
8. In September 2010 I took a three-day seminar called “The Poetics of Death.” Roberto Echavarren taught it. It was during this seminar that my twenty-something me discovered Medusario, the game-changing Latin American poetry anthology edited by Jacobo Sefamí, José Kozer, and Echavarren himself. The collection has two prologues: the first one by Echavarren and the second one by none other than Néstor Perlongher. Other anthologized names include José Lezama Lima, Raúl Zurita, Marosa di Giorgio, Roberto Hinostroza, and Coral Bracho. If someone is intimately acquainted with Perlogher’s poetry, it is Echavarren. There Are Cadavers.
9. The ominously-titled seminar took place in Monterrey, a city in northern Mexico, at the height of the drug cartel violence. Two grad students from my university had died in crossfire six months before. That night I was at a party blocks away from the shooting—we all heard the shots. Ten months later Los Zetas—the notorious criminal syndicate—would set fire to a casino, killing fifty-two people. That day I saw the pall of smoke from my apartment. When I read “Cadavers,” its opening line were seared into my mind. I knew what it meant, unfortunately. They were everywhere: on every TV channel, in every lunch conversation. I saw one myself lying on the street one hot summer night. There Are Cadavers.
10. The neobarrocos are unsurprisingly not well known outside Latin America—dissemination of radical poetics is often subject to political limitations. However, recent translations of Kozer, Di Giorgio, and Lezama Lima, and a growing number of scholarly works suggest an increasing interest in the English-speaking world. I would hope this valuable addition will be a prelude to a larger Perlongher translation project. Our dire climate begs for it. There Are Cadavers.
11. In online book reviews
In the posting and the sharing and the liking
Behind every screen and under every keyboard
There Are Cadavers.
Be sure to check out the three poems by Perlongher (translated by Brent Armendinger) that were featured in the Spring 2018 issue.
Sergio Serrano is Spanish Social Media Manager at Asymptote.
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