Garrett Phelps reviews Amanda Berenguer’s Materia Prima

Translated from the Spanish by various translators (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2019)

Materia Prima is the late Amanda Berenguer’s first English-language retrospective. It’s long overdue, as these things tend to be, especially since Berenguer was one of South America’s finest, and part of the influential Generation ’45, Uruguay’s reply to the region’s wider literary renaissance and an early stirring of what was known later as the Boom. Well-curated and featuring a cadre of excellent translators, Materia Prima pulls off what most ‘selected works’ rarely even bother to try. A poet’s lifelong evolution is made so clear it may as well have a route marker planted every mile.

Berenguer’s sixth book, and the first to get much notice outside of Latin America, Quehaceres e Invenciones, appeared in 1963. Over the next fifty years she would receive many of the most important literary awards at home and become a regular guest at poetry conferences throughout Europe, a point of pride for a nation like Uruguay whose impact on global culture was often slight. Long stretches in the United States also provided a modest presence in a country known to neglect—or at best Orientalize—Latin American writers: the Library of Congress even houses two tape reels of her live readings. During the 1980s she spoke at American colleges about state-terror in Uruguay, which back then was a military junta with a regular flow of foreign dollars that routinely kidnapped, locked up, tortured, and killed dissenters, violent or not. Sadly this could be said of the whole region, which was probably another reason to stay abroad.    
The US also left her with a taste for Emily Dickinson, whose poetry she brought back to Montevideo and eventually decided to translate, even though her English at the time was rudimentary. Throughout her life she would call Dickinson a sister and the discovery of her work a revelation. Despite reading her as early as the 1950s, any stylistic influence was somewhat discreet, although among her revolving set of idiosyncrasies was the oblique, or slash:

the light / dark / caught /
it bristles / a porcupine / furious /
and won’t let in the smooth /
elegant / oxygen /

Slashes appear in plenty of poems by left field or overscrupulous punctuators, but Berenguer’s are a nod to Emily Dickinson’s trademark em dash: e.g., “No notice—was—to me—” or “Grand go the Years—in the Crescent—above them—.” Tradition usually treats it like a pregnant silence, an invitation to breathe, or even a rhythmic cue. These are all very American ways to read American poetry, where empty space will often conduct the reader’s voice, whereas Berenguer insists, in an interview appended to this volume, that for Dickinson the dash, instead of being a musical bar or a signal for quiet, is a type of movement:

[It’s] not a silence because the poem goes on [ . . . ] It’s as if she’d suddenly taken a little leap, arriving at a higher level. It’s something that ascends, each time making itself more complete, but never reaching completion [ . . . ] When I started using slashes, obliques, instead of dashes, I should have been using dashes.

Both are often clues to look closer than you would otherwise, provided the poet knows how to use them, of course. They’re hard to ignore, even if it isn’t obvious why. Disparate phrases seem to correspond and ordinary ones suddenly don’t, yet the writing is strong and no doubt doing something. Readers wonder whether they really know how words work after all, something Berenguer refers to as “moments where mystery is made.” Realizing this, she claims, was a kind of eureka moment, and she describes it with the relish of a Galileo discovering some fundamental physical law.     

That simile wasn’t idly chosen. Physics fascinated Berenguer throughout her life, as did topology and chemistry. The aforementioned interview, for example, is peppered with references to eighteenth-century chemist Antoine Lavoisier, as well as ultra-elaborate mathematical contraptions like the Klein Bottle and the Möbius strip. Compared to Jacques Roubaud, François Le Lionnais, or some other poet who actually had a day job as a mathematician, she looks more like an enthusiast than a true polymath, but this isn’t to say her work suffered as a result. If anything, the opposite is true. Many of those writers treat language itself as something calculable, a novel idea that gets old fast. Raymond Queneau’s poetry-producing algorithms (the most infamous could generate up to a hundred-thousand-billion sonnets) are brilliant and also totally pointless, better for literary lore than actual reading matter. Predicated on there being little potential left in the written word alone, such projects often have a hint of postmodern wryness, something noticeably absent in Berenguer. The sciences for her are more poetic than empirical, and a healthy respect for mystery makes up for a lack of formal qualifications:

A mystery is a secret. But they change according to the position you give them, don’t they? Like a molecular structure. That thing science has of mystery, in that for every change you make, the structure is transformed into something else. The total change of structure! Just based on the positioning! This reminds me of that other phrase I love and have repeated ever since I first heard it: ‘The table, that mad dance of electrons.’

Most striking about Berenguer’s poetry is its sheer constructedness, which is as flagrant as those exposed brick interiors with a grid of metal beams for a ceiling. Parallels could be drawn with paintings by Fernand Léger or Malevich: sharply-angled and architectonic, they make no bones about the artifice of the subject matter, nor that of the artist’s eye. Her language had developed a fabricated feel as early as 1966. Poems like “Unidentified Flying Object”—yes, it’s about a UFO—adopt a very “Atomic Era” vocabulary, colored by a somewhat morbid obsession with Sputnik’s presence in Earth’s lower orbit, the Roswell crash, and all things radioactive: e.g., “exposed to the infrared heat of the suburban dream” or “discus-like plate-shaped display” or “sparkling machine at 45 degrees” or “heat-resistant like love’s face.” This itself is hardly one of Berenguer’s major motifs, only a good example of her poetry’s materiality (excuse my lack of a better word).            

The “concrete” or visual poems of the 1970s go even further: Composición de lugar, a 1976 collection of which we get a sample, experimented with typography, handwriting, color, algebraic symbols, statistical graphs, and 3D space. Among her own body of work this is unique, but also when weighed with other efforts to make poetry pictorial, which has a long history as finger exercises for retired scholars or some avant-garde shtick to baffle the bourgeoisie. Side-by-side with Apollinaire’s modernist Calligrammes, or George Herbert’s staid devotional poems resembling episcopal altars and angel wings, or fellow South Americans like Brazil’s Noigandres poets (whose work drifted at times into pure design and qualified as writing only if defined loosely), Berenguer didn’t treat the form like play, nor the literary vanguard’s battering ram. Even the most cryptic poem of the lot, where multiples of the words wind, sand, and dune are configured to look like walls, feels like just another approach to a problem she had been patiently solving for years, which is true throughout Materia Prima. A narrative develops, a lifelike one where the subject grows more complex and layers build up over time, yet a few inherent qualities stay the same.

Credit is especially due to the team of editors and translators who, with this volume, provide a life in poetry with a clear arc, which is a hell of a thing to do, since lives like that are always a mess. Artistic development is seldom clear. Usually it doesn’t make sense even to the writer, let alone to whoever handles their papers once they’re dead. Every collection should shoot this high.