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Marco Antonio Montes de Oca and "The Splendor of This World"


Author(s): Gordon Brotherston
Source: Books Abroad, Vol. 45, No. 1 (Winter, 1971), pp. 36-40
Published by: Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40125004
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36 BOOKS ABROAD
1 The kernel of Eco's viewpoints was originally
presented by him in an address entitled "II problema
dell'opera aperta," read at the Twelfth Internation-

al Philosophical Congress in 1958. This was subsequently elaborated into the various essays grouped

under the title of Opera aperta. Some of the objections that were addressed to the author after the
appearance of the original edition were not valid,
but fortunately they prompted him to write out clarifications or additions which were incorporated into

the French version of the book, published in 1965


as L'CEuvre ouverte. In an appendix to this edition,
the author stated that it was a substantially revised

one, even though his basic hypotheses remained


unchanged. Because of the author's specific claim

that the French version is "more definitive and more

complete than the Italian edition" (ibid.) it is indispensable to take into account as well this further
elaboration of his views. In this article the Italian

edition (Milan, 1962) will be referred to in abbreviation as /*., and the French edition (Paris, 1965) as

Fr.

2 Eco is concerned with the creative "project"


and with various aspects of the intentionality in-

volved: what the artist projects into the work;


what type or types of consumption the artist envisages. Discovering the artist's project is equivalent

to tracing an explicit or implicit poetics.


The term "poetics" is not used by Eco in the fairly
restricted sense that it is given by the Prague structuralists as well as by the French structuralists, who
define "poetics" as an exclusive and purely objective
study of the linguistic structures of a literary work,

intrinsically considered. Eco takes the word in a


sense much closer to its classical acceptation, that
is, not a rigorous set of rules but "the operative
program that in each given case the artist sets for
himself": the task to be achieved as the artist ex-

plicitly or implicitly conceives it. Poetics therefore


means the "projected elaboration into a form and
structuration of the work" ("projet de formation

et de structuration de l'oeuvre" - Fr., p. 11). In

this broader conception, the study of the original


project includes an analysis of the final, definitive
structure of the artistic object, considered as expressive of an intentionality.
3 ". . . un objet dote de proprieties structurales
qui permettent, mais aussi coordonnent, la succession des interpretations, revolution des perspectives"

- Fr., p. 10.
4 Jacques Scherer, he "Livre" de Mallarme
(Premieres recherches sur des documents inedits).
Paris, 1957.

Marco Antonio Montes de Oca and

"The Splendor of this World"


By GORDON BROTHERSTON
Antonio Montes de Oca established himself as a major poet in Mexico
in 1959, at the age of twenty-seven, with the publication of Delante de la luz
cantan los pdjaros (The Birds Sing in Front of the Light) . The same year he was
awarded the Villarrutia prize and earned the praise of many critics, among them
Octavio Paz, author of a much-quoted essay.1 Since then his reputation has grown
steadily with the appearance of several subsequent volumes, of which Pedir el fuego
(To Ask for Fire, 1968), is the most recent.

At present he is preparing a collection of his complete poetry (Poesia reunida)


for the Fondo de Cultura Economica, a Sisyphean task given the abundance of poetry

he is continuing to write and the degree to which he is constantly revising and reworking what he has already written.2 Also, his poems have always shown a great
capacity for splitting and coalescing and growing out of one another, which makes
divisions under individual titles sometimes difficult. In all this, Montes de Oca shows

a strong will to totalize and actualize this work, to survey all at once the realms
("reinos") he has created. He strives for an ever-widening circle of acquired territory which the center can and will hold. This new edition, for example, will ignore

chronology and arrange poems alphabetically and by the signs of the zodiac, in an
effort to make a simultaneous statement.
This statement is for the most part strongly affirmative, enthusiastic (vehement ac-

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BROTHERSTON 37

cording to one critic3), celebratory of a "luminous realm" of splendor in this world. In


his second major poem Contrapunto de la fe, he resolved the duel between living beauty

and all that opposes and threatens it (lassitude, decay, injustice and "the infamous
lout of collective death") firmly in favor of the former. Faith "pierces burial boxes
and fills anew the chewed grapeskins," while love "softens the condor's beak, making

it a lip, fond cotton." The miracle of this victory over death, destruction, and evil

stems from an "ingenuous token of faith," the vibrant hummingbird (colibr'i) of


childhood and an Amerindian past, which is the main guise assumed by God in the
poem. The shimmering, tangible insubstantiality of this creature is an emblem of
that "state of grace" (the theme of many of his poems) guarded by the "white armies
of poetry," and a guarantee of our capacity for transcendence:
under the firm domain of faith,
a black rocket which thrusts and does not illumine
and makes of us
the only river to empty into the stars

But at this stage of Montes de Oca's work, a yet firmer guarantee is available, redemption through Christ crucified:
You, sublime foreseer
who took from Golgotha
not one drop of water,
don't abandon my bones to their depths.

It is almost as if ultimate security in an inherited Christian faith allowed him that


great freedom and sumptuousness in his early poetry, "a luxuriance of delirious leaves

and flowers," to quote Octavio Paz.


In any case, in and after Delante de la luz cantan los pdjaros, the luxuriance is
pruned, and the victory of beauty less easily achieved. In Cantos al sol que no se
alcanza (Songs to the Sun That is not Reached, 1962), there is a new hesitancy and
self -questioning; the "God of childhood and all subsequent time" is still there, but
his power to save is gone.
My well-defended tranquillity is suffering a terrible jolt;

Never again for me, the soft spongy white bread


Jesus dispensed to me continuously for twenty-eight years.
Goodbye to the splendor of loving life

Evil is insidious, hard to check, and obliquely located ("they tell me things are going
too badly"). The sense of our being abused creatures of a moment (he speaks ironically of "the clean joy of our holidays on earth") leads here not to poignancy, as it did
with the Aztecs, but to a skepticism which threatens to be overwhelming, and indeed
is countered only by the almost frantic plea : "Tell me that innocence is not dead,/ that

it is always won, that it is not lost,/ that innocence is never lost." This, and a new
"social" awareness : the desire to be immersed in the "pueblo" and the common love
of man. With some tartness he deplores how we walk on the arm of our privileges,
and he talks of remaking history and giving bread to all, fairly, as it should be given.
His distress at the travail and evil afflicting man goes in overtly militant directions,

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38 BOOKS ABROAD

as when he talks of "the first sparks of justice rising in arms." This skepticism or
lurch from faith, the staple fare of many poets, was marked in his poetry by a (for
him) austere edginess and apparent uncharitableness toward his "enemies" and toward

himself, in poems like "The Fool's Farewell," where with deceptive self-deprecation
he announces : "My clothes are soiled with colored powder, / I have returned my motley to the bottom of the sea."4

Montes de Oca's poetry since that time could be understood as an attempt to


reemerge into an earlier sunlit landscape and to reconquer faith after going through
a nightmare of doubt. Though of course faith cannot now grow out of the "old peace"

of Christian God, and his latest revisions make it absolutely clear that this is so. It
can only sporadically rest on revolutionary conviction, as in his ode to Che Guevara
or his unrelenting "With Fixed Bayonet" :
People, take what you need
From the thief who robbed you:
Air and tools,
Cool oils for your young body;
Galaxies of flour for your pantries,

Rooms, books, swords, dynamite.5

With these exceptions, his desire to recover what Leiva has termed his "Adamic"
vision, to relocate that "luminous country" and himself within it, has been very much

in evidence in such significantly entitled works as Fundacion del entusiasmo (Foundation of Enthusiasm, 1963, a title taken from a strongly affirmative poem of the

1950s), La parcela en el Eden (The Plot in Eden, 1964), and Vendimia del juglar
(Minstrel's Vintage, 1965), with its palpable search for absolutes. In this last collection, God, in the poem "Sin nombre," is shown as a nameless being that has only a
dubious capacity for reviving the "holy colors of that immense first occasion / When

I wound the spring of my song," i.e., in Contrapunto de la fe and Pliego de testitnonios. A more potent and persistent force is undoubtedly love, a love which in origin

is perhaps Christian but which becomes a force for and from itself. While in Contrapunto de la fe he speaks of love as the "favorite enterprise of faith," in that same book,

in "La fuerza del amor" (The Force of Love), it becomes the power which can enable
lovers to "invent the reverse of time" :
although wild cliffs loom over my wand of glass,
although phantasmal crows chip at your face slowly
and the supreme waters of death slacken with each blow
the most precious plank of our ship.

In later collections love is clearly the gratuitous and liberating force it was for
the surrealists,6 with their faith in the ultimate goodness of man and in his affective

imagination. His exaltation of love is strongly reminiscent of the Andre Breton of


U Amour fou, of Eluard, and of Montes de Oca's compatriot Octavio Paz, whose
affinities with the surrealists go deep. In this, and in his shifting but always clear
focus on "I" and "y011?" and in the unbroken two-way flow of his voice, he is in fact

remarkably close to Paz in what is probably one of his best poems, "El corazon de
la flauta" (The Heart of the Flute). It begins:
Into an animal of love magic changes me
And now I know no master other than love

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BROTHERSTON 39

Love and its doves of rock crystal

Its landscape-besieging chlorophyll


Its sleeping spinning top

That sticks its silent nail

Into the ever untatooed arms of the sea.

This poem is also notable for the way it integrates autobiographical presence,
which otherwise often seems even anecdotal in his work, or on the other hand, overrepressed. In fact it could be argued that Montes de Oca is at his most brilliant when
his persona and tone are being defined by his address in love, when his lines of start-

ling images have the cumulative effect of incantatory or ritual praise to a "You"
("Tu"), be it the Ana Luisa of his poems and life, or simply presence that is initially
other. In a passage like the following, it is as irrelevant to object to his "elementary
poetic structures" or his overprolific metaphors (as some critics have done7) as it would
be to find fault with the "Song of Songs," or the "Nahua Grecas" which it interestingly
resembles in many ways.
You are the sea star sown in the clear sky
The invisible metal whose only weight is its name
The wave on shoulders of wheat

Water plural and foregone


You go through the gaps of a propeller turning
We fly to find our wings

Your look is bathed in the sudden collyrium of diamonds


Your arms are the branches children prefer
And happiness is raining on the plucked cherry tree
With the sun only do I share you

With some of the effect that Pound achieved in his translations from Chinese, these

poems of address in love - of "Imagenes admirativas y hazanosas" like those in the


Aztec Grecas - restore to the line and pairs of lines their value as entities and focus our
attention on them in series as the succession of images they are ("images, right arms of

the mother word"), there being no doubt about their individual splendor ("Not in vain
do the burnt eyes of the peacock's tail shine on your breasts") .
Images, mere images whipped together at random,
Tied like a ladder of yellow tresses
Dropped from the highest snow-capped tower
To the bottom of buried ships.8

These images excite each other to incandescence ("my images, my burning crystal
cliffs") in a ritualistic context which allows the poet to realize his wish that there
should "be no possible armor between my blood and the poppies," that in defining
his own identity in address he should become "one with the world."
In his recent poem "The Heart of the Flute," Montes de Oca laments the things
that have made his friends grow old: money, calculation, and against them he ranges
the things which have remained precious for him as a poet: "fish flowers pictures."

This seems an accurate perception, and again surprisingly close in the practice it
would suggest to the phrase his Nahua ancestors used for "poetry": "in xochitl in
cuicatl," "flower song." Rather than in the meticulous registering of shifts of tone and
attitude and in the complex vertical structuring of thought dear to Leavisite or New

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40 BOOKS ABROAD

Criticism, Montes de Oca excels in bestowing a realm of flowers, flutes, birds, threatened by the horror of sunless death, and saved by love for the "You" on whom it is
bestowed. How Montes de Oca himself reacts to the occasional meanness with which

his generosity has been paid can be seen in one of his prose poems, "Advice to a
Shy Girl or In Defense of a Style." It begins :

I like walking out along the branches. There's no better way of reaching
the tip of the tree. In any case straight lines make me giddy; I prefer squibs and
their feverish light-flowered zigzagging. And when I dream, I see walls studded
with jewels where vegetable lightning stays long enough for me to thread on to
it conches irridescent with the deepest joy. To hell with sparse ornamentation and
the severe norms with which academies prune the splendor of the world.9
University of Essex
1 "Marco Antonio Montes de Oca," most readily
available in Puertas al campo, Mexico, 1966, where
it is dated Paris, 10 August 1959. Detente de la luz
cantan los pajaros includes, in revised form, Montes
de Oca's previous work: Ruina de la infame Babi-

lonia (1953; published in English translation as


On the Ruins of Babylon by the Wattle Grove
Press, Australia, 1964), Contrapunto de la fe

(Counterpoint of Faith, 1955) and Pliego de testimonios (Sheaf of Testimonies, 1956).


2 Some idea of the extent and significance of these

changes can be gained from my article "Montes de


Oca in the light of the revised versions of Pliego de

testimonios ," Bulletin of Hispanic Studies, XLIV


(1967), 28-40.

3 Raul Leiva, "La poesia de Marco Antonio


Montes de Oca," Cuadernos Americanos, xxviii
(1969), no. 6, 174-93.
4 J. M. Cohen's translation in Latin American
Writing Today, Penguin Books, London, 1967:
Cohen pays some attention to this and other poems
by Montes de Oca in "The Eagle and the Serpent,"

Southern Review, I (1965), 361-74.

5 John Upton's translation in the Tri-Quarterly ,

13-4 (1968-69), p. 445, of "A bayoneta calada"


(Vendimia del juglar); Lysander Kemp's transla-

tion of the "Oda por la muerte del Che Guevara"


(Pedir el fuego) has appeared in Evergreen Review.
6 There has been much toing and froing over

whether Montes de Oca is or is not a surrealist, and


the debate is too fraught with detail to go into here.
In so far as he is not a practicer of "automatic writing" (his many revisions alone make this point clear),
he is apart from that movement; but then again on
this score so are most of the original surrealists. In

Revista mexicana de literatura, 4 (1956), p. 320,


he spoke of his admiration for Breton and the purest

acolytes of surrealism, for precisely those values


which Paz and other Mexicans have found es-

sential in that movement: "imagination, love and


freedom." Also, his sense of expansion, of "affran-

chissement made possible by love" (J. H. Matthews), which I discussed earlier, is remarkably

akin to that of Eluard.

7 Ramon Xirau, for example, in Poetas de Mexico

y Espana, (Madrid, 1962), 190-91; J. E. Pacheco,


in "Aproximacion a la poesia mexicana del siglo
XX" (Hispania, XLVIII, 209-19) and E. Anderson
Imbert, in his Historia de la literatura hispanoameri-

cana, take different views of Montes de Oca as a


poet of images.
8 From "Assumption of the triple image," John
Upton's translation in the Tri-Quarterly.

9 Las fuentes legendarias (Mexico, 1966); also

quoted by E. Carballo in his prologue to the volume


dedicated to Montes de Oca in the series "Nuevos

escritores mexicanos del siglo XX presentados por

si mismos" (Mexico, 1967).

MARCO ANTONIO MONTES DE OCA

BOTH SIDES
For Jean Franco
who taught me London
I open the dictionary
and don't find a word, damn it, which doesn't have a left side
and an equally famous right side.

I can't even find some fantastic neutron

which may exist without an imprisoning partner on either plane.


There is nothing that can kneel as quickly as spheres no longer turn,
nothing incapable of caving into other nothings,
no splinter of grass that doesn't cause a massive blinking in the eyes,
no- -damn it again - no poison fountains that don't spit out their silver urine
to the left or to the right.

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