The book of nature in Plath and Vallejo

by on Nov.02, 2011

Kenneth Anger's occultism

As though it were nothing other than a little globe of darkness from which there flashed out a strange light…

– Foucualt (about Bataille)

Frequently the occult elements in writers such Poe, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Artaud, Vallejo, and Plath are seen as a sideshow, the least important part of their art, as something even embarrassing and best forgotten.

Baudelaire becomes the poet of modernity, as opposed to a poet who wrote also wrote about spirits, occult correspondences, vampirism, etc. And Artaud’s occultism is frequently linked to his madness.

But what if this occultism in their work is actually a way of denaturalizing nature, of finding the weak points in the wall between Art and Nature, of writing, as Huysmans’ says, “against nature” (or at least against the image of nature as a form of immediacy, transparency)? What if this occultism is actually one of the most radical and least digestible elements of their work?

Vallejo in his famous poem “The Book of Nature” attempts to “read” a tree as if he were an ancient priest or prophet attempting to read the meaning of a group of birds flying through the sky or the entrails of a slain animal. The poet, who is both a “good student” and a “bad student” (Vallejo’s paradoxical universe always straining to the breaking point with simultaneously existing contraries), sees the linden as displaying “dead foliage” that is also a “deck of cards” that can somehow be interpreted.

Yet the cards are also in the poet himself. The relation between poet and tree is not a “natural” one (he doesn’t make of the tree a metaphor for his soul, his thoughts). Rather this image of the cards is what links the pair: cards that are dead foliage. The occultism of reading cards distorts any simple correspondence between poet and tree, between self and nature. Both self and nature become cards to be examined  instead of mirrors to be looked into.

For Vallejo the book of nature is not filled with natural and harmonic correspondences. It’s a book of magic. The occult element is used to exorcise naturalism from nature, to render Nature a place of doubles, folds, and the existing contraries I mentioned before. Vallejo’s occultism doesn’t correspond with any invisible realm. It’s the madness of pure appearances. The lack of harmony and correspondence is what is at play. Materialism minus naturalism….

A similar type of occultism can be found in Plath’s “The Moon and the Yew Tree.” The opening of the poem suggests a Spinoza-style pantheism. “This is the light of the mind, cold and planetary. / The trees of the mind are black.” We don’t know whose mind: it could be God’s, it could be our own, or (as in Spinoza) both. And just as Vallejo tries to read the dead foliage, the poet here attempts to read the moon (which is not a door, but a face: in other words nothing is hidden in nature, its secrets are open), and the yew tree.

The section with the yew tree is especially occult-like. “The yew tree points up. It has a Gothic shape. / The eyes lift after it and find the moon.” The tree turns into a fragment of Gothic architecture, but while Gothic churches lift our eyes toward the heavens and God, this “natural” Gothic figure draws us to the moon. And it is this moon that is given a divine creative function, not the sun. “The moon is my mother,” Plath writes. “Her blue garments unloose small bats and owls.” The lines could have come from LeFanu’s vampire novella “Carmilla.” It also works as both an image (we can easily imagine bats and owls flying from the moon’s “blue garments”) and an occult doubling of the natural world (the moon as mother, animals live in her garments). Here as in Vallejo metaphor is used as ornamentation and not for description (which is the very thing many creative writing workshops will tell a student not to do).

The most unsettling part of “The Moon and the Yew Tree” might be the last line: “And the message of the yew tree is blackness—blackness and silence.” The poet is still “reading” the landscape for messages, but this one is an anti-message. If the moon was an excess of message (a Kali-like figure), the tree is an absence of message. In Plath’s book of nature it’s the immediate and transparent terms that are missing. Nature is either overabundance or “silence and darkness.”

9 comments for this entry:
  1. Kent Johnson

    Here’s some stuff on Jaime Saenz and his occultism, mentioned below in exchange with James, under Joyelle’s post about “bugs.”

    Saenz is a Montevidayo poet through and through! Interestingly, Vallejo was one of his heroes, so James might well be onto something, even if I suspect Vallejo would have cringed at being called an “occult” poet.

  2. James Pate


    Thanks for the link…fascinating stuff! The picture of Jaime and his sister Elva dressed as clowns/harlequins is incredible. It could launch a thousand nightmares. I’ll have to read up on this guy.


  3. Kent Johnson

    James, there are two books in English translation. But if you read Spanish, you need to track down the *loads* of untranslated Saenz stuff, poetry and non-fiction, and fiction (two novels, one of them, Felipe Delgado, thought by many to be the best poet-novel ever written in Latin America–along with Bolano’s fiction, that is. Saenz is a cult figure in Latin American poetry, a kind of Spicer of the Spanish-speaking world, except much stranger, and with even more underground influence. Though he’s more than underground by this point–he’s in the big Vicuna Oxford anthology of Latin American poetry, getting translated a lot in Europe, written much about by academics in Latin America and so forth. I think The Night, the book length poem we did after Immanent Visitor, is one of the great works of all the Americas, North and South. Totally freaky and moving, deeply spiritual and vengefully somatic at once.

    As I said, though you folks at Montevidayo are often beyond me (I don’t mean that as a critique–that would be a critique of my limitations), I am serious when I say that Saenz seems to me a Montevidayo kind of poet to the core.

  4. Johannes

    Yes the saenz book is awesome and visionary.

  5. James Pate


    Thanks for all the great info. Saenz sounds fascinating. I’ll have to track down the translations. Unfortunately my high school Spanish is lackluster at best, so I hope the novel you mention gets translated soon…

    You know of anything in the works?


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  7. Kent Johnson

    No, I don’t, James. But there might be someone doing more Saenz, I hope so.

    The other novel by Saenz is Los Papeles de Narciso Lima-Acha, which is a semi-autobiographical novel based on the trip that Saenz took to Germany when a youth. It is one of the very first (if not the first) Latin American novels to unashamedly put homosexual themes at its center.

  8. Kent Johnson

    Here are some translated sections from The Night, at a site I just found. And the photo of Saenz there in the Andean cap I hadn’t seen previously:

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