by Joyelle McSweeney on Jul.26, 2013
Comrades, I have read a book of such maddeningly delightful savour that I must urge you to immediately devour it with all possible haste and candelabra-infused solemnity. Perhaps by the light of a ‘candelabra-app’.
Let us begin with a nice thick slice of this peculiar cake, which tastes hauntingly of velvet curtain, exultation and despair:
I suffer an illustrious degeneration; I love pain, beauty and cruelty, especially the latter, that serves to destroy a world abandoned to evil. I constantly imagine the sensation of physical suffering, of the organic lesion.
So opens ‘Life of the Damned’, a 1925 poem by the Venezuelan poet José Antonio Ramos Sucre [1890-1930], as translated by Guillermo Parra for the recent (and first!) English edition of Ramos Sucre’s Selected Works. In his own time and for decades thereafter, you will be surprised to learn, Ramos Sucre’s was a decidedly unfashionable flavor, since his robustly decadent, Symbolism-infused work put him at odds with both traditionalist and modernist trends. But oh, my foes, and oh, my friends, it gives a lovely light!
I was anxiously fleeing, with sore feet, through the hinterlands. The snow flurry was dampening the black ground.
I was hoping to save myself in the forest of birches, incurved by the squall.
I was able to hide in the antrum caused by the uprooting of a tree. I composed the manifested roots so as to defend myself from the brown bear, and scattered the bats with shouts and hand claps.
I was bewildered by the blow I had received on my head. I was suffering hallucinations and nightmares in the hiding place. I understood I would escape them by running further. […]
Ramos Sucre’s work is thick with phrases, sentences as exquisitely arranged as a funeral bouquet. I want to lay down on this lily-bier forever! The logic is somehow olfactory, with one phrase opening into and infusing the next with its odorous stain, like lily-sperm dug deep into a plaque of velvet. And yet there is a momentum to these lines. I feel rapt by the footfalls of the phrases, and as my ankle is snared by the surprising word orders (“incurved by the squall” and, later, “long, amplective reeds”) I feel myself almost transformed into an Ovidian figure, becoming one with the landscape even as I flee into it. Rather than escape, unbearable transfiguration into the vernal embrace of the poem must follow.
Ramos Sucre has enjoyed/endured an almost ludicrously uneven reputation in Venezuela, mocked or ignored for decades before being revived by the mid-century avant-garde. In this fine volume, English-language readers will have the pleasure of grasping Ramos Sucre’s ghostly hand through a nest of competing versions: the opening preface by Rubi Guerra describes the myriad of fictional Ramos Sucre’s haunting Venezuelan novels and plays, while the Prologue by the great poet-critic Francisco Pérez Perdomo gives a trenchant overview of Ramos Sucre’s avidity, severity and commitment to the decadent and symbolist principles of his art. Pérez Perdomo quotes one of Ramos Sucre’s aphorisms, not collected here: “Evil is an author of beauty. Tragedy, the memory of misfortune, is the superior art. Evil introduces surprise, innovation in this routine world. Without evil, we would reach uniformity, we would succumb to idiocy.” He also offers a practical description of Ramos Sucre’s innovations which will help readers come to their own relationship with Ramos Sucre’s work through Guillermo Parra’s thrilling and scrupulously correct-feeling translations. The tone of Parra’s English seems to me an exact complement to the piercing, uncompromising gaze with which Ramos Sucre charges the reader on the back of the book. Attention, Artists of the Future!:
The assault of a boreal race announces the millennium of the eclipse. I insinuate myself in the throng of the victors and reprimand the uncivil excess and joviality. My intrepidity at the threshold of death and the insistence of Virgil confer upon me the privilege of an immune life.
YES! Read the heroically assembled and translated Selected Works of José Antonio Ramos Sucre and experience a re-dedication to the diabolical Art-life we have all grasped so desperately amid the tear-gas and tasings of the victors, the idiocy of the prosperity gospel. Let the remains of 2013 ignite in a crepuscular monument to José Antonio Ramos Sucre, to Guillermo Parra, to Bill Lavender and the apparently defunct ( O slain! Slain by capitalist administrators!) University of New Orleans Press for publishing this vital and necessary work. This is success in life.