Friday, September 23, 2005

Poem: Xavier Villaurrutia

VillurrutiaHere's a poem by one of my favorite poets, the late Mexican, gay playwright and poet Xavier Villaurrutia (1903-1950), whose work I tried to teach myself to translate from Spanish before I could really read the language because his lyrical gifts seemed so powerful from the little I was able to divine.

With Salvador Novo, Villaurrutia cofounded the literary journal Ulíses (1927-1928), which was the leading organ of the Contemporáneos group, and then was associated with their eponymous journal Contemporáneos from 1928-1931. These poets wrote against the nationalist tide of their historical moment, instead creating a lyric that strove for emotional authenticity and an immersion in the metaphysical layers beneath reality, both of which are evident especially in his mature work.

In 1931, Villaurrutia established the first avant-garde theater company in Mexico. As a playwright, he strove to revitalize Mexican drama by employing experimental techniques and subject matter, and by retraining Mexican actors in order to perform in them and similar works. His most famous play is Invitation to Death (1943). Later in life he translated a wide array of contemporary foreign literature, served as a co-director or director for a series of films, taught at the National University of Mexico, edited Octavio Barreda's literary journal The Prodigal Son, and directed the Bellas Artes theater program.

Villaurrutia's books of poems, almost of which pivot on the exploration of desire and, especially in the later works, on mortality, include Reflejos (1926); the earliest of the famous Nocturnos (1933), a series of poems written in and to the night; Nostalgia for Death (1938); and Tenth Death (1941). Early on he described his work as "Juego difícil, de ironía e inteligencia" [A difficult game, made up of irony and intelligence]. Two of his best known and beautiful poems are the overtly homoerotic "Nocturno Amor" (Nocturnal Love) and "Nocturno de los Ángeles" (Nocturne of the Angels).

Here is a powerful, representative one I found on the Web:


Love is an anguish, a question,
a luminous doubt suspended;
it is a desire to know the whole of you
and a fear of finally knowing it.
To love is to reconstruct, when you are away,
your steps, your silences, your words,
and to pretend to follow your thoughts
when unmoving at last by me side, you fall silent.

Love is a secret rage,
an icy and diabolic pride.

To love is not to sleep when in my bed
you dream between my circling arms,
and to hate the dream in which, beneath your brow,
you abandon yourself, perhaps in other arms.

To love is to listen at your breast,
until my greedy ear is glutted,
to the noise of your blood and the tide
of your measured breath.

To love is to absorb you young sap
and join our mouths in one river-bed
until the breeze of your breath
impregnates my entrails forever.

Love is a mute, green envy,
a subtle and shining greed.

To love is to provoke the sweet moment
in which your skin seekd my awakened skin,
to gratify the nocturnal appetite
and to die once more the same death—
provisional, heart-rending, dark.

Love is a thirst, like that of a wound
that burns without being consumed or healing,
and the hunger of a tormented mouth
that begs for more and more and is not sated.

Love is an unaccustomed luxury
and a voracious gluttony, always empty.

But to love is also to close our eyes,
to let sleep invade our bodies
like a river of darkness and oblivion,
and to sail without a course, drifting;
because love, in the end, is indolence.

Copyright © Xavier Villaurrutia, 1940. Translated by Rachel Benson.

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