The leftover letter is the missing one

Roger Santiváñez’s 'Symbol,' translated by Judah Rubin

Rimac, Lima, Peru. Photo by Bruno Locatelli/CIFOR, via Flickr.

Translator’s note: Silvia Goldman’s essay was originally published as “Symbol de Roger Santiváñez: La letra que sobra es la letra que falta” in Góngora & Argot: Ensayos sobre la poesía de Roger Santiváñez, an anthology edited by Paul Guillén and published in July 2015 by Collages de aleWendorff. It has been edited lightly for publication in Jacket2 and appears here in translation for the first time. — Judah Rubin 

Si cae — digo, es un decir — si cae
España, de la tierra para abajo […]
Cómo vais a bajar las gradas del alfabeto
hasta la letra en que nació la pena!

If she falls — I mean, it’s just a thought — if Spain
falls, from the earth downward […]
How you’ll descend the steps of the alphabet
to the letter in which pain was born!
— César Vallejo

Symbol: A migrant and explosive language

The poetry of Roger Santiváñez (Peru, 1956)[1] has acquired ever more relevance on the poetic map of Latin America: the poet and critic Mario Montalbetti suggested, with a prophetic tone in the prestigious magazine Hueso Húmero, that “perhaps Santiváñez is our Mahler. Not because he aligns his metaphysical griefs directly with some intimate god, but because his importance will be discovered, lamentably, in time.” His importance, however, has already been discovered. Santiváñez consistently appears in studies and anthologies of Peruvian and contemporary Latin American poetry like Poéticas de flujo: Migración y Violencia Verbales en el Peru de los 80, by José Antonio Mazzotti; El Bosque de los Huesos: Antología de la Nueva Poesía Peruana 1963–1993, by the same author with Miguel Ángel Zapata; La mitad del cuerpo sonríe: antología de la poesía peruana contemporánea, by Víctor Manuel Mendiola; the recent Pulir huesos: veintitrés poetas latinoamericanos (1950–1965), by Eduardo Milán; and, most recently, a compilation of interviews with a range of contemporary Latin American poets by Julio Ortega and María Ramírez Ribes titled El hacer poético.In 2005, the poet was feted with the José María Eguren prize in poetry awarded by the Instituto Cultural Peruano de New York. For Catalina Quesada Gómez the poet is located “on the Parnassus of Peruvian letters alongside the greatest of Hispanic poets, beside the Caesars of poets in the Spanish language.” What does he bring forward, and what is the relevance of his poetics? Why, when reading him, do we assume a privileged position in understanding that which he says as that which is unvoiced in our present? In what manner does he transform us through his language? These are some of the questions this study attempts to respond to through a reading of the key book in Santiváñez’s poetic trajectory: Symbol, from 1991.[2]

The germ of Santiváñez’s future poetics is found in this book and, at the same time, Symbol also manifests one of the most singular features of current Latin American poetry: a new migrant and hybrid condition of Spanish as a language that challenges statism and offers resistance to it, incorporating voices with provenance in other languages.[3] It supposes, at the same time, an expressed rejection of a language charged with euphemisms that, in their sinister sweetening, do not make but dramatize the state of terror and violence that they animate. If the same Spanish has been violated by its euphemistic and ambiguous use as Marguerite Feitlowitz’s book, A Lexicon of Terror: Argentine and the Legacies of Torture (1999), demonstrates, which without a doubt is extensible to the rhetoric that was produced in Peru of the 1980s, how can words be recovered and liberated from their disquieting connotations? Is it possible to inhabit a language that has made us complicit in its repressive force, in its investing the most domestic and quotidian words with horror? Is it possible to assume, moreover, the sounds of a language whose counterpart has been others’ graves? In other words, how can we assume “the ungrasping” — as Raúl Zurita lucidly points out concerning Santiváñez’s poetics — “that signifies acting in a language that gives us its words, but which is simultaneously the origin of all silence, or what amounts to the same, which is the origin of all the dead, the dismemberments, the executions that represented a future canceled beforehand by the final descendent of the Incan throne”? And in this sense, is it possible to encounter both love and reconciliation without language, or is it that erring in it, wandering without a fixed route, looking for other sounds, will make possible, at the least, a voluntary exile?

The poetic voice that is “Santiváñez” dwells on these questions and rehearses possible answers, producing a speaking “in tongues” which on one hand speaks an ambivalent relationship with Spanish — altering it with strange sounds that obstruct the communicability of the verse — while also making audible other voices from Quechua, English, nocturnal Limeño slang, and, on occasion, Latin. In this manner, the language or languages that is Symbol becomes a bizarre plurilingualism in which distinct speech patterns from different times, geographies, and classes join to question axiomatic understandings like the following: Is Spanish the canonical language of Latin America? What sounds and what skeletons exist below its fold? What do we bring into being and what do we kill when we speak? His special consciousness of the political exercise that presupposes the speech act positions Santiváñez close to other contemporary artists and poets like the Chilean, Cecilia Vicuña, and the Argentinean known pseudonymously as Washington Cucurto, founder of the pioneering press Eloisa Cartonera. As in the case of the latter, that of Santiváñez is a poetics at odds, likewise, with that great Latin American civilizing project that from Sarmiento to Rodo, passing through the Cuban revolution and encountering another echo of reaffirmation in the Latin American literary boom, cultivates the myth of an America that is both protean and full of promise. The voice of this poetics suffers the effects of its uprooting, political violence, and civil abandonment. It seeks, therefore, from its own corners, from the “pueblo,” unuttered words.[4] Symbol, in this sense, must be read as one of those key books that comes into the Peruvian cultural and historical context of the 1990s. Not only for the extreme radicalization of its language, but because it reflects the crystallization of a general state of barbarity and uncertainty, as the critic Julio León confirms:

Symbol was conceived and written in the hard years of the civil war that battered Peru and, in this manner, it is a text shot through with the distress and anguish that Peru lived through in those years. The violence of the text’s words have that imprint, as they were illuminated with the tremors of the war and of its infernal reality. The social decomposition that originated in the war and was bound to the political violence has its consequences of death and which Juan Zevallos rightly describes: “the war’s scenario grows to nightmare levels, through the scorched earth strategy of the Peruvian army and marines in the countryside and the Sendero Luminoso’s car bombs in the cities.” 

The impactful report, at approximately 4,500 pages, of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in which testimony of more than 17,000 victims reveals the annihilation of entire Indigenous communities on the part of the Fujimorist state and the Sendero Luminoso, still extends, as Victor Vich notes, over the imagination of this society symbolizing the unresolved pain of its fragmented history. In the current Peruvian context, scarred by this armed internal conflict that left an alarming number of 70,000 dead, many of them occupying the legal category of “disappeared,” and marked by the results of recent elections that confirm the sovereign decision to interrogate recent history and to recover the testimonies and their silenced words, Santiváñez’s Symbol does not solely confirm its historical and ethical importance. Rather, Symbol becomes a performance of the still open wounds that encounter in “symbol” the possibility of communicating in the form of snapshots, of “bombs” that “implode” from within the same language. A language that assumes the risk, as Mazzotti and Zapata do well to point out, of a “radical alterity” which becomes a phoenix rising from the ashes: 

the verbal alterity as a constitutive part of the task of writing. But this alterity is not limited to collecting the popular and even lumpenesque rules of Limeño Spanish, but rather transcribe the violence of the everyday, exaggerating the morphological and syntactical rupture from poetic discourse, to create in the text the tension and dislocation that the subject of the writing collects from the social subject from which it proceeds and to which it leads. (El Bosque de los Huesos 34)

Santiváñez demonstrates that poetry, by its high degree of exploration and experimentation, is the discursive form where what is made most possible, and here I echo the words of the critic Henri Meschonnic, is a listening. As the French theorist says in his book Célébration de la poésie (Verdier 2001): “Poetry is one of the places, and in that one of the most revealing through what is at play in it, of the intelligibility of the present. And not only the present of poetry, but the ethical and political present.” The poem puts in play said intelligibility from the present to hear, as Meschonnic affirms, that which we don’t know that we hear and see what we do not know that we see. Santiváñez’s poetic is “poethical,” that is, ethical and political, in which he makes audible a silenced otherness through a social construction of the perception that privileges the white, the European, the occidental, the Catholic, or the masculine. Symbol is marked, at the same time, by a great migratory flow toward the Limeño capital and the corresponding social submersion on its margins. There, on the shores of the Rimac that absorb an Andean population that the capital does not want to see, a poetic voice is installed to rescue an orality denied by an implicit definition of the “national.” This, thus, implies a subterranean effect, an “underground,” like the literary and anarchic movement called Kloaka which this poet founds together with Domingo de ramos and Mariela Dreyfus in ’82. If earlier the Vallejian poetic voice had descended the alphabetic stairs to “rescue the letter in which grief was born,” Santiváñez’s poetic voice now descends into the “kloaka” to offer the murky, undomesticated, putrid story of the voices which society rejects. To do this, he desacralizes the myth of high poetry, so strong in hispanoamerican modernism, to exit, with Pound, to the streets to collect, as he himself has confessed, lumpen speech and to return to the testimony its orality.[5] Symbol is, as such, not only a questioning of the purity of the language in which we understand ourselves, but, above all, a questioning of what language is possible in that world inhabited by violence and the recent nightmare, where the same notion of the “national” supposes the exercise of a power that excludes the Andean from its equation. If the “national” is, then, a trap of exclusion, it will have to submerge and sully itself in the “kloakas” to get a response that is inclusive, totalizing, symbolic, and liberating from the repression exercised by the “official” language. Therefore, to speak “badly” will be not only a form whereby Sántivañez resituates himself at the crossroads imposed by language, but also a form of reorienting himself in the history wherein Symbol becomes a border space and a poetics where distinct languages coincide, where it is possible to debate Spanish’s privileged space in Latin America and where, therefore, a “listening” of various layered forms of speech is made possible.

Thus, Symbol brings to the fore a speaking in tongues that is chaos, rebellion, unintelligibility, and where — paradoxically — one can hear what in official language is only “noise.” This “glossolalia,” which produces the poetic voice in Symbol, this speaking in glosses, is what attempts to experiment in oneself a barbarous speech, as Giorgio Agamben notes in his book The End of the Poem (66): what produces, at the same time, an effect of displacement in the reader who, to approach Symbol, has had to “walk” through his mother tongue, to leave it, and to return to enter defamiliarized — strange and estranged — experiencing a kind of linguistic exile that is, at the same time, a door to enter into the homeland. As such, the reader of this poetics becomes a wandering and migrant subject, approaching and distancing, making visible the limits but also ditching them.

Symbol: The leftover letter is the missing one

“To Rosa / this is my music notebook” are the first words that settle this “Symbol,” this “cut,” this “rupture,” and this agreed-upon approximation, as The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics claims: 

The word “symbol” derives from the Greek verb: “symballein” meaning “to put together.” and the related noun, “symbolon,” meaning “mark,” “token,” or “sign,” in the sense of the half-coin carried away by each of the two parties of an agreement as a pledge. Hence, it means basically a joining or combination, and, consequently, something once so joined or combined as standing for or representing in itself, when seen alone, the entire complex. … This term in literary usage refers most specifically to a manner of representation to which what is shown (normally referring to something material) means, by virtue of association, something “more” or something “else.” (833; italics mine) 

As such, the book, the symbol, will cause the union of that which has been separated; its work will be to sew or, put otherwise, be the suture itself, of the discourse, departing, as it wraps up saying in the colophon and final conclusion to the book, “through the sharp point of that language” (106). The formal structure of the book itself is made to echo this “suturing” mission that comes to unite the opposites, confirming this “symbolic” and complementary meaning. As such, the poetics will be a movement that evinces a distance but also an impulse toward reconciliation. Symbol becomes a figure of continuity, a weave that draws in and intertwines the history of what the poet will mark off as the “clear side” and the “dark side” of the book, as the Peruvian critic Eduardo Urdanivia has noted:

According to the author’s testimony, symbol is divided into a “dark side” and another “clear side,” each of these divided in turn into two parts: “Power” and “To Kill” on the one hand, and on the other “To Imagine” and “To Hallucinate.” Each of these parts contains four poems, which gives us a total of 16. This shows us that the book has a numerical scheme as follows: 2 sides, 4 parts, 8 poems on each side, 16 in total. Which is to say: 2+2=4 / 4+4=8 / 8+8=16: a mathematical progression that speaks to an expressed desire for perfection. (149)

Symbol is an event in motion, “a sinuous and lengthy route” where the words “exceed the separation of the hard walls,” as in the poem “Liberation” (88) and finds itself in this movement. The formal structure of the book that Urdanivia makes visible marks for us the possible forms of that “path” that takes as its foundation “Power,” a word that in itself isn’t a verb but which potentially, through verbal periphrasis, comes to complement the titles of the other three sections of the book: “Power to Kill,” “Power to Imagine,” and “Power to Hallucinate.” The subject, like the symbol, is power, a qualification of a present that is debated between the disjuncture and the encounter, destruction and creation. Symbol produces instantaneity in the moment of approach, where the opposites give themselves over for an instant, allowing for the poetic voice to identify and recover that moment. We take as an example the first part, “Power,” and the first of its poems, titled “Hate,” which begins with the verb “To love,” making it such that the “geography” of the “power” encompasses the “hate” as much as the “to love.” The symbol, the poetry, is that potentiality that produces, with its “exceeding of the hard walls,” the possibility of finding, there where hatred exercises its dominion, the genesis of all “loving.” The second part of the book, “To Kill,” also dramatizes this approximation that brings together the “Killing” with the title of its first poem, “Desire,” which begins: “So alone I wanted to rip you off some beautiful verses” (82). That beauty is brought together and written from violence, and in reverse, in the extreme radicalism — “to kill” gives life to these verses, which we read as a product of what has been “ripped off” from that abused body through language. The third part, “To Imagine,” meets up with the “to succumb” (first poem), prefiguring the destiny as a defeat that resignifies while it advances in its “route.” Already toward the end of said route we encounter the title of this final part, “Hallucinate,” with its materialization of the symbol as a transcendent luminosity, a light that bends “ll,” that produces the poems that close it, that suture it: “pleasure,” “joy,” “laughter,” and peace. Titles emblematic of that destructuring function of this poetics that, like the “laugh,” attempt to cross over the rules imposed by the language. “Laughter,” “peace,” pleasure,” “joy” — states that announce the fusion that concretize in the poem “Peace”: “the word founded on the wind” (104). This fusion has produced the movement, the relegation, the path that sutures and advances between the opposites to generate the symbol, the reconnection.

Writing Symbol supposes, then, going in search of, in the sense of distance and estrangement, a move prior to and toward the “recomposition / of the I” (78). For that reason the poet’s voice confirms at the beginning of the poem “War”: “Poetry is a text against the World / Too much assaulted the heavens. Encounter. Truth. Fusion” (81). The poetic needs to attempt this “Fusion” but it also has to be, at the same time, that “war,” that document that registers separation. In this ambivalence a poetic practice emerges, on one side making the word bristle, splitting it, making it groan. On the other, it formulates a resolution, a “truth” itself that comes to unite that which has been separated — “symballein” — suturing the wound of partition. Because, as the poetic voice tells us, “too much assaulted the heavens” (81), an expression that refers to the Leninist cry from the Bolshevik revolution — “assault on the heavens” — but which indicates, also, a critical position articulated in those two linguistic dissents that are the apparition of the adverb “badly” written. More appropriately, it is “transcribed” from street slang (“too much”) and the conjugation of the verb in the past (“assaulted”). “Too much assaulted the heavens” marks the closure of an era and its utopias and the beginning of another whose weapon will be the new poetic speech that will go to the streets, to the “kloakas” where they are sounds that the society does not want to decode. As such, poetry has to go “against,” making war against the language in order to produce a listening.

In Symbol that listening that marks continuity — a before and after of the word —explores the transformation and the restarting of the word. This is a parasitic articulation that breaks it in two and later makes it absent in order to leave in its cleft the restitution, that is, the citable wound, in the sense in which Walter Benjamin elaborates, of history: a habitable and hostile symbol that transforms the alphabet into a redemptive mechanism and which, in the process, transforms the uncodified sounds of the language.[6] And the letter of this “symbol,” of this named alphabet of the unmentionable, is “K.” Its political and poetic function is already anticipated in the first poem titled, as we have seen, “Hatred”:

Descubrías tu amor en el silencio
De la falsa y la verdad
Karicia / Limpieza
En destrucción & Deseo
Algo así como la redondez:
Mara a ver Emma (75)

You would discover your love in the silence
Of true and false
Karess / Cleanliness
Destruction and Desire
Something like roundness:
A[i][m[f]o]r Emma 

These are the first “symbolic” verses of this street poetics, with one foot in the “hatred” (insofar as this titles the poem) and the other foot in “love”; one in “destruction” and the other in “Desire”; one in the “false” and the other in the “truth.” Thus, the writing goes against/with the opposites, provoking the inclusion “something like this roundness” (75). The “k” announces the insertion of a letter alien to Spanish into the writing, differing from the “c” that corresponds to the phonetic symbol “/k/” and for that reason standing out for its orality which is at the same time emotive material. The /k/ reveals a truncated, occluded, and mute sound that — like the symbol before it — seeks its other half, the vocalic that completes it and which gives it the vibration that it doesn’t otherwise have. As such, this veiling phoneme, veiled by its own palette’s “shade,” represents the tremor of the “veiled” word: “the word trembles when / it doesn’t wants not to be seen” (90), as the poetic voice says in the poem “To Succumb” from the third part. It is, at the same time, the letter chosen by prestigious philologists like Lira to represent more than thirty different phonemes in Quechua.[7] “K,” then, “remains” in the transcription that philologists make from Quechua and which is “lacking” in Spanish writing, except in order to indicate the foreign origin of a word; the “k” that resurfaces in Peruvian Spanish to transcribe Quechua didn’t represent itself through writing. The “k” found in Symbol in the crossing of three cultures: the Anglo-Saxon, where it appears as a “shadow” and residual sign; in the Hispanic, where it is lacking, and through the lack is inscribed in the alphabet as a mere ornament or loan; and in the Quechua, where it is chosen over the “c” to reaffirm another writing, one that occidentalizes it, “virgen like you Rose” (104), and another that traced back the history of the Quechua language. “K” reminds us of something more, something other.

“K” is a letter that appears various times throughout the length of Santiváñez’s book as an intrusion and a recurrent, parasitic noise: “pukto” (79, 102), “yuyachkani” (79, 90, 100), “Tampu-tokto” (95, 102, 104), “chuckcha” (104), “sokotroko” (104), “Konchtuma” (105). Not only does “k” produce an echo of speech which is heard in the streets of Lima, but it also makes audible certain Quechua terms that already appeal not only to the possible forms of pronunciation of the sound “k” in Quechua but also to the terms in this language that pay attention to the close relationship of memory, origin, and language. The origins of the Incan civilization in the sacred caves of “Tampu tokto” (that place from which the semi-divine beings left to found the Incan empire) join the pronunciation of “yuyachkani,” the affirmation of “I remember” and its performative renewal in the discourse: “I am remembering.”[8] These, in turn, coincide in this Symbol together with certain words from Limeño slang that reveal that which the accumulated anger of history comes to say to the present: reminding it that one of the tasks of this poetic discourse is to offer a multiform sound that advances “against” — symballein — the “pig’s tail the fraud of history” (98), constructing an alternate explosive orthography from other forms of orality traditionally repressed and marginalized. “K” becomes an accident that confirms that violence that arrives with the diction, making it so the sonorous “caress” becomes “Karess,” the hated love, the mimed blow, the false truth, the desired destruction, the masculine and white feminine and Andean voice. In this manner, “k” not only challenges the repressive power of the official language, but also makes visible the other “dead” language whose life depends on the rising of the people’s voice. Thus, the poetic voice says in the poem “Pueblo”: “Red rose of my fucked up buck naked heart” (79).

Santiváñez’s poetics submits this to us, to hear what is dead and to revive it, if something tells us this it is that the language — like history — betrays. He tells us this in the first poem of the book’s second section, “Desire”: Así lo advierte en su poema inaugural, “Deseo,” “No debes contar, pero te saca la vuelta el lenguaje” (You don’t have to say, but language messes you around) (82), in that which concludes with this prophecy:

El mundo te ha de perdonar a su manera pura bajar
Por el silencio de ella has de redactar este document
Por su quite de pista como puta bajo el faro de la noche
Extraña postura de la lengua en la punta de tu boca (83).

The world has to forgive you in its pure way descending
Into her silence you have to redact the document
To scratch the record like a puta caught in the beacon of the night
Tongue’s strange pose out on your mouth’s point

Language “turns around” because it anticipates, surprises, and contradicts. The poetic voice in Symbol will descend the steps of the alphabet — to use the Vallejean image — to rescue and raise that “letter which is born in shame” to the surface, and it will offer it as testimony in “its document,” “its music notebook.” But the only form of turning language around is to anticipate and to contradict its mechanisms. For that reason, the poetic voice knows that in order to redact “its” document, language will need to be made other.

Santiváñez’s language will adopt a strange posture so that his voice will speak with other voices and so that those voices will traverse the material, the symbol, and carry, as the poem “Peace” — the final poem of the book — puts it, its own standard:

Las ventanas de Tampu-tokto suenan a clarín de berlin
Y tú sientes el amor convertido en calle, en ti
Que eres la sin rostro, la que sólo con la chuckha
Mueve la bandera de sangre de su pueblo desolado
Y es virgen like you Rose, mil veces
Arrancada y todavía pura y todavía puta (104)

The windows of Tampu-tokto sounding clarin de Berlin
And you feel love turned street, in you the one’s
Faceless, the only one who with the chukcha
Moves the bloody flag from her torn-up town
And like you Rose a virgin, a thousand times
Torn still pure and still puta

Toward the end of this long journey, the place of origin is evoked once more, the Tampu-tokto (intercut in both places by that “t” that parasitizes the name), the place from which the brothers Ayar have departed, but also the place where one of them was betrayed, enclosed in the cave and disappeared in order to later return and appear to the others as a ghostly presence capable of forgiveness. Having divinely metamorphosed, Ayar Cachi incarnates not only betrayal, but also the impossibility of silencing its disappearance. Ayar Cachi embodies “without a face,” that body that returns as a woman through a violent synecdoche that sexualizes, “that alone with the chukcha” but at the same time it returns to life, making it “pure and still puta,” “virgin” that reclaims and restores “the flag of your broken people,” “disappeared.” Thus, the symbol, the book, having traced language’s route is transformed anew as a “pacarina,” a new place of origin, where death is conflated with rebirth and renovation. Language has arrived, then, at the places where no one has ever gone in order so that the voice might be able to achieve the sonority, the frication, the expansion, the shift from the tip to the center of the mouth, capturing the “unspoken movements,” as the poetic voice states in the early poem “Delirium” (92). The word “sonorous” moves in order to be heard, seen, in order to make disappear its own disappearance. In this manner, the “music notebook” “turns around” the language and marks the terms of a new relation with it: “Something then like roundness: Mara a ver Emma” (75). Thus, the letter that remains is the lacking letter (“mar-a ver E[l]ma[r],” “Mara[a]verE[m]mma,” “Mar[a] a ver Emma”), a sign of a reciprocal relationship that continues and wagers with language (“Mara,” is an anagram of “amar” [to love], as Urdanivia shows and which is also “mar” — to see the sea). It isn’t the exclusion — the letter that remains or the letter that is lacking — but the notion that everything is drifting in a “solution” (84), as the title of “To kill” directs toward a politics of poetic in/difference: “the night will be black & white, no alarms” (84). “Round” language, coupled, copulative, inclusive, symbolic (“Rosa” and “Santiváñez”). Language which, if in constant permutation and interchange, is also in constant struggle for inclusion, that is, to make visible, and audible. The hidden language beyond the ancestral “caves” has become “kloakas.”

The spelling in Symbol offers assistance, a map that marks — and “marks” — routes of the “solitude” that gives the title to this poem:

Creación Combo. ?? ZZ /
Las negras hablan en la encru-
Cijada: ¿Dónde queda Lima?

Te vas sola, es la recomposición
Del Yo, en la suma de experiencias
Interpretativas / Destrúyete Momento
Existe / (77–78)

Creation Combo. ?? ZZ /
The black women speaking at the cross
Roads: Where’s Lima?

You go alone, it’s the recomposition
Of the I, in the sum of interpretive
Experience / Existing
Moment destroy yourself

The word remains mounted between two distinct possible paths advancing hesitantly in a give and take that has something of advance and something of retreat. But the word is also that which orients and installs itself in the center of the relationships: “Where’s Lima?” (77). To orient itself is to go forward at the crossroads of a simultaneously hostile and habitable language, entering the parasitic buzz of that question of “lisping” generated with its vibration, its rebellion before the strange and absurd points of language: “Creation Combo. ?? ZZ” (77). To make a poem is to situate it and, as the author will tell us on the colophon of the book, “to advance to the sharp end of that tongue” (106), bringing together that which has been separated, seeking out the recomposition, the encounter, the symbol of that identity likewise divided that already, when it appears in the verse, appears whole, united: “I,” that subject, product of the “recomposition.” For that reason, the poetic voice in the beginning of Symbol, where it has marked the first crossroads of this notebook, where the word “Hate” that named what is traversed by the word “Loving” that it began with, will want to “brillar-sin” (“sans-shine”) (75). Accented with that syllable that remains a lack, a hollow opacity — “without” — it defines the imagination of a luminosity in which its possible accentuating ritual of lack, of darkness, is resignified. Santiváñez’s poetics are, while looking for Lima at the “encru-Cijada” (crossroads), a kind of senseless pilgrimage of language that reminds us of that famous expression of Quevedo’s: “You look for Rome in Rome, oh pilgrim!” The difficulty lies in “you look for Lima in Lima,” in that paradox that is at the same time home and foreign land, exile, and attachment. Symbol addresses, then, the seeking out Lima “in another place,” in an alternate and utopic place: in that “pure sunset in the direct declaration of the symbol” (99), as the poem “Pleasure” ends.

Symbol as a poetics of restitution

As we have seen, there is no stable relationship established in Symbol between the letter and the word; rather, the former is defined in a more anecdotal manner, as an incident that ensues in the spelling and, at the same time, an accident that alienates it. For that reason, the letter is an interferent, a noise. This “noise” assumes distinct forms in Santiváñez. On occasion it is the “k”; at other turns it is the repetition of the letter (“allucinar” [98]), a minor variation (“se soltó la cinta” [98]), or the intrusion of a letter that, like the “k,” is foreign to Spanish: “wayno”; “awayta” (95). What is involved is a fluctuation that marks the terms of a new relationship with language as a simultaneously habitable and hostile dwelling. It depends, as we have already said, on the place in the relation. The letter — as much that which fills as that which is lacking — acts as a parasite and intervenes in the dialogic sense of this notebook dedicated to Rosa and addressed to a “you.” The letter is the “parasite” which is situated together with the word and feeds on it. This implies, then, the manifestation of a “third party.” That is what the poem “Liberation,” the last of the second part of the book, announces:

Al salir haces un ruido incomputable revelas tu nada
O la prefiguración de las universales paradojas […]

Sabías que era un sinuoso y largo recorrido
Aspiraste el dolor de todo un pueblo y
Rezando en el imperio de la infancia divertida
Como el viento remueve las prendas colgadas del alambre (88).

Leaving, you make a sound incalculable revealing your nothing
Or the prefiguration of universal paradoxes […]

You knew it was a long and sinuous path
You aspired the whole of a people’s pain and
Praying in the empire of joyful childhood
Like the wind takes clothes off hung from the line

Poetry is the discourse that absorbs history and reveals it to be an “incomputable noise” (88). Not speech but a noise that reveals that “Pueblo” at the crossroads between memory, uncertainty, and emptiness. Implicit, then, is the manifestation of a “noisy” third party personified in the figure from the supaypawawa, that “son of the devil,” that “red rose” who “buck naked” comes to pronounce in Symbol the yuyachkani from an uncited history, a history that now is symbolized as the “incomputability” of a besieging disaster in bilingual form in the poem “Pueblo”: “I don’t know that I know yuyachkani a gap in the supaypawawa” (79). The “third party,” the letter’s symbol/parasite, while it is the sender of an absence, of an historical gap, is that which lends this poetics its predicative position, that position of “you aspiring to the pain of the whole pueblo” (88) as the poetic voice confesses in the poem “Liberation” (88–89). Symbol will be, then, the restitution of that which is predicated — the untold, uncited history — on poetry. And in order to relay the “symbol” — the other, the excluded — Symbol proposes a gesture of alienation and obfuscation: “To see the sun you darken use another dialect” (87). Symbol realizes the exclusion and alienation that comports the same language; as such the conflict is already not in the identity, but in the writing and in its minimal form of expression: the letter.

The randomness of Santiváñez’s spelling reminds us then of a doubled challenge: 1) the resistance to the prediction and to the dangerous automatism of the word and, so, the language; and 2) the materialization of the absence upon which the mechanism of restitution is predicated. One must then include in the relationship a sort of interference that intercuts the relation of the “I” and the “you” (“Rosa” and also the reader). The politics of this poetics is then a “lumpen” politics, in the sense in which Hal Foster elaborates in his book The Return of the Real:

“Lumpen,” the German word for “rag” that gives us “Lumpensammler” (the ragpicker that so interested Baudelaire) and “Lumpenproletariat” (the mass too ragged to form a class of its own that so interested Marx (“the scum, the leavings, the refuse of all classes”), is a crucial word in the Kelley lexicon, which he develops as a third term, like the obscene, between the ‘informe’ (Bataille) and the abject. The result is an art of lumpen forms … and lumpen personae (dysfunctional men that build weird devices ordered from obscure catalogues in basements and backyards). … Insofar as it has a social referent then, the “Lumpen” of Kelley (unlike the “Lumpen” of Louis Bonaparte, Hitler, or Mussolini) resists molding, much less mobilizing. But does this indifference constitute a politics?

Often in the cult of abjection to which abject art is related (the cult of slackers and losers, grunge and Generation X), this posture of indifference expressed little more than a fatigue with the politics of difference

(social, sexual, ethnic). (164; italics mine)

Each voice acts as a parasite in distinct spaces and languages: English, Quechua, Latin, and street slang, mirroring that “lumpen” who gathers “the city’s trash,” collector of fragments, of waste that, assigned a use value, is redeemed from its marginalized and antieconomic condition. Here the “lumpen-poet” is an alchemist who gives song to the “bitchy voice” (81), making poetic material of the investment in street slang: “Dando vida y amor en sus canciones cantadas en el ñoba” (Giving life and love in your songs sung in the htab [83; italics mine]), putting to the test the lyricism of the verse with the conclusion of a final word that perturbs it: “Tiempo dónde mora tu secreta concha dórame en tu caca” (Time where your secret cunt dies gild me in your shit [83; italics mine]); “Te arreglabas para hacerlo mejor te pintabas de rojo el culo” (You fixed yourself to make it better You painted your ass red [92; italics mine]). This final word — abject, dysfunctional, and scatological — is what permits the descent into the “kloakas,” in order to aspire to the pain of an entire pueblo. The “k” and the other noisome letters in Santiváñez are marks of a suturing that just as it closes also shows within it the scar of language it conceals. It is the form that assumes the voice of the third party, the non-person,[9] that radical poetic “figure” who announces in the poem “Pueblo”: “Pueblo? A motherfucking figure for no one?” (83). It is, for this reason, “a document,” in the words of Walter Benjamin, as much of (its) civilization as of (its) barbarity.

The figure of the lumpen “ragpicker” makes reference, in this sense, to Benjamin’s collector,[10] though this one will gather the street trash with a selective and restitutive sense. He will mount a meticulous collection of the terms, of the lost and found letters, like those bizarre “k”s and “w”s, residues of the language that appear in the “music notebook” in order to be recycled at the same time that they confront us with the relation to a totality — a symbol — whose opposite side is lack. “Confused” but optimistic, “dispersed” but also concentrated, the collector Santiváñez is submerged in the taboo space of the “kloakas” to rescue even the letter in which the (Vallejian) shame is, now distinct, born “lumpen” through the new task of the poet: “And it is that I am not Vallejo I’m Santiváñez” (89), the poetic voice will tell us in the poem “Liberation.” It is that he can no longer be “Vallejo,” the projects of modernity and utopia have failed, and now what remains are the pig’s tails, the debris of dreams. Hope has to be collected as though it were waste, “shit” that can, potentially, be converted into “gold.” Thus, the great dexterity of this collector will be to make himself into an alchemist-symbolist capable of changing, “purifying” and transforming the rot, the rubble, the cast-off waste after the disaster. Only that lumpen disposed to submerging himself in the daily trash, the filth of the “kloakas,” can return to bring together, or to encounter, that which has been separated.

The poetic voice will offer in this way a “radical discipline,” as the poem “Delirium” from “Imaginar,” the third part of the book, will declare — “Y en que plano ensayabas tu disciplina radical?” (Which plane did you try your radical discipline on? [92]) — raising that which is below, the abject, the “kloaka,” and placing it on the same plane with that which is above. This overcoming of opposites rearranges the relationship of the speaker with the words: “They spoke of the war like it was a dirty word” (92), the speaker tells us, problematizing the prejudiced “hygiene” of the language, resisting its being domesticated by that which carries, and sings, the words. This resistance makes it so that Spanish returns to a language that is radically other, like this “sosten-ri-secreta coherencia de pajaros” (palpitating under an underwiRí-secret-coherence birds [79]) that forces our intonation toward the sounds where it has never gone before, toward those “unspoken movements” (92). In this way it is placed between hyperbaton and encirclement between its sound and its sense, between Spanish, Quechua, and English, between a stressed syllable that is displaced provoking a new accentuation. The word in this book unfolds its music like a strange sonorous material in search of new harmonies or disharmonies; violent reverberations; implosion, detonation of an expansive dissonance that accumulates new terms for its “music notebook,” as it is defined in its dedication to Rosa. Questioning our own politics of the use of our mother tongue, Santiváñez’s poetics puts forward its own “assault on the heavens.”

This resistance to fixity supposes, then, the uprising against a language that exercises its political binary of difference and exclusion: but, above all, it supposes a lifting up against rigidity and fixity of the language. Chance is a powerful principle that operates from the letter to destabilize the word in an immediate sense, but, in a mediated sense, the entire linguistic system. Chance is the principle of the unpredictable, of the informed, of the indifferent, and also of the uncontrollable, and that which is beyond “power” (as the title of the first part of the “notebook” told us).

This is what each stanza of this music notebook reminds us of, in each refrain of its “song.” It is a refrain that comes and goes like that enjambed or, better, “intersected” verse that is the poem in Symbol. It is thus that “pukto” is “puto” is “puta” is “pukta” and is “pura” and also “punta,” all working together in each pronunciation. And when we say “Rosa” it is also “roja” and “Risa.” The letter that fills is the one that is lacking. The random displacement of the letter is its rebellion; its intersection is its advance and its triumph. The letter is transformed into a parabola that operates on the word, giving account of a narration from which is deduced not only the cut (the “symbolon”) but also the superimposition and victory of the voice of the pueblo — that “motherfucking figure for Nobody” (79).

Symbol represents a new place of origin, a new “Tamputokto” now intervened in by the third person, by the disappeared, excluded, denounced (“the supaypawawa”), positioned in the center of discourse to incarnate its voice in that of the poet. It is, as the sender of lack, a gesture of retribution and of payment, of that which is recuperated below the “stairs of the alphabet.” That same language that with its betrayal puts an end to the “scratch” (which also signifies “madness” in popular slang), that deletion from history. So letters like “k,” “g,” “x,” “y,” and “w” (“wayno awayta” [95]), and the “ll” (“Allucinar” [98]), are gestures of pain made transactional. It is a strange economy in this poetry that, with its noise, assumes the grace of a confession that “aspires” and puts an end to pain. Therefore, giving is a form of expressing rebellion, “porque de todos modos será y me da asco el comercio con la cultura” (It’ll be in every way and it pisses me off commerce with culture [96]), of allegorizing this ritual of abundance and lack that is this writing — the excess that is lack. Poetry materializes, in a doubly symbolic act, as much in the opening as in the closing of the book, beginning with its dedication and closing with the question to the you: “Oi Konchetumá, ¿te lo has comido?” (Hey Fuckyourma, you eaten out? [105]) — the thanks on the colophon, the violence of the language beneath the form of a eucharistic ritual.

Poetry as eucharistic and performative act

Writing is a eucharistic act of incarnation and transubstantiation in that the “Konchetumá,” that metonymy of “pueblo,” comes to eat the “music notebook,” making it visible, returning flesh to its word. The poetic voice, its mouth open, directs our attention ultimately to that which we reject, to that “curse” now divinized that will make visible that which one did not want to see. In this manner the author opens up the path for us — the mouth — for his next book, titled Eucharistía (2004). This symbolic act places the great “assault on the heavens” of this poetry, which is robbing it of its “bread” and “wine,” within the moral binary of language placing on the ritual table the other, the different, the “symbol”: “Senté a la cerveza en elpaladar / Y la encontré amarga y la injurié” (I sat the beer down at the taste / And finding her bitter I roughed her up [105; italics mine]). This verse, which parodies another by another symbolist, Rimbaud in Illuminations: “I sat Beauty down on my knees / and I found her bitter and I hurt her”:

La sangre que se derrama por ti, la luz
Que sigue a la sombra te hace vivir
Senté a la cerveza en el paladar
Y la encontré amarga y la injurié
Ya son las once ya las doce campanadas
De las canículas penetrando el marzo:
Oi Konchetumá ¿Te lo has comido? (105)

The blood spilled for you, the light
That follows the darkness makes you live

I sat the beer down at the taste
And finding her bitter I roughed her up
It’s eleven already stroke of twelve
From the dog days slipped into March:
Hey Fuckyourma, you eaten out?

With that question the poetic voice delivers the final word to the you, leaving the parasite, that excluded third person, finally included in the final pronouncement, in that monosyllabic response that para-sites the verse like the true and final intervention: a “yes” or a “no” that problematizes the possibility of an end. “¿Oi Konchetumá, te lo hascomido?”: an ascendant intonation that insinuates the continuation of the song; parentheses that do not close, an opening of the mouth, a mystical ascent by the “punta de esa lengua” (knife’s edge of that language — literally, “tongue” [106]) to the transubstantiation of that “spilled blood,” a “beer on the palate,” to the incarnation of Christ in the Konchetumá. The word thus continues to shift beyond, always transforming, in a ritual of continuous redemption. As in this final verse, likewise in the “colophon,” this music notebook returns to verify the possibility of an open process as a “symbol”: half exudes the violence of the final grace; a hiatus that awaits the gift of response: dedication to Rosa, thanks “to Félix C. and Carlos V.” (106); forms, all of them, of the interchangeable:

Este libro está escrito en peruano; es decir en el castellano
Hablado en esta parte de América Latina, que se llama el
Perú. Pero, más exactamente, está escrito en el idioma que
Se habla en las calles de Lima, después de la medianoche.
Por eso nombro aquí a Félix C. y a Carlos V. con quienes
Aprendí a caminar por la filuda punta de esa lengua
El Autor (106; italics mine)

This text is written in peruvian; which is to say in castillian
Spoken in this part of Latin America, which is called
Peru. But, more exactly, it is written in the language that
Is spoken in the streets of Lima after midnight.
For that reason I name here Félix C. and Carlos V. with whom
I learned to walk on the knife’s edge of that language.
The Author.

Like the discomfort of that rarefied “erre,” like the “cerveza en el paladar” (105) that he takes only for its contents into his own body, the unusual writing that is Symbol, the poetics becoming a “doing,” is a construction for the future that resists the rules, fixations, and predictions of Spanish. This plural notion of the mother tongue configures itself as an organism in flux and likewise migrant: migrating, emigrating, and immigrating. Symbol dramatizes a double and problematic approach: 1) from Spanish that sees itself invaded by other voices that press its speech as a form of going away from — making war — that same silence to which this language destines them, and 2) from the poetics that questions the concepts of “high poetry” and “lyric poetry” promoting a lexical eschatology that denies this same linguistic hygiene. There are no “beautiful” or “dirty” words; there are words and language games, there is sound or better, as the poet would say, squeaks, groans and screeches, manipulations, and silences that cannot be silenced and that convert, as by alchemy, shit into gold. Words are affects, or affects that come back as words, that distort their diction to reveal to us that the possession of the poetic speech is an agonizing task. Because the work of Symbol is that of listening and transcribing that which one does not want to see, to touch, to hear. Poetry is for Santiváñez the discourse that is, par excellence, capable of making visible from “within” that language that which can only be seen from “without.” What is produced in Santiváñez is the great mixture of “the beat with the blessed,” as César Ángeles has lucidly called it,[11] fusing the low and the high, expressing a countercultural “lumpenpoetics,” as Abril Trigo would say, that reappropriates the “dirty” to transform and return it as a eucharistic ritual, announcing a possibility of realignment, transcendence, and refoundation. The utopia of a surpassed antithesis: the abject returns as art, the “bad” that on being written merges with the “good,” finds the terms to speak the taboo, that “naked curse on the walls” (97), the “sacred beast” (92) that in Santiváñez “leaves a branch of heaven and hell” (92).



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Ángeles, César L. “Aproximación a la poesía peruana de los 80. Punto de partida: la poesía de Roger Santiváñez.” Ciberayllu (August 12, 2001).

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——. “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” In Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. Edited and with and introduction by Hannah Arendt. New York: Schocken, 1969.

Benveniste, Emile. Problems in General Linguistics. Translated by Mary Elizabeth Meek. Coral Gables, Florida: University of Miami Press, 1971.

Comisión de la Verdad y la Reconciliación. Informe final. Lima: CVR, 2003.

Feitlowitz, Marguerite. A Lexicon of Terror: Argentina and the Legacies of Torture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Foster, Hal. The Return of the Real.Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1996.

Ildefonso, Miguel. “El fuego de la poesía: A 25 años de la publicación de su primer libro de poesía, Antes de la muerte, una entrevista a Roger Santiváñez.” Ciberayllu (September 20, 2004).

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Lira, Jorge. A. Diccionario kkechuwa-español.Tucumán, Argentina: Universidad Nacional de Tucumán, 1944.

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1. Among Sántivañez’s publications: Amaranth precedido de Amastris, 2010, Labranda, Hipocampo Editores & Asaltoalcielo, 2008; Amastris, Ediciones Altazor: Via del Mar, Chile, 2007; Lauderdale, in Hueso Húmero 35, 1999; Dolores Morales de Santiváñez (selección de poesía 1975–2005), Hipocampo y Asaltoalcielo editores, Lima, 2006; El corazón zanahoria, Sietevientos, Sullana, 2002; Historia Francórum, Asaltoalcielo, Boston, 2000; Santísima Trinidad, Walter Cier, Lima, 1997; Eucarista, Ts-Ts, Buenos Aires, 2004; Santa María,Hipocampo y Asaltoalcielo, Lima, 2001; Cor Cordium, Asaltoalcielo, Amherst, 199; Symbol, Asaltoalcielo, 1991; El chico que se declaraba con la mirada, Asaltoalcielo, Lima, 1988; Homenaje para iniciados, Reyes en el Caos, Lima, 1984; Antes de la muerte, Cuadernos del Hipocampo, Lima, 1979.

2. I rely here on the version of Symbol collected in the book Dolores Morales de Santiváñez (selección de poesía 1975–2005) (Lima: Asaltoalcielo Editores, 2006). This edition presents some variations with respect to the original published in 1991 in Philadelphia by the same press.

3. It is enough to consider institutions such as the Real Academia Española,which legitimate the entrance of a term into the official language. This does not occur in English, given the process of hybridization of the language through loanwords, neologisms, and new processes of the formation of words (adjectives that nounize or nouns that also assume a verbal form), which is much more fluid than in Spanish.

4. If Santiváñez has been associated with the Latin American neobaroque movement, that which between erudition and hermetism has offered us — since the ’70s, but consolidated in the ’80s — a ludic and blasphemous linguistic proposal, emphasizing its sonorous material and its musicality, a logical filiation, which Santiváñez himself has declared, his aesthetic raises questions about the roots of this same language that reveals not the playful spirit of the neobaroque but a more critical treatment and, what follows, the restorative work in which sonority assumes at the same time a political task.

5. Santiváñez confirms this in an interview with Miguel Ildefenso: “And that is of freedom and of the arduous work of language. My language in Symbol is that of the argot of the nocturnal lumpen of Lima: it is there that I look for poetry. And in this I follow Pound, I go to the true speech of the people, to the super-colloquiality of those fresh voices in which, for me, the murmur of a new poetry vibrates. And of course I kept (and have kept) Lucho Hernández present in that regard.”

6. In his celebrated essay “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Benjamin pays attention to this oscillation between silence and voice on top of which the discourse of history is situated and articulated: “only redeemed mankind receives the fullness of the past — which is to say, only for a redeemed mankind has its past become citable in all moments” (254).

7. In the Diccionario Kkechuwa-español, Lira establishes thirty graphic signs where this letter appears “correspondent to 30 perfectly defined existent phonemes in this language” (19). It is unnecessary here to note all thirty, except to note the multiple signs which refer to the sound [k]L “K, K’, KH, KK, KKH” (19). The variants denote differences in the type of sound: plosive, fricative, glottal, aspirant, etc.

8. According to Lira’s dictionary, “yuyachkani” comes from “yúya,” which means “recollection” or “memory.” According to Miguel Rubio, founder of the theater group, “Yuyachkani” means “I am remembering, I am thinking” (see Other related verbs that Lira includes are “yuyáychay,” “yuyachíkuy” (to remember, to move the memory or the remembrance of something” (1195); “yuyáchiy” (act of placing [poner] the remembrance or memory of a person). “Accordingly, making it so a person brings up (traiga) a memory” (1196).

9. And it is, as Beneviste lucidly notes, the third person (él/ella; he/she) that designates a non-person, an “absent” person: “‘I’ designates the one who speaks and at the same time implies an utterance about ‘I’ … ‘you’ is necessarily designated by ‘I’ and cannot be thought of outside a situation set up by starting with ‘I’; and at the same time, ‘I’ states something as the predicate of ‘you’. But in the third person a predicate is really stated, only it is outside ‘I-you’; this form is thus an exception to the relationship by which ‘I’ and ‘you’ are specified … The ‘third person’ is not a ‘person’; it is really the verbal form whose function is to express the non-person” (197–98).

10. “Perhaps the most deeply hidden motive of the person who collects can be described this way: he takes up the struggle against dispersion. Right from the start, the collector is stuck by confusion […] The allegorist, as it were, the polar opposite of the collector. He has given up the attempt to elucidate things through research into their properties and relations. He dislodges things from their context and, from the outset, relies on his profundity to illuminate their meaning. The collector, by contrast, brings together what belongs together” (Benjamin, Arcades Project, 211).

11. “Luck of the beat/blessed, recycled and with an anchor in the Peruvian city, principally Lima, or Piura: Peruvian city of the northern coast.”