What war, huh?

Subjection in/as dissolution in Roger Santiváñez’s poetics, a translator’s note

Panel of winners of el Premio Libro de Poesía Breve, 2011. Image from Hipocampo Editores, via Wikimedia Commons.

By the time Roger Santiváñez published his chapbook Symbol, which is often thought of as marking a turn in his writing toward a neobaroque poetics post-1991, he had come to live in the United States, where he has resided since. To that extent, and as Germán Labrador Méndez notes in the essay included in this feature, the contents of Symbol represent an experiential closure to the poet’s life in 1980s Lima, marked as that decade was by Peru’s internal conflict, economic hyperinflation, and persistent precarity for the massive number of recently arrived migrants to Lima and for the pueblos jóvenes on its outskirts.

Santiváñez’s writing, as I am presenting it here, corresponds to two distinct eras in his poetics. The first draws from three of the poet’s early books, Homenaje para iniciados, El chico que se declaraba con la mirada, and Symbol, while the second jumps to the present with recent uncollected work. Each of these early books might best be understood to represent, for the reader, distinct poetic identities for Santiváñez as he approaches his mature style, initially foregrounded in Symbol. El chico is a (largely) retrospective, fragmented autobiographical text, though there are key slippages in the temporality (discussed below). Homenaje is a text that stems directly from the work of Movimiento Kloaka, the collective that Santiváñez founded together with poet Mariela Dreyfus and others in the early 1980s. Although Homenaje would be published after the dissolution of the initial phase of the group, its contents emerge from the movement’s collective work. Symbol, which as we have noted marks Santiváñez’s exit from Peru and builds from what he refers to in the book’s dedication as his “music notebook,” or notes compiled over the decade prior to publication in and around the subterraneo scene in Lima, is often inflected by the poet’s heavy drug use and the intensifying conflict as the ’80s wore on.

These texts are, significantly, divided chronologically and by an increasingly hermetic linguistic orientation in the poems. If Homenaje is still working under the sign of the earlier Hora Zero movement’s influence in Peruvian poetics where popular speech is privileged, the reflexivity of El chico and the syntactically obscure, polyvocal, and polyglot Symbol indicate significant poetic shifts that are remarkable in their capacity for an abysmal and nihilistic erotics and for the pronounced latency of collapse contained in the text as a poetics of bad conscience and a turning inward in/through subjection. 

Though as Olga Rodríguez-Ulloa notes, the identification with a cholo identity by members of Kloaka is fraught with respect to the metaphorization of racial and class politics, which we may see in Santiváñez’s writing, we can also ask whether the desire to shock that inheres in much of the earlier work by the Kloaka writers has worn off by the time of Symbol’spublication.[1] Does this wearing off, beyond marking the defeat of a liberationist left politics, also denote a postsocial art? Or, following Adorno, could we say that in reading Santiváñez the work cannot be taken in at first glance and requires an understanding of the (at times conflictual) “cultural propositions of each work, [and] ‘its language,’ which only the initiated can follow”?

Adorno could, indeed, be speaking about Symbol as he continues in Minima Moralia: “Even where there are no such difficulties, the work of art demands more than that one should merely abandon oneself to it.”[2] Adorno’s text conveys a pronounced disillusionment toward the position of the poetic popular voice, is couched in a critique of the subject within a stable ideological system. Santiváñez’s disavowal, as Sianne Ngai notes of Melville’s Confidence Man, exposes in absent perpetuity its own affective reach, and thus can only (re)iterate a tonal poetic spatialization in calling forth the “I.” Its stakes are those of emergence.[3]

This emergence is a departure for the poet from his earlier work, though one that finds its roots hinted at as early as 1983. Santiváñez had initially advocated for a version of the popular, albeit a fragmented one, in a roundtable discussion in the Lima-based journal hueso húmero that year with writers Oscar Malca, Enrique Verástegui, and Mario Montalbetti. There, we see him pushing back on Malca’s assertion that poetry has no mass audience in contemporary Peruvian society, and little hope of achieving one. Santiváñez says, “the future of Peruvian poetry lies in the development of a poetics that looks to interpret the quotidian life of the majority of people of millions of human beings, frightened, destroyed, annihilated by a system; I think that that is where the new life that must be expressed with new weapons, using the contributions that already exist as conquests achieved in Peruvian poetry at the technical level.”[4] On one hand, and Malca interprets Santiváñez in this manner, there is a strident politics of representation here: the poet speaks for. Yet, we should also note that this statement points toward a collapse of poetry as a socially integrated project (interpreting) while, at the same time, assuming the possibility of an interiorization of nonrepresentational poetic composition. One is reminded of Deleuze here: “There is no need to fear or hope, but only to look for new weapons.”[5] Or, in an earlier (and more marvelous?) iteration, Cesaire. Indeed, Marx’s distinction between in and for is complicated by the new weapons already developed at the technical level and the disconnect across what fellow Kloaka member Domingo de Ramos would call an “arquitectura del espanto” — an architecture of terror.[6] The future’s mutability is constrained by an introjected textual non-self-identity.

Given the frequent invocation of Fredric Jameson’s classic essay on postmodernism in the critical literature around Santiváñez’s work of this period and the, I think, still relevant question of the emergence of fragmentary poetics that (purportedly) resists depth hermeneutics, while considering the translation of Santiváñez’s writing it may be useful to also consider Rob Halpern’s helpful historical reconstruction of the publication history of Bob Perelman’s “China,” around which much of Jameson’s argument is built.[7] There, Halpern helpfully notes in his glossing of Bruce Boone’s discussion of Perelman, conveniently elided by Jameson, it is not that the subject disappears from so-called Language writing (even if they ran with that notion, by and large, after baptism at the fount of Fredric), nor that the language retains a kind of superficial relationship to the subject. Rather the affective subject is retained in what might otherwise appear to be part of an inscrutable linguistic surface.

I have assumed both of these positions at once as a translator, assuming that for Santiváñez, the poems in Symbol (and as we will see, in El chico) open to a helpful dialectical tension. On one hand, the language of Symbol presents an immense challenge to translation because the poems shift between lines in Spanish, Quechua, English, French, Latin, and Peruvian slang of the 1980s, often with little syntactical demarcation. On the other hand, these aesthetics are immediately undercut by Santiváñez’s seeming understanding of language as (by and large) nonrelational — the subject as circumscribed and concurrently polysemic in its monadic self-induction of the negative. Or something like that. Though this begins in early work, such as the long poem “La guerra con Chile” from Homenaje, it is a subjectivity deeply implicated in its own dissolution as the empty object of the future that Symbol deals with most directly. This dissolution is emphasized by the apostrophic exchange of the speaker with the wind in “Conversation with My Father in His Sick Bed.” Still, at the same time, it is precisely in these nonrelational moments (or apostrophic metamorphoses) that we can hear the musicality in this writing. As Silvia Goldman makes clear in her essay, the subject, if indeed the text is “my music notebook,” is not only legible but unified in its capacity for reception in and through performance, however atrophied the syntax. 

Another reading may be useful, particularly as I have been rather unfortunately tending toward that generalized gloss that often accompanies writing in translation. Here I want to read Santiváñez’s work as a social text emerging from the subte or punk scene in Lima of the 1980s. In this analysis, and in translating Santiváñez, I have had recourse to Shane Greene’s exceptionally useful volume Punk and Revolution. There, Greene discusses the band Narcosis and their album Primera Dosis. As Green tells it, the band, lacking money for studio time, would use a two tape-recorder setup as a kind of multitracking recording. This method seems to have likewise been adopted by Santiváñez in his use of repetition first in El chico and then in Symbol. Drawing from Burroughs’s notion of the “word virus” and, again, the latent musicality of the text, we can see in translations of the poem from El chico (“3”) and in the poems “Guerra” (“War”) and “Placer” (“Pleasure”) from Symbol, a slippage in temporality that has everything to do with the overdubbing excess of the text as magic pad.

Goldman writes of Santiváñez’s Symbol that in it “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.” The unuttered (dis)appears not only in Santiváñez’s use of the letter k that appears in the spelling of Kloaka and, likewise, in terms that are peppered throughout Symbol. The k, as Goldman notes, is outside normative Spanish’s orthography, and is a way of delimiting terms from Quechua while, in the 1980s, being used as a symbolic alignment with a subterranean, oppositional politics of language.

To my mind, this unutterability, beyond the “k,” is alluded to in “Guerra,” where the dialectical “Encuentro. Verdad. Fusión.” (Encounter. Truth. Fusion.) is followed in the next line by the incredulous “Oye, que estás hablando?” (Hey, what are you talking about?) in the poem “Guerra.” There, in contrast, what we have is a use of “that language called Peruvian,” which Santiváñez, on the colophon of Symbol,credits in the linguistic production of his text. The dialectical pairing does not produce the legible object of history but, instead, brings us back to the war. “What’s war?” the speaker’s interlocutor asks, “Haven’t we always been / In it?” The Spanish plays on the word “rompeolas” — a breakwater and hair, curled at the bangs. As a breakwater, these words — “Oye, que estás hablando?” — push back against the supposed linearity of subjectivation that we might expect of the text. The bulwark in its personalization shifts between the spatial and the aesthetic. As the poem continues, the politically masculinized process of becoming (“and that was where he cited / That strange Einsteinian relative relation between poets and soldiers”) is caught in the cyclical reproduction of the pornographic “clip” that the poem’s following line continues after an enjambment in masturbation — a forestalled loop in the introjection of self-interruption. “Cut off in the clarity of the clip that I’d recorded for you to jerk it to.” The subjectivity that emerges is one arising from a rehearsed elsewhere of the modes of distribution: recorded, recut and taped, hand-distributed, written, published such that the imprint of the self (“that I’d recorded for you”) takes on a flattened means of producing or, indeed, inducing pleasure, though that pleasure be an oneiric, at the least, flattening.

This imprint of the self allows us to return to Narcosis. On Narcosis’s first record, Primera Dosis, the first track opens with Luis Banchero-Rossi, the Peruvian fisheries magnate murdered in 1970, recorded over by the lead singer of Narcosis. I would suggest, again, that Santiváñez saw in this method, and he has alluded to this in conversation, that this was the hinge of the question of representation (and representability) in the work: the replication/fragmentation of the subject as the only possible music. This is made clear in the poem “Placer” (Pleasure) where Santivañez writes,

“Estoy haciendo un artículo” — dijo por llamar
A su hermano en / y le contó que sólo
Hasta el mediodía / se saltó la cinta
se soltó la cinta

“I’m doing an article” — said to speak
To his brother in / and told him that only
Until noon / the tape skipped
                        The tape ’scaped

Note the stuttering and shifting meaning of saltó (jumped/leaped or, in my rendering, skipped) into soltó (dropped/released or, in my translation, [e]scaped) and their near homophonic relationship. In El chico que se declaraba con la mirada,Santiváñez employs a similar strategy where the writing, which is ostensibly located in the poet’s adolescence, suddenly stutters into the name Abimael Guzmán, the head of the Sendero Luminoso — and the poem’s present. It is less pronounced than in the writing we have looked at from Symbol, but it is still evident in a more nascent form. Santiváñez writes in “3”:

Something Big. Municipal Cinema. Luis Bruno Seminary. Time-gaps. Fuiti Guzmán. Abimael Guzmán. Which is to say “Good.” Good man. Big beard. Supreme jefe. God. Demi-god. To kill. The story begins one sunny day above the orderly gardens of Santa Isabel, urbanization of evil. 

The poetics shift from linear historicity to being bound up in their imminent inversion — the bildungsroman’s centering of the bourgeois (and individualized) subject sputters into and out of time. The poetic space has become a space of total contestation and beats back against the unity of the self. Thus, for Santiváñez, Symbol’s dedication, “A Rosa este mi cuaderno músico,” has to do, I think, with the draft, the borrador, which in Spanish carries with it the sense of erasure (borrar) more than with the experiential and generic breakdown associated with the “extreme text.” The erasure of the poem’s traces disallows self-recognition within the social space of war. At another point, the speaker’s lover asks, “what war, huh? Haven’t we always been in it?,” which clearly states a declarative opposition to the (deliberately) hackneyed phrase “La poesía es un texto contra el mundo” (Poetry is a text against the world). To have always been in the war is to acknowledge shared experiential conditions that are, pointedly, not those of reconciliation. The everyday, or the art-life question that is taken up by so many during this period, is one of inscription on the inside of the frame, or, with the “mirada,” the gaze.

To end, then, I want to address the later uncollected poems from 2019 featured here. These are indicative of the synthesis that Santiváñez has found in his recent work between fragmentation and autobiographical condensation. In his more recent books, such as Eucaristía (2004), Amaranth (2010), Roberts Pool Crepùsculos (2011, translated as Roberts Pool Twilight), and Balara (2018), we see a return to elements of Homenaje’s tone, while the hermeticism of lyrical density remains. I have included these poems as a means of illustrating not only the poet’s mature style, if we can call it that; not only because this work may exemplify Mario Montalbetti’s musing “Maybe he’s our Mahler,”[8] but to understand the ways in which the crystallization of memory, which begins in El Chico, has found some settlement around the question of representability and of the language of everyday life.

1. Olga Cristina Rodríguez-Ulloa, “Producción de espacio en la ciudad de Lima: la estética de los im/propio en la poesía de Domingo de Ramos,” Catedral Tomada: Revista de crítica literaria latinoamericana 4, no. 7. (December 2016): 242–69.

2. Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life (New York: Verso, 2005), 223.

3. Sianne Ngai, Ugly Feelings (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005).

4. “Sobre la poesía peruana última: Una conversación por Oscar Malca, Mario Montalbetti, Roger Santivañez, Enrique Verástegui,” hueso húmero 17 (April–June 1983): 26–48.

5. Gilles Deleuze, “Postscript on the Societies of Control,” October 59 (Winter 1992): 7.

6. For a selection of poems by Domingo de Ramos translated into English, see Domingo de Ramos, China Pop (New York: Cardboard House, 2015).

7. Rob Halpern, “Restoring China,” Jacket 39 (Early 2010).

8. Mario Montalbetti, “Tal vez sea nuestro Mahler,” in Cualquier hombre es una isla: Ensayos y pretextos (Lima: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2014).