Poetic migrations in the work of Jesús Arellano

By Rebecca Kosick and Nohelia Meza.

Spanish version here.

The title of Mexican poet Jesús Arellano’s (1923-1979) experimental typewriter poetry collection, El canto del gallo. Poelectrones (Metáfora, 1972), might suggest it is a precursor to electronic literature, but these poems themselves have a prehistory tied to movements in visual and concrete poetry that thrived throughout 20th century Latin America. To take up the theme of the MMB blog, we might consider how Arellano’s poetry, written on an IBM MT72 Selectric typewriter, benefits from and contributes to the migration of vanguard poetic practices within and beyond the late 20th century. Rather than being an undeveloped precursor to the electronic literature that would follow (at least in Mexico), or a late arrival to visual or concrete poetry’s mid-century heyday, Arellano’s Poelectrones can be understood as a distinctive stop within the hemispheric migration of experimental poetics.

(Image: Copyright Malpaís Ediciones, El canto del gallo. Poelectrones. México, 2018. Cover design Gonzalo Fontano.)

Two possible points of comparison preceding Arellano’s 1972 collection would be the early visual poems of Chilean poet Vicente Huidobro (1893-1948) and the concrete poetry of Brazil’s ‘Noigandres’ (1956) group. Huidobro experimented with a variety of visual-poetic forms, but the most striking resemblance between his work and Arellano’s can be found in the typeset calligrams appearing in his 1913 collection, Canciones en la noche. In fact, the two poets’ collections use an almost identical visual format for their poems ‘La capilla aldeana’ (Huidobro, p. 59) and ‘Espantapájaros’ (Arellano, p. 72).

But while Huidobro’s poem is more or less about the chapel it depicts visually – describing, for instance, its bell, its priest, its light – Arellano’s poem introduces images and poetic themes that complicate the most obvious interpretation of the poem’s shape. Arellano plays with the potential visual-verbal disjunction between the immediately recognisable symbol of the holy cross and what turns out to be, upon reading the poem, a ‘Romano espantapájaros letal’. Like many of the poems in Arellano’s collection, notably those shaped like Vladimir Lenin or Che Guevara’s heads, this is a political one. It equates the scarecrow with the ‘opresión del dólar’, stressing that ‘la tierra sea su tierra, el agua su agua’ and asks that it leave the birds be.

Arellano’s take on the cross-shaped poem shares a formal relationship with the Chilean poet’s earlier example, but Arellano puts the visual imprint of the poem – and the tension between how we’re likely to see it and the images we discover upon reading it – to an entirely different use. So, while the formal strategies may have migrated from one poet to another, in Arellano’s hands, these strategies join with the radical politics of the collection in general (‘Viva la libertad, cuál? cuál? cuál?’ [Arellano, p. 120]) and exploit the possibilities that arise when visual iconography is disrupted, or complicated, by its constitutive poetic language.

The concrete poetry of the São Paulo-based Noigandres group (Haroldo de Campos, Augusto de Campos and Décio Pignatari) tended to avoid the kind of shaped poetry characterised by Huidobro’s chapel poem or Arellano’s scare-cross. But they shared an interest in the visual and material imprint of poetry on the page and Arellano’s El canto del gallo contains numerous overlaps with the Noigandres group’s concrete poetry.

For instance, in Haroldo de Campos’s late 1950s poem ‘nasce morre’ words grow and gradually (un)die off the page. Though not discursive like Huidobro’s ‘La capilla aldeana’, this poem partakes of the visual-verbal ‘isomorphism’ characteristic of concrete poetry during this era, in that what is happening verbally is happening visually as well. Something similar could be said about Arellano’s untitled poem that builds a triangular shape by adding then subtracting words from a series of lines that repeat (when in their complete form) ‘el último pararrayos de la justicia soy’ (Arellano, p. 32). The first and final lines are each ‘el último’. Here, Arellano shares formal strategies with both concrete and calligram-style visual poetry, playing with the visual addition and subtraction of words as well as forming a shape visually suggestive of the lightning rod it portrays verbally. But he again returns to the extrapoetic politics that motivate this collection, borrowing formal strategies from his precursors but deploying them to unique ends.

The physical and linguistic migrations of these authors’ poetry can be read as visual and calligrammatic, but also as transatlantic and transpacific – a poetry with migrant patterns embedded in the poetics itself. On the one hand, there are traces of other poetic traditions, and on the other, reflections of the physical and geographic migrations of the poets writing. In Arellano’s case, the development and subsequent ‘travels’ of the technology on which he typed his Canto del gallo are in part what facilitated its aesthetic intervention. And both Huidobro and concrete poet Augusto de Campos make use of poetry that ‘travels’.

For instance, Huidobro’s visual poem, ‘Paysage’ (1920), was originally written in French. Reading the poem, we can travel and see ourselves reflected in its calligramatic depiction of the moon – ‘La lune ou tu te regardes’. We can hear its river passing – ‘la fleuve qui coule ne porte pas de poissons’. It evokes an image of nature that, in addition to erasing the borders between languages, acts like a perennial contemplation capable of meeting the atemporal gaze of its readers where (or when) they are.

Similarly, we might address the Japanese references present elsewhere in Huidobro’s work, for example, in his visual poem ‘Fresco Nipon’ (Huidobro, p. 55). Here, an image of the sun melting the snow on Mount Fuji emphasises ephemerality, something that is echoed in the form of the poem, whose hourglass shape suggests time’s relentless passing. In ‘Triángulo armónico’ (Huidobro, p. 53) references to the lotus flower and Japanese garden ponds create a unique dynamism in the poem’s materiality, converting the poem-rhomboid into a reflection of itself – an alternative version of the poem that facilitates multiple aesthetic and interpretive possibilities.

Finally, we can highlight the ways in which poetic migration embeds itself in the poetic support. For example, Augusto de Campo’s (1931-) ‘Poema bomba’ migrated from print form (1987) to digital form (1992), and finally became a 3-D installation (2003). Like Arellano’s typewriter, de Campo’s traveling ‘bombs’ provoke questions related to how poetic migration takes place across distinct supports or modes of delivery. It also raises the question of remediation and its relationship to poetic practice. ‘Poema bomba’ is a text whose poetic and semiotic explosions come together before the reader’s eyes, and de Campos plays with the idea of the explosive poem and its potential to explode poetics, underscoring both its experimental nature and its spatial grammar. Perhaps, in the years to come the poetry of Arellano and Huidobro will find similar opportunities for further experimentation – new spaces and times within a programmed language that transmits both its aesthetic complexity and the migratory influences of its poetics.

Rebecca Kosick is Senior Lecturer in Translation at the University of Bristol and co-director of the Bristol Poetry Institute. Her research addresses poetry and poetics in the American hemisphere.

Nohelia Meza is a researcher in Latin American Digital Literature and Culture. She was a visiting research fellow at the University of Leeds (2018-2020). She currently lives in Bristol and loves volcanoes. 

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