Venezuelan poet and essayist Eugenio Montejo (1938-2008) authored 10 books of poetry, five volumes of “heteronymic” writings (works by imaginary authors), and two books of essays, a large selection of which are brought together here in this thoughtfully edited and translated bilingual book of Selected Works. The University of Oklahoma Press deserves readers’ gratitude and appreciation for publishing the originals alongside their translations (doing so essentially doubles the size of any volume), and for giving us a multi-genre volume (so many presses resist combining genres in a single book). Montejo’s work is preceded by a lengthy, informative, and exceptionally readable introductory essay by editor and translator Kirk Nesset, who provides enough biography and background to contextualize the work, but not so much as to detract from the focus on the poet’s work itself. Nesset’s introduction is appropriate for academic and non-academics alike, intelligent and serious, but free of jargon and written to elucidate, not impress.
Montejo’s work is firm, sturdy, and well balanced (there were moments when I almost thought I was reading Borges: “Miro el hombre que soy y que vuelve” / “I see the man I am and the man who returns” he writes in “El otro”/ “The Other”), often almost persistently unsentimental (“Es miope, tardo, subjetivo; / yerra por calles que declinan / hasta que el horizonte lo disuelve” / “He’s nearsighted, dense, highly internal; / he wanders streets that descend / till the horizon dissolves him”). He ponders nature’s gifts (there were moments when I thought I was reading Ruben Darío: “Mayo nos abre su día blanco / en la llovizna de amenecida” / “May opens its white day for us / in the drizzle of dawn); contemplates his own future (there were moments when I thought I was reading Vallejo: “Seré un cadáver fácil de llevar” / “I’ll be an easy cadaver to carry”); and un-speaks his life and his land and, in so doing, speaks volumes (there were moments when I thought I was reading Neruda: “Hablo y desabo en este país caluroso / de much mar y pocos barcos” / “I speak and unspeak in this hot land / that’s all sea and few ships”).
The heteronymic writings are terrific. Clever. Original. He uses varied forms and styles that are extremely engaging and satisfying: excerpts from invented notebooks, prose poems preceded by small lyrics, and list poems. And essays, too, are quite original and often quite wonderful, in particular “Los terrores de caer en K” / “Fear of Falling in K” (and yes, there were times when I thought I was reading Kafka).
In “Gramática de la ausencia”/ “The Grammar of Absence,” from his last book of poems, Montejo writes:
Ya no quiero volver a aquella calle
donde las casas demolidas
siguen en pie.
Ni tampoco leer en esta hora
esos poemas míos
que estoy seguro de no haber escrito.
I don’t want to revisit that street
where the demolished houses
Or read at this hour either
those poems of mine
I know I could not have written.
I, for one, am glad to have been introduced to the work this fine poet did, indeed, write in what serves as a valuable contribution to our awareness and understanding of the literature of Latin America.