“I didn’t know I was sad until they asked me to sing”
In some ways, the work of Argentine poet, Arnaldo Calveyra, exists just beyond the horizon of the U.S.’s painfully short-sighted view of Latin American literature. As a young poet, Calveyra was championed by figures such as Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares, for his eccentric 1959 debut, Cartas para que la alegría. Later, Calveyra became great friends and lifelong correspondent with Julio Cortázar when the two were exiled in France to escape the threat of military dictatorship and the U.S.-backed death squads of the 1970s and early 1980s, that claimed around 30,000 lives. Though the dictatorship fell in 1983, soon after which Calveyra began to regain a readership in Argentina, the poet remained in Paris until his death in 2015. With all of his work translated into French, Calveyra has become highly renowned in his adopted country and in 1999 he won France’s highest honor for contribution to literature and the arts. But until the recent publication of Letters So That Happiness, (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2018) Elizabeth Zuba’s translation of that 1959 collection, Arnaldo Calveyra was untranslated into English.
Certainly, one of the reasons for this is the difficulty of approximating his singular poetics, which is inspired by the vernacular speech of the rural inhabitants of the Entre Ríos region, in the northeastern Argentine pampas. It was there that Calveyra was born and raised, son of a rancher father and a schoolteacher mother. Like a dialect itself, his poetry is sustained on a clear inner logic but betrays a true strangeness when compared to a more standardized counterpart. Calveyra’s language is built on a clipped, musical syntax, agile enough to seamlessly weave alternating tenses with taut immediacy. In this world, “time repeats in a syllable.” There are extraordinary, built-in capacities to shift subject and object mid-phrase, for the physical to be made the ephemeral and vice versa, and for the language to reach forward and backward at once, as if the “letter written… leaves a space for later, after its slipping place away.” Despite a general lucidity of narrative, the grammar’s ambiguities allow layers of potential meaning to amass. He writes:
“I remember the kitchen in the boil of cold pockets and the mouth in the steam singing good morning.The cat or the stove ruminating so much you couldn’t catch them, the plowing words, or grinding corn words, or going to the village words, and the eager and huge mouth cup before anyone else tasting the sweet candeal, and the frost coloring in the tile right up to the trickle.” (13)
In the illuminating translator’s note included at the end of the collection, Zuba notes that in Calveyra’s grammar, “a clause can at any moment turn noun turn adjective turn gerund turn dangling participle turn complete sentence…” By learning these proclivities, the reader comes to understand that every image or object has the energetic potential of an action and every action has the quality of moving towards a multiplicity of ends. Any texture or sound that appears may travel and modulate among the geography, as if the texture or sound were an entire folk song, in itself.
Zuba quotes Calveyra as saying, “What I wanted to do with Cartas para que la alegría was to recover the colloquial language of the people of the campo.” Zuba writes, “It is often said that Calveyra invented a new grammar that could release time and place from the stasis and confinement that words inescapably mark,” but she goes on to note Calveyra’s rebuttal, as he said, “I invented nothing, rather the people actually spoke this way.” He described it as “de una manera cifrada,” which Zuba interprets, “cifrada here meaning both ‘reduced to the essence’ and ‘encrypted’.” (55)
Perhaps both the charge of invention and Calveyra’s rebuttal are true. Calveyra balks at being credited as the grammar’s sole creator, but his literary sensibility, combined with his ear for the syntactical peculiarities of his people’s dialect and his ability to torque his poems on the dialect’s unique linguistic possibilities, produced a transcendent style all his own.
The poems in Letters So That Happiness—both the originals and the translations—are shimmering epistolary solitaires, melancholic and expansively beautiful. They are letters speaking to the land, to his mother and his family, to the people of Mansilla and to himself. In their constant entanglement with the landscape, it seems that the poet aimed to conjure, through language, visions of Entre Ríos that were vivid to the point of materiality—a linguistic engagement that becomes indecipherable from a physical one.
The speech becomes the landscape becomes the body. The edges between each are not only blurred but are shown to be of the same ecology—all intertwined and affecting of the next.
Within this ecology (a rural psychogeography), we see, for instance, the moon being touched by the poet and language being touched back. When the moon is engaged with language, the moon renders the scene lunatic (that is, touched by the moon). The moon is initiative of a sort of nonsense speech, of sound without meaning, of trembling and song.
“I washed my face in the new moon.
Everything rising came up from the eucalyptus, showering clean ash autumn from the burn. And the iris distracted by the moon rising up to the house a little night, and we turned to be sure it wasn’t too far behind while the girls murmured bababa distracted by their lips. We weren’t done falling behind when we heard voices coming towards us. Singing. They were the circus folk still making their way through the field, eager for more dancing. The harmonica told us we needn’t be afraid. The huge moon in the middle we ran into watching us, watching us.
The ladies laughing from behind the main road chewing milk flowers and a little light whispered spring underneath” (41)
In this poem, the power of the moon seems to spin all speech into sound and to give inanimate objects the ability to speak. After the poet enters his face into the moon, there is no language, only distraction, voices, the murmuring of “bababa”, singing, the ladies laughing, while the harmonica speaks, a little light whispers and the moon watches.The ephemeral becomes physical and vice versa.
The opening poem of Letters So That Happiness brings us along with the poet as he travels by ferry and by train, “which is almost like going by donkey”, towards Buenos Aires, on the first leg of his long exile from Entre Ríos. So enamored is he of the little things along the way—watching an alfalfa butterfly, “with wings of goodbye yellow,” as it “ceased gladdening… and burned a fountain,” and listening to a group who had been, “playing guitar when you saw me off,” and who, “played happily ‘til Buenos Aires”— that at first, he doesn’t realize the depth of his own mourning. He remembers, “it was beautiful looking out at the water. And you know? I didn’t know I was sad until they asked me to sing.”
In a 2008 interview with Argentina’s Pagina 12, Calveyra claimed that all of his books are really one book, conceding his French translator’s point that each one of his works “excavates in the same place”.
Perhaps one could claim that all of his work grows out of that scene in the first poem of his first book. The poet was asked to sing and, realizing he was in mourning for his home that he’d perhaps not see again, he began to sing of his home in the manner that the people of his home sung. He went on singing in that way.
In his adaptation of the manner of speech of the people of Mansilla, the poems are a promise to hold Entre Ríos close. It’s a promise that’s already kept at the moment of its making, by the very usage of the vernacular to make it—by the act of holding the vernacular of the campo in the mouth.
It’s hard to say what “that happiness” was for Calveyra, besides perhaps the letters themselves. They are letters so that happiness stays, and/or letters so that happiness was. These are letters so that happiness, but they are also the cold feet of a pampas cold front, “because the night.” They are turning off the lights, “because the moon,” and going “upmoon so that all the children.”
Zuba relates that Calveyra “used to say that when he opened his window in Paris he saw two horizons… his double horizon.” (55) The choice to bottom-align the poems in this edition makes it appear as if the poems are themselves hills mounted upon the landscape of the page. In this way, the text resembles the hills of Mansilla, those so often evoked in Letters So That Happiness. The poems, therefore, physically resemble the horizon which Calveyra forever saw in the distance. It’s a gift to have this bilingual edition of Calveyra’s poems now available to us—to have the opportunity to see a further horizon.
Ian Lockaby is a poet, an MFA candidate at LSU and Assistant Editor of New Delta Review. On twitter @lockaby_ian
Letters So That Happiness is available from Ugly Duckling Presse (2018).