Was Miguel-Ángel Bustos the Argentinean poet who prophesied his own death?
A dream interprets me.
<<Notes on a Return to the Every-Dying Lands>>
Arturo Desimone’s series on Latin American poetry for Anomaly.
a book review of ‘’Vision of the Children of Evil, ‘’ by Miguel Ángel Bustos in English translation by Lucina Schell forthcoming Fall 2018, at co•im•press.
“A dream interprets me. Whether it understands me, I’m not sure,’’ goes the 18th aphorism of the opening pages of Miguel Ángel Bustos’ Vision of the Children of Evil (Visión de los Hijos del Mal) in the English translation by Lucina Schell. Vision of the Children of Evil is forthcoming in a dual edition with Schell’s translation of Bustos’ book Fantastic Fragments (Fragmentos Fantásticos), this fall from independent publisher co•im•press.
Was Bustos the prophet of his own detention and disappearance? There is an uncanny sense of it in many poems, such as the self-deprecating “A Horizontal Job.”
Poor Miguel Ángel. I’ve always said he had the worst luck. There are lucky dogs — but he’s one unlucky dog.
He had looked for work. The offices emery-polished and the banks full. He had looked with the utmost sadness.
One day he crossed an avenue — Corrientes, I believe, or 9 de Julio — and disappeared.
Thanks to Lucina Schell’s translation, we begin to explore that very question in the language that wrote Sherlock Holmes.
Translation, in a most basic understanding, is an interpretative act. They say of a pianist, like Argentinean Martha Argerich playing Chopin or Schumann, that she is ‘’the interpreter.’’ Is translation interpretation of written music, so that it can be heard? Is it an interpenetration of worlds seemingly impossible to connect? After having read his original texts in Spanish, reading newly-completed English translations of the Argentinean poète maudit, Miguel Ángel Bustos’s works Vision of the Children of Evil , gave a hair-raising experience, like seeing an open book through very clear water, submerged yet with swimming. It was akin to reading William S. Burroughs’ harrowing opioid-dream Naked Lunch for the very first time as a teenager, when the curiosity to explore narcotics usually dawns, alongside the want of serious books, in a healthy young person needing to de-school.
Some short lines, aphorisms in Bustos’ Fragmentos Fantásticos, bring to mind the last collection of texts Kafka wrote, a book of aphorisms Max Brod called The Zurau (naming it after the rural place in West Bohemia). Kafka liked to say of Dostoyevsky, “we are blood brothers.’’ Maybe Miguel-Ángel Bustos, vanished poet whose remains were found in 2014 by forensic examiners, could have passed some literary DNA exam and been proven a blood brother to the tubercolic writer of the Zurau, at least when it comes such aphorisms as Bustos’ “When my father died, his oblivion was born’’ (Aphorism 7 of Kafka). Lines of Kafka’s Zurau, such as, “A cage went out into the world, in search of a bird,” may find more resonance and counterpoint in Bustos’ surreal writings rather than his confessional ones, in language at once veiled and revelatory.
Schell’s translation is reluctant toward categories and easy syntheses, weary of simple definitions of any thing — a North American who flung herself for years into the dark history and present of Argentina, learning the obscure dialect of Argentine “ríoplatense.’’ The Spanish of the Río de la Plata seems to have become an innate, basic understanding of that gut-wrenching history, and remotest of countries (of which her interviewer is a citizen and byproduct). Yet she can confidently admit that Bustos, as well as Burroughs were “poètes maudits,’’ whose work lives in a reverberation with the hallucinatory and surrealist dark voyages begun with Charles Baudelaire’s syphilitic inscriptions like “Spleen’’ and “Les Fleurs du Mal.’’ Arthur Rimbaud’s quest (not a Google-search!) for the “alchemy of the word.”
Another, more recent poète maudit would be poet Franz Wright, whom Schell acknowledges as a possible Anglo companion to Miguel Ángel Bustos. A poet who seemed to have prophesied the way he would die. He was a maldito, maudit, damned in the most direct sense: many stanzas indicate an acute foreknowledge of the way he would end. There are the growling police hounds, the persecution, the cell, the oblivion, the river.
The collected poems are imbued, as Schell points out, with the knowledge of there being many fates worse than death. That is an innately Argentinean knowledge, an instruction given by the humid air of the Pampas, shaping the Argentinean talent for death. To get good at it, it is first required to learn of worse in the spectrum of possibilities — for otherwise we would mystify it, like amateurs. Bustos, a mystic, speaks of taking off this life “like a blood-soaked shirt.’’
The original maudit, Rimbaud, sadly withdrew at age 20 from his poetic striving, took off his blood-soaked poet’s shirt in favor of piracy and weapons-trading near the gulf of Yemen — perhaps a much more highly-revenue’d endeavor; perhaps Rimbaud was so full of poetry he needed to seek the escape out of it.
Miguel Ángel Bustos’ Pan-American nomadism was not a journey away from poetry. His search was not for the Wagnerian grail of Argentinian romantic nationalism that produced part of the Creole poetry of the 19th century. Bustos, rather, sought that “alchemy of the word,’’ genuine degenerate art. His paeans seek those who were destroyed by Argentina. This, next to his participation in revolutionary politics and journalism, secured the paranoid wrath of the Argentinean military regime that grabbed power in 1976 from ousted President Isabela Martínez-Perón, herself a right-wing ruler whose “Triple A,” Argentinian Anticommunist Alliance of intelligence agents and gunmen had been tracking and monitoring dissidents like Bustos and other poets and those politically or intellectual active as potential “public enemies.’’
Bustos died in 1976, a captive in the ESMA prison camp under the first junta led by Jorge Rafael Videla. We know today, because of the discovery of his remains in 2014, that the poet was shot by firing squad. Long before his death, Bustos wrote, in a state he claimed was one resembling the possession of a medieval exorcism, that he would live on in his bones, a relic, perhaps dropped in a bright river.
Bustos wrote and drew labyrinthine traveler's chronicles about the Andes countries. These are interspersed with what resemble psychonaut travels through hyperspace dimensions and through time, meetings with angels who have names like “Ataíl.’’ Pan-Americanism led Bustos in and painfully out of love in Lima and in Argentina, through the doors of a psychiatric hospital, where he met Argentinean poet Jacobo Fijman who, perhaps, led Bustos to write “with the soft tenderness of the mad. The sweetness of the crazies of this world,” as Bustos put it. (Fijman is the subject of a future piece in the series Notes on a Journey to the Ever-Dying Lands, along with Ángel Escobar, Marisa Wagner and other “Manicomio Liber poets.’’)
The notion of travel, today, carries airs of convention: “air-miles,’’ a deceptive leisure-artifice of middle-class life. But in Bustos’ Argentina, (and after his disappearance, until the globalization of the 1990s) most Argentinians had never visited a foreign country beyond Uruguay; a scarce few had followed the river Paraná past the Brazilian border in Porto Alegre. Chile was often an enemy, walled off by Andes. Isolation made the world beyond Argentina’s borders seem a baroque map from Borges’ stories and bestiaries. The Argentine consciousness was once shaped by such isolation. Deserts in the provinces north decked with salt and sand, and deserts south and center resemble Mars, and standing deracinated of most original nomadic populations. The absence of Mapuche, Ona, Calchaqui peoples and their Incan conquerors left an emptiness that Bustos deemed unbearable. In the second poem of “Arrangement of Time Without Dimension,’’ Bustos says to his mother who raised him Catholic (cited from Schell’s translation):
“Mother I was Christian like those who landed before on these shores.
I sleep on a cross
I die on a cross the cross was the first cry
I heard arriving in this world.
Cross of the most sorrowful blood.
Men have climbed the cross. Transformed into
mute gods. Tied in bronze and crystal they cry out.
Naturally I won’t untie anyone so weak poor corpse” (continues, p. 47)
But the emptiness that causes that pain is Outer, carved by campaigns led by 19th century generals who hoped in vainglory to prove the country could be “modernized’’ to attract foreign investors. The dynastic and family heirs of accomplished killers like Martínez de Hoz and the Bullrich family loom over the Argentine population to this day, recently finding their way from their sprawling ranches into national security and elected office. Shadows accumulate like blood-soaked shirts that somehow do not diminish, are never pulled off completely. There is no exorcism of the emptiness.
Travels while writing and enacting near-shamanic investigations gave Miguel-Ángel the inner experience that the artist seeks more than mere “Real Life’’ experience. In Brazil, Bustos experimented writing in Portuguese, in coastal rhythms and Brazilian concrete poetry. Many of his more visionary poems are like maps of the fallen colossus of the Andean cultures and their destruction at the hands of conquistadors, mourning the Inca’s and Mapuche people’s bloodshed. That subject fed many of his psychedelic prose-pieces (also in the forthcoming Vision of the Children of Evil) that tell of travel across time, possession by witnesses to the time of the early colonization, accompanied by angels with warped Semitic names, as well as Incan and pre-Columbian gods.
Despite his hatred of the conquistador and his self-hate at being a white Creole, much of his poetry expresses what reads as a heretical Christian mysticism, a modernist, revolutionary continuation of that archaic Spanish tradition of “the Long dark night of the soul,’’ by St. Juan de la Cruz. Born Miguél Ángel Ramón Bustos Von Joecker, this poet of Spanish and German immigrant descent also shares a common element with Sylvia Plath, who wrote of her father’s Nazi lampshade and her Jewish Taroc pack, as well as Franz Wright, who was also partly of German-American descent (he liked to say “the Germans get straight to the point: Selbst-Mord, Self-Murder, the German word for suicide). In all three of these Pan-American poets, a Germanic gene became a point of torment for thinkers who were conscientious and spiritual in confronting colossal crimes, all making the case for personal survival and humor, they ultimately abandoned all illusions of innocence, embracing despair.
Comparisons to other mystic poets also hold: a poem of a vision from the North of Argentina — a chorus of llamas, and a condor who is asked to pass a test — recalls the poem Conference of the Birds by Iranian Sufi mystic Farid ud-Din Attar.
Miguel Ángel Bustos’s quest for the “alchemy of the word’’ could also stand in comparison to the explorations by many Latin American writers who took after André Breton who, in The Surrealist Manifesto, advocated seeking out ‘’the marvellous’’ in daily reality. Social realism could not honestly convey Latin American societies: for this reason Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier defended the notion of “lo real maravilloso,’’ “the real-surreality’’ of Latin American politics, society and geography. Bustos is a surrealist.
Bustos combined drawings with poetry, child of Lorca more than a child of evil. In many stanzas, the visionary Bustos seems to have even predicted his detention and execution, as well as the fates of others of his generation who, if they live do so in their bones, because of stolen burial and the cover-ups of the astutest idiocracy. The military caste that defeated Argentinean hopes for democracy then, today are succeeded by a different security regime that employs television and the sensationalist newspapers in its arsenal. The current regime rules by imposing noise, rather than silence: a more evolved enemy of poets.
As a child, Bustos through the lies he saw St. George telling on TV, he affirms in his texts. The Dragon told an entirely different story. And what else to say to a Dragon except for ‘’Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!” Bustos, however, in his work for the Nuevo Hombre newspaper had joined a new throng of literary journalists who refused taking the side of the executioners. (among these allies were the poets Paco Urondo and Juan Gelman.)
‘’How his voice rots in the language of mirrors. How little would remain of the love he had were it not for the drop of semen in the body’s tubes.’’
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they’ll say S U U U U >>
This is a forensic work of translation, by Schell, a poet and translator who operates much like a detective from a Rodolfo Walsh novel, and the fact that the poet’s remains were recently discovered by forensics, ending his condition of ‘’disappeared’’. A survivor of the ESMA concentration camp, Munu Actis Gorietta had once told me that Videla during a press conference had given the best possible definition of ‘desaparecido’: one who is neither dead nor alive, but in a state between these.
Schell’s translation is lucid and loyal, showing studious mastery of the Spanish language as spoken in Argentina, it is English-language performance of Bustos’ dreamy rebel music. Translator Schell renders herself instrumental to both text and context on every level of the places enigmas and people who surrounded Bustos’ forsaken maudit life, Argentina and the La Plata river. These have merged into the translator’s own lived experience. The result is both forensic, but also inspired work, rendering Bustos accessible at last to the Anglophone audience.
~Arturo Desimone, Aruba Feb. 2018
Arturo Desimone, Arubian-Argentinian writer and visual artist, was born in 1984 on the island Aruba which he inhabited until the age of 22, when he emigrated to the Netherlands. He is currently based in Argentina (a country two of his ancestors left during the 1970s) while working on a long fiction project about childhoods, diasporas, islands, and religion. Desimone’s articles, poetry and short fiction pieces have previously appeared in CounterPunch,Círculo de Poesía(Spanish) Acentos Review, New Orleans Review, DemocraciaAbierta, BIM Magazine, Knot-Lit. A play he wrote was published in serial form in the world-lit journal of University of Istanbul until the latter was shut down. His translations of poetry have appeared in the Blue Lyra Review and Adirondack Review.
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