A Heron in Buenos Aires by Luis Benítez
(Ravenna Press, Spokane, WA, 2011)
Well-established as a poet, essayist and novelist, the writer Luis Benítez needs little introduction. His books have been published in Argentina, Mexico, Chile, Uruguay, the United States and Venezuela.
He was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Among other things, he is a member of the Latin-American Academy of Poetry, the International Society of Writers, and the Argentinian Foundation for Poetry. His work has brought him international recognition and he has been the recipient of many prestigious awards including the La Porte des Poétes International Award (Paris, 1991), the International Award of Fiction (Uruguay, 1996), the Primo Premio Tusculorum di Poesia (Italy, 1996) and the International Award for Published Work “Macedonio Palomino”, (Mexico, 2008).
Over the years, many of his poems have appeared in the small press magazines and journals in the USA and the UK but this is the first time that a substantial body of his work has been translated into English and presented as a full-length collection in its own right. The editorial team at Ravenna Press are to be congratulated on making a selection of his work available to the English-speaking world. This can only serve to enhance the poet’s reputation by bringing his work to a wider audience.
As with all great writers, his themes are universal. The way in which he chooses to convey these themes is masterful. Each poem has a conciseness about it, an ease which can be deceptive at first reading, because it belies the weight of the subject matter that lies beneath the surface. There is no florid language, no superficial excess; Benitez cuts to the chase and makes his statements with the minimum of fuss.
“This Morning I Wrote Two Poems” is a good example. The almost conversational title might bring to mind William Carlos Williams (I am thinking of his poem “This is Just to Say…”). The conversational tone continues throughout the poem because the words fall easily down the page. It is, of course, a work that concerns itself with the mysterious craft of writing—where does the Muse come from and why is it that the finished object is more than the sum of its component parts?
I wonder about the origin
of those two things that are now on the table,
not exactly made of paper and ink.
Always modest about his own achievements and wise enough to know that the perfect poem is in all probability an impossible thing (but worth pursuing), he goes on to wonder
About the men who have said it better
and are now dead
about the length of time, expressed in superlatives, that it can take for a work of art to come to its full maturity, and how, at the last, a poem can have a transformational effect which can be out of all proportion to its existence on the page:
I wonder why, a short while ago,
this world has changed twice.
Animals and birds feature in a number of his poems. In all of them, they are celebrated for what they are. His powers of observance are acute, the shape of the heron is concisely described as resembling the letter “S”; a leopard is a beast always under the rain (because of its spots) and an insect whose diaphanous wings are almost transparent is hardly distinct from the air in his elementary design.
There is a metaphysical feel to these poems. His consideration of the salmon, in “The Extravagant Upstream Traveller” is a beautifully honed metaphor for mankind “swimming against the tide” in a world threatened by pollution:
Then I saw him in the oily water,
a gift of industry and the hatred for what lives,
the impossible salmon…
unusual iridescence amid the garbage
of the condemned river…
In “Aurochs” Benitez succeeds in capturing a real sense of antiquity. He reaches back to ancient Greece and Rome and also, perhaps, to primitive forms of writing. The animal knows what he writes because before he existed it was already a name. Rightly or wrongly I detect here a reference to the second letter of the ancient runic alphabet, the “Fuþark,” in which the letter “u”—“ur” in the Anglo-Saxon Rune poem, is described as a fierce bull, literally an aurochs, with implications from the Old Norse word urdr of fate and destiny. It is also Caesar’s aurochs, as mentioned in his “Gallic Wars”— “that cannot be tamed or accustomed to human beings”. It is earthy and not without menace. To the poet, it is
sometimes something that leaves huge drops of blood
in the boughs and a footstep
going away, solid, invisible.
Poets, too, are celebrated in this volume. There are poems addressed to Vallejo, Pound and Rimbaud. The title of his poem “To Deprive Death of It’s Arrogance” carries an echo of Dylan Thomas’s poem “And Death Shall Have No Dominion.” There are other echoes of Thomas in “Conversations” where Benitez proposes to battle the Great Night as did Dylan Thomas in his “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.” The references are no accident. Dylan Thomas was, and continues to be, a great influence on Benítez. Benitez has said of him, “he was my master”.
In “Kustendjé, By The Black Sea” the whole poem, which is a meditation on change, revolves around the central figure of another writer from the past, this time Ovid, and his work “Metamorphoses.” The reference is to the time when the Roman Emperor Augustus banished Ovid from his native Rome to a period in exile in Constanza. Again, as with so many of the poems in this collection, there are several layers of meaning working their way into the reader’s conscience at the same time. In this case it is the skilful interplay between past and present: the ever-changing events of history.
“Naïve” reveals another facet to his art. In some ways, the title of the poem is ironic. It is far from naïve—it is in fact rather complex. The girl in the poem lives in her own universe, one that is, according to her, of her own making. It is full of everything that she loves: her clothes, her friends, her home. She believes that everything is a true reflection of herself and that nothing will change without her say-so. There is, however, one word in this poem that unhinges all of this and that is the word uncertain. She is living in an uncertain country. We are not masters of our own destiny. Benítez is aware of the fact that there are things which lie beyond our understanding. On one level this may be a spiritual force, on another, it may be the uncertainty of living under a political system where change could occur at any time.
In summary this book offers the reader meticulously observed, intelligent and moving poems by a writer whose reputation deservedly extends beyond his native country. Credit should be given to the translation and editing which has been done by Beatriz Olga Allocati, Veronica Miranda and Cooper Renner. Their team approach has been central to the production of this book. Collectively, they have made sure that the power and subtlety of Benítez’ work has not been lost in translation. The poems are accompanied by an extended essay by Carmen Vasco which serves as an informative introduction to his work.
Neil Leadbeater is an editor, author and poet living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His poems and short stories have been published widely in anthologies and small press magazines and journals both at home and abroad. His first full-length collection of poems, Hoarding Conkers at Hailes Abbey was published by Littoral Press in 2010 and a selection of his Latin American poems, Librettos for the Black Madonna, was published by White Adder Press earlier this year.