Lost Poets / Lost Poems / Found Poems: The Case of Mario Santiago Papasquiaro

 

by Luis Felipe Fabre

Translated by Gerónimo Sarmiento Cruz

On the Road to Santiago, or A Prologue to the Prologue

 

It was around the year 2000 when I first read The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño. I was dazzled. More than a novel, it felt like reading the context of a text that isn’t there. All those pages, amusing and desolate, trace the perimeter of an absent poem: that revolutionary poem that should have transformed not only Latin American poetry but reality itself. That poem—the impossible poem—wasn’t penned by anyone. But Bolaño manages to reinvent through fiction Latin America’s poetry tradition, and Mexico’s in particular, in a poetic reckoning. Or at least that is how it seemed to me then, and I began writing an essay about it with the title “La poesía está en otra parte: tras las pistas de Los detectives salvajes” (Poetry Is Elsewhere: Following The Tracks of The Savage Detectives). And as I was writing, my interest in one of the protagonists of the novel began to deepen: Ulises Lima, a fictional character owing much to a poet known as Mario Santiago Papasquiaro. And to claim he was “known” was to claim too much back then. In that essay, among other things, I noted:

I’ve asked around about Mario Santiago Papasquiaro and I’ve only received vague rumors in response: “Oh, he was terrible, he and his Infrarealist friends sabotaged Octavio Paz’s lectures, everyone was afraid of them.” How did they sabotage them? Some say: “They planned to laugh at the least expected moments to disturb the lecturer.” Others assert more radically: “They would throw tomatoes.” And what happened to him? “He was run over and died.” Someone astonished by my question told me: “So, Mario Santiago Papasquiaro exists? I thought that was just an expression…” An expression? “Yes, what you say when someone speaks with familiarity of a poet of dubious quality, and an even more dubious existence, whose name rings a bell, but barely, almost not at all, in any case the little you’ve heard does not bode well, so one says: That poet is less known than Mario Santiago Papasquiaro. That’s what you say,” I was told.

And later on I added:

Nevertheless, Santiago Papasquiaro published two books while alive: Beso eterno [Unending Kiss] (1995) and Aullido de cisne [Swan’s Howl] (1996). I have looked in vain for these books in big bookstores, in small bookstores and in second-hand bookstores in Mexico City. “Were you looking for a specific author?” a bookseller asked me. Mario Santiago Papasquiaro, I replied without hope. “Oh boy, you would have to go to the cafés downtown. With a little luck Mario’s friends will approach your table to sell you a book. With a little more luck they might give it to you as a gift.” Mario Santiago Papasquiaro’s books: the books missing from bookstores and libraries. The books missing from my bookshelf. The missing books. I then read their voids: their absence in the replete shelves. [1]

If I succumb to the indecency of self-quotation it is not because I am fascinated by what I wrote, but rather by what happened to me. It was as if literature had answered me. Many years passed and the works of Santiago Papasquiaro have happily started to be better known. Along with the anthology Jeta de santo (Mug of a Saint) (2008), prepared by his widow Rebeca López and by Mario Raúl Guzmán, published by the Fondo de Cultura Económica in 2008, other diverse publications have appeared, along with research and translations, maybe driven by the success of Bolaño’s work, and maybe, also, because Santiago Papasquiaro’s poetry has found the time and circumstances propitious for its reevaluation. Be that as it may, due to literary reasons or mere chance, twelve years after writing that essay, as a belated yet still exciting answer, I found myself preparing Arte & basura, una antología poética de Mario Santiago Papasquiaro (Art & Garbage: A Poetic Anthology of Mario Santiago Papasquiaro), selected and with a prologue by me. I began years back asking about him in bookstores and wound up in his house, rummaging through his papers and books, reading his manuscripts, in between deception and astonishment.

I say deception because it is difficult to deal with poems that are possible, those already written, when what one chases is the impossible poem: the one that couldn’t be written. There’s no way to win against that one. However, little by little I discovered that there truly is something impossible in Santiago Papasquiaro’s work. In this essay I take a few fragments of the prologue I wrote for that anthology and I add a long coda that, one never knows, could be the prologue to another prologue: a door opening to another place.

 

“I is another” or, What Happens When Reading Rimbaud at an Inadequate Age

 

Mario Santiago Papasquiaro is, above all, a literary invention: in reality his name was José Alfredo Zendejas. In reality? He changed his name because, he’d supposedly say, there’s only one José Alfredo: the great José Alfredo Jiménez, the famous composer of popular Mexican music. The Santiago Papasquiaro part is a toponym adopted as a last name in homage to the writer José Revueltas because that’s the name of the place where he was born. Although maybe that place, more than a geographical site, is no other than literature’s. Because changing one’s name is to conceive of oneself from language: Santiago Papasquiaro, a graphomaniac who wrote on every surface one can write on, began by writing himself. A vehement writing, one of the last moments of which is a poem titled “Eme Ese Pe”: his initials. Final initials. In that poem, dated January 3, 1998, Santiago Papasquiaro foresees his own death a few days before it happens. But he foresees it as a writerly gesture as well (“scribbling the fetal position ”):

Eme Ese Pe

The harbors of the universe
are burning

I will die sipping on garlic pulque
doing circus pirouettes
at la Hija de los Apaches
of good old Pifas

Under the blessing
of the sacred
immortal / images
of el Kid / el Chango /
el Battling / el Púas
Ultiminio / el Ratón
(priests of the pleasure
of chloroform)
What more than
knowing how to get off the ropes
& getting your ass kicked in the middle of the ring
Life is 1 sordid beating
Hallucination of Ef Zee
A Juan Orol film
Better to scram that way
without saying see men go or spice me up another one
scribbling the fetal position
but this time for sure
definitely
& backwards

M. S. P., or writing: the title of a poem. Santiago Papasquiaro is the author of his own character who is also son to his own poems: his writing invents him and vice versa. In his case, the limits between poetry and life are pretty blurred. His morality, that is, the code with which he ruled his behavior, is basically of a literary origin: the morality of the maudit tradition. We know: the road of excess and the systematic disorder of the senses. The role of outsider, of the marginalized, that Santiago Papasquiaro knew how to fulfill masterfully, albeit at a very costly price as it usually is the case, seems to obey a more or less conscious project, more or less voluntary. As he himself writes: “Why be an anonymous mass grave / when you can be legend.”

Besides being the author of his poems, Santiago Papasquiaro is the author of the author of those poems—but his legend also has other authors. Thanks to the work of Roberto Bolaño, who was his great friend during their youth and, with him, founder of the Infrarealist movement in the mid 1970s, the Santiago Papasquiaro character unfolds in another, already completely literary, character. In a letter addressed to Santiago Papasquiaro, Bolaño tells him:

The distance we logged together is, in some way, history, and it remains. I mean: I suspect, I intuit that it is still alive, in the middle of the darkness, but it’s alive, and who would have thought, defiant. Alright, let’s not go overboard. I’m writing a novel where your name is Ulises Lima. The novel is called The Savage Detectives.[2]

Given the power, importance, and popularity of Bolaño’s novel, the character Ulises Lima appeared to threaten displacing, substituting, or erasing that other character from whence he surges. Even Mario Raúl Guzmán, in the prologue to Jeta de santo, felt the need to warn: “Nobody will find in this volume Ulises Lima’s poems, but those that Santiago Papasquiaro underwrote with his life and with his death. Ulises Lima stays in fiction if that’s where he belongs.” I guess I would have to say the same, yet something in me resists it. It’s true what Guzmán says. Certainly Santiago Papasquiaro is not Ulises Lima. But in another dimension, on the other side of that mirror known as The Savage Detectives, Santiago Papasquiaro is called Ulises Lima. And no one that has gone through the mirror can return exactly as they were. There’s much of Santiago Papasquiaro in Ulises Lima, but it is also inevitable that there be something of Ulises Lima in Santiago Papasquiaro. At least for those of us who didn’t meet him in person, at least for those of us who approach him through literature.

What I mean to say is that The Savage Detectives has contributed to changing a certain perception of Mexican poetry. A poetry through fiction not only where the avant-garde has taken place, but also where everything is still possible. Without doubt this novel is one of the elements that has contributed to the renovation of Mexican poetry today. But the issue is not only about writing differently today, but also about writing differently yesterday. The role that Bolaño has played in retrieving so much of the Stridentist, as well as the Infrarealist, legacy, reclassifying and reinventing them, is undeniable.[3]

Santiago Papasquiaro isn’t Ulises Lima but, Rimbaud dixit, I is another.

 

The Infra Catacumbia

 

In 1975 Santiago Papasquiaro and Roberto Bolaño, along with other young poets, founded Infrarealism. Reading the poetry of its members, it is rather difficult to ascertain what Infrarealism is; maybe not even they could define it with clarity. There is, yes, a nonconformity with the prevailing poetic model represented by the figure of Octavio Paz. Against an exquisite, intellectual, and cosmopolitan poetry, they propose a street aesthetic. It is not by chance that one of their main figures is Efraín Huerta, whom they lovingly called Infraín: an emblematic poet of the Mexican left, who incorporates into his poetry elements of speech and popular humor. In the specific case of Santiago Papasquiaro’s poetry, allied with street speech there is a certain avant-garde rhetoric that comes from the work of a few contemporary Peruvian poets that influenced him: the members of Hora Zero [Zero Hour]—in particular Enrique Verástegui—and the Rodolfo Hinostroza of Contranatura (1971). But even more than their poems, what best characterizes the Infrarealists might be their actions, since they were known less by their poems and publications, or by their magazines of limited print runs and even more limited distribution, than by their sabotage of literary workshops and poetry readings (the most legendary of which took place during a reading by Octavio Paz, of which I’ve heard several versions), and also for ending more than one writers’ party in a fight. The Infrarealists: a gang of literary brawlers, a little puerile if you will, but not for that reason less uncomfortable or less destabilizing in a literary scene where “keeping up appearances” was essential.

In this sense it seems to me that one of the most accurate readings of Infrarealism was offered by Olivier Debroise and Cuauhtémoc Medina when they linked it, in the exhibit La era de la discrepancia (The Age of Discrepancy) (2007), with the artistic groups that in the 1970s tried, through collective work, to renovate the ideas, systems, and media of circulation in Mexican art. A reading coming not from literary criticism, but from art criticism. Yes, the Infrarealists have more similarities with the artistic groups of the 1970s than with their fellow poets, above all in their self-conception as cultural guerrillas. (It is impossible to disconnect them from the social resistance movements and subversive groups that characterized those years.) From that perspective, the rumors spread in The Savage Detectives about the supposed intention of the Visceral Realists (the fictional version of the Infrarealists) to kidnap Octavio Paz acquire another dimension when related, for example, with a piece of the No Grupo (Group No, one of the most interesting and emblematic collectives of those years) consisting in a mock kidnapping of the artist Gunther Gerzso.
It isn’t gratuitous, then, that Santiago Papasquiaro, in one description of his work, finds it fitting to note that he “exercises cultural terrorism.” It is indispensable to keep in mind while reading Santiago Papasquiaro that his poetry does not consist of a single group of texts, but also of a continuous performance carried on throughout his life.

 

In Any Given Moment 1 Poem Happens

 

Santiago Papasquiaro’s poetry is not just poems, or, better put, Santiago Papasquiaro’s poems are not just texts: they’re actions, gestures, interventions. But they’re also texts, they’re also poems that Santiago Papasquiaro ceaselessly wrote on napkins, coasters, receipts, and above all in books, in the margins of other people’s books. All the books that he held in his arms he used as notebooks to scribble verses, phrases, poems. A writing literally marginal: written at the margin and on the margin of literature books. There is something of vandalism in choosing other poets’ books as a space for one’s own writing: something of graffiti and something of intervention.

Transcribing and publishing one of Santiago Papasquiaro’s poems is a procedure somewhat similar to that of taking down a fragment of a wall to exhibit graffiti inside a museum or gallery: the text, the writing, remains, but something, the gesture, is lost. It’s not the same thing to read one of his poems scribbled in the margins of an Alfonso Reyes poem than to see it stand limpidly inside the box of the book: that which took place in the margins now takes place in the center: that which was outside is now inside. And something that may have been only a draft is turned into a finished text—closed, concluded.

One could say that although Santiago Papasquiaro published a couple brief books when living, he really never wrote a book. He wrote poems without stopping. Or verses without stopping. Or let’s just say he wrote without stopping. But not books. Beso eterno and Aullido de cisne, more than books in the sense of volumes conceived as unified or autonomous works or something like that, would be in the last instance author’s anthologies: brief samples, guided selections led under certain criteria, of a work that could only be approached partially. Or maybe they are. Maybe all the poems that he wrote truly are the pages of a book, a unique and impossible book, unfinished and interminable, titled Mario Santiago Papasquiaro.

Whatever the case, and apart from the books he published when living, the vast majority of Santiago Papasquiaro’s oeuvre remains in the state of drafts: few of his poems are corrected (no more than a few crossed out fragments at the time of their writing). It’s as if, more than wanting a poem as a finished work, what interests Santiago Papasquiaro was the writing of poetry as a mode of being, of passing, of happening in the world. Even his transcribed and published poems give off a whiff of carelessness that sits well with them: they’re not polished texts but harsh textures, writings that prefer to remain loyal to the states of inspiration or alteration in which they originated than to perfect themselves as the product of work. The opposite of the poems emerging from the literary workshops that flourished in Mexico during those years and wound up fomenting an aesthetics of mediocrity and correction.

No, Santiago Papasquiaro’s poems are not correct. And precisely in their incorrectness lies their value. In them chaff has not been threshed from wheat. In their better moments the dazzling discovery appears surrounded by failed verses that generate difficult, unstable, and defiant tensions: art and trash. And you have to eat it all. Or as he put it in a few verses that might be read as a poetics:

In any given moment 1 poem happens
for example
that fluttering of aphonic flies
over 1 wrapping no one succeeds to decipher
how much there is of trash & how much there is of miracle

It would seem idle to try to establish how much of Santiago Papasquiaro’s texts is trash and how much is miracle when judging them: his work calls for a different kind of approach. It should be said, however, that Santiago Papasquiaro also succumbed over the years to one of the dangers that stalk those who cultivate themselves as full-time outsiders: self-fulfilling pride in the face of disparagement—a survival strategy, disastrous if translated to texts by way of self-complacency and uncritical repetition. Sometimes dazzling, the poem happens: “Bright dawn on the shit house,” to put it in the words of a verse by Ezra Pound, whom Santiago Papasquiaro really enjoyed (he used it as a title in at least a couple of texts); sometimes there’s only babble while waiting for a miracle; but his work is always defiant in its indocile purity, and despite the years it remains unreachable, excessive, unstable, suspicious, rebellious.

In the meantime the students of the literary workshop (they’re always around) polish their poems, they correct them and correct them again. In the meantime Santiago Papasquiaro, who was neither the Antichrist nor the Avenging Angel, remains more and more the antecedent of something that may never happen: that apocalypse, that disaster, that refounding catastrophe that is so feared and in secret desired by the students of workshops (they’re always around) while they correct their little verses and correct them again. M.S.P.: the title of a poem and the author of a frequently obscene sign language, of an untamable and utterly vital oeuvre that opens other possibilities for Mexican poetry. However, it would be irresponsible not to warn them, the workshop students: “Kids, don’t try these poems in class.”

 

Coda: In Any Given Moment a Poem Disappears

 

There are texts that make visible the absence of other texts, that make us feel them missing: texts that already exist only as memory, as evocation, or as dream more than as proper texts. Or even better: as a textual unconscious that only certain lucid texts turn conscious. There’s something of that in the long quotations I transcribe below. They’re fragments of a couple narratives (fictional or not) about the public reading of texts now lost or never written. They not only describe other absent texts but they seem to be telling us the same despite dealing with narratives seemingly distant, both temporally and aesthetically. Descriptions of an apocalypse or a new poetic birth that should have happened and did not happen.

The first one is Memorias de mis tiempos (Memoirs from My Times) (1818–1877) by Guillermo Prieto, which recalls the now mythic (for Mexican literature) appearance of Ignacio Ramírez in the Academy of Letrán:

One evening in the Academy, after dusk, we perceived, against the greenish reflection of the spark plug’s luminosity that lit the venue for us, in the hole of the door an immobile and silent lump, which seemed to be awaiting a welcoming voice to come in to our enclosure.

Mr. Quintana saw him and said: Come in!

The lump then advanced, and with a very indecisive clarity we saw him timidly approach the President’s table, a character shrouded in a cloak or torn coat, with a forest of bristled hairs.

What do you want?

I would like to read a composition for you so that you can decide if I may be a member of this Academy.

Take a seat.

Ramírez sat next to Mr. Quintana, and then, receiving fully the light in his mien, we were able to examine him in detail.

Displayed the new comer eighteen or twenty years of age. His skin was dark, but with the darkness of the shadow; his black eyes seemed wrapped in an utterly sad, yellow light; he blinked frequently in a nervous manner; sharp nose, sarcastic mouth. But over that physiognomy prevailed a forehead with rare greatness and majesty, as if illumined by something extraordinary.
His clothing was a process of abandonment and carelessness: it abounded in tears and scratches, in folds and derailments.

A profound silence ruled over the auditorium.

Ramírez took out of his side pocket a fist of papers all of different sizes and colors; some impressed on one side, others in strips like cuttings of a dress mould or bullfighting and theater pamphlets. He ordered that deck and read with assured and insolent voice the title: There is no God.

The unexpected explosion of a bomb, the appearance of a monster, the boisterous collapse of the ceiling, would not have produced a greater commotion.

A rabid clamor arose that dissolved in altercations and disputes.

Ramírez saw all this with despicable immobility.

Mr. Iturralde, Dean of the College, said:

I cannot allow you to read that here; this is an educational establishment…

What follows is a discussion between the members of the Academy where two sides distinguish themselves: those that want Ramírez to read his text and those who absolutely oppose it. Ramírez finally reads a text that leaves everyone astonished and marveled due to its erudition and intelligence:

Everything turned quiet, and after a sweeping exordium, and as a calculated divagation, the author went through the human knowledges; but clad in such seduction, but irradiating such novelty, but bedizened in such logical language, so uplifted with vivid color, that we treaded from surprise to surprise, as if we were in an excursion to the infinite through paths seeded with flowers…[4]

That famous text by Ramírez has not been preserved. For better or worse the only thing that we know of it, besides the title, is the feverish eulogies that Prieto dedicates to it. So we are free to imagine it however it is that we imagine the most marvelous text. Everything ought to have changed then. And when I say everything I mean Mexican literature. A true revolution. But the only thing that happened was a disappearance: that impossible text became a ghost text.

But ghosts sometimes appear. And I think I see the reappearance of the ghost of Ignacio Ramírez’s text in the poem not written but imagined by Roberto Bolaño more than a century later in The Savage Detectives in the mouth of Ulises Lima. Here is the second long passage set in a poetry workshop tyrannically directed by one Julio César Álamo. The action takes place in the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) in 1975:

There was no reason to be nervous. No objective reason, anyway. But poetry (real poetry) is like that: you can sense it, you can feel it in the air, the way they say certain highly attuned animals (snakes, worms, rats, and some birds) can detect an earthquake. What happened next was a blur, but at the risk of sounding corny, I’d say there was something miraculous about it. Two visceral realist poets walked in and Álamo reluctantly introduced them, although he only knew one of them personally; the other one he knew by reputation, or maybe he just knew his name or had heard someone mention him, but he introduced us to him anyway.

I’m not sure why they were there. It was clearly a hostile visit, hostile but somehow propagandistic and proselytizing too. At first the visceral realists kept to themselves, and Álamo tried to look diplomatic and slightly ironic while he waited to see what would happen. Then he started to relax, encouraged by the strangers’ shyness, and after half an hour the workshop was back to normal. That’s when the battle began. The visceral realists questioned Álamo’s critical system and he responded by calling them cut-rate surrealists and fake Marxists. Five members of the workshop backed him up…

Contrary to my expectations, the argument didn’t lead to an all-around ass-kicking. I have to admit I would have loved that. And although one of the members of the workshop did promise Ulises Lima that someday he would kick his ass, in the end nothing actually happened; nothing violent, I mean, although I responded to the threat (which, I repeat, was not directed at me) by letting the threatener know that he could have it out with me anywhere on campus, any day, any time.

The end of class was surprising. Álamo dared Ulises Lima to read one of his poems. Lima didn’t need to be asked twice. He pulled some smudged, crumpled sheets from his jacket pocket. Oh no, I thought, the idiot is walking right into their trap. I think I shut my eyes out of sheer sympathetic embarrassment. There’s a time for reciting poems and a time for fists. As far as I was concerned, this was the latter. But as I was saying, I closed my eyes, and I heard Lima clear his throat, then I heard the somewhat uncomfortable silence (if it’s possible to hear such a thing, which I doubt) that settled around him, and finally I heard his voice, reading the best poem I’d ever heard.[5]

The easy thing to say would be that Bolaño read Prieto. The scene is the same though mirrored. In Prieto discussion takes place after the reading of the title, in Bolaño before. In Bolaño the reading of the poem has the goal of recruiting new members for Visceral Realism and of sabotaging the workshop; in Prieto’s chronicle Ramírez intends to be accepted in the Academy, or at least that is what he states, though his intentions are probably otherwise. But the mis-en-scène is quite similar: the academy/workshop, the irruption of the disturbing and enigmatic stranger (Lima and Belano are, sometimes, a single person unfolding on the other), the expectant silence of the students, the fabulous crumpled papers pulled from the pocket, the marvelous reading of impossible texts. Yes, it is all there, but I cannot talk of influences: I don’t see them. What I read in the description of the reading of these texts now made impossible is a recurrent dream of Mexican poetry: the dream of its destruction, of its apocalypse. A dream that at least every hundred years is dreamt again. The arrival of the poet as an Avenging Angel who comes to announce the end: the death of God or the disappearance of poetry as we know it. Whatever. It’s the same. A new beginning.

In any given moment a poem disappears, but also: in any given moment the dream of another poet reappears. And in the meantime we read, we write, we polish texts—we wait.


Mario Santiago Papasquiaro, “Judith: Judas: Júmex:” unpublished poem written on the back of an Infrarealist poster. Image courtesy of Rubén Medina.

Appendix

 

Judith: Judas: Júmex:

 

I’ve been looking for you in the interior of each open vein
in the hemorrhage—cempasúchitl flower
of the popping eye that I’m gifted (why not?
                                                          why yes?)
The unheard of inhabitants of these streets
so possessed, so simian, so gymnastic
(life-eating dust clouds
death-hypnotizing drunkards)

Winds without pedigree / Shirtless dawns
that tell you about the abc of their epilepsy
and their life’s Nevado de Toluca

*

Scrawls, Vertigos, Phantoms
       absurd, ecstatic
that have been smiling at us, pinching us
needling our navel, our duck tail
For so many years

*

What can my mouth tell you
       that you don’t already know
& in kangaroo flip
    & in SkyLab turn
        approaching the desert?

*

I’d like to play tag / duck duck goose with you
Sing to you Cricri’s song you like the most
“I’m 1 cat / 1 happy cat
       & I’m from the neighborhood”

/ 1 more time / & in the same corner
halfway through 1 music we have never learned to caress well

*

To you who knows what kind of chills
& visions tousle my hair
       what encounters
what whistles
what yearnings

*

With my most-popping eyes
       most-cumbiamberos
       most-roadrunners

MARIO SANTIAGO → “The Christs-killer”

Translated by Gerónimo Sarmiento Cruz

§

TRANSLATOR’S NOTES

[1] Luis Felipe Fabre, “La poesía está en otra parte: tras las pistas de Los detectives salvajes,” in Mario Santiago Papasquiaro, Arte & basura: Una antología poética, ed. Luis Felipe Fabre (Oaxaca de Juárez: Almadía, 2012), n.p.

[2] Roberto Bolaño to Mario Santiago Papasquiaro, Summer 1996, in “Selected Correspondence, 1974–1996,” Chicago Review 60.3: The Infrarrealistas (2017): 47.

[3] Estridentismo (Stridentism) was a 1920s Mexican avant-garde literary movement led by Manuel Maples Arce.

[4] Guillermo Prieto, Memorias de mis tiempos, vol. 1, in Obras completas, ed. Boris Rosen Jélomer (Mexico City: Conaculta, 1992), 161–62.

[5] Roberto Bolaño, The Savage Detectives, trans. Natasha Wimmer (New York: Picador, 2008), 5–7.