Tiny books

By Tamara Kamenszain


Victoria Britos


In 1980, with a year still to go before Nestor Perlongher wrote his famous book-poem sitting on the steps of a Mexican amphitheatre overlooking the Popocatépetl Volcano, I heard the poets dream team of Octavio Paz, Jorge Luis Borges, Allen Ginsberg and João Cabral de Melo Neto live. In those days, I was already looking to find a voice capable of withstanding the ‘bard effect’ and that’s what I set out to look for. Like a good local chieftain, Octavio Paz read out unpublished poems from Árbol adentro [A Tree Within], a rather hushed book, but infusing them with something of that epic, rather high-sounding tone that had catapulted him to fame with his first book, Piedra de Sol [Sunstone]. Borges, playing the role of the blind, memorious writer which was already his trademark, thrilled his Argentine fans – even then not few or far between – by stuttering through recitations of his famous milongas. Allen Ginsberg, for his part, in his post-beatnik phase – clean-shaven, short hair, jacket and tie – had added a small accordion to his show to accompany himself in that new Hindu vibe of his that left some of us fans a little perplexed, as we’d been expecting a shot of adrenaline-driven refrains from the poet of ‘Howl’. Towards the end a short gentleman in a grey office suit came in and stood awkwardly in front of the microphone. He pulled a roll of paper out of his pocket and began reading almost to himself. The poems didn’t shine, and nor did he. They were opaque, perfectly engineered pieces, revelations of what had to be done to eradicate the virus of grandiloquence. I was a young woman in search of new gurus (I confess I didn’t think twice at that time about the dream team being all male), and against that background Cabral de Melo reminded me of the obscure scrivener, Bartleby, who harps on the ineffable ‘I would prefer not to’. The director Nanni Moretti named the character in his film Habemus Papam [a.k.a. We Have a Pope] ‘Melville’, the very embodiment of the desire not to be powerful. So, between those in the middle of the Vatican fleeing from being Pope and those in the middle of an imposing Aztec amphitheatre fleeing from becoming bards, I began in those years to locate the place that the Brazilian poet dared to anticipate, heralding the end of a century, not to mention the end of a way of making literature.
Now, fifty years on and in a brand new century, I don’t know whether to search YouTube or my library for Mariano Blatt’s poem ‘Diego Bonnefoi’, a poem I heard him recite and later, under the invocation of that voice, learnt by heart. Now I understand why Francisco Garamona says in the blurb for Mi juventud unida [My Youth United] that Mariano Blatt’s poems will one day be taught in schools and that children of all ages will know them by heart. In the poem ‘Diego Bonnefoi’ you can no longer say there’s a refrain unless, that is, we take every line as one, because all the lines are repeated throughout the poem lest we forget: ‘Mataron a un pibe por la espalda en Bariloche / Mataron a un pibe por la espalda en Bariloche / Mataron a un pibe por la espalda en Bariloche / Que se llamaba Diego Bonnefoi/ Que se llamaba Diego Bonnefoi / Que se llamaba Diego Bonnefoi / Pero la vida sigue igual / Pero la vida sigue igual / Pero la vida sigue igual’ [They shot a kid in the back in Bariloche / They shot a kid in the back in Bariloche / They shot a kid in the back in Bariloche / Whose name was Diego Bonnefoi / Whose name was Diego Bonnefoi / Whose name was Diego Bonnefoi / But life goes on anyway / But life goes on anyway / But life goes on anyway].
Absolutely beyond all metaphorical scuffling now, with every line Blatt deals us a blow of reality. And reality you have to learn by heart because it’s the presentification of the present, a time poetry can work with. That’s why performers – not bards or anti-bards anymore – don’t read, but use their own texts the way musicians use scores. Reading for them, it seems, involves precisely not to accept textuality but to know how to lose it. At the opposite pole, I think that I and other militants of seventies’ textualism wouldn’t let go of the written page for anything in the world, and it was that worship of letters that led me to despise oral readings. I think that was what Jorge Panesi angrily reproached me for when he once heard me perform at a reading. He told me I read badly and that, far from ‘selling’ my poems, I was ruining them. Jorge’s verdict was blunt: ‘You either put some feeling into it or you don’t agree to do any more readings.’ This intervention by my friend – without a doubt one of our most lucid literary critics – helped me to realize that putting faith in paper alone was just another way of inflating the poetic gesture.