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The Dissonant Legacy of Modernismo. Ramón López Velarde

Gwen Kirkpatrick

Ramón López Velarde, best known as a poet of the Mexican Revolution, reshaped modernismo's, canon to write poetry with a distinctly local and personal stamp. Octavio Paz has described the essential themes of López Velarde's work as provincial life and eroticism, while noting also the influences of Laforgue and Lugones on the amalgam of the provincial theme with eroticism1. Pablo Neruda calls the force of López Velarde's poetry, «el líquido erotismo» («the liquid eroticism») that circulates deeply throughout all his work, and names López Velarde as modernismo's final master:

En la gran trilogía del modernismo, es Ramón López Velarde el maestro final, el que pone el punto sin coma. Una época rumorosa ha terminado. Sus grandes hermanos, el caudaloso Rubén y el lunático Herrera y Reissig, han abierto las puertas de una América anticuada, han hecho circular el aire libre... Pero esta revolución no es completa si no consideramos este arcángel final que dio a la poesía americana un sabor y una fragrancia que durará para siempre. Sus breves páginas alcanzan, de algún modo sutil, la eternidad de la poesía2.

(In the great trilogy of Modernismo, Ramón López Velarde is the last master, the one who closes an entire period. A noisy epoch has come to an end. His two great brothers, the opulent Rubén and the lunatic Herrera y Reissig, have opened the doors of an antiquated America; they have brought a breath of fresh air... But his revolution would not be complete if we didn't consider this last archangel who gave to American poetry a flavor and a fragrance that will last forever. His few pages achieve in some subtle way, the eternity of poetry.)

According to Neruda, López Velarde captures the scenes of his poetic heritage in a sidelong glance, «como si alguna vez hubiera visto la escena de soslayo y hubiera conservado fielmente una visión oblicua, una luz torcida que da a toda su creación tal inesperada claridad» («as if at some time he had glimpsed the scene out of the corner of his eye and had faithfully conserved an oblique vision, a twisted light that gives to his whole creation such unexpected clarity»)3. The question of perspective is crucial in understanding López Velarde's relationship to his modernista predecessors. Abbreviating modernismo's stylized descriptions, he clearly sets forth the contrast between the old and new worlds, identifying his personal voice with the unsettling pendulum swing between two worlds, as in «El son del corazón»:

Yo soy el suspirante cristianismo
al hojear las bienaventuranzas
de la virgen que fue mi catecismo.

Y la nueva delicia que acomoda
sus hipnotismos de color de tango
al figurín y al precio de la moda.

La redondez de la Creación atrueno
cortejando a las hembras y a las cosas
con un clamor pagano y nazareno.

¡Oh, Psiquis, oh mi alma: suena a son
moderno, a son de selva, a son de orgía
y a son mariano, el son del corazón!4

(I am sighing Christianity
as I leaf through the beatitudes
of the virgin which was my catechism.

And the new delight arranges
its tango-colored hypnotisms
on the dummy model and at the price of fashion.

I thunder out the roundness of Creation
courting females and courting things
with a pagan and Nazarene clamor.

Oh Psyche, oh my soul: play a modern
tune, a tune of the forest, a tune of orgy,
and a Marian tune, the tune of the heart.)

López Velarde wrote three books of poetry: La sangre devota (1916), Zozobra (1919), and El son del corazón (published posthumously in 1932), as well as many essays. Profoundly influenced in his early poetry by Lugones, he integrated the legacies of Baudelaire and Laforgue, filtered through the eyes of a Mexican provincial reality and years of harsh revolution. Xavier Villarrutia also finds López Velarde's poetic antecedents in Luis Carlos López and Julio Herrera y Reissig5.

In his essays, López Velarde devotes special attention to Leopoldo Lugones, Enrique González Martínez, and José Juan Tablada. In defending Tablada's spare experimental verse against its critics, he writes what could be his own art poétique;

Ciertamente, la Poesía es un ropaje; pero ante todo, es una sustancia. Ora celestes éteres becquerianos, ora tabacos de pecado. La quiebra del Parnaso consistió en pretender suplantar las esencias desiguales de la vida del hombre con una vestidura fementida. Para los actos transcendentales -sueño, baño o amor- nos desnudamos6.

(Certainly Poetry is a dress; but above all, it is a substance. Whether celestial Becquerian ethers, or tobaccos of sin. The shattering of Parnassus came about by trying to supplant the unequal essences of man's existence with a dress that didn't quite fit. For all transcendental acts -sleeping, bathing, or love-making- we undress ourselves.)

For López Velarde, there are no objects that enter into poetic language in a totally innocent state. Even childhood or virginity form their own codes. Following Lugones and Herrera y Reissig, López Velarde chooses the provincial, the quiet side of Mexico, as the range of the unmarked, the space still undefiled by a weighted, cosmopolitan scheme of values. In his literary criticism, López Velarde is always clear about his contextual scheme of values:

El hecho próspero consiste en que se ha conquistado el decoro de los temas con el hallazgo de lo que yo llamaría el criollismo. No lo criollo de hamaca, de siesta tropical... Eso queda en devaneo. No; trátase de lo criollo neto, expresión absurda étnicamente, pero adecuada para contener el sentido artístico de la cuestión que someramente voy fijando, como un prendido de alfileres. Trátase de lo que no cabe ni en lo hispano ficticio ni en lo aborigen de pega. Trátase de lo criollo neto: las calles por cuyo arroyo se propaga la hierba; ... las anilinas de la botica que irradian rojas y verdes y enorgullecen a los paseantes nocturnos de la plaza...7

(The happy deed consists of the fact that the propriety of themes has been conquered by the discovery of what I would call criollismo. But not the criollismo that relies heavily on visions of hammocks and tropical siestas... That ends up becoming total nonsense. No, I'm talking about the genuine criollo, an absurd expression in ethnic terms, but quite appropriate in expressing the artistic meaning of the matter that I'm trying briefly, and somewhat loosely, to establish. It deals basically with the elements that don't fit within what is considered false Hispanism or patched-up indigenous characteristics. It deals with what is genuinely criollo: the streets with their water courses full of grass; ... the anilines of the drug stores radiating red and green, filling the nocturnal stroller of the plaza with pride...)

For López Velarde, the child, the native past, the woman, and the elderly may participate in this special world.

Deeply marked by the devastation of the Mexican Revolution, the move from quiet provincial life to the city («ojerosa y pintada» [«hollow-eyed and painted»], as he describes it in «La suave patria»), and by a tormented religiosity, López Velarde shows the distance between the two worlds. City/country, purity/transgression, and tranquillity/violence are the thematic oppositions he draws in his portraits. On a technical level, one can see other contrasts in his verse construction. His poems show traces of conversational prose and parenthetical, densely wrought syntax. Like Lugones, López Velarde often departs from fixed meter and, unlike Lugones, leaves behind rhyme. He moves between fixed meters and versolibrismo and experiments with subtle rhymes, internal assonance, and alliteration. Like Lugones and Herrera y Reissig (as well as Vallejo) he sets side by side the modernista paradigm with a prosaic detail, often mixed with a nostalgic religiosity, as in «El son del corazón»:

Una música íntima no cesa
porque transida en un abrazo de oro
la Caridad con el Amor se besa.

¿Oyes el diapasón del corazón?
Oye en su nota múltiple el estrépito
de los que fueron y de los que son.

(LV, 233)                

(An intimate music doesn't cease,
because fainting in a golden embrace
Charity and Love kiss.

Do you hear the diapason of the heart?
Hear in its multiple note the deafening sound
of those who were and those who are.)

López Velarde's verses are rarely as explicit as these, however. Elliptical expressions, hyperbaton, and syntactical breaks make comprehension difficult. His poetry resists overt signification, and the language of dreams or the ramblings of childhood memory make their own logic, as they do in Vallejo's poetry. This is why «El retorno maléfico» is such a threatening poem. Its silences and ambivalences are the response of a village that does not know how to speak to an intrusive attack by forces which partake in other dialogues, those of revolution and politics. Like the prostitution in the city, the mutilation of the town at the hands of an enemy from without leaves it mute. The town can no more marshal itself against physical devastation that it can call forth a discourse to describe it.

Like Vallejo's house in «Aquí no vive nadie», where only sounds and gestures of past lives resonate, the return to the village in «El retorno maléfico» is an impossible one: «Mejor será no regresar al pueblo, / al edén subvertido que se calla / en la mutilación de la metralla» (LV, 174) («It will be better not to return to the village / to the subverted Eden / hushed in the machine gun's mutilation»). The return of the prodigal son to the «edén subvertido» («subverted Eden») removes all blame from the village itself and attributes its destruction to an outside force, a tangible one that comes in the shape of military violence. The elliptical questioning of a destroyed past echoes in the complexity of the poem's sound patterns. For example, the repetition of sounds takes on the effect of an incantation: «un cubo de cuero, / goteando su gota categórica / como un estribillo plañidero» («a leather bucket, / dripping its categorical drop / like a mournful refrain»), «el lloro de recientes recentales / por la ubérrima ubre prohibida / de la vaca» («the crying of recent calves / for the plentiful forbidden udder / of the cow»), and «el amor amoroso / de las parejas pares» («the amorous love / of the even-numbered couples»). The most prosaic elements are those that receive the most «poetic» treatment, either by latinate construction («ubérrima ubre» [«plentiful udder»]) or by the distance between terms of the metaphor («muchachas / frescas y humildes, como humildes coles» [«young girls / fresh and humble, like humble cabbages»]). The Edenic, timeless atmosphere so lovingly detailed contrasts with the tomblike entrance of the village. The town's present, broken state -locked, closed, and sealed off as if by death- must be left alone, unentered. Its evocation must respond to «una íntima tristeza reaccionaria» («an intimate, reactionary sadness») which closes off any possible entrance. This last verse reestablishes an intellectual distance, combining the personal and political into a present that cannot return.

The oscillation between extremes and the impossibility of resolution mark López Velarde's poetry. Like «Dos péndulos distantes / que oscilan paralelos» («Two distant pendulums / that oscillate parallel»), the dualities are never to be resolved. Erotic love and death are intimately connected in «Hermana hazme llorar». Fuensanta, his love of the province, is the emblem for the woman left behind, and she embodies the longing for purity and innocence of the past8:

dame todas las lágrimas del mar
Mis ojos están secos y yo sufro
unas inmensas ganas de llorar.
Hazme llorar, hermana,
y la piedad cristiana
de tu mano inconsútil
enjúgueme los llantos con que llore
el tiempo amargo de mi vida inútil.

(LV, 89)                

give me all the tears of the sea.
My eyes are dry and I feel
an overpowering need to cry.
Sister, make me cry,
and let the Christian merey
of your seamless hand
wipe the tears with which I lament
the bitter time of my useless life.)

The figure of Fuensanta always evokes the communion with the past and with wholeness, and contrasts with later loves.

«Mi prima Águeda» from La sangre devota highlights the memories of childhood, and the poem's parenthetical condensations show only fragments of the femme fatale in the transformation into her rustic counterpart: «Águeda era / (luto, pupilas verdes y mejillas / rubicundas) un cesto policromo / de manzanas y uvas / en el ébano de un armario añoso» (LV, 59) («Águeda was / [black dress, green pupils, and rosy / cheeks] a polychrome basket / of apples and grapes / in the ebony of an old armoire»). Seen through the child's eyes -«Yo era rapaz / y conocía la o por lo redondo» («I was a young boy / and I knew the o by its roundness»)- Águeda represents the inaccessible distance and beauty of female power. However, the trappings of her power are the most common traits of everyday village dress, «con un contradictorio / prestigio de almidón y de temible / luto ceremonioso» («with a contradictory / prestige of starch and of fearsome, / ceremonious mourning dress»). In this poem the mixture of colors, sounds, and bewitching movement -«me iba embelesando un quebradizo / sonar intermitente de vajilla / y el timbre caricioso / de la voz de mi prima» («I was becoming enchanted by the brittle / intermittent sound of silver on porcelain / and the caressing tone / of my cousin's voice»)- is no less complex than modernismo's compositions, but the effect is one of simplicity. Taking his direction from Lugones and Herrera y Reissig, López Velarde transforms interior landscapes and the idealized female figure within contexts of provincial life and a child's experiences.

In López Velarde's «Mi corazón se amerita», the last strophe could be read as a commentary on Herrera y Reissig's Tertulia lunática:

Así extirparé el cáncer de mi fatiga dura,
seré impasible por el Este y el Oeste,
asistiré con dura sonrisa depravada
a las ineptitudes de la inepta cultura
y habrá en mi corazón la llama que le preste
el incendio sinfónico de la esfera celeste.

(LV, 156)                

(And so I will destroy the cancer of my harsh fatigue,
I will become impassive from East to West,
I will respond with a harsh, depraved smile
to all the ineptitude of the inept culture
and there will be in my heart the flame lent by
the symphonic fire of the celestial sphere.)

The element of pose, the Baudelairian disdain, the emphasis on hardness and ugliness, is turned around by an equally exaggerated proclamation of faith: «el incendio sinfónico de la esfera celeste» («the symphonic fire of the celestial sphere»). It honors the pendulum's swinging back and forth, and by plainly placing side by side two extremes of now-familiar phrasing, as if they were pieces unto themselves, he acknowledges the reality of both theatrical modes.

«Te honro en el espanto...», from Zozobra, is a tribute to death, as well as a collection of all the usual images that fill up «una perdida alcoba / de nigromante» («the lost bedroom / of a necromancer»). As the yo binds together the memory of a woman, reclaiming her from death's funerary fetishes, the eroticism and lightness return in a strangly playful image of a game:

mis besos te recorren en devotas hileras
encima de un sacrílego manto de calaveras
como sobre una erótica ficha de dominó.

(LV, 214)                

(my kisses travel your body in devout rows
above the sacrilegious cloak of skulls
as if over an erotic domino chip.)

Here López Velarde takes modernismo's fetishistic attraction to rare objects and clearly shows their elaboration, and thus destroys their power as objects «bewitched».

In «Suave patria» López Velarde celebrates the grandeur of Mexico's simple, rustic life, as well as its glorious indigenous past. In this long poem, divided into «Proemio», «Primer acto», «Intermedio: Cuauhtémoc», and «Segundo acto» («Preface», «First Act» «Intermezzo: Cuauhtémoc», and «Second Act»), Mexico's daily life is pictured against its enormous expanses as well as its turbulent history. In the «Proemio», the narrator states his purpose, «Para cortar a la epopeya un gajo» («To cut a branch from the epic»). Rejecting the grandiloquence of past national epics, «Diré con una épica sordina: / la patria es impecable y diamantina» (LV, 264) («I will say with a muted epic: / the homeland is impeccable and glittering»). As in «Mi prima Águeda», López Velarde shows the astonishing beauty of the mundane in the «Primer acto»:

Patria: tu mutilado territorio
se viste de percal y de abalorio.

Suave Patria: tu casa todavía
es tan grande, que el tren va por la vía
como aguinaldo de juguetería.

(LV, 265)                

(Homeland: your mutilated territory
dresses in calico and glass beads.

Gentle Country: your house is
still so vast that the train runs along its track
Like a Christmas present in a toyshop.)

Here the train is not modernismo's mythological monster; it is a toy dwarfed by natural and human splendors. In the «Segundo acto», López Velarde continues his exaltation of the commonplace:

Suave Patria: te amo no cual mito,
sino por tu verdad de pan bendito,
como a niña que asoma por la reja
con la blusa corrida hasta la oreja
y la falda bajada hasta el huesito.

(LV, 268)                

(Gentle Country: I love you not as a legend,
but for the truth of your blessed bread,
as I love a young girl appearing at the railing
with her blouse reaching her ear
and her skirt down to her ankle.)

Like Vallejo's evocation of childhood scenes, there is a reverence for elemental satisfactions and a reduction of the grandiose to the commonplace. López Velarde's portrait of Mexico is a kaleidoscope of past and present. Even though his experiments in lexical and syntactical distortion in no way approach Vallejo's innovations, his expansion of content boundaries has been an important source for later poets.

In López Velarde's work the heritage of his modernista predecessors is clearly apparent, and he pays tribute to them as well in his literary criticism9. But like many of his generation, López Velarde will transform the provincial setting and the dynamics of eroticism with his apparent «simplicity». In this way he closes the modernista chapter and paves the way for another generation of Mexican poets. In his swings between the pull of a provincial past that can no longer be recaptured and the attraction of cosmopolitan temptations, López Velarde does not parody his poetic models as does Lugones. Leaving the paradigms to coexist side by side, he shows their incongruity with a fleeting sidelong gesture. As Neruda describes his practice:

Como si alguna vez hubiera visto la escena de soslayo y hubiera conservado fielmente una visión oblicua, una luz torcida que da a toda su creación tal inesperada claridad10.

(As if at some time he had glimpsed the scene out of the corner of his eye and had faithfully conserved an oblique vision, a twisted light that gives his whole creation such unexpected clarity.)

With no need of twisting the swan's neck, a gesture enacted previously by Enrique González Martínez, López Velarde changes the perspectives in viewing many of modernismo's favored scenes. He redecorates their interiors, sees them with the rapt wonder of a child, and changes their profusion of harmonies to sing to «el son del corazón».