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Efraín Huerta: Epitaph for the Crocodile

by Ilan Stavans


Efraín Huerta’s friends nicknamed him “the Crocodile,” a suitable title, no doubt, as the reptile is known, in folklore at least, for its thick, armor-like skin, long, tapering jaws, and combative demeanor, but it is also docile and susceptible. The image fits Huerta to the letter: he is best known for a type of lyrical poetry almost extinct today, one devoted to explorations of love and solitude: he fuses eroticism with a fight against injustice. Throughout his sixty-eight years, he nurtured a deep-seated faith in human redemption that took him from an initial infatuation with Marxism to an interest in street voices delivered without condescension. But what is most intriguing is that at first sight Huerta’s oeuvre seems menacing and even cold, but a closer look reveals it to be the product of a subtle, tender heart. “Llora lágrimas de cocodrilo,” the popular Mexican song says: He cries a crocodile’s tears.

Huerta belongs to a generation of Mexican poets born around World War I (he was born in 1914) who gathered around the magazine Taller, which published a total of twelve issues between 1938 and 1941 and included, among other contributors, Octavio Paz, Rafael Solana, Enrique González Martínez, Alberto Quintero Alvarez, and Neftalí Beltrán. It was an elegant periodical and a model of aesthetic commitment. The late thirties were a decade of intense political turmoil, and Huerta was a leading figure in the group, the one remaining most loyal to his pro-Soviet affiliation. That affiliation, in fact, from his glorification to Joseph Stalin as a messiah in his book Poemas de guerra y esperanza (1943) to his praise of the USSR, as in his poem “Descubrimiento de Moscú,” included in Los poemas de viaje (1945), is one of the lowest points in his artistic quest. It is not unique, however, in a continent whose artists have at times been blinded by the oratory of a fascist state masked as redemptive. But Huerta is not a poet easy to pigeonhole. He matured, using his talents not only to shock but to narrate his outer and inner life and his relationship with Mexico City at a time of colossal growth for the metropolis. Huerta’s compassion for the weak and his daring joie de vivre make him a compass of sorts, useful for understanding the contradictions of a modernity haphazardly implemented south of the Rio Grande.

Octavio Paz included a handful of Huerta’s poems in New Poetry of Mexico, a volume published by E. P. Dutton (and edited by Mark Strand) in 1970. To my knowledge, that was the first and only time Huerta appeared in English prior to this anthology, which is patiently translated by Jack Hirschman and Jim Normington. In it Huerta’s entire gamut of personal influences, as well as his pantheon of heroes, are on display. He began as a Surrealist infatuated by Paul Eluard, then moved—in reaction to the ideological ambiguity of the generation of poets prior to his, known as Los Contemporáneos—to an affiliation with the Communist Party, as a result of which he befriended the novelist José Revueltas. His 500,000 Azaleas contains tributes to Roque Dalton, Ernesto Che Guevara, and Federico García Lorca at the times of their deaths, as well as hidden homages to Pablo Neruda and poems dedicated to as disparate figures as Paz and the Cuban essayist Roberto Fernández Retamar.

Mexico for Huerta is a source of constant ambivalence. The extent of his engagement with its past and present is manifold. At one point he intones a celebration to President Lázaro Cárdenas’s nationalization of the oil industry in 1938, while elsewhere he invokes a “liberty with its face of a dog” and sings to muralists Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco as symbols of resistance. He attacks the Catholic Church as being built on dishonesty and intrigue and accuses it of betraying its people. This passion is best exemplified in a line from “My Country, Oh My Country!”:

Loving, yearning, miserable, opulent,
Country that doesn’t answer, country of sorrow.
A child who questions seems like a dead child.

The zeitgeist provided fertile ground for a poet such as Huerta to indulge in political debates, a quality altogether absent from the aesthetics of today’s Mexicans. In the following poem he looks at U.S.-Mexican relations with suspicion, ridiculing Washington’s foreign loans, with their numerous tentacles:

Thank you, Golden Calf! Thank you, FBI!
Thank you, a thousand thanks, dear Mister President!
Thank you, honorable bankers, honest industrialists,
generous monopolists, sweet speculators;
thank you, industrious estate owners,
thank you a thousand times, glorious country-sellers,
thank you, people of order.

And, as did many other contributors to Taller, especially Paz, Huerta, in the famous poem “El Tajín,” approaches the pre-Colombian ruins as a locus from which to reflect on the treacherous twists of history. (The poem serves as a suitable counterpoint to Paz’s “Himno entre ruinas.”)

Huerta’s rhetoric is at times hard to take. But his is not a poetry of propaganda that should be forgotten. Quite the contrary. Through his work it is possible to chart, sometimes better than in that of any other poet, the ups and downs of left-wing poetry in the Southern Hemi-sphere in the twentieth century. Huerta traveled to the United States and chronicled segregation in the South, rightly pointing the finger not only at the Ku Klux Klan but also at an institutionalized racism turned upside down by the Civil Rights era. His poem “Alabama in Bloom,” dedicated to Paul Robeson, is quite uncommon in Mexican letters, as is “Mississippi Nocturne.” In fact, I cannot think of a poet of that country, let alone an essayist, for whom the fate of blacks in America is so deeply felt. It is of course present in Cuba’s Nicolás Guillén and Chile’s Pablo Neruda. But Mexican poetry of that period—actually, from the fifties to the nineties—is overwhelmed by the presence of Paz, and after Fidel Castro’s revolution in Cuba, Paz began to slowly oscillate to the center-right, denouncing Neruda and distancing himself from any form of active support to left-wing causes. So luminous was Paz’s voice that it easily eclipsed those of many of his contemporaries, including Huerta. So the reading of such poetry, even if Manichean, feels refreshing today, now that Paz’s persona is placed in its proper context. Huerta sympathized with Cuba, and his sympathy didn’t diminish with time. (Among the island’s intellectuals, he befriended and maintained a standing correspondence with José Lezama Lima, and it was left to Huerta’s son David, author of Incurable (1987), to edit an anthology in Mexico of Lezama Lima’s work.) In a tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr., the entire Vietnam era is brought to light in all its strident power. Huerta establishes a bridge between King’s tragic death and that of Abraham Lincoln more than a century earlier. He writes:

When Abraham Lincoln was assassinated
a bit of dusk fell upon the Black world
and one after another the prayers followed
like a bitter river of tears.

While still young, Huerta went to law school but switched to journalism in 1936, contributing to Mexico’s leading newspapers. He also worked for some time as a film critic. I have with me an album of photographs of his. In one he is next to Mario Moreno “Cantinflas,” while in others he stands next to María Félix, Julio Bracho, and Emilio “El Indio” Fernández. The cinema, however, hardly ever infuses with his poetry. This might be because poetry, Huerta trusts us to remember, is anything but entertainment. Its value is in its effort to conceptualize a view of the universe that calls attention to the eros and pathos that inhabit us. He used Hemingway and Kafka as extreme characters to expound on the clash between inspiration and force, between courage and contemplation: the former he saw as a force of nature, made of the “old blood of a bull” (but “blessed be that damned blood of yours”), whereas the author of The Metamorphosis was tortured to the point that he wrote on his skin the word “abyss.” Between these extremes Huerta oscillated.

His heart was torn between engagement and aloofness. Toward the end of his life—he died in 1982—Huerta practiced a shorter form of poetry, a kind of sarcastic haiku he called poemínimos. (A handful of them, such as “Tame Hyperbole,” are included in this anthology.) His greatest legacy, however, is neither those mini-poems nor his quest for liberty in life and in art, which at times comes across as inflammatory. It is, rather, his songs to Mexico City and his romantic verses. His 500,000 Azaleas includes examples of both. Their status in Huerta’s canon is best appreciated not in isolation but in the flux of his overall poetic vision. “Declaration of Hatred,” for instance, is an astonishing portrait of the megalopolis as an angry, all-devouring place. From the first line on, the poet doesn’t hesitate to call attention to its bestial qualities. History and the speed of the present collide in it. A city “of ash and volcanic stone,” Huerta calls it, a “city of pavement, blood and lifeless sweat,” “black,” “angry,” and “boring”—tepid, nightmarish, a dance of millions of people swallowed by indifference and anonymity. These adjectives echo the invocations of Mexico’s colonial poets, such as Bernardo de Balbuena, Francisco de Terrazas, and especially Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora, and, more recently, novelists Carlos Fuentes and José Agustín and the poet José Emilio Pacheco, among others. Huerta stands out among them as an angry, vociferous voice with a Whitmanesque cadence.

Indeed, Huerta strikes me as a poet heavily indebted to Leaves of Grass. Many of his urban poems invoke the body electric of Whit-man with enormous power, a Whitman channeled through the eyes and ears of a García Lorca. (Neruda once described Huerta as “Mexico’s García Lorca.”) A poem to the traffic-intense Avenida Juárez, reminiscent of “My Country, Oh My Country!” includes the following stanza:

There’s a river of crystals and flames in the air,
A sea of blooming voices, a moan of savagery,
Things and thoughts that wound;
There’s the brief murmur of the dawn
And the scream of agony of one night, then another night,
All the nights of the world
In the twitching smell of the bitter mouths.

Whitman, of course, was not about American progress and nationalism, as people tend to think, but rather about “the incomparable things,” as Emerson suggested, the clash of philosophical and religious principles—in short, about ecstasy. Huerta, too, is very much an antagonist: his vision of the urban landscape is fatalistic, of millions of people forming a river of conformity. No mysticism in Huerta, no superior force, only an implacable feeling of fatalism for a nation oblivious to its own riches. “How many millions of men will speak English?” he asks, and then says: “One asks the question and one moves away from the same question as if from a burning nail.” But he doesn’t place himself above the masses. Rather, he is part of them, and lets go in the ecstasy of oblivion.

Huerta’s romantic self is equally assertive but far less thespian, and less utopian, too. (The scholar Frank Dauster described it as “the sword of eros.”) In fact, in his poetry the object of love, represented by women, is a metaphor of the city as a whole. He simultaneously invokes affection and repulsion when singing to his beloved muse, just as he has a love-hate relationship with Mexico City. Still, tenderness and compassion are qualities of this portion of his oeuvre. In “The Clamor of Dawn,” for example, he uses romantic elements—flowers, a kiss, a child’s sight—to intone feelings of belonging but also confusion. He does the same in “Elegy for a White Rose” and “Dawn from a Star.” The latter begins:

From a sky a nard,
From the red solitude,
From my slow, lonely life
I contemplate your existing,
A lengthy kiss, feverish hands,
Hair like underwater light.
From a star my perfect desire
And cool customary dawn and hope.

It seems almost impossible that the same poet who sings against colonialism, pays homage to the leaders of the Civil Rights era, depicts Mexico’s capital as a place that “ought to be and isn’t,” and portrays Che Guevara’s demise as being “loaded with the death of centuries,” should indulge such gentle, unideological tonalities. Therein, I’m convinced, lies Huerta’s most compelling characteristic: he is capable of a wide gamut of divergent feelings. “Love is the mercy we possess,” he announces. Instead of repressing his vulnerable emotional side, instead of opposing it to the poet éngagé that Neruda best personified for him, he not only allows himself to be inhabited by uncertainty about the durability of human affection, but also extracts as much juice from such uncertainty as is possible.

Lágrimas de cocodrilo . . . Efraín Huerta’s poetry is about façades, about the peeling off of layers, about outspokenness and introversion not as rivals but as complements. He is only ambivalent about the most intimate of feelings but never about politics, a terrain in which he sees no room for doubt. That ambivalence makes him reach levels of astonishing desolation in his work. I know of few artists capable of such extremes.

 

Ilan Stavans teaches at Amherst College. His book The Inveterate Dreamer: Essays and Conversations on Jewish Culture (Nebraska) was published in February. His memoir On Borrowed Words (Viking) will be released in August, and he is writing the introduction to 500,000 Azaleas, an anthology of poetry by Efraín Huerta, to be published this year by Curbstone Press. (2001)


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