Pedro Serrano’s Peatlands

(This is my intro to the just-out selection of poems by the marvellous Mexican poet, Pedro Serrano, editor of Periodico de Poesia. Anna Crowe is the (excellent) translator in Arc‘s ongoing and highly recommended Visible Poets series. As I’ve said before, Arc’s commitment to translation should be praised loudly, for extending beyond the usual famous names and narrowly Eurocentric focus which seems to be what some other publishers understand by the term ‘translation.’ There are plenty of key European figures in this series of, now, 37 books – Radnóti and Rózewicz leap to mind – but half the joy is in the discovery of farther flung and more recent figures. Serrano is a perfect example of both.)

Pedro Serrano is one of poetry’s great natural ambassadors, moving on the one hand between cultures, whether between his native Mexico and Spain, or between the Spanish-speaking world and the Anglo-Saxon; and on the other between the physical world and the human. The debatable territory between consciousness and instinct, and between landscape and animal (including the human animal), is one of his core concerns. As he says in ‘The Cove at Aiguafreda’:

Shrinking, we came up against the pebble’s roughness,
a wall from which the sandstone’s rubbed away,
the outline of ourselves.
Faults and fissures of mineral accretions, that’s what we are.

I first knew of him as editor and translator of the anthology he produced with Carlos López Beltran, La generación del cordero (Trilce, 2000), which brought my generation of poets into Spanish for the first time. I first met him in person when he was living in Barcelona in 2004, when his wife was there on diplomatic work, and he acted as host and dragoman, introducing me to the poets of that city, the dead as much as the living.

Here, in an irony he would appreciate, I must confess to misremembering the Catalan restaurant he took us to for my own mythopoeic purposes – I lost the notes I made, and determined that it was the Casa Leopoldo, favourite haunt of Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, after whom Camilleri named his famous Sicilian detective. Somehow I never quite got round to asking him whether I’m right or, more likely, wrong.* (As he says in ‘Drawing the Boundary’, ‘The fact is, I do not believe in myself’.)

Both as editor and as littérateur, the generous inclusivity of his imagination shone out then, and does so now with striking clarity in this comprehensive selection of his work. His poetry shows his twin reflexes, like the contraction and extension of the muscles of the heart: the urge to curiosity and then communication.

Author of half a dozen collections between 1986 and 2009, with another, reflecting his time in Barcelona, represented here but still to be published, he has a pronounced gift for the musicality of Spanish, as evinced by his interest in libretto. His poetry has demarked its own distinctive territory from the outset – indeed it is about territories, both invoking and, especially, embodying them: the body becomes a kind of geography, and its passions and functions are seen almost as species of weather. As he states in a passage that seems at the heart of his poetics:

Trade winds pass over the chest, swim blue over the hands, pass.
Fear returns, re-establishes itself in the ungodliness of the waist,
you have to go back to the source of the pain, make it
become dream,
pounce in the act of flight, decontract.
Its breath grows before my eyes like pasture,
sex’s sweet black majesty, its crammed and sweaty pubis,
the open presence that I penetrate.
From my centre the wrong windows shatter, grow still.
An immaterial melting makes the flesh flesh,
stone is crushed, becoming sand.
To enter is to come to one’s own centre, a flowing wisdom.

A marvellous love poet, though, as this example indicates, one concerned with relationship in the metaphysical as much as the sexual or familial senses, he tends less toward the poetry of disrupted social contract and political tension that we find in a Latin American contemporary like, say, the Argentinian poet Joaquín O. Giannuzzi, and more to the atavistic impulse we recall in the Neruda of ‘Too Many Names’:

When I lived among the roots
they pleased me more than flowers did,
and when I spoke to a stone
it rang like a bell.

This is not to say there is an avoidance of the violence that we as humans are so ingenious at – in one of his more stunning images (and one which has a neatness and elaboration we would associate with the Metaphysical poets, but which in the Spanish tradition perhaps derives equally from Surrealism and from Góngora), he compares the turning Earth to a revolver:

We are a chamber in darkness,
the globe a revolver.
The world is night and we are there inside it,
loaded and expectant bullets.

It would however be more accurate to observe that in his work, as Blake asserts, everything that lives is holy, and each human function is as appropriate as another for the purposes of poetry. In ‘The Liminating Art’ (notice how neatly Anna Crowe’s translation catches the original ‘El Arte de Fecar’: the play on ‘eliminating’ matching precisely that on ‘defecar’), Serrano draws on the reductive Catalan tradition of the Caganer or ‘shitter’ to draw out a surprisingly elegant comparison between the place of the excreter and the escritoire.

There is as that example suggests a directness to his work despite the elegance of his language, so brilliantly and unerringly matched by these scrupulous translations. He is unafraid of the large gesture, as in ‘It is cold in the vast and unprotected slaughter-house of the heavens’ (from the opening of ‘Three Lunatic Songs’), or of drawing out the interrelation between art (particularly, of course, poetry) and life: ‘I fold my body into this attentive pen’.

In this, he is both a counter and a corrective to the too frequent British assumption that the rhetorical tends only to excess or to artificiality. Forever testing our boundaries, he will turn from a poem about a mermaid to one about a saleswoman with a sense that the juxtaposition, the disjunction, is part of the point.

The intention throughout his work appears to be nothing less than visionary: to transform us through language, compelling us to rethink, re-imagine and re-envision the world and our place in it; and to break down our unconsidered assumptions about opposed categories like thought and feeling, human and animal, by continually returning us to the matrix of the body – ‘To enter is to come to one’s own centre, a flowing wisdom’.

There is in this something at once Quixotic and compelling. What we make of the world, he suggests, is ourselves, at once a fiction and the only meaningful gesture. At its finest, Pedro Serrano’s poetry is both completely involving and seemingly inevitable, and in its aspiration to be an act as well as a force of nature, we find ourselves challenged and marvelously reconfigured.

* Pedro tells me it was in fact the Can Massana, a favourite haunt indeed, but of Jaime Gil de Biedma. I am strangely indifferent to the enormity of my error.

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About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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3 Responses to Pedro Serrano’s Peatlands

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