By Greg Bem
And by then Reality was / an impetuous phantasmagoria
(from “King’s Gambit,” page 15)
At long last, the Peruvian poet Rodolfo Hinostroza’s majestic Contra natura is available to the English-speaking audience. This work is a crucial component of late 20th-century poetry attuned to the modernist collecting, the surrealist melting, and the complex humor that follows the community footsteps of poets throughout South America. Contra natura is not a long sequence of poetry, at roughly 60 pages, but it is packed with stunning lines, overlapping themes and symbols, and the voice of Hinostroza himself, a witty and multifaceted master of poetic ceremonies who bridges a range of tones and examinations within the heart of the book’s sequence.
Goodbye fucked dreams, goodbye your pulse,
(from “King’s Gambit,” page 17)
The text was originally published in 1970, having been acknowledged and awarded by Octavio Paz via the Maldoror Prize in Barcelona. The storied history of the poet and his work is worth examining in the book’s extensive introduction, graciously provided by the book’s translator, US-based Anthony Seidman. One might find elements of Paz’s distillation in the text, just as one might find the devouring essence of Lautreamont himself, but more prominently we have a book of wholly original and undeniably impenetrable poetry that both fits and stands unencumbered without comparison.
In many moments, this incomparable core matches the poet’s consciousness and intentions, flighty and sturdy and beckoning: “the world for which I fancied myself mediator / never existed,” he writes in “Imitation of Propertius,” page 31. It is awesome indeed to see the poet call forth the style and concerns of Sextus Propertius in this example, though one needn’t dive deeply into the history of Latin poetry to understand the calm binding to history within the Peruvian’s lines. The layers between word and reference remind me of exploring Olson or Pound at length, wondering and wandering, exploring how deep each reference might go.
The uniqueness and brevity of this book fits well within a relatively straightforward translation; straightforward in the sense that the poetry makes sense, is digestible, and tends to match the Spanish succinctly in a masterful though playful way. Seidman has done a marvelous job at capturing Hinostroza’s energy and making it feel freshly contemporary, arriving today, and yet it maintains a touch of the late modernist period as well, moving around the essence of culture and community through which the book was originally written.
A wave of migratory birds flew over your forehead
you were the girl of the orange trees
(from “Problems of Brabantio,” page 55)
Visually stunning, the poems often read like a descent taken down a magnificent staircase toward some destination of rest. (The poet himself remarks, in another section of “Imitation of Propertius,” “there is only one singer for the ascent / and a thousand for the descent” (page 43). So true in the application of style and form from poem to poem.
Often stanzas last dozens of lines, only cut off by way of subsections within each poem, or new poems entirely. I was taken by lines like: “and that summer we stretched out on the beaches of Spain / incandescence of eyes,” which open and shut an image in a single breath (from “Celebration of Lysistrata,” page 47). Later in the book, where the poet begins to bring in visual symbols and explore limits of the written word, we see Hinostroza’s internal comments fulfill and instill a density to the image: “it was not the vibration of the protoplasm / not a shapeless thing not a swamp / confused libraries yellowing beneath the sun” (from “Hommage à Vasaraely,” page 65). The splicing cluster comes as quickly as it goes, powerfully incising like a haiku, relieving, and confounding, all the same.
Images often make up natural divisions in theme and structure, though they are not kept to a line, a couplet, or other traditional boundaries. The poems read with a sense of ecstasy or exasperation, reflecting the energy of Hinostroza and his peers. The attractiveness seems to logically connect with the poet’s fame in younger and current generations of poets in Peru.
Still, the book is no cakewalk and is as difficult as it is accessible. For each image that feels astounding, there results a sequence of questions over the image’s placement and inclusion, a puzzlement muddying the overall trajectory of each poem. This messiness, a beautiful, organized chaos, is what Charles Bernstein describes in the book’s opening review quotes as a “a gift to English.” Even Paz once remarked to Hinostroza that the book would change Hinostroza’s life. The whole book is a treasure, but often the value, I think, is within its mysteries, its complexities, its nuances, similar to the work of Uruguayan poet Marosa di Giorgio.
A desert, no doubt, something sun-scorched. The sun. Remember it?
There’s a sun outside!
(from “Dialogue Between a Prisoner and Deaf Man,” page 25)
It is impossible to succinctly describe the folds that go into the content, both of scope and meaning, in Contra natura, so instead I invite you, reader, to find this book and explore on your own. Like Blaser, like Spicer, like Waldman, like Baraka, there will explode within the confines of the page lines pluming and spinning and expanding. It may or may not feel as of or against the natural, but it will catch your focus all the same. It is an optimistic book, one that captures attention and imposes drive, imposes will. Moments of chaos are often closed with a vibrance or slow fade into harmony (if not a forlorn form of it), as we see in the book’s title poem: “the peace and beauty of this world have spread over me / our bodies / successive timeless hommages to the daybreak of life” (page 111). It is in these moments, inclusive of all the emotion bound to history and compilation, that we can read a permanence in Hinostroza’s work.
You can find the book here: https://cardboardhousepress.org/Contra-Natura-Rodolfo-Hinostroza
Greg Bem is a poet and librarian living on unceded Duwamish territory, specifically Seattle, Washington. He writes book reviews for Rain Taxi, Yellow Rabbits, and more. His current literary efforts mostly concern water and often include elements of video. Learn more at gregbem.com.