Beyond the Sea brings together two book-length sequences first published in Mexico in the early years of the century, both taking their origins from Greece, a matter of central importance for the poet for many years. Fittingly, for subject-matter thoroughly drenched in the Greek past, the poems are odes and dithyrambs;
the gods are there, imagery that has echoed across the centuries is here transposed into a limpid modern Mexican poetry, composed with the lightest of touches. Here the Mayans of Bonampak meet the Minoans of Knossos, united across the centuries and thousands of miles by their preservation in wall-paintings, and by their
observer. Here the gods meet our gaze, and come forth, raised from the ashes of history. They are no dead; they are not forgotten; they have merely been sleeping only to be awoken by the poet. Elsa Cross is one of the most important living Mexican poets, and this ne translation does her work spectacular justice.
FULL OF VINE, FULL OF LIFE
by Enrique Héctor González
The death by water that T.S. Eliot poeticized and prophesied in his Wasteland is the reverse of the plot of liquid fertility that only the nymphs and satyrs, in the Greek world, knew how to lavish through dance and desire, through harmony and bestiality. That a poet like Elsa Cross (let's avoid the proper imprudence of calling her a poetess, a legitimate voice but full of archaic debris) resurrects in her last books some classical lyrical genres --the ode, the elegy, the dithyramb-- and incorporates in this way, all proportion kept, to the profitable Hellenism of some other national poets (García Terrés, Gutiérrez Vega), is a matter that does not cease to attract attention, since the delicacy of its timbre and the precision of its rhythm and images fully match the sapphic tone of her poetic work.
Sacred poetry that recovers the forms, nature and intentions of the music; verses that slide like a shadow between the fingers; lines that roll down the page like the lines of a water hand; phrases that solfe in their infinite brilliance: luminous stones, rolling pebbles. The dithyrambic poems of Cross perform on the page a measured juggling act of celebration, for the exalted tone of the texts inspired by Bacchus has in The Wine of Things, a venial air of quiet pleasure that refers less to the exuberance of drunkenness than to the caress after intercourse and the laughing hangover that begins to take over the body and the spirit of those who tear
the tedium of shapes
-voices and their finite scale,
frayed like a saddle,
breaks its mounting gnawed away like a packet.
Are we dealing with a classical work (in the worst and mummified sense of the term) or a mystical one (in the only one it has)? It is not to be believed; rather, we are dealing with an author whose metaphorical metabolism assumes in ancestral voices the reverberation of her voice, which in order to modulate itself, like almost no one in our midst, resorts to the old knowledge of classical antiquity, of the Eastern world, of Mayan sacredness. With a cadence from which the verses are breaking off, from which the words fall like leaves on their air-filled pages -- the enjambements are discreet and the syllabic silhouette of each line is very well turned -- the breaking of the verticality of the poems, produced by introducing the internal margin, allows another voice to be incorporated, incessantly, into the text, another accent. Since Mallarmé, many poets have been using this resource: Elsa Cross systematizes it, makes the poem zigzag by introducing that sacred verse that invites to be read in another tone, as if the line of thought of the poem's I, which descends verse by verse in the valley of the left margin, suddenly, as in the Greek theatre, it would need the counterpoint of the coryphaeus, of that voice which emphasizes its sentences spoken half a tone higher or lower, as if in a relief, to give the poem a sculptural appearance which fills the pant of its panting with nuances and shadows.
Worthy of, among others, the Aguascalientes National Poetry Prize and the Jaime Sabines International Poetry Prize, Elsa Cross’ poetry is a project in each new publication, a search around the same figure, the traceless face of a faceless body, the song in which “silence takes the shape / of your hands”. Oceanides, Nictides, Aeolides, all of them nymphs busy with the element of their own (the sea, the night, the wind), are some of the poems in this dithyrambic book that wanders between the ethereal grace of its translucent appearance and the threatening instability that is hidden in all the advocations of beauty.
The texts, in their careful cruelty, in the dangerous elegance of their images, record these disorders of temperament:
Against the backlight
among elusive snakes
They sing at night
Debone drowned men.
If the daughters of the sea smile and go astray, seduce for the sake of butchering, those of the wind “murmure,” go “snaking,” “hissing,” “unleash their startled cry,” while those of the night, “They are mothers of Chaos / dismanteling / coherent lines.” They are figures, then, full of uncertainty because they are beautiful, and Elsa Cross goes through the astonishing score of these mythological characters to sing in their boats tunes destined to shipwreck with a precision and a pulse that badly corresponds to the disproportionate nature of the catastrophe. And yet, in the poem this incoherence works in such a way that one could even say that the core of the book lies in this equivocal balance.
If it were a matter of drawing a line that ran through and recorded the sequence of the poems in The Wine of Things, that succession would be a winding curve followed —or, better said, abruptly interrupted— by hacks bewitched by short and long lines that fall off and act as contrasting figures, rough and diaphanous, that unexpectedly become, new morbid curves of a creepy, lucid, ungraspable sensuality.
From “Invocation”, the poem with which the book begins, to the “Songs of the Aegean” that close it, everything is a constant flow of lights and shadows that celebrate on the page the most unthinkable weddings, the most passionate ones. The fact that a poet knows how to offer the reader moments of placidity in the midst of a squall, or of distrust in the purest serenity of two frolicking bodies, is the display of a more than accomplished mastery: the art of interweaving froth and dust storm.
The book is then offered as a body, as a glass of wine, as the nuptials of eroticism and oenology. It is not in vain that Dionysus is the god of exaltation and enjoyment, of intoxication and surrender to pleasure, yes, but also of the theatre, that mask behind which life itself is ritualized. The poems of the book, therefore, assume a ceremony that is not at all solemn but hypnotic: the voice of the great inner roar where “meaning is fired” and “only the swaying” remains: the “surf of lovers”.
Anyone who is not used to modern poetry will have the opportunity to face it, when they come across The Wine of Things in the corridors of a bookshop, with neat and deceptive work; the latter because —I'm talking about a casual reader— the poems give the impression, in their softness and elegance, of saying everything without difficulty or roughness, as if Elsa Cross was “speaking” in this way. But that is precisely what the poet's work consists of. It is a matter of filing down, of reducing daily speech to its minimum expression, which in poetry is always proof that we are faced with a writing that has left things the size they should be, severely worked on until they are delicately brief, intense, free of the excess that the language suffers in almost all other jargon, since in good poetry the wine of things is poured out and drunk in sips that last barely a sigh on the tongue.
[Translation: Denissa Greenwood]
La Jornada Semanal,
Suplemento cultural de La Jornada,
17 de julio de 2005