Magdalena Chocano’s poetry takes us into a very interesting area where the relationship between utterance, light, and event has no fixed resolution and is always singular, with the result that the poem becomes itself an event among events: ‘only my word dissimilar to the light, | will illuminate, will reveal the shoe’s sign.’ The act the poem refers to – looking at a pair of beautiful red shoes – becomes the made thing which is the act of poetry. Thus ‘poesía alumbra las palabras’ [poetry illuminates the words], as she writes in an essay. Instead of the theological model, where the Word brings light into darkness, ‘unconcealing’ things into their truth, the word that makes the poem conceals and reveals in the same act, which means among other things that the poet exposes the strategies of ordinary discourse, but without substituting another truer one, since what is normally said is not for Chocano a layer which can somehow be peeled away like a wrapping so as to reveal what is behind it.
If customary discourse, like the actions of power which it is, can become – in the poem – semi-visible like breath on mirrors – a favorite figure of Chocano’s – then among the consequences that follow are that the play of revelation and concealment is an occurrence of power relations, and that to read the poems is to be invited into hearing words in that mode. But lest this sound like the dryness of a calculation that obeys a desire to prove something, it needs adding that Chocano’s poetry is unsubmissive to any scheme of belief or routine of resentment. It is guided by necessities of imagination as survival.
Her early poems, published in the book Poesía a ciencia incierta, are inhabited by the figure of a girl whose refusal to submit is their generative soul and life: ‘she plays seriously, | she is cruel, | she dreams, | she waits, | breathes inside me implacable, fierce creature.’ She is at the same time a specifically female resource and a muse, whose mythological connotations include the figure of Athena, maker of war and guardian of the intellect, capable of surviving ‘in the eye of the storm’: ‘I am always looking at a girl | and my eyes shine in the night, | . . . she puts voice in words.’
Another poem gives an account of the education of the poet as one who wanted ‘to grasp the pure notion [noumenon] of things’ but spent endless hours doing geography homework and discovered that looking at windows or drinking cola yielded ‘the most solemn abstraction’ and found the seeds of the poem in old tropes like ‘a dagger shines in the sky’, which would later yield a sense of how unlike things can fuse together ‘in the metaphor | or dark stratagem of the poem.’
In another poem she writes, ‘words have shone | at the mortal extremes | light in light / | shadow in shadow – | freedom is to conceal oneself.’ The ‘severe art’ of concealment is necessary for ‘a girl who plots her future.’ The poems I am quoting from belong to the book whose title, Stratagem in chiaroscuro [Estratagema en claroscuro], refers to the play of light and darkness not as an illusion of luminosity but as the edge of the mind placed before itself. The poems are mysterious and clear at the same time. Search the poem for the poet and you will find only ‘the mortal words simulating that a poet exists | . . . uniting nothingness with the nothingness over which a | thousand eyes echo vainly searching for him’.
Chocano writes in an essay on the Peruvian poet Martín Adán, ‘Poetry rescues the slownesses and speeds which live in the depth of human sensibility, and presents them on a luminous surface as spectacle of the mind before itself. Poetry is, therefore, a risky and extreme adventure of human consciousness.’ Adán is one of the inventors of neobaroque poetry, a tradition which Chocano has been affected by. She is an admirer of Góngora, and in her own work mixes the diction of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries with modern speech. Herself a Peruvian, she writes: ‘Peru is and has been a territory of dreams . . . a country whose present strengthens the suspicion that it has lived every decadence but not a single triumph.’ As a historian who has published work on Peruvian (and Mexican) history, she is deeply concerned with finding ways to break with the rhetoric of ‘what would have happened if . . . ? ‘: the habit of thinking of Peru as an unfulfilled promise which has plagued the writing of Peruvian history with emotional sloppiness. Her own habit of thinking is skeptical, and attentive to actual experience as the test of validity.
What there is of darkness, concealment, and somnambulism in her poems is also accompanied by that skepticism: ‘to be cold and luminous | – to destroy with pleasure that which clouds us’, as she writes in the first poem of the present selection. The result is an unusual intellectual density in the inseparable interplay of emergence and concealment, where the challenge is to take nothing for granted, since poetry is freedom of form, capable of transgressing and changing the one who makes or receives it.
The selection of poems that follows was made by the poet, with the exception of two earlier poems which the translators felt gave a more complete sense of her work. The poems in Spanish and versions in English were read by the poet and translators in May 1995 at SubVoicive. Chocano has a third book, as yet unpublished (Del orden de la niebla en los espejos [Of the order of mist in mirrors]), a number of poems from which have appeared in journals.