José Emilio Pacheco - a national classic. Las batallas is about adolescence, both of a boy named Carlos and of his country, Mexico. It is a look at memory—individual and collective—and the way that collective memory fuses into history and national identity. It is also a specifically Mexican look at the economic and cultural shifts of the 20th century

José Emilio Pacheco, Battles in the Desert & Other Stories. New Directions, 1987.  
read it at Google Books

Intense, despairing accounts of life in Mexico City.
Seven stories depict harsh realities of life in urban Mexico and the tragedies of childhood innocence betrayed.

The Spanish word historia can be translated as either “history” or “story.” This bit of information kept coming back to me the more I thought about the short fiction of Mexican writer José Emilio Pacheco. Pacheco is virtually unknown in the United States, but in Mexico his books are classics, required reading for many high school students.1 Even Café Tacuba, Mexico’s biggest rock band of the 1990s, paid tribute to Pacheco’s 1981 novella Las batallas en el desierto. This would be like Green Day saving space on their album to pen a tribute to Hester Pryne. Yet the only translation of Pacheco’s fiction available in English is New Direction’s slim 1987 collection Battles in the Desert and Other Stories (translated by Katherine Silver), which includes selected stories from two other books, El viento distante (The Distant Wind) and El principe de placer (The Pleasure Principle). How is it that a piece of literature that is so important in one country is so seldom read in a neighbor it shares a 3,000-mile border with?
Without diminishing their intrinsic literary merit, I think we could call some books national classics, read for what they say about a country’s enduring anxieties. In the United States, Huck Finn and The Scarlet Letter would fall into that category. In Mexico, one work would certainly be Octavio Paz’s El laberinto de soledad (Labyrinth of Solitude), and another would be Las batallas. Las batallas is about adolescence, both of a boy named Carlos and of his country, Mexico. It is a look at memory—individual and collective—and the way that collective memory fuses into history and national identity. It is also a specifically Mexican look at the economic and cultural shifts of the 20th century.
The epigraph to Las batallas (printed in English in the Spanish edition) is the first two sentences of J.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between: “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.” It’s an enigmatic statement: Does this mean that we can never understand the past? Or that any attempt to understand will only reveal more about the teller? Either way, we keep returning to that mysterious place called the past and looking at real foreign countries through their literature. As Israel writer Amos Oz recently wrote, “If you read a novel, you obtain a ticket into the most intimate recesses of another country and of another people.”
In some ways, reading another country’s history is like reading another person’s history, but in a book like Las batallas it’s doubled: here we absorb both personal and shared memories. I think of this process as “historia”: both story and history.
I. I Remember: Story
“I remember, I don’t remember.” With these words, Pacheco opens Las batallas. Carlos, our narrator, relates an event from decades before when he was a Mexico City schoolboy during the postwar presidency of Miguel Alemán (1946-1952). Basically, he falls in love with his friend Jim’s mother, Mariana. One day Carlos, who seems to be junior-high aged, leaves school, goes to Jim’s apartment, and confesses his love to Mariana. To Mariana and the reader, the love is something pure; to his friends and family, who send Carlos to the priest and psychologist, it is ridiculous and even disgusting. Carlos never sees Mariana or Jim again, though he does hear a rumor that she had committed suicide. It is a simple story of growing up—about the loss of “painful innocence” as Pacheco describes it in his story “August Afternoon,” or “the violent beauty of awakening to the adult world” according to writer Vicente Alonso in his recent article “Crónicas de un País Extraño” (Chronicle of a Strange Country)2.
José Emilio Pacheco
But it’s not really an adolescent’s story; this is the story of an adult man remembering. He equates what is largely seen as an optimistic period in Mexico’s past with a event that has scarred him. We are reminded of his classmate, Jorge, who in “The Pleasure Principle” says “If . . . what I’m living now is the ‘happiest period of my life,’ what must the others be like, goddamn it.” Pacheco cuts through the blurry haze of memories to remind us how acute the pains of adolescence—personal and national—really were.
As the epigraph has warned, the past is infinitely remote from us: we can’t understand it or even judge it. Time and again, Carlos reminds us that the Mexico City he remembers is one that no longer exists. But this is no valentine to a bygone era—echoing the opening paragraph, the last two paragraphs read:
I remember, I don’t remember even what year it was. Just these bursts, these flashes of light that bring everything back and the exact words. . . . How ancient! how remote! What an impossible story! . . . They demolished the school; they demolished Mariana’s building; they demolished my house; they demolished the Roman Quarter. That city came to an end. That country was finished. There is no memory of the Mexico of those years. And nobody cares: who could feel nostalgic for that horror?
As Vicente Alfonso writes, Pacheco’s fiction is the opposite of nostalgia: “His stories are trips to the past, but to the horror of the past.” The characters “try to exorcize the ghosts that still remain from then.”
Most of the stories in Battles in the Desert and Other Stories concern precocious adolescent boys growing up in Mexico City in the postwar years. With one character after another, we see the boys’ preternatural predictions of how their memories will haunt them. “August Afternoon” (told in the second person), begins and ends with the lines, “You will never forget that August afternoon.” In Battles in the Desert, Carlos has a similar sentiment. “I am going to keep my memory of this moment intact because everything that now exists will never be the same again.” They are obsessed with how moments will be remembered. As Jorge in “The Pleasure Principle” writes in his diary, he “wanted to write it all down and save it to see if one day in the future all of this that is so tragic now will seem like a comedy.” Tragic, romantic, or comic, the present is almost more important for the memories it will create than for the lived experienced.
Yet at the same time that certain moments seem destined to last forever, Carlos forces himself to recognize that time continues. He sees a photograph of Mariana as an infant and says:
I felt a great wave of tenderness come over me when I thought about something one never thinks about because it is so obvious: Mariana had also been a little girl, she had been my age, and she would be a woman my mother’s age and then an old lady like my grandmother. But at that moment she was the most beautiful woman in the world.
Here, Carlos is wavering between his individual sense of time, this moment that is frozen forever (just like the photograph he looks at), and the historic time in which being born, falling in love, aging, and dying are the most ordinary occurrences in the world. The last sentence of the story reflects his attempts to integrate these two senses of time. Looking back as an adult, not sure if Mariana is still alive, he remarks, “If she is, she would be sixty years old.3 As a personal history his emotions are stuck in that extraordinary, life-freezing time, but as a collective memory Mariana’s life marches along with the passing of time and is forgotten.
II. The Mexican Miracle: History
If reminiscence is individual memory, then history is the sublimation of collective memory. Las batallas’s first chapter, “The Ancient World,” locates the narrative in a specific time by invoking collective memories. “We already had supermarkets, but still no television, only radio,” it begins and goes on to discuss who the sports commentators were, what cars were popular, what songs people listened to, and the disasters (polio, floods) that struck. There is an intimacy, almost coziness, to the narration, as the narrator seems to assume we remember the same time as he does. In fact, even for those of us who were not alive in the 1940s and 1950s, and who grew up in other countries to boot, these descriptions evoke a very particular time. Yet in the very second sentence, Carlos claims that, despite these precise cultural references, he does not know what year it was. Absolute historical reference is lost in the swarm of memories, the interpretation of history overpowering the fact of it.
As these references to collective events make clear, this isn’t just a book about a personal past, but about the specific past of Mexico. These historical and cultural explanations take up about half the space of the text, while Carlos’s interactions Jim and Mariana take up the remainder. It is as if Pacheco wanted to show that that individual and collective memories are equally significant in evaluating the past. Yet Pacheco himself is said to believe that no one outside of Mexico City would be interested in his books, as if cultural memory could belong only to those who have lived it. Of course this isn’t true—literature wouldn’t exist if we didn’t transcend the boundaries of our experience. Yet a little knowledge of Mexican history does help.
Most probably know that Mexico is defined by wars and marked by alternating periods of chaos and repression. It came into being as a nation in 1810 when it declared independence from Spain, though it took 11 bloody years for Spain to give up its colony. After winning independence, the country was invaded by both the United States and France. Then, strongman Porfirio Diaz came to power in 1877 and brought stability, but his 33 years of dictatorship so stifled the country that the opposition finally rebelled, initiating the decade-long Mexican Revolution during which two million were killed. Even after the Revolution, Mexico has been marked by several, albeit far smaller, episodes of violence and attempted rebellion, including the Cristero Rebellion by conservative Catholics who opposed the anti-clericism of the state.
For all of history’s continuing presence in Mexico, young Carlos finds it hard to believe that he does in fact live inside the progression of history and not in some post-historic age. He knows that the widow of former President Madero lives in his neighborhood, but finds it “unbelievable to me that I could see, even from afar, someone whose name appeared in the history books, a participant in events that had occurred 40 years before.” For Carlos, the Revolution, just one generation old, seems so ancient as to be irrelevant. He and his friends play in a courtyard with a secret passage that Cristeros (like those in his mother’s family) used during the Rebellion. “We thought this underground area was a vestige of some prehistoric era. Nevertheless the Cristero war was closer to us at that time than our infancy is to us now, ” he says. Wars and revolution seem part of another world. Yet for his parents “this was difficult . . . to believe, because their childhood, adolescence, and youth were spent against a background of constant battles and executions.” The question is, are the battles really over, or have they just moved into a new sphere?
In Carlos’s youth, President Alemán jump-started 20 years of rapid economic growth known as the “Mexican Miracle”—and also brought corruption into the heart of Mexican politics, something that Pacheco’s characters frequently discuss. As historian John W. Sherman says in his essay “The Mexican ‘Miracle’ and Its Collapse”:
Under Almena, Mexico pinned its economic hopes on a process of rapid industrialization. Largely financed through U.S. capital, this strategy made close ties to American business interests essential. Those ties, which had been disrupted earlier in the century by the Revolution . . . flourished anew in the postwar years.
The year that Carlos meets Mariana, an earthquake strikes and a comet appears. “It was said that these presaged an atomic war, the end of the world, or, at the very least, another revolution in Mexico,” he reports ambiguously. Instead of expanding upon this vision of revolution and apocalypse, the paragraph ends in pure prosaicism, telling how Carlos’s father sells his failing soap company, which couldn’t compete with American detergents, and becomes manager of the foreign company that bought him out. Something had indeed happened, just not the revolution they had envisioned. This time, leftists were co-opted, the middle class grew richer, and the “so-called Revolutionary government had ceased to be revolutionary,” according to historian Sherman. For some, Battles in the Desert suggests that as long as Mexico is financially and even culturally dependent on the United States, the Revolution has not succeeded, and Mexico isn’t really free.
In Mexico, the term malinchismo describes the tendency to view Mexican things as necessarily inferior to foreign things. (La Malinche was an indigenous Mexican who became Cortes’s mistress and enabled his conquest by translating for him; thus she is both the original traitor and the symbolic mother of the mixed-race mestizo people.) Malinchismo is related to the Mexican tendency to love American things but feel guilty about it, and in describing the postwar American influence on Mexico, Pacheco often hits with deadly accuracy: “Our parents got used to drinking jaibol [highballs], even though at first it had tasted to them like medicine. Tequila is prohibited in my house,” Carlos says. At Jim’s house, Carlos admires his American toys, their Sears furniture, and the concoction of processed foods that Mariana calls Flying Saucers.
Carlos’s family exemplifies the Miracle; when Carlos’s father owns the declining soap factory, they are part of the sliding middle class. Recognizing his future, the father goes to night school English classes and listens to records at home. “I know of no other adult who learned English in less than a year. Clearly, he had no choice,” observes Carlos. Yet once the now-bilingual father starts working for the international company, the entire family changes. Carlos now plays tennis at the Junior Club, while his older brother studies at the University of Chicago and his sisters move to Texas. The whole family plans to meet for Christmas at the Plaza Hotel in New York. Meanwhile, onetime classmate Rosales, whom Carlos had been scolded for calling “that Indian,” is reduced to selling gum on the buses Carlos rides. Subtly, insidiously, Carlos’s family becomes the elite that looks to the United States for guidance, while the indigenous Rosales slides ever deeper into poverty. Although Carlos’s father had once lectured him that in Mexico “we are all Indians,” he seems to have lost contact with that part of himself.
Even more than the Americanization, the book shows an English-ization of Mexico. We see the linguistic malinchismo everywhere from the mandatory English lessons at Carlos’s school and his father’s determined efforts to use the new words that have invaded the language: uasamara (what’s the matter), oquéi (okay), and sorry. Essayist Alfonso points out another facet of imperial English when he asks, “Why is Jim called Jim if he is the son of a politician who dedicated his life to the service of Mexico?”
However, no doubt inadvertently, Silver’s translation lessens the impact of encroaching English because we cannot see what words were in English in the original. When Mariana serves a snack of Flying Saucers, the name is still ridiculous, but not ridiculous and foreign. In the translation, it doesn’t stick out like the words Flying Saucers do in a page of Spanish. More serious is Silver’s changing of names. Are we to believe that Pacheco wrote a story about a Mexican boy named Arthur (not Arturo)? To make it worse, the same character is briefly mentioned as Arturo in Battles in the Desert. In this over-translated environment, the fact that another Mexican boy is named “Jim” obviously loses some of its jolt. (In fact, Jim’s real father is a Californian; his mother is the mistress of a rich Mexican official Jim calls his father.) Likewise, Silver changes place names; the Mexico City neighborhood known as Colonia Roma becomes the Roman Quarter. One almost expects to read that Jim’s father is from the bayside city of Saint Francis!4
For a generation identified in part by American influence, what is a Mexican? Different characters have different ideas. Carlos’s mother is from the conservative city of Guadalajara in the state of Jalisco, and “She detested everyone who was not from Jalisco. She thought that all other Mexicans were foreigners and particularly loathed those from the capital. She hated the Roman Quarter because all the good families were beginning to move out and only Arabs, Jews, and Southerners—people from Campeche, Chiapas, Tabasco, Yucatan—were moving in.” Yet while Carlos’s mother sees all non-Jaliscans as foreigners, Carlos’s school is attended by all kinds of real “foreigners”: Toru, who spent the war in one of Mexico’s Japanese internment camps, as well as Arab and Jewish immigrants. A teacher warns the Arabs and Jews not to fight the battles of their old lands: “You were born here. You are as Mexican as your fellow students,” a sentiment obviously not shared by Carlos’s own mother.
III. The Battles: Historia
Despite all of Mexico’s historical battles, the title of Battles actually refers to nothing in Mexican history. Instead, the “battles in the desert” are a playground game, a sort of current-event-oriented “cowboys and Indians” based on the fighting between Jews and Arabs in the newly created state of Israel. Although these wars seem far removed from Mexico, what ties together Jews, Arabs, and Mexicans of the 1940s and 1950s is nationhood. In Palestine, Jews and Arabs sought independence, to be recognized by both their own citizens and the outer world. Mexico, in the throes of the Mexican Miracle, did as well. Today, with NAFTA, growing immigration, and ever-stronger American cultural influences, those questions are more vital than ever.
The Mexico of his childhood is, as Carlos says, finished, but history has a way of resurfacing, with the same battles being fought over and over again. In the end, we are left asking not only What is a Mexican? but also What is Mexico’s place among nations? Is the revolution over and Mexico independent? How do countries, and people, deal with history, and what is the connection between them?
These are Mexican questions, but obviously American ones as well. In a heterogeneous, multi-cultural society, continuously transformed by immigration, how do we define what an American is? How much influence from other countries can we afford? Will we ever heal the traumas of racism, slavery, and Jim Crow? Sometimes the best way to learn about ourselves is from reading a novel, the story of another. Perhaps, for nations, the same truth holds. If the past is a foreign country, historia can be your passport.
____1Although this essay only concerns Pacheco’s fiction, he is also well known in Mexico as a poet and has published numerous collections of poetry.2Printed in the August/September issue of the Mexican journal Tierra Adentro, which focused on Pacheco. All translations from the journal are mine, and I take responsibility for any errors.3The last line of my Biblioteca Era Mexican edition has a slightly different final line: “If she were living today she would be eighty years old” (my translation). Apparently, when Pacheco revised the text in 1999 he updated her age to reflect the two decades that had passed since the original publication, thus keeping it chronologically “accurate” and in line with real history and reminiscence.4Unfortunately, this is not the only problem with the New Directions translation. There were several errors that should have been caught in the copyediting. In another example, when Carlos uses the words of an old song to describe his feelings for Mariana, in the original text they are not delimited, making us see that love is so new to him that the only words that truly express his feelings are hackneyed lyrics. They have become his own thoughts. In the translation, however, the words are set off as lyrics and do not seem to come from inside the boy’s own head. - Elizabeth Wadell
José Emilio Pacheco, City of Memory and Other Poems. Trans. by Cynthia Steele and David Lauer. City Lights Books, 1997.

The leading poet of his generation, Jose Emilio Pacheco is one of Mexico's most esteemed and beloved writers. City of Memory and Other Poems presents two of his finest poetry collections, accompanied by beautifully rendered translations.
The first, "City of Memory," touches on Pacheco's major literary obsessions: the destructive effects of time; the essential egotism and cruelty of the natural world, with humankind at its violent center; and the capacity of the human spirit to achieve transcendence. The second, "I watch the Earth," is an emotional catharsis, the poet's mediation on the tragic earthquake that devastated his native Mexico City in 1985. Together, these poems paint a vivid picture of the noble beauty and uncontrollable tragedy that is Mexico-and the world-today.
Jose Emilio Pacheco is the winner of the Jose Asuncion Silva Award for the best book of poetry to appear in Spanish from 1990 to 1995. Novelist, poet, essayist, and translator, he lives in Mexico City.

cover image for
José Emilio Pacheco, Selected Poems of Pacheco,  New Directions, 1987.   read it at Google Books

José Emilio Pacheco’s Selected Poems is the first major retrospective gathering to appear in an English-Spanish bilingual format of the work of one of Mexico’s foremost writers. Born in 1939, his talent was recognized early, and while still in his twenties he was already keeping company with the great Spanish-speaking poets of Latin America. A prolific poet and a perfectionist, Pacheco has since 1962 published seven volumes of poetry, including the National Poetry Prize-winning No me preguntes como pasa el tiempo (Don’t Ask Me How the Time Goes By) in 1969. Tarde o temprano, collected poems of 1958 to 1980, contains the revisions on which the translations in the present volume are based. The Selected Poems is edited by George McWhirter of The University of British Columbia, who worked closely with Pacheco himself in choosing the poems and their English translations. Besides McWhirter’s own versions are those by Thomas Hoeksema, Alastair Reid, and Linda Scheer, as well as Edward Dorn and Gordon Brotherston, Katherine Silver, and Elizabeth Umlas. Affirming the poet’s stature, McWhirter writes: "In his singularity of vision and multiplicity of poetic forms, traditional and modern, José Emillo Pacheco spans past and present in both Latin American and peninsular Spanish poetry. It is a glittering and giant technical achievement, as brilliant and instantly visible as Hart Crane’s The Bridge.

For José Emilio Pacheco time is the agent of universal destruction, and history—the passage of ruins... Pacheco exalts the triumph of nature over culture, but in exalting it, doesn't he transfigure it, changing it into the word, or—as he puts it—into 'fleeting music, the counterpoint of wind and water'?—Octavio Paz


José Emilio Pacheco, An Ark for the Next Millennium. University of Texas Press, 1993.

Jose Emilio Pacheco, the most talented poet of his generation, often writes poems in which animals act as his alter ego, conveying his perceptions - sometimes comic, often tragic - of the human condition. His Album de zoologia, of which this is the English version, gives voice to myriad creatures who inhabit land, sea, air, and even (mythically) fire. Through their perceptions, the poet challenges much of what is dark in the human psyche - cruelty toward ourselves and other life forms, destruction of the fragile world that all living creatures share.

Jose Emilio Pacheco was considered one of the finest writers in the Spanish language, winning the Cervantes Prize for Literature in 2009, the highest award for writers in what is the native language of more than 300 million people. The award from the Spanish Ministry of Culture was presented at the University of Alcala by Spain's King Juan Carlos. In his later years Pacheco became visiting Professor of Literature at the University of Essex.
He was best-known as a poet, and was widely regarded as the most important Mexican poet of the latter half of the 20th century, but he was also a journalist, essayist, literary critic and author of some 30 works including novels and short stories. In addition, he translated more than 20 works by English-language writers including Oscar Wilde, Hans Christian Andersen, Samuel Beckett, Lewis Carroll, Tennessee Williams, TS Eliot and Harold Pinter. His own works, mostly his collections of poems, were translated into English, French, German, Russian and Japanese.
Pacheco was one of a group of angry young Mexican poets, writers and journalists who came to prominence during the heady 1960s, addressing issues such as poverty and corruption in what was then effectively a one-party system, as well as raising new concerns over pollution and other ecological threats. Strongly influenced by the so-called Tlatelolco Massacre of October 1968, when scores of students and others, protesting against the cost of the forthcoming Olympic Games, were shot dead by rooftop snipers, they included Pacheco's fellow Mexican Elena Poniatowska, who received the Cervantes Prize last November.
The backdrop of Mexico City was behind much of Pacheco's work; he watched it become one of the world's most populated and polluted cities and saw millionaires became billionaires while the majority, notably the indigenous Indian population, went hungry and begged in the streets. His 15 books of poetry were recently turned into an anthology, Tarde o Temprano [Sooner or Later] Poemas 1958-2009.
In his earlier work, in the late 1950s, he leaned towards surrealism, but eventually took a simpler, more direct approach which added yet more power to his heart-rending accounts of poor children growing up in the slums of their metropolis. His poem "Alta Traición" (High Treason) became a reference point for many Mexicans in dealing with the contradictions of their part-Indian, part-colonial nation, once described as "Poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the United States."
Although poetry was his first love, one of his most famous novellas was Las Batallas en el Desierto (The Battles in the Desert, 1981), which told the tale of a schoolboy infatuated by the mother of one of his classmates. Like much of his work it deals with the passing of time and the transitory nature of the human experience. It opens with the narrator, Carlos, saying, "I remember, I don't remember ... I am going to keep my memory of this moment intact because everything that now exists will never be the same again." The book was adapted for the stage and for a film entitled Mariana, Mariana, directed by Alberto Isaac, and was turned into a pop song and video, "Las Batallas", by the Mexico City rock band Café Tacvba in 1992.
He was born in Mexico City in 1939, the son of a general in Mexico's 1910-17 revolutionary army who became a lawyer, and a mother from a wealthy family in the port of Veracruz. His education was complemented by his grandparents, who taught him to read and fascinated him with legends from Mexico's pre-Columbian Aztec past. He set out studying law to join his father's firm but soon switched to philosophy and letters at the sprawling National Autonomous University of Mexico. He first tinkered with plays, then poetry and later short stories and novels, and went on to become editor of Culture, one of the most important literary publications in Mexico during the 1960s.
As the accolades multiplied, Pacheco remained self-effacing – "I'd rather be read than celebrated," he once said. Receiving the Cervantes Prize from King Juan Carlos, he said: "I'm not the best poet in Mexico, not even in my barrio. You realise Juan Gelman is my neighbour?" He was referring to the Argentinian writer who lived near him in Mexico City and died there this month (obituary, 16 January). Two days before Pacheco died he wrote an appreciation of Gelman in his column for the influential Mexican magazine El Proceso.
"It's the poetry that matters, not the poets, nor the literary circus," Pacheco once said. "In poetry, what's not excellent is worthless ... the language in which I was born is my only wealth." At the Cervantes Prize ceremony he inadvertently broke the solemnity of the formal occasion when the trousers of his white-tie-and-tails suit slipped down to his knees on his way into the hall and he had to hold them up with one hand, the other leaning on a walking stick. "I'd never dressed as a penguin before," he said later. "I didn't realise I should have worn braces."
Pacheco died in hospital of cardiac arrest, two days after he fell in his study and hit his head on his desk. He is survived by his wife Cristina, a well-known TV journalist on cultural themes, and two daughters. - PHIL DAVISON

Seven Poems by José Emilio Pacheco by Víctor Rodríguez Núñez & Katherine M. Hedeen :

José Emilio Pacheco (Mexico City, 1939-2014) is one of the most read and recognized Mexican writers. His extensive portfolio — which included narrative, essay, journalism, and translation — was grounded in a poetry that had few comparisons during his time. He wrote prolifically, with collections that span five decades — from The Elements of the Night (1963) to The Age of Shadows and Like the Rain (both from 2009). These volumes exemplify Spanish language poetry at its best; Pacheco’s taste for bringing socially conscious poetry together with lyricism still resonates today.
Pacheco died on January 26, 2014, leaving behind a lifetime’s worth of political and cultural writing. Here we have read a handful of Pacheco’s poems that we feel particularly exemplify his legacy.
The Lives of Poets

In poetry there’s no happy ending.
Poets end up
living their madness.
And they’re quartered like cattle
(it happened to Darío).
Or they’re stoned or wind up
flinging themselves to the sea or with cyanide
salts in their mouths.
Or dead from alcoholism, drug addiction, poverty.
Or worse: canonical poets,
bitter inhabitants of a tomb
entitled Complete Works.
Pacheco seems to have few direct influences, as this poem about the social marginalization of poets demonstrates. He’s not in search of originality at whatever cost — the modern intellectual’s fantasy. Here the prosaic, almost journalistic tone and noted lack of metaphor are coupled with a dark, dry humor, exemplified by the last three lines of the poem. This contrasts with the work of many great 20th-century Mexican poets who are known for their metaphysical perspective and highly figurative language.
Pacheco appropriated other poetics and put them at the service of his own social and cultural interests, letting the world be grafted onto him, yet not losing his roots. In Pacheco’s work there’s just Pacheco; exactly what he needed to express himself.
High Treason

I don’t love my homeland.
Its abstract splendor
is beyond my grasp.
Still (though it sounds bad)
I’d give my life
for ten places there,
certain folks,
ports, forests, deserts, fortresses,
a city in ruins, ashen, monstrous,
various historical figures,
mountains ¾
and three or four rivers.
Pacheco’s work responds in a number of ways to a long-standing crisis in Mexican society. Though the 1910 Revolution had radical beginnings, by the second half of the 1940s bourgeois values had infiltrated the country, leading to a ruling political class complicit with the consolidation of capitalism and the denationalization of the Mexican economy. By the time Pacheco began writing in the late 1950s, such neo-colonialist policies had been institutionalized. Pacheco was not indifferent to the ravages of neo-colonialism in both the material and spiritual aspects of life. As a result, he distanced himself from the pro-government intellectual majority and aligned himself with the 1968 demonstrators who protested to defend the democratic character of the 1917 Constitution. A massacre of these protesters in Tlatelolco, Mexico City on October 2 intensified the critical nature of Pacheco’s poetry.
It’s there in the title of this poem and again in the first line: the speaker is committing treason against his country. Still, emotion is checked. What the speaker feels is much subtler than passionate disdain. In the second part of the poem, we discover that what matters are the small things, not the grandiose images that are conventionally part of nation building. The “folks,” “ports,” “forests,” “deserts,” “fortresses,” “historical figures,” “mountains,” and “rivers” go unnamed, highlighting the narrator’s own intimate experience and, in turn, making the poem generic. Such namelessness is in direct opposition to the exceptionalism of nationalist rhetoric; the homeland referenced could be anyone’s. In this way, Pacheco strikes a balance between writing socially conscious poetry and upholding his individuality.
With little fanfare, Pacheco enriched the practice of poetry as a material force that seeks to transform the world, to re-humanize it. Yet, as “High Treason” so powerfully shows, he expressed the social through the personal.

If you want to study its essence, its purpose,
its usefulness in the world,
you’ve got to see it as a whole. Salt
isn’t the individuals who make it up
but the solidary tribe. Without it
each particle would be like a fragment of nothingness,
dissolving in some unthinkable black hole.
Salt surfaces from the sea. It’s petrified
It’s sea baked by the sun.
And so finally worn-out,
deprived of its great water force,
it dies on the beach to become stone in the sand.
Salt is the desert where there once was sea.
Water and land
matter of no one.
It’s why the world tastes of what it is to be alive.
Through the simplicity of the commonplace — salt — this poem tackles the thorny topic of individualism. On one hand, the speaker shows he’s aware of the self’s fragmentation and restricted power: “each particle would be a fragment of nothingness, / dissolving in some unthinkable black hole.” On the other hand, he’s aware a world exists outside of the self ¾ otherness ¾ and in this world swarm beings similar to the self ¾ others. Instead of differentiating himself from this other, as individualism proposes in abstract and nationalism does concretely, Pacheco’s lyrical voice identifies: “Salt / isn’t the individuals who make it up / but the solidary tribe,” it’s “water and land / reconciled.” And, as the last line of the poem illustrates, this is “why the world tastes of what it is to be alive.”
“Salt” asks us to question the concept of self that has prevailed since the Enlightenment. It implies overcoming the solipsism at the foundation of modern society: a world determined by private property and free enterprise. Hailing from a country that has suffered colonialism and neo-colonialism, the modernity that Pacheco experienced was deformed and dependent. Such experience results in a dialogic poetry that affirms individuality but refuses individualism.

Poetry has just one reality: suffering.
Baudelaire attests to it. Ovid would approve
of such declarations.
And this, on the other hand, guarantees
the endangered survival of an art
read by few and apparently
detested by many
as a disorder of the conscience, a remnant
from times much older than ours now
in which science claims to enjoy
an endless monopoly on magic.
During Pacheco’s life there was a fundamental poetic divide in Mexico — on one side, rigorous intellectualism, poetry that relied on traditional subject matter and form; on the other side, an exuberant sentimentalism that was more confessional, quotidian, and popular in tone.
In this poem, he seeks synthesis, presenting a poetry written with both heart and mind. References to classical music (Robert Schumann) and canonical poets (Ovid, Charles Baudelaire) go hand in hand with a direct, conversational tone. The language of the poem is unadorned and straightforward; its sentiment restrained. And yet, the idea the poem defends — that poetry is suffering, that it is marginalized in the modern world, and that it is absolutely magical — contradicts such dispassion.
Pacheco could be both sophisticated and melodramatic, exuberantly intellectual and rigorously emotional. With this stance, he distanced himself from aestheticism and populism. In his view, culture isn’t divided in two: one high, with roots in Western Europe and the United States, and the other popular, with branches in Latin America and Mexico. It’s just one contradictory culture, struggling with itself.
(A Defense and Illustration of Poetry)

I retake an allusion by crickets:
their murmur is hopeless,
the chattering of their elytra
is of no use whatsoever.
Yet if not for the cryptic signal
they broadcast to one another
(for crickets) night would
not be night.
Here, Pacheco demonstrates his understanding of poetry. Despite the fact that it is “hopeless” and “of no use whatsoever,” poetry is necessary. The very materiality of the “cryptic signal” defines night, or in a broader sense, existence. Pacheco’s sense of the materiality of poetry is what made him open to a variety of movements, schools, and trends. He attempted to write verse that distanced itself from traditional poetic rhetoric.
Pacheco opted for bare, unadorned language precisely suited to what he wanted to say. He used a functional, refined poetic language in which a balance between the prosaic and the highly metaphorical is reached. The result of this flexible and unorthodox poetics is, like the poem above, a work of apparently simple structure that is nonetheless exceedingly complex at heart. It’s writing that seeks to be poetry and nothing more.
The Octopus

Dark god of the deep,
fern, toadstool, hyacinth,
among stones unseen,
there in the abyss,
where at dawn, against the sun’s fire,
night falls to the sea floor and the octopus sips
a dark ink with the suckers of its tentacles.
What nocturnal beauty its splendor if sailing
in the salty half-light of the mother waters,
to it sweet and crystalline.
Yet on the beach overrun by plastic trash
this fleshy jewel of viscous vertigo
looks like a monster. And they’re
/ clubbing / the defenseless castaway to death.
Someone’s hurled a harpoon and the octopus breathes in death
through the wound, a second suffocation.
No blood flows from its lips: night gushes
and the sea mourns and the earth fades away
so very slowly while the octopus dies.
Here, there is a democratization of poetic language. Tropological imagery abounds; Pacheco’s direct prose style is less intense and his lexicon is renovated. Traditional verse is abandoned in favor of representations from everyday life. In Pacheco’s poetics, there is space for terms and turns of phrase that belong to many cultural spheres such as literary criticism, the social sciences, and journalism. Words like “suckers,” “tentacles,” and “plastic trash” are on par with images like “salty half-light of the mother waters” and “fleshy jewel of viscous vertigo.”
It’s more than the poetic appropriation of the language spoken on a street corner in Mexico City, that eternal longing for the street’s triumphal entry into poetry. Rather than regionalizing expression, Pacheco looks to cross borders, universalize. He doesn’t simplify language so everyone can understand, taking poetry to the people, increasing communication. That wouldn’t be a true democratization of language because there would be exclusion; areas with social and cultural legitimacy would remain marginalized. Pacheco’s attempt to broaden poetic language in this way brings author and reader closer, to meet and interact. It challenges the reader to participate, to take an active role in the poem’s process.
A Critique of Poetry

Here’s the same rain and its angry brushwood.Salt, the sea in ruins ...The above’s been crossed out, and the following written:
This arching sea, its roving,

rooted customs,
used in a thousand poems before now.
(Infected bitch, mangy poetry,
laughable strain of neurosis,
the price some pay
for not knowing how to live.
Sweet, everlasting, brilliant poetry).
Maybe it’s not the right time.
Our era
has left us talking to ourselves.
This poem is not monologue but dialogue. Pacheco incorporates the reader in the creative process to combat the isolation of “talking to ourselves.” At first, the reader is an observer of that process, the act of crossing out and replacing. Yet it doesn’t end when the poet finishes the work, but rather when the reader carries out her interpretation of “sweet, everlasting, brilliant poetry.” The act of reading has the same transcendence as that of writing. It turns into a creation of at least two people, a breaking with the individualist order of the modern world. The “our” in the last stanza hints at this collectivity.
The poet of clarity aspires to have absolute control over the sense of the text, exercising violence on the reader and attempting to condemn him to passivity. Pacheco breaks with the traditional hierarchy between writer and reader by opposing this stance. Such a move has broader social and cultural implications; it signals a radical dismantling of the established order.
This reading of some of José Emilio Pacheco’s key poems doesn’t even come close to exhausting a poetry with such dimension and richness. Here, we’ve only tried to highlight the characteristics of a work that has left its profound mark on others. In the Spanish language, Pacheco was (and still is) a master of dialogic poetry. He wrote with emotion and intelligence, refusing to embellish, with an open, precise language, overflowing in unforgettable images. With the authenticity of its beauty, his poetry dignifies the human condition. -

Ronald J. Friis, José Emilio Pacheco and the Poets of the Shadows.  read it at Google Books


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