hecha roda de ritmos mecánicos.
sólo la lumbre viva de mis versos
alumbrará los horizontes humillados
– Urbe: Super-Poema Bolchevique
En 5 Cantos
made entirely of mechanical rhythms.
only the living fire of my verses
will light these humbled horizons
– City: Bolshevik Super-Poem
In 5 Cantos
Tied to discrete moments in time and specific historical circumstances, do the poems of avant-garde literary movements stand the test of time? Or are they doomed to become dated remnants, with little relevance outside their particular moment? And if the champions of these vanguard movements do not continue to evolve as poets and artists, do these works have any less worth in retrospect?
These are some of the questions that arise in confronting the work of Mexican poet Manuel Maples Arce (1900-1981) from his Stridentist period, available in a new translation by KM Cascia, published by World Poetry Books, 2023. Gathering together poems spanning the 1920s, this handsome bilingual edition explores Maple Arce’s work in the service of an artistic movement little known outside of Mexico. Estridentismo was endowed with the same anti-traditional, urban, and modern fervor as the Ultraists and Dadaists it deliberately invoked. It was the first artistic vanguard in a Mexican society emerging from a rural reality to one of industrialization and mechanization, after a decade of revolution and violence. And one which sought to link Mexico to the artistic visions of Europe.
At the outset, the poet Maples Arce styled himself as the originator and visionary of this Stridentism, centered around a program loudly uprooting ossified traditions.
El amor y la vida
son hoy sindicalistas,
Y todo se dilata en círculos concéntricos.
Love and life
today for Labor,
And everything expands in concentric circles.
His poems herald a modern, city-centered reality, focused squarely on the machines and motions of progress. The literary conventions of the past, which had become for so many just comforting platitudes, are replaced by the new images of a fast-paced century.
Las canciones florecen
a través de la lluvia,
en la tarde vacía, sin teclado y sin lagrimas.
Los tranvías se llevaron las calles cinemáticas
empapeladas de ventanas.
Mis besos apretados
florecían en su carne
– Como una gotera…
by means of rain
in empty afternoon, no keyboard, no tears.
Streetcars carry cinematic streets
papered with windows.
My pressed kisses
flowered on her flesh.
– Like a leak…
This collection includes selections from Maples Arce’s oeuvre spanning the decade such as Inner Scaffolds: Radiographic Poems (1922), the previously quoted City (1924), Prohibited Poems (1927), and all the cliches of the past are thrown out. Airplanes, jazz, automobiles, typewriters – all the symbols of a new urban identity that a post-Revolutionary Mexico was beginning to grapple with – wedded with the socialist consciousness of workers, factory life, and militaristic brutality – come to the fore.
And more than a hundred years later, surprisingly, these poems hold up. In strikingly relatable images for our post-pandemic 21st Century North America, Maples Arce’s words rise in praise of modern motion. From the opening of City: Bolshevik Super Poem in 5 Cantos, which is in many ways his masterpiece:
He aquí mi poema
a la nueva ciudad.
Oh ciudad toda tensa
de cables y de esfuerzos,
con motores y alas.
de las nuevas teorías
un poco más allá
En el plano espacial
de Witman y de Turner
y un poco más acá
de Maples Arce.
Here’s my brutal
to the new city.
Oh city all tense
with wires and effort,
with motors and wings.
Explosion of the new
a little further
On the spatial plane
from Whitman and Turner,
a little closer
to Maples Arce
There is an irony here in that some these images are now tropes of that Jazz age itself. With the coming of other, louder iconoclasts in poetry during the 20th century, reading Maples Arce’s poems of the 1920s today is sort of like watching Citizen Kane in the 21st Century; what was once new, novel, and shocking is simply the first in a long line of images and approaches to be recycled and recast by others. Familiar to us, because we’ve seen later versions of it. But there is an undeniable strength in that which dared innovate, which Stridentist Poems reminds us of.
And then there is the First Stridentist Manifesto (1921) reproduced in this volume as an appendix in English, which is revelatory: In the name of the modern Mexican avant-garde, sincerely horrified by all the notarized plaques and signs consecrated by the chartulary system…”I affirm, imperatively and categorically, with no more exceptions made for the diametrically opposed “players” in photographic blazes and corralled screams, my pure, destructive Stridentism, to defend myself from the literal stones of the latest intellectual plebescites: Death to Father Hidalgo, Down with San Rafael, San Lazaro, Corner: Post No Bills…”
With these words, the first modernist movement in the Mexican literature and arts was launched, purposely linking it to those named in the concluding “Avant-Garde Directory”, such as Borges, Ortega y Gassett, Diego Rivera, Apollinaire, Max Jacob, Cocteau, among dozens of other names which are now lost to time. The manifesto is a bold j’accuse aimed squarely at the literary establishment of Mexico, and we have to admire the gumption that alienated Maples Arce from his more conventional contemporaries.
This is what makes this volume of Stridentist Poems so powerful. However, we must in good faith mention two minor criticisms in regards to this edition
The first is several of the word choices in the translations of this volume. Here’s one example that stands out dramatically. From City:
Los asalta braguetas literarios
de esta nueva belleza
sudorosa del siglo,
Literary dick gropers
will understand nothing
about the century’s
sweating new beauty,
“Bragueta” is a word for zipper (another great industrial technology, right?), and the first line literally would be rendered “Literary zippers attack them”, a reference to some of the perhaps oversexed literati in Mexico not understanding and criticizing the winds of change blowing from the East. But there is no reference to penises in the original, and that is quite a liberty to take in translation, especially given the arguably anti-gay connotation of the phrase. As Cascia tries explain in the notes to the translation, this is an attempt to contemporize the sentiment of the line, but is problematic at best. I counted a couple of other questionable choices like that in the translation. But this issue only emerges in a few stanzas of the collection and does not detract from the work as a whole.
The second involves the literary trajectory of Maples Arce himself. Cascia points out in his introduction and notes the fact that after influencing Mexican letters by spearheading Stridentism, Maples Arce himself moved on in coming years into a mainstream, perhaps even to the retaguardia. To a career as a diplomat and memoirist, with poetic works that no longer eschewed tradition, going so far as to edit a controversial anthology of Mexican poetry that omitted his Stridentist comrades and contemporaries, as well as dropping all the manifesto “I affirm” poses.
It is worth noting that Maples Arce published another collection in 1947 “Memorial de la Sangre” (including “Espana,1936”) and intermittently composed and published poems up through 1980, the year before his death, along with other works of prose which chronicled his life and diplomatic career.
So though he may very well have turned his back on the movement he once was so eager to be credited with, his poetic output continued right until the end. (The posthumous collection Las semillas del tiempo: obra poetica 1919-1980, bears this out).
Was it necessary for Maples Arce to continue to be in a vanguard in order for these initial works to stay relevant? Not at all. In the same way that social or political affiliations – such the idealization of the Soviets by the global intelligentsia of the early 1920’s (and manifest in these Estridentista poems) was soon tempered by a realization of the excesses of State authoritarianism and new forms of worker enslavement and oppression – so too do poetic ambitions evolve and shift, if not always to the liking of the current audience that looks on.
What happens when you sing the mechanized future and that mechanized future actually arrives? Perhaps then you can write about la memoria y el viento again, without cynicism. (We can further imagine that the poems of social media and our digital age may not age so well either.)
But these are all minor concerns. This bilingual collection of poems translated by KM Cascia is ultimately revelatory. Though arguably Maples Arce the conventional author and diplomat may be dead, the poems he composed come to us vividly with the electric excitement of a new age. Stridentist Poems helps remind us of what the poetic cutting-edge can look like with the passage of time, and which words ultimately last.
david alberto fernández is a poet born in Miami, Florida who lives in Takoma Park Maryland with his wife and daughter. A 25 year-employee of the world's largest library, he has had a lifelong love of words, books, auspicious birds, and new ideas.