Befas (2000)

Carlos Gutiérrez Vidal’s Desert

These serious “befas” are very fine poems by a very fine poet, and the commentary to follow can hardly do them justice. I will touch on only a handful of themes, all of which grow from the one fact that Carlos Adolfo Gutiérrez Vidal is a Mexicali poet.

A comparison of a tendency in the poetry of Tijuana and Mexicali may help explain what this means in practice.

One of the more striking differences between the poetry of Tijuana and Mexicali is the relative absence of reference to a non-human landscape in the poetry of Tijuana. There is a certain logic to this. In much of Tijuana the gaze is limited by sharp changes in elevation, so that the world seen at any moment is within the confines of the man-made. Mexicali, by contrast, sits in the middle of a featureless desert plane, one of the least hospitable places on earth, dusty, unwatered, with sparse vegetation and subject to extremes of climate. So that it’s difficult to forget the natural environment. One has the feeling there that the human environment is fragile and contingent, as if the next wind could blow it away. All that would be left is desert and sky, with nothing to cushion one’s own fragility.

Desert, when it appears at all in the poetry of Tijuana, usually enters as a rhetorical figure in a moral discussion, drawn not so much from the local environment as from the stock of imagery that the discussion has carried with it from other times and places. It appears as the consequence of an idea rather than as a thing in itself. In the poetry of Mexicali, and overwhelmingly in the poems of Carlos Gutiérrez, the desert is the first premise, the moral discussion its consequence.

One’s sense as a newcomer to the desert (and everyone with a memory of elsewhere, which in the Californias means all but the remnant indigenous population, is a newcomer) is that nothing is hidden-one stands in isolation in a spiritual vacuum. There is also the sense that one’s self is mercilessly open to scrutiny because there’s no place to hide from sight. So the uncomfortable truth of one’s vulnerability, one’s visibility, one’s transience and one’s isolation become undeniable. As Carlos tells us repeatedly, consolation is at best questionable.

The three great religions of the desert, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, were the invention of people from cities walled to deny the desert’s presence who found themselves suddenly outside the walls, and, at the moment that the moral became the metaphysical, they filled the void in which they found themselves with a hidden power-the only hidden thing— that could act as an intermediary and a shelter against the evidence that the landscape presented of their own futility. Three nonetheless very austere religions, at least in the form they took in the deserts of their origins. These are strikingly unpopulated universes, with few of the comforts of the local and the animist familiar in other religions. Their early adherents often turned their backs to human society to walk off into a void that they populated with angels and demons of their own imagining. What they sought to discover was their place as individual consciousnesses. Nothing supported them in the face of what they found there but the obstinacy of their belief.

The landscape of the desert is not Carlos’ theme: he is not a poet of nature, and he presents the desert to us by means of surprisingly few details, given its vividness. Rather, the desert is the essential situation of his poetry. It is a radically visual poetry, with constant reference to the gaze. Even sound, which at least in “El Cuervo” plays a dominant role, is treated as an aspect of landscape, the voice of the raven as palpable as rock and sand, and as isolated in the sparse environment. But also, like all voices in these poems, it is spatially dynamic, presented as varying through time and space, and, unlike the existence of the visible, ephemeral. Surrounded by silence, it returns to silence.

Even the intensely social world glimpsed briefly in section three of “Traspasos” is a world more of glances than sounds, brief communications between figures in isolation, rendered finally in visual terms as “un eco fiel de lo que el viento/ escribe en el desierto a todas horas.” Doubly ephemeral-an echo briefly prolonging the visible, the sign, which, we don’t need to be told, that the desert will have begun to erase even as it writes.

All figures are in isolation in these poems. The unseen raven is solitary, and “el canto es solo y fuera el templo.” The mermaid is the only one of her kind. And the speaker of “Naranja” tells us that “somos…un archipiélago.”

The poems themselves are built of isolated fragments, making of the book its own bleak landscape. It is the site of the moral struggle become metaphysical. If the early mystics went into the desert armed with the certainty that they were made in the image of God Carlos’ radical process is to go there unarmed, “dejar la piel del otro/ romper todos los espejos/ olvidar el uno erróneo” (“Soltar el freno…”). “Somos los cuerpos de Dios/ el traje nuevo de otro emperador,” he tells us in “Naranja,” as if his irony were designed as an answer to those earlier mystics.

That these poems are theological in intent, or better, antitheological, is clear from the constant invocation of the terminology of religion: dogma, pecado, orgullo, desidia, extenuación, refugio, plegaria, paraíso, duda, angél, agripnia, Dios, la caída, comunión, epifanía, traspaso, and, more coherently, the epigraph that begins “Traspasos” and the poem’s last thirty lines.

Very few consolations, beyond the sharp beauty of language and image, are offered: “a veces el sol les entra y son felices a veces un pájaro es una epifanía” (Traspasos). And “Traspasos,” and th book, end with a great coda of denial, with the merest whisper of a difficult and ambiguous hope:

una biblia abierta nos implora nuevos lazos

aquello que escribieron otros padres

somos la postergación de lo que somos

la ciudad nos regala un nuevo invierno


Copyright © 2001 Mark Weiss. All rights reserved.