Translator's Note: Because of this Modest Style
Ramón López Velarde fascinated me in my late teens and early twenties. I was urged to read him by Octavio Paz, who was aware of my love for Eliot and through Eliot for Laforgue. He wanted me to find resources in my own culture. (I was born and raised in Mexico.) There is common ground between the provincial poet of northern Mexico and Laforgue (born, after all, in Uruguay). There are tonal similarities, allusive narratives, wry and then wan romance, at home in the provinces, in the heat of the day and the cool of the evening. My mentor may have felt that Velarde would harden up my flabby verse, for Velarde is all concentration, his slow and self-reflective pace is never monotonous but always alive and spoken. "His imagination," Octavio wrote, "did not lead him to flare up in blazes of artifice, but rather to go deeper into himself and to express with ever greater fidelity what he had to say." Fidelity is the deepest feeling for him. He forged "a personal " because he "had something personal to say." He lives a daily life and it is the meat and matter of his poetry because he lives it in a distinctive way. "We cannot write our way back to the poetry of Velarde because it constitutes our unique [Mexican] point of departure."
Velarde is more formal, more buttoned up than Laforgue, his Catholicism severe, his libido certainly evident, but attenuated. In "Por este sobrio estilo," which I marked with three enthusiastic asterisks and a question mark when I first read it, I was beguiled by the intimacy of Velarde's speech, yet puzzled by the relationship the poem evokes. Was a precociously Oedipal child addressing his mother? But the flirtatiousness, the muted eroticism, and the relative youthfulness of the woman addressed, made it elusive to a modern reader. Velarde's "she," who becomes "" in the second half of the poem, is in fact an idealised version of his relative Josefa de los Ríos, whom he met in his early teens and adored until she died. The first lost love, the impossible one, Fuensanta: if she was not to be his, she should be chaste until she withered, until her light went out.
Velarde concentrates particularly on two images in this poem, the orange blossom and the star. They recur, they develop. The blossom breathes out its scent and the star rises in the sky; the blossom withers and the star sets. These two mark the times of the poem and its moods. It keeps a tense, even pace. The syntax repeats its patterns and builds, but the verse does not move towards song. It is spoken, intensely spoken. Its irregularities keep it within the world of colonial avenues, mother-of-pearl and ruffs, tablecloths and evening gardens. It is a world rich with restraint, touched with regret because the woman and the time are gone beyond recall. Not only has she perished; the Revolution has altered everything.
One feels that in Velarde's heart there is a tension between his moral refusal to countenance physical intimacy and his palpable desire. The reading that the almost-lovers share: is that his poems? And the panegyrics that she must face: surely poems not unlike the one we are reading. Perhaps this is the very one to which she is responding, quiet and wry and teasing.
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This poem originally appeared in the April 2008 issue of Poetry magazine