Poetry is potlatch, is what Argentine Arturo Carrera puts forward in his most recent poetry collection titled Potlatch. Born in 1948 Carrera has authored more than 20 books and has gone through his share of 20th-century atrocities, the Argentine military junta for one. He outlived two of Argentina’s greatest poets of that generation, Oswaldo Lamborghini and Néstor Perlongher, and like them, developed a poetics responsive to the calamities and contradictions of the ‘70s.

At the core of the following poem—a sort of ars poetica, perhaps—are the complexities of the constant give and take of personal exchanges. (My hasty translation.)

Living Currency

Like Macedonio Fernández
Pierre Klossowski says that
gratuitousness is to take pleasure in what’s beyond price
and beyond price is the act of procreation
and also the voluptuousness or sensations
prior to the act of procreation;

life received at no cost
in itself doesn’t carry a price tag,
without voluptuousness it is worthless
and neither does voluptuousness cost anything.

I receive according to my capacity
and as a person I am
both what I receive and what I give
hence I can’t stand
receiving more than my giving

—lest I belong
with those who always receive.

Se be it, Macedonio:

if there weren’t inability to give
there wouldn’t also be the boosting of who gives
so as not to receive?
And who gives so as not to have to receive
every step of the way
takes possession of whom having taken so as to be
cannot give;

(he gave himself beforehand
to the power that boosts
instead of diminishing one,
having given without receiving
so as to recuperate more of what he’s given away)

So the free toy
is no longer charming
but charms inasmuch as the price
of whatever seems pleasing?

Indifferent voluptuous emotion, and worthless too,
since neither I nor anyone else can experience it.

Oh! less indifferent and of some worth
if it is to be lived through.

Ay! we can’t afford the means
to its immediate experiencing.

A word on the voluptuousness at the beginning of the poem, a propos of the old battle between the pleasure principle vs. the reality principle. Since I read the poem in a book and it takes up three different pages, at first I thought the pleasure principle would win out . . . I bring this up because in the end if we write and read poetry and are not politicians or social workers or doctors or lawyers it must be because we take pleasure in stringing words and sounds together on the page and physically in our bodies (or as Barthes would put it, in the “rustle of language.”)

A lot of the poetry published by Eloísa Cartonera, the press in Buenos Aires that I mentioned yesterday, besides being overridingly humorous, is unencumbered by conventionally “serious” matters. It’s almost as if doing something socially-conscious in terms of the books’ production gave them the freedom to write about whatever they wanted. I’ve read very few of these books, since to acquire them one has to go through people traveling to Argentina, but what I’ve read is hilarious in part because of its mock-confessional style. With a constantly shifting sexual orientation as the subject of much of the poetry, what is unusual is the lack of definition. Fernanda Laguna, Cecilia Pavón, and Gabriela Bejerman are three of the most active poets in the scene. Their poems embody sexual fluidity and are not more representative of a lesbian sensibility than a heterosexual one. They frequently use pseudonyms—as men often also take on women’s names—and conventional notions of femininity are crushed hopefully never to be resurrected again. A particularly potent example is Gabriela Bejerman’s book Pendejo, which feature pieces such as “No ves que estamos comiendo frutillas con nieve” (Don’t you see that we’re eating strawberries and ice-cream . . .), a love letter written to a boyfriend while the subject is in the company of two male lovers and regrets that he’s not there with them, and “Tu mamá quiere lincharme” (Your Mother Wants to Lynch Me) in which the subject complains that she can’t play with herself anymore because her boyfriend’s mother is going after her.

Does this have political agency? I’ll let you decide. All I can say is that yesterday as I was waiting for a train at the subway station, I read the following headline on the cover of an issue of Newsweek devoted to the topic of the “marriage crunch”: “Twenty years ago Newsweek predicted that a single 40-year-old woman had a better chance of being killed by a terrorist than getting married.” Painful. If this was the mentality in the U.S., imagine what it was like in Argentina. Twenty years ago these women poets were teenagers, a stage, as we all know, at which minds are particularly impressionable.

An astounding number of other micro-presses have sprung out in Buenos Aires and also seem to be thriving. The titles of the presses themselves are good indicators of the attitude shared by the younger generation: Belleza y felicidad (Beauty & Happiness), Carne argentina (Argentine meat), El Santo Oficio (The Holy Inquisition), Huácala Capirote (no translation), La frambuesa perversa (The Perverse Raspberry), Los lanzallamas (The Fire-Eaters), Sisabíanovenía (HadIknownIwouldnt havecome), Tsé-Tsé, and Voy a salir y si me hiere un rayo (I’m about to go out and if I get hit by lightning) are but a few. (Someone should write a treatise on what names of presses say about distinct historical periods!) Not everyone has embraced the poetry of all these different groups. Critics and other poets tend to consider a lot of it frivolous and adolescent. Yet to these younger poets’ credit, they’ve accomplished something that tons of money spent on marketing and the development of audiences hasn’t managed to do elsewhere: they’ve made poetry be as sexy and cool as rock-n-roll.

An aside for the sake of not giving in to historical amnesia: in the ‘70s in Brazil, at the height of the military dictatorship, poets were going about in a similar way. Poetas marginales is what they were called. Their poetry was intended to be minor, marginal, and this was precisely from where they derived their political punch. They wanted to tear down a centralized cultural model and their motto was “seja marginal / seja herói”: be marginal, which also means “criminal” in Portuguese, be a hero. If the dictatorship regulated all aspects of public and private life, and hypocritically promoted decorum and decency, poets who rebelled took pride in embracing indecency as a way of life. Things have certainly changed, though.

To end today’s post I leave you with a found poem in Carrera’s Potlatch that certainly makes a case for the enjoyment of those petty things in life:

Facile Calculations

Not few are the children who daily spend their money on candy or 20¢ trinkets.

The majority spends more.

Those who get into this habit soon find their squandering insufficient and cease to enjoy their purchases, since with routine comes the inability to appreciate them, until the day comes when they can’t have them and they think of themselves as damned.

If instead of getting into the habit of spending that sum in vain they became accustomed to depositing it religiously in the NATIONAL POSTAL SAVINGS BANK, while ridding themselves of their dissipated habits and getting used to controlling themselves and disciplining their wills—priceless bonuses—they would find themselves, in due time, in possession of a sizeable fortune […].


(From the school notebook of Paula Barrile.)

Originally Published: June 1st, 2006

Poet, translator, and scholar Mónica de la Torre was born and raised in Mexico City. She earned a BA from the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México and, with the support of a Fulbright scholarship, relocated to New York in 1993 to pursue an MFA and a PhD in Spanish literature...