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Nocturne III

          A night
A night full of hushings, of the curled wool of perfume and incanting
     wing,
          A night
Where phantasmagoric glowworms bumped in nuptial blackness,
At our own pace, linked together,
          Mute and glittering
As if we could portend ruin
And your hot fibers all slopped and tangled,
Along the path strung with flowers, which crosses emptiness,
          You walked,
          And the disc of silvery water
In tumbling azure splashed and laughed
          And your shadow
          Fine and dripping,
          And my shadow—
Which the rays of the moon nailed down
On the sad sands
Of the pathway—our shadows joined
And became one
          One
          One
And they became one horn of shadow!
And they became one horn of shadow!
And they became one horn of shadow!

            Tonight,
          Here I am, myself
Full with black cakes of loneliness and of your death,
Separated from you by all: time, tomb, earth,
          And by the nothing
          Where no voice can reach,
          Mortally here and silent
          Along the path I roamed
And the dogs’ snapping at moonlight rang out
          At the splendor,
          And the chirping
          Of the frogs—
A chill. It was the chill that in the tomb
Your face and hands sang with
          Under a starry vibrance
          Of funereal linens.
It was the cold grave’s face of pebbles, death’s slick,
          It was the coldness of nothing.
          And my shadow
          Frayed by wild silver,
          Walked alone,
          Walked alone,
          Walked alone amid nothings;
          And your shadow, trim and quick;
          Fine and dripping,
As in that luxuriant spring night expiring,
As in that night full of hushings, of the curled wool of perfume and
     incanting wing,
          Came up and creased through mine
          Came and creased through mine
          Came and creased through mine…Oh the shadows fuse!
Oh the puzzle pieces of the shadows interlocking
Oh the shadows chew through each other across zodiacs of sorrows
     and tears

—José Asunción Silva (trans. Robert Fernandez)

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José Asunción Silva lived in Bogotá, was well off, in debt, a suicide at thirty, and is one of Colombia’s most celebrated poets.

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What does it say about a country that it chooses to place a poet on its money? What does it say about the poet that he or she winds up on a piece of currency?

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After meeting Mallarmé, Silva returned from France and brought symbolism, Parnassianism, and Poe with him, eventually helping to inaugurate Latin American modernismo.

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My father came to the U.S. from Colombia when he was in his mid-twenties. For my thirteenth birthday, he gave me a copy of Gabriel García Márquez’s The General in His Labyrinth. The inscription reads: “Dear Robert— Bolivar was a great man…life threw many punches at him…but he never gave up… enjoy, Dad/93”

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García Márquez on Silva: “By nature and family sturdy and good-looking, but ghostly pale, of exquisite manners, great human and artistic sensibility, a lucid intelligence, a seductive verbal fluency, and an armoured dignity.”

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Money is a kind of poetry, as Stevens put it, in that each taps into the reservoir of human possibility. Money means freedom, means never having to saying you’re sorry, says the melancholic antihero who suddenly, with fistfuls of cash pressed to his face, feels mania’s demonic power. Language, tightening its grip on identity, means never having to bite down on the word “void.” Poetry has the hula hoop of the void around its waist as it skillfully unfolds over the ruins on its way toward a seeing music.

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Heriberto Yépez on Silva: “Soon after the death of his sister Elvira, Silva wrote (in 1892) his most enduring poem ‘Noche’ also known as ‘Nocturno III.’ The intensity of the piece provoked speculations around a supposed incestuous relationship with his sister. We could easily get lost in the biographical aspects of Silva’s figure. But we need to focus, at least for a moment, on this poem, so important in the development of later poetry in Spanish, not only as a forerunner of modernismo but as a structural inspiration for later avant-garde writing.”

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If we tilt the prism of Freud’s “Mourning and Melancholia” in our hand a bit, we see that it offers a theory of the event. Namely, we see that the phenomenology of the event aligns with the dynamics of mania and transgression. We see that the human process of world-disclosure is akin to mania. Like Sophocles’s Antigone, “Nocturne III” is a drama of melancholic loss and mania. Both Antigone and the speaker of “Nocturne III” are unable to grieve properly. The inability to mourn causes the ego to attack itself. In a bid to assert its autonomy in the face of the unbearable oppression of lack and law, the melancholic ego rips free from tyranny in a manic uprising that opens up a place—a nowhere, uncanny—of contingency and freedom. Beyond the law, we feel mania’s breathless exhilaration. Antigone’s manic uprising is productive—poetic—because she refuses to adopt the logic of the tyrant. She is the poem that unfolds, not through the foreclosure of another’s possibility, but through the loving desire to preserve possibility, to name possibility as the holy, even in the face of her own absolute foreclosure of possibility or death. Silva’s speaker becomes tangled, incestuously entwined—like Antigone and the unburied Polynices—with the lost love object, which would forcibly drag him down into the grave. “Nocturne III” shines with the uncanny light of the moon, the light of the oppressed voice cast out of the world into weeping and estrangement.

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What about a commitment to the poem when you feel like shit, when the shit is grinding, deceptive, neurotic, seductive, when you’re in debt, when you’re unhappy, when you’re lost, homeless, miserable, tired, locked out, abused, sick, hungry, ruined, when there is no friendship, no money, no youth, no hope?

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In a time of onslaught, hopeless, unable to mourn, where mourning is deferred, deferred, deferred, the fire of mania, like the shattering wave of Dionysus, begins to extend its tongues through the servants of possibility.

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Hölderlin on (proto) manic rebellion and melancholic law as the individuating regulation of possibility: “We feel the limits of our own nature and our constrained power rebels impatiently against fetters. And the spirit longs to return to the unclouded ether. But there is also something in us which willingly bears the fetters for if the spirit were not bound by some resistance we would not feel ourselves and others. But this is death not to feel oneself. The poverty of finiteness is inseparably united with the abundance of the divinity.”

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Spirit → Call → Mania → Transgression → Techne → Truth

Fire → Mood → Surging → Downfall → Knowing → World

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Silva: “When you reach your last hour, / your final stop on earth, / you’ll feel an angst that can kill you— / at having done nothing.”

Originally Published: September 1st, 2015

Poet and editor Robert Fernandez was born in Hartford, Connecticut, and grew up in Miami. He earned an MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and is the author of the collections We Are Pharaoh (2011), Pink Reef (2013), and Scarecrow (Wesleyan University Press, 2016). He is also the co-translator, with Blake Bronson-Bartlett,...