A king among poets


Loss may be at the heart of
Eugenio Montejo’s poetry,
but Nicholas Roberts reveals
that there is also optimism


Poetry and Loss: The Work
of Eugenio Montejo

Nicholas Roberts
2009, Tamesis
234 pages, hardback

Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole

ONE OF THE characteristic referents in the historiography of Latin American poetry is the “generation”, that movement of poets which may gain prominence within a national space by virtue of their work at key periods.

Nicholas Roberts has placed the generation at the heart of his introduction to this important study of the work of the Venezuelan poet Eugenio Montejo, a theme that continues thereafter to thread its way throughout the book.

In doing so, Roberts provides some interesting insights about the role of generations in Latin American literature more generally, which by extension might be understood within the broader framework of cultural nationalism in the region.

Generations seem to arise when there is a collective endeavour to modernise literary traditions – in this case, to reinvent national poetics – by reorienting and adapting these to new social and political realities. They reflect the perennial tension between the reality of a nation that is always changing, and the creative desire to assert or capture the essence or identity of a nation that, by definition, does not change.

As such, generations provide key points of reference for students of poetry and poets themselves, offering an ability to define achievement in relation to contemporaneous work. A great poet may be great by virtue of his or her affiliation to a generation, or by standing defiantly outside it.

Religiosity and reality

Eugenio Montejo (1938-2008), in whose work there has been considerable interest in recent years (not least because of references to his poetry in the film 21 grams), is interesting as much for his position in relation to the most influential generations of Venezuelan poets – the Generación del 18 and the Generación del 58 – as for the focus of his writing and his touching faith in the role of the poet as an interlocutor between religiosity and reality.

Accoding to Roberts, Montejo identified with, yet maintained a purposeful distance from, the Generación del 58, which was defined largely by Venezuela’s transition to an urban, industrialising society. This distance is determined largely by this poet’s recurrent preoccupation – the ontological paucity of the era, and the unpredictable interplay between myth and modernity – in a period in which language itself had become problematised by the deconstructionist philosophies of the Sixties and thereafter.

Roberts examines how Montejo’s work employs the figure of Orpheus – venerated in Greek tradition as a king among poets – and in particular the contradictory nature of this lost god who was also an intermediary with mankind. The loss of religion is a metaphor for the loss of the poetic, and this in turn a symbol of how bereft is the modern era. The author writes:

“For Montejo, ‘nuestro siglo’ is one characterised by the loss of religious faith and the attendant loss of an experiencing of the world and life as imbued with the sacred.” [p. 19]

This assertion of emotion and intuition over rationalism drew Montejo to European romanticism, perhaps constraining his Latin American instincts. Yet while Montejo’s focus was on loss, and in particular the loss of the poetic, what emerges from Roberts’ eloquent portrait is a sense of optimism. He writes:

“… Montejo’s work maintains a continual focus on the potential of poetry somehow both to reverse and henceforth to combat the perceived loss of an Orphic poetics and ontological fullness. In short, in counterpoint to the doubt and the theoretical ramifications of the parentheses in ‘Orfeo’, there is a persistent optimism and determination to see a way beyond such questioning problematics…” [p. 29]

Poetry and Loss: The Work of Eugenio Montejo is an excellent work of literary research and offers an accessible introduction to the world of a Latin American poet whose importance is increasingly being acknowledged.

Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books

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