500,000 Azaleas: The Selected Poems of Efraín Huerta
Poetry, like life, is seldom what it seems. The work and life of Mexican journalist, film critic, and poet Efraín Huerta (1914-1982) is honeycombed with irony and contradictions: He trained for the law, but became a poet; he enjoyed shocking strangers with his irreverence for conventional values, but was exceedingly learned and possessed fine literary judgment; his approach to life was erratic and his drinking excessive, but he was a craftsman who did his research.
He was also an indefatigable and brilliant conversationalist, devoted to freeing words from the restraints of convention and, with age, his poetic voice strengthened. (His speaking voice entirely disappeared. Nine years prior to his death doctors performed a laryngectomy to halt the advance of cancer.) Though surgical intervention silenced his voice, it never silenced the poet.
Today, almost two decades after his death, his poetry–at times bombastic, but, more often than not, stirring and original–continues to call out to us from the pages of 500,000 Azaleas: The Selected Poems of Efraín Huerta. This volume, consisting of some 45 poems produced over approximately 40 years, marks, I believe, the first time an entire collection of his poetry has been made available in English. And it was about time.
He is considered an important twentieth century Latin American poet, despite his modesty:
First of all I’m enormously pleased to be a good second-rate poet of the third world.
(“Ay Poeta,” Poemínimos completos I)
His work is widely anthologized, and individual poems have appeared in translation since 1970.
Although much of his work is political, he will probably be remembered in the long run for his love poetry. In addition, he wrote more than 150 poemínimos, short, incisive, and sometimes very funny epigrams, somewhat reminiscent of Ambrose Bierce’s writing in The Devil’s Dictionary. In one of them, “Confusion,” he notes:
As for my old teachers of Marxism I don’t understand them: Some are in prison others are in power.
The most effective of these exhibit a self-deprecating humor bristling with sarcasm and double meaning. But in general, Huerta is hard to pin down because the quality and style of his poetry varies greatly. At its best it is characterized by delicate lyricism, erotic language, surreal or impressionistic imagery, symbolism, doomsday prophesies and, at times, unconventional or shocking use of words. Even more widely divergent than his style and speech are the poets and writers who influenced him. These included the surrealists León Bloy and Paul Eluard along with Nicolas Guillén, Federico García Lorca, Walt Whitman, Pablo Neruda, Rafael Alberti, Ernest Hemingway, and Octavio Paz.
Today, Huerta is known, depending on who you read, as the poet of “erotic and spiritual love,” the voice of “the unsung masses,” the “Mexico City poet,” and the “poemínimo’s original practitioner.” Any one of these titles suits him, and the selection included here exposes the reader to the full range of his highly diversified output. Yet for brevity’s sake, it is sufficient to divide his work into two very general categories: the love poetry and the political poems.
The political poems are characterized by their directness. They confront squalor and human suffering straight on. They lash out at the injustice that robs man of his dignity and express their concern with man’s redemption and the destiny of nations in vehement language. Huerta’s vehemence is understandable. He lived at a time of great historical resonance, one that lent itself to impassioned political poetry, no longer in vogue today. The decisive events of the era would mold him. He joined the Communist Party, only to be expelled five years later, and traveled widely, spending time in the United States, Western Europe, Poland and the Soviet Union.
His political poems were primarily concerned with Mexican issues and international politics. However, one series, “The Greyhound Poems,” were written during his stay in the United States. These were unique to Latin American literature in their preoccupation with racial discrimination in the American South. One of these, “Alabama in Bloom,” gives this collection its title, 500,000 Azaleas. In this poem, azaleas are serene symbols masking reality: “500,000 azaleas for the honorable households of Alabama and Georgia,/for the soft young women of Florida.” But in the course of the poem they are converted into “Beautiful, brief, poisonous azaleas,” “500,000 azaleas like 500,000 dry curses,” “500,000 azaleas like 500,000 lashes from the KKK.” Through the startling juxtaposition of images, Huerta jolts us into recognizing ugliness and injustice.
In the end, many of the political poems included here have, in spite of their noble sentiments and sincerity, lost much of their power. But one cannot ignore Huerta’s stunning use of figurative language–his surreal imagery in “The Bitter Root,” for example: “Now it comes closer, the torn voice, jaguar and mutilation.” In “Juarez Avenue” he writes:
One walks as if among cypress trees, below a long shadow of fear, always at the foot of death.
Then there are poems where a political stance and social criticism are implicit, but less strident. “Declaration of Hatred,” for example, a love poem to Mexico City, owes much of its vigor to its mythical overtones and use of language:
…to listen with the wind to the piercing screams/ that spring up from the ocean: dying birds falling onto the decks of dark eternally beautiful ships or upon long deaf beaches, blind from so much pure foam like thousands of orchids./
Nonetheless, the truth is unavoidable: Political poetry, like milk, curdles easily. Still, most fortunate for us, the same cannot be said for Huerta’s love poems, which deal with every variety of love: erotic, romantic, patriotic, literary, abstract and even love of place. His words can make you flinch, so intense is his treatment of disillusion, anger, loneliness, sex, compassion and sorrow.
“The Missing One,” for example, written when he was 21, describes the absent lover as “a needle in my mind…. The daily meditation… jabs me in the chest.” And then, like a vision taken from a Magritte painting, he concludes: “Overhead, where words turn into pieces of sky, I sense a fragment of my demise.”
In the sensual “Ordenes de Amor” (“Love Commands”), written some 25 years later, he demands that love take charge of him:
Bless me now, yes, with your thin fingers with your winging lips with your eyes of air, with your invisible body, oh you sweet enclosure of crystal and foam, my trembling poem, definitive love.
But here his expectations are directed not to any particular lover but to love as an abstract concept.
Regrettably, something is bound to get lost in translation. Thus, editor Jack Hirschman is to be commended for including the Spanish text alongside the English. However, while the purpose of a translation is to make the poem intelligible to the speaker of another language, and translator Jim Normington generally renders the meaning of the words into English, I found more than a dozen obvious slip-ups: In “Tame Hyperbole,” for example, a “sexual pauper,” i.e., indigente sexual, is referred to as a “sexual native.” In “El Río San Lorenzo,” a poem about the Saint Lawrence River, the title is translated “The San Lorenzo River.”
Moreover, if making a poem intelligible to the speaker of another language is a struggle, making poems like Huerta’s intelligible to the inhabitant of another culture is even more of a challenge. Because this poetry is so intrinsically Mexican, information is bound to be lost in the English reading. (This is particularly true of the political poetry.) In “Bitter Root,” for example, will the English reader recognize Lecumberri as the place where political prisoners were held? Will they identify David Alfaro Siqueiros as the Mexican muralist and political prisoner referred to in the lines “David lives. David loves”?
Unfortunately, dates for the composition or publication of poems, which might have shed some light on the contents, are not provided, nor are the poems organized into a chronological sequence. Up until the publication of Poesía Completa (Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1988), Huerta’s poetry had, for the most part, remained uncatalogued and undated. But today, most doubts about date of composition have been eliminated.
Undeniably, the foreign reader, for whom this collection was intended, would benefit enormously from an annotated edition. (It is to be hoped one of the publishing houses will consider releasing one in the near future.) Huerta may be unfathomable at times or excessively dogmatic, but his passion and the truth he is capable of evoking rise to the top. However one reacts to him–with anger, tears or joy–he will never leave you cold. As with all great poets, his words will continue to speak to us. In “Sketch for a Last Will and Testament,” he writes:
To them [the dead] and for them and for the mercy which I profess for the love that kills me for the poetry like sand and the stanzas, the damned stanzas I was never able to finish, peacefully I stop writing cursing praying weeping loving.
Diana Anhalt is a poet and writer in Mexico City. She is the author of A Gathering of Fugitives: American Political Expatriates in Mexico 1948-1965 (Archer Books).