Hector Viel Temperley
reviewed by Ian Dreiblatt
“The bone of communication is hollow.” — Lyn Hejinian
It is a convention in Judaism that prayer books, when they are ready for replacement (and as they may never be destroyed) are buried with the dead. There is something tender in this, what it shows of the connection between language and the feelings of a religious community, and between the book and the body. And there is also, especially because of the proscription against the artificial preservation of dead people, something deeply icky, or maybe lovely, about the mutual intercomposition of these two degrading things, never complete and nonetheless whole.
I thought of this a lot as I read The Last Books of Héctor Viel Temperley, Sand Paper Press's recent presentation of the two long poems that concluded that poet’s life in a devoted and rich new English translation by Stuart Krimko. It’s rare to read anything that so totally perceives the book and body as recipes for each other, the connection between the serial and the infinite as so intimate.
In the middle of Crawl, the long poem that comprises the first of the two titular last books, Temperley turns to
“Him who sees lemon, whitewash, sex, —The blue door of snipped gauze, turned inward, to the half-built hut beauty put up On the shores of the self…”
Say it out loud. Crawl is a long poem that enacts a solitary swim along an urban coast in a thunderstorm. Its phrasings, in both the original Spanish and Krimko’s athletic translation, steer the breath into rhythms that are as familiar as physical labor and as prayer. Music opens: the metric doubling of lemon and whitewash, enclosed by the stronger single syllables of Him and sex; another doubling (“blue door of snipped gauze”), followed by three four-syllable phrases (with a caesura at the acme after inward), move into an anapestic other doubling (“On the shores of the self”) that propels the line onward. This is a good example of how the poem relates to air, erasing the distinctions between breath as a focal conduit in physical exertion, in theosophized meditation, and in poetic practice.
In how the body becomes a locus of attentions and higher energies, Temperley’s poetics is focused toward a kind of devotional enstasis, drawing perceptions and intuitions toward a contemplative center. But there is also an extasis in manyness, an almost unsurvivable contact with every thing the poem sees: strange small scenes between people, seascapes, Biblical apparitions. Temperley locates his own poetics “between the eye that trembles / and the eye of the abyss,” and that trembling eye exults in the sacred pageant of seaside urban life, a fervor of rich sensitivities. Urgency:
To drain through the face of the world toward the eyes of the swimmers: two or three lifeguards, two teenagers and a wanderer of the sands who cut along a diagonal the sea from its beach.
Nothing is beneath the threshold of the sacred: it is the breathing, seeing, transcending person who passes through this “[c]hapel without votives” that brings it into connection with the infinite. Thus extraordinary things (“Vestry with wheat of nudes listening / to an altar of beehives.”) can readily flux into the most ordinary of things (“Singular shadow. / Planks.”) with no loss to the sacrality of the journey.
The kind of God that emerges, then, is a speaking of everything, a Logos of shreds and patches, accessed through the poem as a practice of singularization without specification. The poem’s distinctive, athletic breath places the speaking body at the center of an ambient polyphony. Every section of Crawl begins the same way, with the line “I come straight from communion and I’m in ecstasy,” and the ecology of energies this suggests is pitch-perfect. Attention sustained by motion sustained by mystery. How, indeed, to survive “[i]n this place where a strapping young dock hand’s bride / / sells her body / to guests” if not for the “serpents of snow / that illuminate / / hidden spots on maps / and cloaks” through which can climb an “I—who wouldn’t want / that trope to oscillate / / too wildly or get lost / in the threshold of the sky—“?
The second of the book’s books, Hospital Británico, partakes of a similarly voracious transcendence, but in a pitch that is even more serial. That poem, written while Temperley recovered from surgery that removed from his brain some of the cancer that not too much later killed him, is full of spectacular encounters: it opens with a visit Temperley’s mother (who, twenty blocks away in another hospital, lies dying) pays him in heaven. “Here she kisses my peace, sees her son changed, prepares herself – in Your crying – to start all over again.” In a startling enactment of the spiritual conservation this suggests, the poem then turns recursively (like a wave, I thought) back on itself and on all of Temperley’s previous work, revisiting and re-conjoining words, lines, and verses from everything he had written to date. These give much pleasure, the kind surrealism offers (“The girl returns with the face of a rodent, disfigured by not wanting to know what it means to be young”), and also amplify the questions raised in Crawl about what it means to be a body speaking, or having spoken, in the infinite thrall of attentions.
It is also in this last book of reiterations and reformations, which one is tempted to call Zukofskian, that Temperley makes some of his most beautiful and mysterious declarations. For instance, there is a short section under the title “My head is bandaged” in which Temperley writes, “Butterfly of God, pubis of Mary: Cross the blood of my brow — until I kiss my very face in Jesus Christ (1982)—.” (The hospital in which Temperley rested is elsewhere identified as an “armor of butterflies.”) In another section, under the heading “They have taken me from the world”, we read the line “‘Woman I impregnated,’ ‘Rossetto Pavilion,’ ‘Long corner of summer’:”. There are more prolonged coalescences, too:
A shark rots twenty meters from here. A small shark – a bullet with slits, an open accordion – rots and is my companion. A shark rots – a fishing reel silent on the dirt floor, next to a water drum, in a tire shop set back from the highway – twenty meters from the sun in my head: The sun like the doors, flanked by two men in pure white, of a military school in the desert; a military school that is more than a desert in a place inside this beach from which the future flees. (1984)
Here, too, repetitions anchor and direct the breath, and whatever is happening finds its way into a language derived from and addressed to the exact point of connection between the innumerable and the infinite.
Lastly, a word about the translation. No translation is ever possible, or apt, and of work that locates itself deeply within mysteries, or deeply within the body, this is especially true. It is Stuart’s great achievement, then, to have produced English that so accords with Temperley’s in its microscopic engagement with breath, in its energetic extremes of syntax and arrangement, in its lucid tonal presence while discussing the most and the least familiar alike of urban experiences. Sand Paper’s great decision to publish the work bilingually, Spanish original facing English translation, is an especial pleasure, too. The conservation of the trajectories and mystic transits of this work into English is cause for great happiness, and, as Temperley might put it, to cry in the flowers and give thanks.