The Shipwreck of the Poem


The Shipwreck, Francis Danby, 1850

by Gerardo Muñoz

Paraguayan Sea,
by Wilson Bueno,
New York: Nightboat Books, 115 pp.

That the philosopher or the novelist has rarely withstood the moment of shipwreck in the unfolding of metaphoricity as basic substratum for existence, is a fact that not many would contest. But can the poem stand up to such task? This question alone already assumes quite a lot; mainly, that one could speak to the effect of an invariant substance by which the poem can transcend its singular sayability into the temporality of form. Can the poem move us in a direction beyond language into a formless rhythm, while interrupting the conjuncture between sense and sound, breaching an irreducible distance between the immanence of the concept and the order of grammar? Or, if we were to rehearse the same question in a narrower way: is the poem what frees the time of the anamorphic imbalance within the composition of language beyond the One?

These are all initial considerations that animate a first reading of Paraguayan Sea (Nightboat Books, 2017), a serpentine prose poem by the late Brazilian poet Wilson Bueno, now rendered in a unique and highly orbicular translation in English by Erin Moure. Originally written in 1992, Paraguayan Sea is a luminal poetic verbiage divisible beyond one language and one idiomatic register. But Paraguayan Sea is not a poem about the equivalences between languages or even about the images that converge, merely touching, while staying afloat in the luminous currents of the Paraná River. Paraguayan stages a zone of indistinction between the rhetorical exchange between poetry and prose, producing an exodus from all national and regional literary formation of the Brazil-Southern Cone cultural regimes that unbind the provenance of three tongues (Portuguese, Spanish, and Guaraní) into a fluvial proliferation beyond the apparatuses of language. Avoiding the epifocal juxtaposition of this linguistic triad, Paraguayan sea invites us as spectators to shipwreck of the poem as that which endlessly falls without translatability. As exiled Argentinian poet Nestor Perlonguer writes in his prologue to the original 1992 edition—which Moure has felicitously translated and included in this new edition—Paraguayan sea is “an event that pokes holes in our habits…. an event that involves the invention of a language” [1]. This language, to be sure, is not that of communicative or linguistic grammar conventions, but the clearing of the lacuna of the sayable that points to the fracture of signification. If we are to understand the poematic event as the excess between semantics and semiotics, Paraguayan Sea invents a language that is certainly not new, since what it accomplishes is nothing short of an unproductive movement beyond equivalent exchange. In a way, the ‘invention of language’ that Perlongher glimpsed, amounts to the very liquidation between the tropological support for the transcendence of the sign, and the deliverance of the turbulence and errancy of imagination.

The language disjunction in Paraguayan Sea does not accommodate intercultural encounters; it prefers to risk the image of shipwreck.  This is what is at stake every time the spectral intrusion of Guaraní traverses the body of the text. (The textual corporatization as an immediate interchange between language and body is another possible entrance into the torrent of Paraguayan Sea, but which we will only be able to register here in passing). As we know, Guaraní is not only an official language in Paraguay, an oral language that for many, accounts for the invincible residue of a subaltern culture; it is also the oral vibration of what cannot be subsumed in the inscription of the written law [2]. But in Wilson’s poematicity, Guaraní desists in playing the stalemated game of orality and writing, which has stretched, perhaps for too long, the fantasies of an “outside” as posited by Latin American culture studies and its allegorical machines. The procedure becomes one by which one could gather any residual tracing that can no longer coincide with the ‘subject that speaks’. For Bueno, moreover, Guaraní does not find itself in opposition to declining into an illiterate space of pure void. Hence, Paraguayan Sea, far from participating in the re-foundation of a national-popular critical regionalist project, incorporates Guaraní as erasure, that is, as what can interrupt the equivalence between languages and its transcendence into the One. The poem, in fact, opens itself with an apostilla for Guaraní: “Make no mistake: Guaraní is as essential to this story as the flight of the bird, the speck on the window, the cooing of French of the cascade of Nerudaesque outpourings in a single sole suicide of capacious English words. One’s the error of the autre. (Bueno 6).

 Guaraní, then, does not stimulate the return of the repressed, but rather a chiasmatic trace in the poem devoid of place. The error of the other – which Perlonguer identifies as the possibility of the opening towards its destiny – does supersede the caesura between writing and orality, poetry and prose, semiotics and semantics, in the errancy of language that has no place. Guaraní, then, is the testamentary nearness irreducible between one language and its other, say, between Castilian and Guaraní. Again, we read: “I forget the though Afro-Brazilian floozies, Guarani and Castilian, parce que I know I’m writing and writing is like taking all that surrounds a living body and scribbling it on the walls of Main Street” (Bueno 26).  A scene of writing: an illegible inscription that undoes the semantics of historical development while ex-posing its constitutive ruin [3]. In this sense, Paraguayan Sea does not seek to restitute an ethical compensation to historical devastation, if we recall that Paraguay’s modern history fully coincides with a permanent state of stasis or civil war in a conflagration of its people. Guaraní is not an ‘other’, but a wound, as we read from Bueno:

No, Guarani is harmless and I fork it up, nibbled by tahiî tahiîguaicurú, sylphs, aracutí, arariiî, pucú. Winged ants that pick the song from my mouth so as to penetrate me, insistent, with their wings, he wedding dance de l’abyss, their whirr at the back of the nasal cavité, their piercing death-agony, ah, the words de Guarani they soothe my bones: tahiîguaricú, arairiî, aracatu, pucú, pucú (Bueno 27-28).

At the threshold of a sensual commensality, Guaraní interrupts the binding of action and rhetoric that renders the “harmlessness” through which the poetic voice announces its own desperation inoperative. What comes immediately takes language to an apostrophic figure (the ‘oldie’) of a man in agony, at the border of death, but already withheld in the looming unto the shadow of his own finitude. But this is not to say that Guaraní is interchangeably a trope of death – although it announces the improper space that welcomes ghosts – but should be taken as utile; to recall David Jones’ two-fold anamnesis excess that belongs to all poesies [4]. Guaraní, more or less, is the utile of overflowing of imagination against the metaphoric transport that brings the sign to its site of deficiency. The utile gathers and prepares for death in the poem. Again, in an important moment in Paraguayan Sea, we read:

Pure enchantment, enchained. Enchanting enchantery. What other image could there be for human action? Fright’s the acute spectre de panqiue, a thing that is its intimate ghost, something close to the pre-pre-riskiness, the before of the befores of the before. The ancestors and the elders. (Bueno 24-25).

The poem does not name or create anything, since it is errancy what can dispense the enchanted image and free the rhythmic association between the familiar, the unfamiliar, and the unexpected. And it is the unworking of rhythm what deviates from the vulgar temporality of historical time, the kind that has imported the unifying myth of homeland to contain the fluvial irreducibility of imagination within languages. The enchantment in Paraguayan Sea is thus not a programmatic crafting for transculturation or allegorical output in the closure of cultural hegemonies. Rather, the enchantment that Bueno’s poem could be thought along is what Martin Heidegger, in his commentary to Hölderlin’s Hymns, called a wander in errancy, as a genuine or authentic (insofar as it pertains to singular existence) access that does not fall prey to the semblance of true nearness, that is, to the metaphysics of language and the superstructure of the sign [5]. For Heidegger, the allowance of nearness in the instance of poetizing was not a relation to familiarity or actual distancing, but at the expense of the removal in the act of poetizing. This raises the weight of the finite, which Paraguayan Sea copiously curates as its own question.

As Bueno says at the very end of Paraguayan Sea: “more perfect than anything is perfect when what is in question is death” (Bueno 67). The poem in its errancy cannot but attest to this question. But the poem has no proper question for death, since poematicity in its wandering can only trace a testamentary nearness to “understandable ashes” (Bueno 63). The mystery between the ‘oldie’, the signifying corpse and apostrophic trans-figuration amends the relation between the poem and finitude in language’s errancy. The anarquic posture of language knows no confession to expiate before the coming of the end. That is why Paraguayan Sea blinds itself from any messianic drive. Irremediably, this takes us to the question of the end: “The inferno of hell’s enfer exists and might be the oldguy or might be le boy and mainly it might be this abrupt Sonia Braga of my marafona floozy days…” (Bueno 66). Hell is beyond the face, fleeing from the epic of life as something more than just life. Bueno extends the possibility of the poem, as a deluge that remains ungraspable on the grounds of equality between languages, knowing that the freeing of language discerns no return.

Translation and trans-figuration are perhaps the two poles that delineate Paraguayan Sea’s parergon. Thus, Moore is too modest when writing that her task was to merely attend to the “bridging of rhythms”, since at times language is not there simply to be used (Bueno 111). The subtractive remainder between languages confirms the subtle utile of translation of that which remains untranslatable, as well as Bueno’s experimentation on what remains from any operation of translatability. But in so far poematicity takes language to its place of errancy and wonder, what remains is the possibility of use in the breaching between the poem and death.

Paraguayan Sea plays no game of contingency in the moment of wreckage, and resists all monotheisms substantiated in location, dialogism, graphism, or form. Unlike Mallarme’s Un coup de des (1897) or Haroldo de Campos’ Galaxias (1984), it desists from assisting the privilege of the page as the transubstantiation of the Idea. It prefers a co-habitation with the specter, a living corpse, the sight of death: what remains faceless beyond the archaism of creation. If at times Paraguayan Sea recalls Anathemata (1952), it is because in the liturgy of its athological language, the possibility of myth even after the death of myth, prepares for what the poem can only trace in wonder. Paraguayan Sea ultimately shipwrecks on a sublunar region, where the litany for death, is no longer invested in the poetics of destiny.



[1] Néstor Perlongher. “Paraguayan Soup”, Paraguayan Sea (2017), 1-3.

[2] The author that tried to situate Guaraní within a transcultural framework of modern Paraguayan literature was of course Augusto Roa Bastos, a major writer of the so-called ‘Latin American’ Boom generation. For his thematization of Guaraní in relation to orality and subaltern culture, see the introduction to his Las Culturas Condenadas (1978), and “Una cultura oral” (1987).

[3] For a philosophical discussion on the Latin American long poem, destruction, and the dwelling in poematicity, see Sergio Villalobos-Ruminott’s Soberanias en suspenso (2014).

[4] David Jones. “Use and Sign”. The Dying Gaul and Other Writings (1978), 178-187.

[5] Martin Heidegger. Hölderlin’s Hymns (2014), 215-216.

About the Author:

Gerardo Muñoz is a doctoral student at Princeton University. His dissertation studies the crisis of State form and political principles in nineteenth and twentieth century Latin America. He has translated essays of Giorgio Agamben and is a member of the Infrapolitical Deconstruction Collective.