I had never heard of Emilio Villa until the kind people at Contra Mundum forwarded me some digital excerpts from their new collection, The Selected Poetry of Emilio Villa. Those excerpts were fascinating, but they don’t—can’t—capture how big and strange and beautiful the finished book is.
Dominic Siracusa translates; he also provides a lengthy introduction, an essay that primes the reader to better understand Villa, a “a biblicist who composed experimental verse in over ten different languages.”
The variety of languages Villa composed in is complicated by his experimental techniques including fragmentation, the blending and splitting of morphemes, his use of graphemes, and other corruptions and disruptions.
Villa’s poetry seems simultaneously to be a rich linguistic ooze, generative and messy, blending through myth and time, but also a refinement, a collection of criticism even. The book is really damn puzzling in a really fun way.
More to come, for now, the lengthy jacket copy:
While Emilio Villa (1914–2003) was referred to as Zeus because of his greatness and Rabelais because of his mental voracity, for decades his work remained in oblivion, only recently surfacing to reveal him to be one of the most formidable figures of the Italian Novecento, if not of world culture. His marginalization was in part self-inflicted, due to his sibylline nature if not to his great erudition, which gave rise to a poetics so unconventional that few knew what to make of it: a biblicist who composed experimental verse in over ten different languages, including tongues from Milanese dialect and Italian to French, Portuguese, ancient Greek, and even Sumerian and Akkadian. As Andrea Zanzotto declared, “From the very beginning, Villa was so advanced that, even today, his initial writings or graphemes appear ahead of the times and even the future, suspended between a polymorphous sixth sense and pure non-sense.”
In merging his background as a scholar, translator, and philologist of ancient languages with his conception of poetics, Villa creates the sensation that, when reading his work, we are coming into contact with language at its origins, spoken as if for the first time, with endless possibilities. Whether penning verse, translating Homer’s Odyssey, or writing on contemporary or primordial art, Villa engages in a paleoization of the present and a modernization of the past, wherein history is abolished and interpretation suspended, leaving room only for the purely generative linguistic act, one as potent today as it was eons ago.
This volume of Villa’s multilingual poetry ranges across his entire writing life and also includes selections from his translation of the Bible, his writings on ancient and modern art, and his visual poetry. Presented in English for the very first time, The Selected Poetry of Emilio Villa also contains material that is rare even to Italian readers. In adhering to the original notion of poetry as making, Villa acts as the poet-faber in tandem with his readers, creating une niche dans un niche for them to enter and create within, as if language itself were an eternal and infinite void in which creation remains an ever possible and continuously new event.
The Unknown University, Roberto Bolaño’s poetry collection—his complete poems, a bilingual edition, lovely, beautiful, over 800 pages—has been shifted all over my messy house this past month, wedged into ad hoc shelves, even conspicuously, for a time, fatly weighing down another Bolaño text, The Insufferable Gaucho (which I’ve been reading in tandem with/against The Unknown University), swollen and warped with saltwater from the gray Atlantic ocean.
I pecked at The Unknown University discursively, avoiding end notes, taking the rest of the Bolañoverse as my guide or frame or map or background for these poems. I read randomly, trying one poem at a time in no special order, taking crude stabs at the Spanish text on the left hand pages, clumsily matching them against Laura Healy’s fine translation, a poetics that matches the tone and rhythm and cadence and vibe of Bolaño’s other translators, Natasha Wimmer and Chris Andrews.
Then last night, a tale from The Insufferable Gaucho compelled me to read from The Unknown University straightwise, linear, 1-2-3, non-discursively, to take a stab at an orderly trajectory, reading it like a novel in fragments, perhaps.
The book is divided into three parts, each comprised of their own chapters or individual books. Last night I read, or reread, the first half of the first part: The Snow-Novel; Guirat de Bornelh; Streets of Barcelona; In the Reading Room of Hell.
The examples and citations in this riff come from those books, but I’d suggest that the images, motifs, and themes of these early poems—switchblades, hell, abysses, poets, girls, detectives, assassins, hunchbacks, genitals, sex, madness, blood—resonate throughout the entire volume (and throughout Bolaño’s oeuvre).
Perhaps the most central theme is Bolaño himself; The Unknown University often reads like a diffuse autobiography, with Bolaño’s concern for his own place in literature at the fore.
We see that anxiety in the first poem shared by the editors, a piece from 1990 included in the book’s intro:
Even a decade earlier, Bolaño prophesied that he would be carried to hell, a primal setting of the Bolañoverse. Bolaño’s romantic ancestor Jorge Luis Borges famously imagined Paradise as a kind of library. Bolaño inverts that image:
In another poem, Bolaño seems to obliquely address Borges again (“Dear, this isn’t Paradise”), while also name-checking the heroes of that “club / for science-fiction fans” (including some perhaps-unlikely figures):
“A long, slow University.” Yes.
But how could Bolaño leave his hero Edgar Allan Poe from the curriculum? Oh, never mind. Here he is:
The vase—Pandora’s box, Keats’s urn?—is a central image in these early poems. Dark, beautiful, and transformative, Bolaño seems to posit the vase—an object rendered somewhat mundane in its traditional place as an aesthetic object—as a portal to the abyss:
Elsewhere our poet warns/invites us: “The nightmare begins over there, right there. / Further up, down, everything’s part of the / nightmare. Don’t stick your hand in that urn. Don’t / stick your hand in that hellish vase.” Reading the poem forces us to stick our hand in the vase.
If Bolaño seems occasionally melodramatic in his poems, a thrall to Baudelaire, he’s also keenly aware of it, even this early in his career. A twinning of irony and earnestness characterizes Bolaño’s writing, a savage self-reflexive humor that doesn’t necessarily reveal itself on first reading. When he begins a poem about a lost love, “Go to hell, Roberto, and remember you’ll never stick it in again,” the sentiment is simultaneously tragic and comic, the kind of personal confession that connects to the reader’s own experiences. “To be honest I don’t remember much now,” our narrator confides near the end, before the devastating conclusion, “She loved me forever / She crushed me.”
For Bolaño though, what’s perhaps most crushing is the loss of literature:
And yet Bolaño sticks his arm into the vase, walks out over the chasm, dares for his poems to perhaps earn the right to be one of those “loose sentences, traces . . . fragments” that may survive.
In the very early poem “Work,” Bolaño romanticizes his own literary posterity:
Poetry that might champion my shadow in days to come
when I’ll be just a name not the man who wandered
with empty pockets, worked in slaughterhouses
on the old and on the new continent.
I seek credibility not durability for the ballads
I composed in honor of very real girls.
And mercy for my years before 26.
Seems like a reasonable request.
I don’t know if these poems are good or bad or excellent or what. I do know that I loved reading them and that they are of a piece with everything else I’ve read by Bolaño. The best moments recall his best writing, that strange mix of plain, even understated language, set against romantic violence and terrible madness. The poems here don’t distill the best of Bolaño into burning kernels of visceral realism; rather, they feel like the liquid filament of the Bolañoverse. Fantastic.
More to come.
The Unknown University is available now from New Directions.