Jose Asuncion Silva, horror and shadow

The cover of the book “Poesía selecta”, an anthology of Silva made by Panamericana Editorial, first published in 1997, one year after the centenary of the death of its author, and reissued this 2022.

Photo: personal archive

This portrait is included along with many other photos in the book choose poetryan anthology of Silva made by Panamericana Editorial, first published in 1997, a year after the centenary of its author’s death, and reissued this 2022. The selection of poems is by Carlos Nicolás Hernández, the foreword is by Luz Mary Giraldo and the editorial care of Alejandro Alba Garcia.

The photographic archive is, of course, one of the strengths of this edition, as it allows us to see José and his family at different periods of his life and also allows us to discover the poet’s manuscripts, a drawing of his entitled The Premature Flirting and a card he wrote and placed on his sister Elvira’s grave. But beyond the interesting images, the appearance of this new book is a good pretext to return to the figure of Silva, and in this reading what most caught my attention is the way in which two obsessions arise and intersect in the poet: horror and shadow. Therefore, this writing is nothing more than the pursuit of those two obsessions in the anthology in question, the pursuit of two themes, two images, which I believe are at the center of this poetry and are the root of its sadness and its nostalgia.

I will begin by talking about terror, a theme that at first seems foreign to Silva’s concerns, but which is present in youthful poems such as “Crepúsculo” and “Las undinas”, in which the poet uses children’s stories and myths, antiques to create authentic terrifying atmospheres. Silva describes “the hour when the dead rise” and the space is filled with “strange noises” and “dark tales”; we, the readers, feel “the shadow climbing through the curtains,” hear “the funeral bark of a goat,” and are disturbed to see “the dolls sleep […] half abandoned. It is a whole iconography and language of horror, with which Silva sought in his readers the same effect that supernatural tales and myths have on children. Silva wants to frighten us, amaze us, make our senses alert and thus envelop us in the mystery of the unknown, the invisible, the barely hinted at.

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Horror and fantasy have the power to envelop our lives “in the mist of dreams,” as the poem “Childhood” puts it, and in so doing, endow our uncertain reality with mystery. Similarly, Silva’s poems seek to envelop us in ghostly atmospheres that allow us to glimpse other levels of reality. For example, in the poem “The Skull”, a pair of swallows flutter on the ground, as if searching for the spirit of a monk whose skull rests there, in the orchard of an abandoned monastery, at dusk. The entire landscape that Silva creates, each placed element, almost like a painting, takes our imagination to a plane of reality where the dead return for their bones. And so we intuitively feel that our world is inhabited by presences that we do not see.

I find it surprising to realize that many of Silva’s poems are fueled by this image of horror: there are characters who wake up suddenly in the middle of the night, there are mysterious abandoned or ruined spaces, and there are many, many encounters with the dead that make themselves present. somehow. But I also realized that horror in Silva is not only a tool for insinuating our consciousness and turning our reality into a fantastic one, but that, especially in poems about adulthood, horror takes on another face: the face of indescribable malaise, as happens in the poem Los Maderos de San Juan. There, the tender vision of a grandmother singing and rocking with her grandson sitting on her lap is overshadowed by visions of an imagined future in which the old woman is dead and the child lives in the anguish and helplessness of adulthood, all in counterpoint with the nursery rhyme repeats its chorus over and over, adding to the dark atmosphere of the scene.

The vision of the grandson’s future causes deep horror in the grandmother. The poem says that his spirit passes “like a strange fear,” a vague, inscrutable sensation, but always lurking. I think Silva understood over the years that the greatest terror that nests in our minds is that anxiety or anguish that arises before the specter of what is not, the past that was better, the future that is uncertain, this fear of what we imagine and project, but that is not real, and yet it terrifies us like the most fearful specter, paralyzes us with fear. In many of Silva’s poems and even in his novel Desktop There always is I that he is a victim of this discomfort, this anxiety, that he lives unhappily in his present, in terror of his uncertain future and even of his happy past, because the happiness of the memory torments him. Silva’s poetry is therefore an exploration of our vulnerability, that is, of our terror and fear.

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I think, on the other hand, that from his youthful poems Silva understood that the doors of fear and suggestion open through the shadow, that is, the use of the shadow, the other obsession I want to talk about. It is obvious that the shadow has become a kind of symbol that identifies all of Silva’s poetry, but the image is not reduced to its use in his most famous poem, in which two elongated shadows meet and unite, but there is a whole study, which is a result of the fixation the poet had with painting and the use of light.

Indeed, I know of no modern poetry which is as conscious of its pictorial nature as Silva’s, and the results of these effects are irresistibly expressive. In poems such as “Mariposas”, “Nidos” and “Alas”, it happens, for example, that light and shadows transform what they touch: butterflies, illuminated by the sun’s rays, “look like mother-of-pearl” and become “opal luster” / with soft wings” , on the other hand, when the rays fail to penetrate through the density of trees, the ground becomes a “hidden cover of shadows”. It also happens that light and shade create color: when the sun’s rays, lukewarm, fall with the afternoon, they “illuminate / the horizon with a reddish glow”, and when they stop illuminating the green forest, it becomes it returns “black, very black , in the background / bright and amber”.

Another example of the skill with which Silva paints with light and shadow is in one of the two prose works included in the anthology, “Elumbrella del padre León.” There, Silva describes a street in Bogotá that the priest crosses in the middle of a very dark night while it is raining: the sky and horizon are “black as tar, scratched by the silver threads of a fine drizzle,” the floor is “wet and light from the rain,” and the only lighting among darkness is “the phantasmagorical radiance, the blinding and colorless clarity of an electric bulb that makes the shadow around it more intense.” In the middle of the picture, the priest, a “black elf”, is traced with the only colorful detail of the picture: “a red umbrella of colossal dimensions” and in his hand “a flashlight with green glasses”. Nobody paints with words like Silva. One can imagine the small chromatic spot in the middle of another series of huge black spots and white streaks of light, and thus this anonymous street in Bogotá becomes a magnificent impressionistic picture that has not yet been painted.

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But Silva was not only a master of shadows because of his way of painting with them, but also because of his way of looking at life. I have said before that the idyllic scene of grandmother and grandson is “shadowed”, that is, it becomes darker, more haunted by anxiety and sadness, more filled with pessimism. In fact, Silva defines a pessimist as someone who has too much shadow in his visions, and this “shadowy” way of seeing life prevails in most of his works. It should be added that, in the poet’s eyes, the passage of time is what creates shadows: the years take away the mystery and charm of life and take us to increasingly unhappy places. This happens, for example, in the poem “Sus dos mesas”, in which he contrasts the fine and suggestive dressing table of a lonely woman, decorated with “transparent essences”, “rare and fragile glass”, “the iris of a diamond, the blood of a ruby”, with the trivial that woman’s dressing room after marriage, where she rests a “bottle”, a “prayer book”, “an old reverberator and a pacifier and a diaper”.

The passage of time and its changes overshadow everything, make life more trivial, and therefore the sweet and luminous peaceful moments are left more and more behind. Silva’s poetry is therefore a hive of nostalgia, and he exclaims “happy age!” in the verses of the poem “Childhood”, as it is a “pleasant valley / of calm and gracious freshness”, but whose “short blisses [son] transient”. In any case, although nostalgic, Silva does not seek to restore the past, on the contrary, he has a fixation with it, because it is about the time that is no longer there, it is a ghostly time, and his visions are vague and ethereal like “melancholic music’ of the bamboo whose notes will be lost in the air or the ‘faint and bluish smoke’ that spirals towards the sky until it disappears, fleeting images that Silva explores in the poems ‘Paseo’ and ‘Humo'”.

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In my opinion, the darkest vision that Silva’s poetry reaches is in the poems in which he scathingly and insultingly mocks himself, the poet he represents, as in “Avant-propos”, where he is advised not to read more ‘poems / full of tears’, or in ‘Zoosperms’, where he sees himself as the smallest of the sperms that a scientist sees through his microscope, ‘the smallest, some lyric poet’, and reflects also in sperm that when he becomes a man “and after a thousand torments and deeds and passions / would kill himself with a Smith & Wesson”. But in the midst of such a vast shadow, sometimes glimmers of light emerge from Silva’s poems, minimal optimistic visions whose focus is usually the writing itself, that is, poetry as hope, as faith. The poem “To Diego Fallon”, dedicated to a poet whose work had an important influence on Silva, is evidence of this belief, as it is said that when no one in the future remembers Fallon’s poems, they “keep talking, spirits that sleep / the mundane jungles / full of mists and shadows / at dusk”. His poetry will live on, an optimistic Silva says, even if it is among a few but sensitive readers for whom these verses will carry “a vague mysterious murmur.”

However, these leaps of faith are only glimpses. The past is a painful sensation, the dim tenderness of bygone times, the present is an advancing shadow, and the future uncertain and black. I dare to say that over the years, this vision is increasingly strengthened in the poet’s personal life. So I return to the words of the essayist from Antioquia Baldomero Sanin Cano, one of the friends who knew him best: he assures that Silva always took life seriously and became the most perfect machine for suffering. I also go back to see the index to this anthology: of the nineteen texts, seventeen poems and two prose, at least eleven were written before he was twenty-one, indicating that the horror and the shadow had settled in him from a very young age. Finally, I go back to see the picture I talked about at the beginning: there is the boy with a serious look, the look of a man who faces the world with excessive gravity. I think Silva never stopped being that kid.

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