The Afternoon of The Elephant and Other Poems
by Luis Benítez.
28 poems, 135 pages
Publisher: Katakana Editores Corp., Weston, FL33331
To order: email: email@example.com
reviewed by Neil Leadbeater
This volume of poems by the Argentinian poet, novelist, essayist and critic, Luis Benítez, translated by Beatriz Olga Allocati, offers readers of English the chance to appreciate the work of this major figure in contemporary Spanish-language literature. The book, designed by Elisa Orozco, is beautifully produced, giving enough space for each poem to make its impact on the page.
The collection is teeming with life, both animal and human. In addition to the elephant that makes its appearance in the title and on the front cover, there are references to snakes, leopards, horses, toads, trout and salmon, a skunk and an army of ants. Some of the animals in this collection, such as the sabre-toothed tiger, an extinct mammal that once roamed the windswept plains of Patagonia, go back a long way and are now regarded as prehistoric. References to time and space, ‘the red of a broken star / fractured against the edge of the world’ and to atavism, ‘the shadow of the beast we are,’ reveal the scope and depth of Benítez’s poetry where the animal world and the human world are inexplicably linked and comment on each other.
Animals aside, there is a poem that explores the origin of the tango which was the name initially given to describe the musical gatherings of slaves around the River Plate basin before becoming popular in the working-class suburbs of Buenos Aires which were packed with hundreds of thousands of immigrants, and a poem about the charismatic singer, Ángel Vargas, who was the symbol of porteño tango phrasing in the 1940s.
The collection opens with A Heron in Buenos Aires. This poem is a study in contrasts: the all-seeing, ever-watchful heron is contrasted with those of us who do not see her. The peacefulness of the Japanese Garden (in Buenos Aires) is contrasted with the murderous instincts of the famished heron. The motionless heron is contrasted with the movement of the tourists. The heron is described in terms of its shape (an ‘S’ shape) and its hunger. There is this startling image of it being ‘an open buttonhole’ ready to clasp all the clothes together as if they were prey locked in its beak.
In At the Bathing Resort a man (any man or woman for that matter) is confronted by the enormity of the Pacific Ocean. Its vastness cuts us down to size. Here we encounter ‘the panic of living / and the phobia of dying’. This is where we and the waves do our deep-sea thinking.
Cotillion of Darkness majors on the futility of the many things that mar our everyday lives: the isolation of living in the city, boarded-up thoroughfares and the horror of regress as opposed to progress. The oppression of inner city living is also felt in The Afternoon of the Elephant only this time the scene has shifted from Buenos Aires to New York City. In this poem, which is clearly pivotal to the collection as a whole, the animal world and the human world collide when an escaped elephant interrupts a conversation between two people by eating fruit from a café table.
Our changing moods, which are often at the mercy of circumstance, are also portrayed sensitively in The Glow. Intriguingly, we are not given the details contained in the letter that the subject receives in this poem but we know from his reaction in the opening stanza that it contains unwelcome news:
‘In one day he aged two years.
In one week, ten.
All of a sudden he regarded his fingers old
grasping a letter that looked,
like him, already ancient,
though its date was that of a newspaper
that hardly, still on the table
consumed the incipient yellow.’
Later, there is a reversal. Another letter, very different from the previous one, arrives. Now, our subject is more himself again. Indeed, he seems to be elated:
‘When opening the window, green
had come back to the trees
at its best,
the street glowing as ever…
…the future was euphoric and the past
Poems such as The Extravagant Traveller Up River and Toads, Single Owners of Dusk register a concern for our polluted environment. In the former, a salmon is making its way upstream in oily water. Its scales glow with a ‘weird iridescence amidst the trash / of the condemned river’ and its mouth is open ‘to the desire of breathing / still some more of its last day.’ There is the iridescence of its colourful body and there is the iridescence of petroleum. Like mankind, it is on a path to self-destruction. In the latter, the toad is a ‘hormone sack barely living / between two summers in the filthy water.’ The poem opens and closes on a musical note. It is likened to a ‘greenish trombone’ because of the deep sound that it emits from its throat and, in the last stanza, ‘a swollen happy instrument…[that] …keeps on filling the room / where for a moment we contemplate the orchestra.’ Between these musical bookends, we have the core of the poem, which is about survival: the threat of contaminated water, speeding traffic on the roads, life in the city.
One of the shorter poems in the book, and one that is all the more powerful for its brevity, is The Lame One. It is a poem about slavery and sexual abuse. Perhaps there is an irony in the title here because the theme of the poem is far from lame. ‘So hated the slave,’ Benítez writes, ‘the Negro girl, the dishwasher / that her masters deflower / every night.’ It is a terrible irony that, in the act of dishwashing, she makes things clean while her masters make her feel unclean.
Benítez is a voice to be reckoned with. His multi-layered poetry explores the complexities of the human condition by reflecting on the physical and social world around us. He writes with compassion and sensitivity with an awareness of the wider world that exists outside of ourselves.
This review was first published in The Poet and is reproduced with kind permission.