Gender and the Poetry of Roberto Echavarren
Is there a creature for whom gender is not a transformative conundrum? Consider the adolescent who wishes never to grow up. Many harbor a secret Peter Pan. Wendy too? Still the age of polymorphic bliss may prove to have been an adult projection. Peter, after all, is circumscribed by certain male attributes, his attraction to sword play and feats of prowess that excite other boys. Still, like any eight-year old, he is sexless. In performance he is often she flying on guywires over the arena. When did the use of weapons become gendered? Kristeva writes about this somewhere. Is Joan of Arc a transgender figure or a girl who saw herself as unconstrained by gender?
Roberto Echavarren, is absorbed by images that originate in the celebrated androgyny of the 70s. He’s in love with boys who are girls. He has written of “we, men by definition / but not from taste or comportment” (“Inquest” in El expreso entre el sueño y la vigilia, Montevideo 2009, my translation). These men refuse sexual assignment at the level of genitalia and stage androgynous performances, Jim Harrison or David Bowie. The tribal and Dionysian excesses of the 70s stimulated the ambiguities of my own sexuality. Yet no one will doubt my gender, even as I beg to suck the cock of the golden boy of my dreams, glorious abjection!
I asked a poet friend, younger than myself, about the cis / transsexual divide. I speculate now that to aspire to realize a gender identification, transsexual-male or transsexual female, innate as each position maybe, is to aspire to a set of restraints. For some it is to fetishize the hemline or the breasts, for others a ghost penis or an inverted vagina are sacred and esteemed. At the level of sexuality I get it. Glorious release of stifled inhibitions! At the level of gender I am suspicious. Gendered norms homogenize diversity and censor the individual. This is an argument often repeated in the essays of Echavarren’s Fuera de genero. This was the lesson of my feminist and anti-masculinist apprenticeship upon attaining adulthood. I must ask is there a gender free reality for anyone given materialistic conditions and habits of consumption? Bern Porter at my age (70 or so) wore pantyhose as a practical necessity for coping with the artic winds of coastal Maine. He had floppy breasts like Tiresias. Wrap me in my shawl, for love’s sake! I honor the hedonism of the 70s and the paranoia a trans-woman may feel regarding her hemline. Gender remains to me personally a matter of performance and rules. Maddeningly, nonetheless, within the constructs of my anthropology, on carnival nights, there are no rules.
Compulsions of a private and personal order have led me to make translations of Echavarren’s passionate, surreal, and multivalent work, each level caught in a species of frottage, planes that slide over other planes, liquids that ooze among planes of differing consistencies. Infiltrations and plasticities that affect performance and cherish liminalities. This the seedbed of a wildly vegetative baroque sensibility, a species of inundation and physical contortion at the heart of his poetry, characteristic also of the work of other Latin, Neo-baroque poets.
Inspired then to imagine a difficult liminality, an in-between marked by compromise and bizarre, even demoniacal transgressions of corporeal space, I turn to images from carnival, perhaps the underlying plenum of these lines from, “Inquest.”
The kerchief that you liked inside your dress:
we, men by definition
but not from taste or comportment,
held up by a grand throne of air
that collapses each minute,
equal by definition, but undefined,
we hold up the grand throne of air
before it collapses.
The throne depends on what you decide, or accede to.
The horses go down the empty street.
It’s early morning and I wake up.
Some birds begin the samba, batucada,
a wreathe of whistles
ringlets like leaves.
The grand throne is here
but within the hour that peels the chirping
The hour is here and afterwards nothing:
insistent jeering of doves
and rapid wings, unexpected.
We are other by definition
and the state in which we find ourselves
is neither good nor bad.
A carnival float traverses an avenue in my mind, floating on waves of intoxication and music. The troupe dances in uniforms, breastplates and thigh-high plastic boots, with the Roman cingulum covering the genitals. The “batucada” is insistent, a highly percussive form of samba, played by an ensemble of percussion instruments. An example is "El Matador" from the Argentine band Los Fabulosos Cadillacs. The rhythm is inspired by the Samba-reggae style from Bahia, Brazil, home of ritual candomblé. The track contains choral shouting with some qualities of flamenco. Encrypted multicultural constructs, the development is condensed and sparsely rendered. This complex referentiality reminds me that multiculturalism need not be an Anglo-centric or Euro-centric cultural construct. When the music stops, I hear the nothing of morning, littered streets. Imagined thrones have collapsed and the street must be swept. I hear pigeons, “jeering.” “The hour is here and afterwards nothing: / insistent jeering of doves / and rapid wings, unexpected,” a return to quotidian reality after the excess of carnival and its heady release and renewal. That’s how Victor Turner reads Carnival. Speaking of performativity, following Turner, Richard Schechner claims that “Once bits are freed from their attachment to larger schemes of action, they can be rearranged—almost as the frames of a film being edited are rearranged to make new actions” (Schechner, By Means of Performance, Cambridge 1990: 41). In Echavarren’s poetry these frames or actions represent only themselves, becoming moments and images, inversions of liminality, invested with transgendered intimacies and celebration. The stream of allusions troubles the surface, neutralizing gendered codes while celebrating phallic and androgynous excess. Call it bacchanalian. I’m the paunchy melancholic in the corner. Silenus, John Falstaff.