José Asunción Silva, terror and shadow

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

Photo: private archive

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

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 times in his life and also allows us to discover the poet’s manuscripts, a drawing of his entitled The precocious flirt and a card that he wrote and placed on the grave of his sister Elvira. 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 has caught my attention the most is the way in which two obsessions emerge and intersect of the poet: terror and shadow. This writing, then, is nothing more than the pursuit of those two obsessions in the anthology in question, the pursuit of two themes, two images, which in my opinion are at the center of this poetry and are the root of its sadness and its nostalgia.

I will start by talking about terror, a theme that at first glance seems alien to Silva’s concerns, but which is present in youthful poems such as “Crepúsculo” and “Las undinas”, in which the poet makes use of 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 readers feel “the shadow that climbs through the curtains”, we hear “the funeral bark of a gozque” and we are disturbed to see how “dolls sleep […] half abandoned. It is about an entire iconography and a language of terror with which Silva sought, in his readers, the same effect that supernatural tales and myths have on children. Silva wants to scare us, amaze us, put our senses on alert and thus wrap us in the mystery of the unknown, the unseen, the barely suggested.

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Terror and fantasy have the power to envelop our lives “in the mist of dreams”, as the poem “Childhood” says, and in this way endow our precarious reality with mystery. Likewise, Silva’s verses seek to wrap us in spectral atmospheres that allow us to glimpse other planes of reality. For example, in the poem “The Skull”, a pair of swallows flutters across the earth as if searching for the spirit of a monk whose skull rests there, in the orchard of an abandoned convent, as evening falls. The entire landscape that Silva creates, each placed element, almost like in a painting, leads our imagination to a plane of reality in which the dead return for their bones. And so we intuit 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 fed by this imagery of terror: there are characters who wake up suddenly at midnight, there are mysterious abandoned or demolished spaces, and there are many, many encounters with the dead that make themselves present in some way. way. However, I also realized that terror in Silva is not only a tool to suggest our consciousness and make our reality fantastic, but that, especially in the poems of adulthood, terror assumes another face: the of an indescribable malaise, as happens in the poem “Los maderos de San Juan”. There, the tender vision of the 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 a counterpoint with the children’s song repeating its chorus over and over again, increasing the somber atmosphere of the scene.

The vision of the future of the grandson causes, in the grandmother, a deep terror. The poem says that her spirit crosses “like a strange fear”, a vague, indecipherable sensation, but always lurking. I think that Silva understood, over the years, that the greatest terror that nests in our minds is that anxiety or anguish that arises before the ghost of what is not, the past that was better, the future that is uncertain, that fear towards what we imagine and project, but it is not real, and yet it terrifies us like the most fearsome of specters, it paralyzes us with fear. In many of Silva’s poems and even in his novel desktop there’s always a me that he is prey to that discomfort, that anxiety, that he lives unhappily in his present, in terror of the 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 our 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 shadowy, that is, the use of the shadow, the other obsession I want to talk about. It is evident that the shadow has become a kind of symbol that identifies all of Silva’s poetry, but the image is not reduced to the use he makes of it in his most famous poem, in which two elongated shadows meet and unite, but there is a whole exploration that results from the fixation that the poet had with painting and the use of light.

I do not know, in truth, a modern poetry as conscious of its pictorial nature as Silva’s, and the results of those effects are insurmountably expressive. In poems like “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 shine / with soft wings”, on the other hand, when the rays fail to penetrate the thickness of the trees, the earth becomes “a hidden canopy of shadows”. It also happens that light and shadow create color: when the sun’s rays, lukewarm, fall with the afternoon, they “illuminate / the horizon, with a reddish glow”, and when they stop lighting the green forest, it becomes it returns “black, very black, on the background / bright and amber”.

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

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But Silva was not a master of shadows only because of his way of painting with them, but also because of his way of looking at life. Before, I have said that the idyllic scene of the grandmother and the grandson is “shadowed”, that is, it becomes more gloomy, more inhabited by anxiety and sadness, more full of pessimism. Silva, in fact, defined the pessimist as the one who has too much shadow in his visions, and that “shadowed” way of seeing life prevails in most of his work. It should be added that, under the gaze of the poet, it is the passage of time that brings shadows into existence: the years take away the mystery and charm of life and take us to increasingly unhappy places. It happens, for example, in the poem “Sus dos mesas”, in which the fine and suggestive dressing table of a single woman is contrasted, adorned with “diaphanous essences”, “a rare and fragile glass”, “the iris of a diamond , the blood of a ruby”, with the trivial dresser of that woman after getting married, where rests “a bottle”, “a prayer book”, “an old reverberatory 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. Hence, Silva’s poetry is a hive of nostalgia and he exclaims “happy age!” in the verses of the poem “Childhood”, since this is a “pleasant valley / of calm and blessed freshness”, but whose “brief blisses [son] transitory”. In any case, although nostalgic, Silva does not seek to restore the past and, on the contrary, has a fixation with it because it is about the time that is no longer, it is a ghostly time, and his visions are vague and ethereal like “melancholic music ” of a bambuco whose notes are going to be lost in the air or the “faint and bluish smoke” that spirals up into the sky until it disappears, evanescent images that Silva explores in the poems “Paseo” and “Humo”.

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In my opinion, the darkest vision reached by Silva’s poetry is in the poems in which he scathingly and hurtfully mocks himself, the poet he represents, as in “Avant-propos”, where it is recommended himself no more reading “poems / full of tears”, or in “Zoosperms”, where he sees himself as the smallest of the spermatozoa that a scientist sees through his microscope, “the smallest, some lyric poet”, and reflects , also, in the spermatozoon that when becoming a man “and after a thousand anguishes and deeds and passions / would have committed suicide with a Smith & Wesson”. But in the midst of such a vast shadow, sometimes glimpses of light sprout from Silva’s poems, minimal optimistic visions whose focus is usually writing itself, that is, poetry as hope, as faith. The poem “To Diego Fallon”, dedicated to a poet whose work was an important influence on Silva, is proof of that faith, since it is said that when no one in the future remembers Fallon’s verses, they “will still speak, spirits that dream / the secular jungles / that are filled with mists and shadows / at dusk”. His poetry will live on, says an optimistic Silva, even if it is in a few but sensitive readers for whom those verses will have “vague mysterious murmurs.”

However, these leaps of faith are just flashes. The past is a painful sensation, the vague tenderness of past times, the present is a shadow that advances and the future is uncertain and black. I would dare to say that, over the years, this vision was increasingly stronger in the personal life of the poet. I thus return to the words of the essayist from Antioquia Baldomero Sanín Cano, one of the friends who knew him best: he assures that Silva always looked at life seriously and made himself the most perfect machine for suffering. I also return to see the index of this anthology: of the nineteen texts, seventeen poems and two prose, at least eleven were written before he was twenty-one years old, which shows that terror and the shadow nested in him from a very young age . Finally, I return to see the photo I spoke about at the beginning: there is the boy with the serious look, the look of someone who faces the world with excessive gravity. I think Silva never stopped being that child.

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José Asunción Silva, terror and shadow