Rafael Felipe Oteriño:
The Voice of a Castaway

by Lisa Rose Bradford

Surveying the work of Argentine poets from the last 50 years, one notices a pocket of creativity sometimes called “The ‘70s Generation,” united in chronology, poetics, and one pervasive word:
náufrago, or castaway. The Spanish word connotes more than just solitude; it contains the concept of defeat, which seems to shade most of the poetry written in that decade. The poets forming this group were publishing between the late ‘60s and early ‘80s, and many continue writing today, but their work has been underrepresented in international forums and disregarded by many critics in Argentina as well since they seem to form something of an “interruption,” like a bubble amid more visible tendencies. One of the most outstanding representatives of this generation is Rafael Felipe Oteriño. With ten books of poetry* and numerous national poetry awards, he has been inducted into the Argentina Academy of Letters but is neither revered nor emulated by younger Argentine poets and is virtually unknown outside of the Spanish-speaking world.

Most of the Argentine poets who remained writing in their homeland in the ‘70s—Guillermo Boido, María del Carmen Colombo, Eduardo D'Anna, Hugo Diz, Daniel Freidemberg, Jorge García Sabal, Irene Gruss, Ricardo Herrera, Santiago Kovadloff, Cristina Piña, Víctor Redondo, Jorge Ricardo Aulicino, María Julia de Ruschi Crespo, Paulina Vinderman, Jorge Zunino, etc.—have been all but squeezed into a void, perhaps by dominant trends, perhaps for reasons of political non-affiliation, but certainly, too, because they settled into a gray area of apparent oblivion to the violence and politics of the "Proceso." Lodged between the engagement and intimacy of the colloquial poets of the ‘60s and the contending neo-baroques and neo-objectivists of the '90s, most of these poets were writing a verse of classical austerity and introspection. They coexisted with militant writers such as Juan Gelman and experimental intimists such as Alejandra Pizarnik and Néstor Perlongher but rejected both the social and personal expressions of the previous generation and the baroque exuberance of the one there following.

Oteriño represents an established, though problematic voice in Argentine contemporary poetry. His verse has always maintained a fine dignity and discipline constructed on a simplicity that shuns both excessive colloquialism and extreme preciosity of allusion, metaphor or language. Often based on balanced equations that lead to metaphysical revelations, his is a poetry of melancholy, self-discovery and memory. Born in 1945, he spent his childhood and studied law in La Plata, the capital of the province of Buenos Aires, and was named as civil judge in Mar del Plata in the early 1970s. Before leaving college in the late ‘60s, some of his poems found their way into anthologies, but most of his first books appeared during the years of the “Proceso.”

The reason why Oteriño has often been ignored may be understood in light of the socio-political context in which he worked, wrote and published. This "Proceso de Reorganización Nacional" or National Reorganizational Process was the label the military dictatorship used to refer to its program. In 1974 after the death of Perón (arguably the most significant president in Argentine history), both left- and right-wing terrorism shook the country, with the end result being a coup under the leadership of General Jorge Videla, who initiated this “Proceso.” In the period between 1976 and 1983, it is calculated that from 12,000 to 30,000 people "disappeared" (National Commission on the Disappeared, CONADEP) due to the "Dirty War," whose intention it was to cleanse the nation of all forces subversive to neo-liberal reform, which included not only militants, but unionists, students, clerics, journalists and often the friends of these people as well. Many university departments were closed, particularly in the humanities, as writers, philosophers and historians were thought to be breeders of subversion. Violence in the form of kidnapping, bombing and torture became an integral part of daily experience, leading to both formal and self-imposed censorship. There existed actual decrees regarding television and the publication of works in education, theater, narrative and children's literature, but poetry seems to have been stuttering in self-censorship for the most part, except for the writings of Chilean Pablo Neruda or Argentinean Juan Gelman, who were openly positioned to the left and became a conspicuous absence in the bookstores. Many poets, however, did go into exile or were killed either because of their political leanings or having their names in the wrong address book.

The “interruption” most critics cite regarding these ‘70s poets refers to the fact that the leading poet of the ‘60s, Juan Gelman, who made popular a poetry of the city written in colloquial verse with a shocking imagery that depicted social injustice, went into exile during the ‘70s, and was not published again until the ‘80s, thus forming a glaring parenthesis in his work. Moreover, towards the end of the dictatorship, an important poetry magazine appears,
Diario de poesía (1986-present), that has strived to reinstate a poetry of historical relevance—often citing U.S. objectivists such as Louis Zukofsky and translating Pound, Williams and Ginsberg—and publishing many women and gay poets, so writers like Oteriño got sent to the sidelines. Therefore, the type of poetry written in the ‘70s seems to some to be an anomaly—generated by the silence of other voices and tainted by their silent observance of political events—rather than an emergence of a well-defined, autochthonous movement.

Nevertheless, the pendular swing between measured metaphysical introspection and colloquial social commentary has existed throughout the entire century in Argentina, often with parallels in the political sphere, and the poetry of Oteriño represents yet another return to decorum and solemnity in its severity of tone and avoidance of strident imagery. With the conviction that in restoring stability to the lyrical expression poetry can serve to “illuminate the mysteries of a seemingly nightmarish existence common to all mankind,” Oteriño’s belief in a poetry of immediate worlds musically metamorphosizing into universal truths of lyrical logic produces an expression that, on the one hand, encircles and examines private reality, and, on the other, closes out and ignores social cruelty.

One may wonder if the poetry of this period can entirely shut out the violence. Vestiges may be found in a striking semantic field common to the poetry of most of these writers, which pertains to terror, silence, war, prison, memory and solitude, oftentimes in the form of specific words such a “siege,” “singing,” “naming,” “fire,” “prisoner” and “castaway.” Euphemisms for the terror? Perhaps. However, much of this suffering seems to pertain to the realm of writing, the metapoetic urge so common in twentieth-century verse where the poet either writes about his fear of silence or about the representation of the lyrical urge.

In the figurations of these motifs, Oteriño demonstrates a minimalist tendency in his exploration among visible things equivalent for the vision within. Invoking his childhood in La Plata and personal surroundings or the sea of Mar del Plata in order to reveal and so understand the essential role they play in the present, we find Oteriño groping for a common ground by means of balanced equations or parallel logic and ironic revelations. In the selection at hand, the irony of human optimism, of the inertia of desire, of youthful perspective alongside middle-aged reality, of the dichotomy of man and nature is expressed with cerebral musicality and vivid imagery. At the same time, the humorous analogy of children at an airport found in "My Poet Friends" attests to the sardonic and distant stance he has with his own part-time vocation as poet.

I might add that contention and decorum can become positive elements in poetry, which serve to distance the poet from the anarchy of the total disregard for tradition and the rupture of social bonds existing during a military dictatorship. The reader is constantly lured into the realm of metapoetic analogy through the tenuous terms of pain and desire, as can be found in the poem “Voices Are Heard”: “Like rolling rings, / or drops of honey, or mirrors, / or teeth unearthed / by raging water / they've begun to rise. / [… ] They come crawling up my legs / like the rampant vines of nature.” Whether this be a composed representation of a socio-political reality or a vision of aesthetic floundering, the solitude and silence continue to haunt us.

Altas lluvias (Cármina, 1966), Campo visual (Cármina, 1976), Rara materia (Cármina, 1980), El príncipe de la fiesta (Cármina, 1983), El invierno lúcido (El imaginero, 1987), La colina (Ediciones del Dock, 1992), Lengua madre (Grupo Editor Latinoamericano, 1995), El orden de las olas (Ediciones del Copista, 2000), Cármenes (Vinciguerra, 2003), Ágora (Ediciones del Copista, 2005). Antología poética (Fondo Nacional de las Artes, 1997).

Rafael Felipe Oteriño: 3 Poems

Translated from the Spanish by Lisa Rose Bradford

Se oyen voces (Príncipe de la fiesta 1983)

Como anillos rodando,
o gotas de miel, o espejos,
o dientes desenterrados
por un agua furiosa,
han comenzado a salir.

Abro la boca y están ahí:
flotan en la espuma
y se acuestan en el mar,
son fieles a la razón profunda
que las baña.

Han aprendido
todas las astucias
y no las puedo matar.
Trepan a mis piernas
como si fueran
naturaleza abandonada.

Voices are heard

Like rolling rings,
or drops of honey, or mirrors,
or teeth unearthed
by raging water
they've begun to rise.

I open my mouth and there they are:
they float on foam
and lay themselves down in the sea,
they're loyal to the deepest reason
that bathes them.

They've learned
all the tricks
and I am unable to kill them.
They come crawling up my legs
like the rampant vines of nature.


Mis amigos poetas (Príncipe de la fiesta 1983)

Mis amigos poetas son como chicos en los aeropuertos:
corren de un lado a otro pidiendo información que de inmediato olvidan,
confunden la lista de espera con el purgatorio
y temen más el silencio de sus propias voces
que la noticia de un avión perdido en la inmensidad.

Sentados en sillas que no se tienen en pie
discuten largas horas las probabilidades de un vuelo,
conmovidos por el estampido que hacen las almas al partir.
Darían su vida por leer en el cielo las señales de arribo
y por un solo verso se desprenden de todas las manos.

My poet friends

My poet friends are like children in an airport:
they run from one counter to another asking for information
they immediately forget,
they confuse the waiting list with purgatory
and have more fear of the silence of their own voices
than the news of a plane lost in the immensity.

Seated in rickety chairs
they spend long hours discussing the probabilities of a take-off,
moved by the stampede of those departing souls.
They would give their lives to read the arrival signs in the sky
and for one lonely line they let go of every hand.


La caverna (unpublished)

Tiene la sustancia del mundo: la oscuridad;
una boca por entero abierta,
largos silencios de gigante que no se entienden;
el viento ha arrojado allí unas pocas palabras,
pero no son más que palabras, pues no regresan.

Yo permanezco a su lado: del lado del fuego.
Custodio la entrada y me observo
recortado en la sombra (no soy más que sombra).
Tengo la sustancia de los hombres:
fragilidad y asombro, entrega y obstinación.

The cave

It holds the world's substance: darkness;
a mouth wholly open,
long silences of a giant beyond comprehension;
the wind has hurled a few words inside,
but nothing more than words since they will never come back.

I stay here alongside: on the side of the fire.
I guard the entrance and notice my shadow
has been clipped (I am reduced to shadow).
I hold the substance of men:
frailty and surprise, surrender and tenacity.


Lisa Rose Bradford teaches Comparative Literature at the Universidad Nacional de Mar del Plata and works as visiting professor of Translation Studies at the Universidad Nacional de Córdoba, Argentina. Presently, she is researching postmodern poetry and editing an anthology of U.S. women’s poetry in Spanish, Los pájaros, por la nieve for RIL (Chile). Her verse has been printed in the Poetry Now 2008 calendar issue and will be included in the 2008 Thorny Locust. Beatriz Viterbo published two of her books on literary translation Traducción como cultura, La cultura de los géneros. Her versions of Argentine poetry will be appearing in Faultline.