Substances that Survive Us: Alejandro Cortés González (Bogotá, Colombia, 1977)

At the end of June I happened upon a poetry reading while lurking in the Fondo de Cultura Económica, a bookstore and cultural centre dedicated to Gabriel Garcia Marquez in Bogotá’s historical downtown of La Candalaria. The event was in recognition of the recent poetic work of Alejandro Cortés González, who is emerging as an important name in the city’s literary underground. 

González has published a novel, Notas de inframundo (Underworld Notes, 2010), for which he won the Concurso Nacional de Novela Corta de la Universidad Central, and two poetry collections: Pero la sangre sigue fría (But the Blood is Cold, 2012), and Sustancias que nos sobreviven (Substances that Survive Us, 2015). Among other literary awards, he won the VI Concurso Nacional de Poesía, Universidad Industrial de Santander (VI) in 2014, with the manuscript that would become Sustancias que nos sobreviven

It was in promotion of this collection that González read at the Fondo. There were around fifteen people in attendance, of various ages, from undergraduate hipster to the tweedy abuelo. We sat in red plastic chairs in front of a long table draped with a white tablecloth. The reading was emceed by Guillermo Martínez González (La Plata, Colombia, 1952), another well-established Colombian poet who has worked extensively in translating Chinese poets into Spanish. 

One of the first poems that González read was titled “Home Sweet Home”: 

Home Sweet Home
Los sábados durante mi último año de colegio recorría discotiendas en busca de música de Mötley Crüe. En un almacén del barrio Galerías encontré en acetato Dr. Feelgood, su álbum más reciente. Anduve las calles del centro, desde la diecinueve hasta la veinticuatro, y conseguí Girls, girls, girls también en acetato, Too fast for love y Shout at the devil en CD y, por encargo, después de dos meses de trámites de importación, Theater of pain en casete. Tan pronto lo tuve en mis manos, lo metí al walkman. La quinta canción del lado A era mi favorita: Home sweet home. Me notó tan feliz el vendedor que me regaló dos afiches de la banda. Mi papá los vio pegados en la pared de mi cuarto. Vio los acetatos. Los cedés. No entendió lo del maquillaje glam. No le gustó eso de gastarse la plata de las onces en música, como si la ausencia de música no dejara más vacíos que el hambre. Lo rompió todo, hasta la tarjeta del almacén de Galerías. Pasé el resto de sábados del bachillerato lavando las paredes de SU apartamento, escuchando en mi walkman el único casete sobreviviente y aprendiendo que Home sweet home es una canción de despedida. 
Home Sweet Home
On Saturdays during my senior year of high school, I scoured record stores in search of Mötley Crüe music. In a store in the Galerías neighbourhood I found on the most recent Dr. Feelgood album on cassette. I walked downtown from Calle Nineteen to Calle Twenty-four, and I got Girls, Girls, Girls also on cassette, as well as Too Fast for Love and Shout at the Devil on CD; on request, after two months waiting for international shipping, Theater of Pain on cassette. The moment I had it in my hands, I put it in my Walkman. The fifth song on Side A was my favourite: Home Sweet Home. To my delight the seller had also given me two band posters. My father saw them pasted on my bedroom wall. He saw the cassettes. The CDs. He didn’t understand the glam makeup. He didn’t like wasting snack money on music, as if the absence of music wouldn’t leave more emptiness than hunger. He broke everything, even the loyalty card for the store in Galerías. I spent the rest of my high school Saturdays washing the walls of his apartment, listening to the only surviving cassette on my Walkman and learning that Home Sweet Home is a farewell song. 

Some of the (inter)cultural weight of this poem, when read in the original Spanish with the English bands and song titles mixed in, is diminished in the translation. As this poem indicates, there is a thread of nostalgia that runs through Sustancias, often with a hint of bitterness. González explained, however, that the poems in the volume are not thematically linked. Rather, they contain certain structural connections: the first section, for example, contains longer poems with a faster pace than the second section, which, although containing some poems as short as haikus, tends to be slower and more contemplative. The third section again contains a series of longer poems, etc. In total, there are five sections to the collection, all unnamed except for the fifth, which is a ten-part aphoristic offering of Teoremas sobre la poesía (Theorems on Poetry).  For instance, the first teorema is: “La filosofía busca en el pensamiento, aquello que la poesía tantea a ciegas en la emoción. / The philosopher seeks in thought that which poetry gropes blindly for through emotion.” This thought is followed by, “Emoción es lo que permanece cuando el pensador descubre la ineficacia de pensar. / Emotion is what remains when the thinker discovers the ineffectiveness of thinking.” And so on.  

Beyond the brief aphorisms, González’s poems were generally quite challenging to translate. He engages in wordplay, humor, dry irony, and rhythmic tricks that frequently had me fumbling around for English equivalents – and constantly wondering whether I’d missed the crux. As a result, I kept to the more straightforward poems. At the same time, there can be a lot of silence in his poems, even in the prose ones. This is partially a visual effect, as the lines throughout the volume are always double-spaced. But there is also the space created by loss: 

Esto fue lo que tu nieta menor dijo la noche que perdió su premier globo: “Se rompió mi bomba, por eso la luna me acompaña.” Le contó lo sucedido a los gatos de la casa; abrió un libro y nos inventó historias de gatos con globos, para que pensáramos que a sus tres años, ya sabía leer. 
¿Que por qué te cuento esto?... Bueno… A veces me da por hablarte… tú sabes… sentir que aún nos miras. Le tomo cariño a la idea de que todavía cuidas de tus hijas, de sus hijas, y te vuelves satélite para acompañarlas, cuando se rompen los globos. 
This was what your youngest granddaughter said the night that he lost her first balloon: “My balloon was broken, so the moon accompanies me.” She told the housecats what happened; she opened a book and invented stories for us about cats with balloons, for us to think that at three years old, she already knew how to read. 
Why am I telling you this?... Well... sometimes I want to talk with you... you know… to feel that you still watch us. I am fond of the idea that you still care about your daughters, about our daughters, and you become a satellite to accompany them, when they break their balloons.

Gonzalez is strongest with the prose poems, which isn’t surprising considering that he is also an award-winning storyteller. With these prose pieces mixed in with some haikus and free verse of varying lengths, the collection as a whole is dynamic and occasionally chaotic. As suggested by the book’s title, the reader is constantly reminded of the basic question: what will survive? After a loss, what remains? And what survives us? Gonzalez often draws the reader back to a vague or more direct sense of loss, through memory, nostalgia, or new kinds of spaciousness. Sometimes in his briefer pieces, enhanced by sparse punctuation, this space simply folds toward emptiness: 

El infinito no es una distancia
sino la temperatura de lo perdido
Miro tu silla vacía
¿Qué hacer con el aire que se sienta frente a mí?
¿Qué decir ante tu cara de niebla?
A mí solo me ocurre sentir frío. 
Infinity is not a distance
but the temperature of those we have lost
I look at your empty chair
What to do with the air that sits before me?
What to say before your clouded face? 
All that happens is that I feel cold. 

Thus in his own poetry González often embodies the reflection that he describes in his eighth aphorism or teorema on poetry: “La poesía necesita del vacío para habitarlo. /Poetry needs emptiness to inhabit it.” And as the collection ultimately demonstrates, the emptiness becomes another kind of substance that will survive us – slowly overtaking us, replacing what we have lost with memory, with space, and with the spaciousness that memory creates. 

Emily Paskevics is the author of The Night Was Animal, or: Methods in the Art of Rogue Taxidermy (Dancing Girl Press). Her work can also be seen in Hart House ReviewVallum MagazineActa VictorianaSan Pedro River ReviewBranch Magazine, and UofT Magazine. Emily was born and raised in a semi-suburban ravine in Toronto, Canada.