“what to tongues is denied”
a nova utopia [the new utopia]
by Régis Bonvicino (S.Paulo: Quatro Cantos, 2022)
Ezra Pound’s name was the first to echo as soon as I started reading this book. Not because of his political options, since the new utopia is at the antipodes of Poundian fascism, but because this is the kind of poetry that the American poet wanted for his modern epic: a poetry that is “hard and dry”. And, indeed, later in the book, in a poem about the emerging fascisms of the present day, Pound and his work are the object of reflection by Régis Bonvicino, the Brazilian author of the new utopia. Ironically, instead of the Poundian “make it new”, the poem carries the title “Make it old” (101-104).
The major characteristic of the new utopia is its blunt, violent, even brutal language, showing a totally unillusioned vision of our contemporary world and of a poetry which seems to find no place in it. It is not an inarticulate scream, and yet we are confronted with a scream. The book’s cover itself reminds us of Edvard Munch’s painting, but there is not even a mouth in it — only what seems to be a fracture, a crack in a face. Readers are thus confronted with an acute expression of the violence of language — a violence which, according to Jean-Jacques Lecercle, derives from an absolute excess of silence. Before the brutality and the absurdity of the real (which, after all, is nothing but a construction — in language too — of “the real”), falls the silence. Without ever saying so, this book of poems is a silent scream confronting its readers with the need to reinvent the possibility for a language that would be truly poetic and truly emancipatory. The problem is that what we have been used to recognize as emancipatory and as poetic has long ceased to be so. Those languages capable of destroying the limits that we, ourselves, impose to our own humanity, as Robert Duncan once wrote, are today emptied and became nothing but a part of a permanently soiled reality. Yet, contrary to Duncan’s, in this new work by Bonvicino not even this need for reinvention is ever pointed out, as if even desire were definitively defeated and without any possibility of (re)existence. Paradoxically, the new utopia thus seems to be dystopia — a kind of coherent incoherence without alternative: that which, in one of the poems of the book, is said to be “what to tongues is denied” (49).
The other major characteristic of the work is the absolute absence of the poetic “I”. Not only absence, but, moreover, what seems to be the erasure of the presence of a voice (using understatement techniques like scarcity of adjectives or adverbs, for example) to the point where silence violently assaults the reader. For this very reason, we cannot speak of any kind of amoral writing here for, in that effect, in that aggression against the reader, this book — in spite of itself — becomes an act of resistance:
Almost on the corner
open windows, dirty tiles
on the sidewalk in front
they ignore the music from the CDs and car radios
when it rains
move to the marquee of the building next door
from time to time
the city truck drives by
hijacks their possessions
single burners, bottles of water,
pillows, old mattresses
one of them gets up
sweeps the sidewalk
a bird lands on the grid end
yellow flower, ironwood
an inexpressive bed of azaleas.
This “inexpressive bed of azaleas,” being inexpressive, expresses everything in its paradoxical existence — just like this book of poems that denies poetry in the very act of becoming a book of poems. In this very same way many titles seem to point to a certain lyricism (“Mare Nostrum,” “Afternoon,” “A Fountain,” “Summer,” etc.), but these poems are, paradoxically and violently, anti-lyric.
Refusing any form of confessionalism, the text is built through fragmentation and juxtaposition, without connectors, without sequentiality or causality, without linearity — as if we were following a vision in process, a path; as if reality were unraveling in fragments, opening itself to our passage, which is also the poet’s passage. Sometimes, in its many enumerations, it reminds us of Walt Whitman’s catalogs; at other times, it reminds us of William Carlos Williams, but without any cyclic redemption of nature:
Aztec ant, grayish ant,
stinks: it shoots out a liquid
to protect the chestnut tree
from aphids, whiteflies,
from cicadas, from plant lice
from monkeys, from the beaks of the jandaias
from the canary’s sudden foot
to secure nectar droplets
from the stems, from the twigs
from the sugary droppings of the larvae
from burrs: fruits of the chestnut
aerial nest, rows, stings
a macaw perches
the narcotic song of the fire-extinguished
claws of the acauan scratch the trunk
Aztec ants, at once, spit again.
To a certain extent, it also reminds us of T.S. Eliot’s pessimism, in Waste Land, but without any possibility of transcendence since there is nothing “beyond”.
In the very first poem, entitled “Art”, not even irony is redeeming. Echoing the songs by Chico Buarque (“Construção” [Construction]) and by Tom Jobim (“Águas de Março” [Waters of March]), there is never any promise of life:
is a Bolivian immigrant demolishing
the beams of a building
is also a sociologist with binoculars, on a ship
disguising his blindness
it is a clock on a tombstone
purple ear, slow steps
fleeing from the Good Retreat farm
is the progressive economic conflict,
wild duck foie gras
it’s a mattress with a sheet dumped on the sidewalk
it’s a black boy hurrying past
the cobbled street by door of the Pari church,
suddenly remembers and makes the sign of the cross
is a bundler shot by a boy
at a bus stop in the afternoon
is a coil of electrical wire tied to the foot of a pole
a couple quarrels, in daylight, under the bright STAR India
is a camel uttering murderous words
is a guy handcuffed, shooting his own head
is an artist turning himself in to the police
It is this desperate gesture of the artist turning himself in to the police that the new utopia offers to its readers. Wanting this book to be a crime seems to be the only thing that can redeem it.
Perhaps linked to this crime is the central figure of Bertran de Born in “Sonorities” (73). Associated with troubadour poetry, de Born was also an activist, a soldier who met death and gave death, and who wrote many satirical poems also of a political nature. In spite of the langue d’Oc (which will appear a few times in other poems), there is no lyricism in “Sonorities”. Like all the other poems in the book, “Sonorities” is immersed in a dirty, urban environment in which images of crime, war, and terrorism merge with onomatopoeias seemingly giving an accidental lyrical note, but immediately interrupted by the imperative “go sing that shit somewhere else” (74), which ends the text about the minstrel.
Many are the words repeated in the new utopia, creating certain leitmotive that give unity to the work— words like beggar, garbage, homeless, rats, crime, war, death — reinforcing the dirty, urban environment. In the middle of the passage, in the middle of poems, we begin to find prose texts, which carry the title “The new utopia” and they are numbered. There are fourteen texts and only the second and the last three are written in lines, as if there were an attempt towards a symphonic construction.
“The new utopia (2)” seems to be a reflection on the book itself, also in its paradoxical nature of “a useful side of the word”, a “highly subversive antiverse” and “a washing of words”. I particularly like the images of “linguistic terrorism” and of “a firm daughter of a (b…)homeland,”* in a poem that again seems to echo Jobim’s song:
The new utopia (2)
It is a discourse strictly tied to reality
It is a fiscal tax hell
It is a real enterprise
It’s the useful side of the word
It’s a foolish white people’s thing
It’s the bottom line
It’s the Equitable app
It’s lactose-free breakfast
It’s the alcohol-free beer and the electronic cigarette
It’s a prayer, no Ave Maria whispered
In a shantytown alley
It’s a synonym for hooligan
It’s the alarm against
The environmental impact of a boat ride
It’s a protest against English classes
It’s a blue-coll@r worker’s p@in in job transition
It is the ecological redemption of the weeds
It’s a legal approach to the devil
It’s a paraolympic blind
It is a highly subversive antiverse
It is a potential target for linguistic terrorism
It’s a hardcore Dracula donating blood
It’s the right to a second chance guaranteed
It’s a street dweller turning over a can of selective garbage
It’s the proceeds from the legal sale of weapons
Violins after all the stinky breeze
It’s a washing of words
It’s a firm daughter of a (b…)homeland
One might think that irony is the main strategy of the new utopia, but that is not the case. It goes far beyond that. Rather, this book is about shattering any recognizable discursive practice, about trying to implode (from inside) the public voice of meaning, even that which is illusorily presented as resistant (hence the need to reinvent emancipatory language, as I mentioned at the beginning of this text). In other words, we are dealing with nonsense and with what Charles Bernstein calls “comedy” — no longer a literary genre, but a linguistic strategy. Here is the final fragment of the first poem of the series “the new utopia” as another example:
The new utopia (1)
(…) It has its own dictionary. It thinks before acting. It dismisses words and calls for action. The new utopia is an ex-lame. It is the wing of flight. It is a showroom of natural exuberances. It is a sky with black clouds, under control. It is a bookcase in a bathroom. It is Jorge Luis Borges’ widow detailing his creation process. The new utopia is an ex-maccumber, an ex-drunkard, a dirty ex-exu. It is a white man with a black soul. The new utopia is, moreover, the indigenous man with a torch, doing politics, daily, on the social networks. The new utopia is an ex-beautician with fake nails. It is a trans spy sunbathing on a router. It is an ex-savage. It’s an ex-slut. It’s an ex-kid. It’s an expert. It’s an ex-pariah. It’s a myriad of award-winning poet franchises. It’s a poem up to its time. (22)
“A poem up to its time” is now one in which the Marxist call to action, which Guy Debord transformed into the call to art, has become a Guy Debord wearing “Prada,” as we can read in another poem, “a call to kill” (63-64). The new utopia is thus defined as a kind of neo-liberal inevitability of capitalism that, for this very reason, can only be “an epic of the outcast,” as in “the new utopia (3):
It is an epic of the outcast. It is the mass of organized opposition to power. For it, every day is a historical day. (…) The new utopia chooses a grave under the sun. It does not chew on past lives. It protests, live, against the mafia of the undertakers. It does not go round and round on a single idea. It does not dig its own grave. The new utopia is, in the END, the liberation of man, the man now simple, finally true, the déjà-vu man. (94)
The new utopia thus seems to be what Agamben calls “the naked life” — but without a shred of redemption or sacredness. As we can read in “the new utopia (5), it is only about “Living of death, dying of life” (106).
And immediately after, in “the new utopia (6),” the death of poetry is also announced. But, at the end of the poem, poetry can still appear as “a ghost that startles, haunts you sometimes” (108), The same haunting and the awe one finds in “Álvaro de Campos,” a poem that deplores the promises of Modernity, those that brought us to this dramatic moment in our history — the promises of the best of worlds in which the Portuguese modernist heteronym of Fernando Pessoa, Álvaro de Campos, believed:
Álvaro de Campos
You light a cigarette to postpone the journey
but you have no oasis,
you only have destiny and reality.
You are no longer the boy you became by mistake.
You are, in truth, at some boarding gate
True or a product of your art.
No use raising all the Caesars in you
to delay the clocks of the cosmos or the journey
Or repeat: “Delay yourself, delay yourself.”
Great, as you say, are the deserts
and everything is really a parable or a desert.
Yet a tiny virus,
you didn’t want or didn’t imagine,
suddenly accelerates the engines of the universe.
The last poem of “the new utopia,” (14), tells us that new utopia “is not a sequel to utopia,” but only “the stone, lighter, of Sisyphus” (144). Soon after, in “Round trip,” the poet concludes, in a kind of ironic praise of conceptual poetry: “it is also a duet with silence/ a waiting queue to pick up bone chips/it is life without the relief of an instrument” (146). And finally, in the last line of the last poem of the book, the question: “Who pays to see after all?”
I would answer: “None of us!” But also, and paradoxically, “All of us.”
I thank the poet Régis Bonvicino for confronting us with the question. The question that is always underlying the poems in the new utopia. A very difficult question. And so very necessary!
*The double meaning (son of a b…) can only be heard in the alliterative echo in the Portuguese language.
Graça Capinha is a professor at the School of Arts and Humanities & Center for Social Studies
University de Coimbra. She translated this essay from Portuguese.
With thanks to Dan Hanrahan.