In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 178.
I have long been drawn to the poetry of San Juan de la Cruz, whose lines are woven throughout my novel, Recital of the Dark Verses, published by Deep Vellum last month. The book considers the theft of the saint’s remains from a Spanish monastery in the sixteenth century. One of my favorite moments in San Juan’s poems appears in his “Spiritual Canticle,” in which the saint reinterprets, in a mystical key, the ancient Greek myth of Narcissus: The Bride, in search of her Beloved, comes upon a fountain, and the mirrored surface of its waters offers her the image of her Beloved’s eyes in place of her own reflection.
Oh crystalline fount!
May your silvery surface
reveal now the sight
of those eyes most desired
which are sketched upon my heart!
Look away, my Beloved,
for I take to wing!
Unlike the Narcissus myth, San Juan’s Bride does not fall in love with her mirror image. Instead she becomes disidentified with herself and experiences a dizzying, boundless identification with the Other. Somewhere between the expression of desire and the horror of its fulfillment (“Look away,” she exclaims in terror before fleeing the gaze of those beloved other eyes), an epiphany takes place that the poem never manages to express, because it belongs to the order of things that cannot be put into words.
Though I could never aspire to the mystic heights achieved by San Juan de la Cruz, I’ve included his lines here as something like an epigraph because writing is, to me, precisely this: desiring the Other. It is leaning over the fountain, over the waters of the page, hoping my Other will be revealed to me. I toss my words at the page like someone tossing coins into a fountain while making a wish. And sometimes, (very) rarely, my wish comes true. Sometimes I witness the miracle of the Other. Then and only then, when I don’t recognize myself in what I’ve written, do I feel I’ve written something real—when the paragraph or line of poetry feels disturbingly unfamiliar, as if it had been written by someone else. When what I’ve written seems so strange to me, so Other, that I worry I unconsciously plagiarized something I had read somewhere and then forgotten I’d read it.
Of course, friends who know my work will say under their breath, “Another one of Fabre’s poems.” To them, it will sound just like me; they’ll recognize me in it and yawn, as if they’d read it before. But I know I’m not capable of writing a poem—all I can do is wish for one.
How does the poem get written, then? I wish someone could tell me. My life would be much easier. Or maybe not. Maybe it’s better this way. Maybe it’s better not to know. In any case, I couldn’t tell you because I don’t know. I might have known once, for a moment while writing, but each time I sit at my computer to write a new poem, I realize I’ve forgotten how, if I ever actually knew. It’s as if I’d never written a word before. Like in San Juan’s stanza about the fountain, somewhere between desire and the strangeness of seeing that desire fulfilled, between attempting to write a poem and having written one, there is a vast, empty expanse for which there are no words. The key term there might be “empty.” I suspect it is. Writing to empty oneself of words, to empty the self of oneself and one’s discourse and ideas, and at the same time to conjure the voice of the Other. At least, that’s what I tend to do, more as a ritual than as a method: I write appalling lines and failed stanzas, make embarrassing attempts, and then I try to have patience with the limitations of being a self that is trying to write. (When I was in psychoanalysis, I was always uncomfortable with how intently my analyst focused on the things I said and perceived: It seemed like a crude falsification of reality, that outsized emphasis on what a self might say, a self under the microscope—a therapeutically-mandated narcissism and a self chained to itself, completely the opposite of San Juan. Frankly I find being myself impossibly boring when there are so many other things or selves I could be. But maybe my problem is that I read Ovid’s Metamorphosis at such a tender age.)
That self-trying-to-write is, nonetheless, a self in conversation with others—or, rather, engaged in an exchange among verses. Because in order to reach the Other, I usually take the writing of poets I admire as my point of departure. I’ve been told that what I do could be described as parody; I accept that description, as long as “parody” is understood according to its etymology, meaning an ode set alongside another. A self that is not alone on the road toward the unfamiliar. Writing has never felt to me like a solitary exercise. It’s when I’m not writing that I feel alone.
This is perhaps why translation has long fascinated me as a process of dis-identification: What was written becomes Other through the language of the other. If, as Robert Frost once said and has been so often repeated, “poetry is what gets lost in translation,” then I celebrate that loss. Because it is, in the end, a win: “you might say I am lost, / that, wandering love-struck / I lost my way and was won,” in the (translated) words of San Juan. In its infinite rewriting in other languages (luckily there is no such thing as a definitive translation), poetry ceases to be just poetry and becomes something bigger that we might call “culture.” A process of socialization: the transition from an individual process of writing to an orgy of collective rewriting. An exercise in defamiliarization. Distancing oneself from the original text in order to leave behind an identity and lose oneself in otherness.
The biographers of San Juan de la Cruz tell a story, which, though I’m not sure how true it is, has been like an amulet to me in moments of writerly crisis. A nun, astonished after reading his poems, asked him if those extraordinary lines had been dictated to him by God, to which San Juan responded: “God dictated a few, and the others I came to on my own.” I love this slight boastfulness, this vanity, in someone always so austere. But above all, I’m fascinated by San Juan’s understanding of the self as the origin of the strangest and most inspired—the most “other”—verses ever penned in Spanish.
In the end “I is another,” as Arthur Rimbaud asserts in his Letters of the Seer, and poets, as John Keats states in one of his letters, have no identity of their own. I set out from the writings of others in an attempt to arrive, through my own writing, at the mystery of what I am not and what I do not know. Poetry as the path to unknowing. Maybe, I realize now, this is why Diego, one of the characters in Recital of the Dark Verses recites, as if possessed, San Juan’s poems: lines he does not know and through which he comes to unknow himself.
Which is to say: I’ve never been interested in writing a diary.
Luis Felipe Fabre has published six volumes of essays and poetry and is a recipient of the Punto de partida and José Revueltas prizes. His poetry collections in English include Sor Juana and Other Monsters and Writing with Caca, both translated by JD Pluecker. His first novel, Recital of the Dark Verses (Deep Vellum 2023) received the prestigious Elena Poniatowska Prize and was translated by Heather Cleary. He lives in Mexico City.Art: Marc Olivier Jodoin