La nueva novela is a book of poetry compiled by Chilean poet Juan Luis Martínez in 1971 (followed by subsequent editions in 1977 and 1985). It can be a difficult book to read, in part because it often doesn’t make sense, and in part because it boasts an extremely diverse and unconventional set of contents. These include: riddles and logic problems, mathematics exercises where instead of numbers apparently random objects amount to other apparently random objects, a “General Bibliography on Cats,” metal fishhooks taped to a page, drawings, photographs, maps, quotations, and much more.
Poetry already has a reputation for being difficult. In the New York Times last year, Matthew Zapruder asks:
Do you remember, as I do, how in the classroom poems were so often taught as if they were riddles? What is the poet really trying to say here? What is the theme or message of this poem?
He goes on to write that,
As much as we might have enjoyed reading (and writing) poetry when we were children, in school we are taught that poetry is inherently “difficult,” and that by its very nature it somehow makes meaning by hiding meaning.
Zapruder proposes that rather than approaching poetry as a mystery to be solved, students (and readers) should “get literal with the words on the page.” I agree with Zapruder about this, and in my own teaching, I have also promoted the idea that poetry doesn’t have to be a riddle for students to unravel. Poetry can mean (or not mean) in all kinds of ways that aren’t necessarily hidden.
Here’s the thing though: La nueva novela is literally composed of riddles. And baffling ones at that. It asks, on page 17, for example: “¿Cómo se representa usted la falta de pescado?” (How do you represent the lack of fish?) Elsewhere, a painting of Rimbaud and a military jacket minus a shoe (or is it an ankle boot?), a boot, and a sock are equal to suspenders, a spat, and a sock. These kinds of puzzles multiply throughout the book, along with surprising images, seemingly out of place objects, and a sense of confusion that essentially never lets up.
In many ways then, La nueva novela thumbs its nose at anyone trying to do the good work of un-riddling poetry’s reputation. But it doesn’t really satisfy those critics who might enjoy the interpretive exercise of revealing poetry’s hidden depths either. There are lots of references that can be deciphered in La nueva novela and the book has a way of drawing readers into its massive web of citations, juxtapositions, images, objects, questions, and riddles. But, even as the careful reader follows the book’s tracks, there’s no promise that what the book hides, when revealed, will act like a key to understanding its poetry.
Zapruder writes that “nobody who loves poetry reads it to be impressed, but to experience and feel and understand in ways only poetry can conjure.” Though La nueva novela is truly an impressive feat, a significant part of its reading experience is the feeling of trying to solve a riddle, with all the simultaneous obsession, frustration, and satisfaction that can entail. My impression is that most people who take an interest in Juan Luis Martínez are pulled into the activity of trying to solve the poetic mysteries he stages. (Scott Weintraub, Martínez’s most prominent scholar in the English-speaking world, has worked on a number of these “cases.”) Whether these riddles can ultimately be solved, or understood, well, that’s another question.
Though a singular key to the riddle that is La nueva novela never fully arrives, the experience of reading it still involves calibrating your mind to its particular structure and logic, like you would a crossword puzzle. In other words, the experience of reading La nueva novela is also the experience of learning how to read La nueva novela.
I would say this is true of most poetry. One of the pleasures of poetry—and perhaps one of its difficulties too—is that each poem is also a chance to learn how to read poetry, again, and for the first time. The challenge of writing about poetry is also, then, the challenge of how to transmit a poem’s (or poemario’s) particular, and peculiar, mode of being readable.
In writing about La nueva novela, I account for two major features of the book: first, what it is literally made of, and second, how (though not necessarily what) it means. To do this, I undertake a kind of methodological experiment in which I first describe the book in some detail as a sensible object and later account for the ways it makes (and refuses to make) sense. I argue that these features of the book—the sensible and the sensical—are inextricable and that reading La nueva novela involves attending to both matter and meaning, and to the many ways they relate to one another in the book.