Santiago de Chile
August 22, 2004
Interview with David Rosenmann-Taub
by Franco Fasola
The work of David Rosenmann Taub lies in a chest at the bottom of the sea. He lives in the United States, regarded as a genius, but in his own country few people know who he is. Many propose him for the Premio Nacional de Literatura (National Literature Prize), but to him it matters little. At the moment, he is preparing País Más Allá, the latest of his enigmatic books of poetry.
How I would like to have never been born,
free of all of yesterday, to have never been born,
to let time run, to have never been born. (...)
So as not to reflect upon myself, so as never to return,
my God, I would believe in You so as not to be.
From poem LXIII, from El Mensajero
Unlocatable. Missing in action. A living legend. In the judgment of Armando Uribe, David Rosenmann Taub is really the person to whom the National Literature Prize should be given, but in Chile, nobody knows him.
Settled in the United Status for more than two decades, he has no awareness of literary circles or of prizes. They don’t interest him. He is seventy-seven years old. And his life confirms the famous maxim: No one is a prophet in his own land.
David Rosenmann-Taub seems to like self-exile. And although distance and time have put him far away from Chile, El Mensajero, one of his latest books, figures as one of the best poetic works of the last year. However, his texts are only for initiates. In fact, tackling them is a titanic task. Not for nothing has he, from childhood on, borne the sometimes uncomfortable tag of “genius.”
The poet, born in 1927, is the son of Polish parents. He learned to read at one and a half, and at three wrote his first poems. His father, Manuel Rosenmann, was a polyglot and began to fill his head with literature. His mother, Dora Taub, a pianist, taught him to play the instrument when he was two years old. At nine, he already had his first piano student.
As a child, he would dictate his ideas to his mother. “I’ve always written. I would characterize this love that I have for letters as a marriage. I am married to letters,” he reports, from the United States. During his youth, when he attended the Colegio Europeo and later the Liceo de Aplicación, his first poems were born, written during recess.
During those years, he wrote El Adolescente (in the literary magazine Caballo de Fuego, 1941) and the first volume of Cortejo y Epinicio. And from then on, all was silent creation and drive of erudition: he studied Spanish at the Instituto Pedagógico of the University of Chile and completed a series of courses in which he tried to capture the essence of life: botany, astronomy, anatomy, English, French, Portuguese, aesthetics, and art.
Many have labeled Rosenmann Taub’s work “mystical.” For that reason, it is not strange that the poetry of St. John of the Cross and Juana Inés of the Cross should be central in his work.
“They’re fundamental for the history of poetry, not for me. In John of the Cross, I observe the same thing as in Teresa de Ávila: a hallucinating mind, of supreme intelligence, far above life on the planet. Juana Inés of the Cross, in Primero Sueño, did an imitation of Góngora’s Soledades: what in Góngora achieves plastic ends, in her achieves conceptual ends. More than a poet, more than a woman, she is a force that beautifies everything,” he said several years ago, in one of the few interviews he has given to the press.
Cortejo y Epinicio (1949) won the award of the Sindicato de Escritores. In 1951, the publishing house Cruz del Sur published Los Surcos Inundados (The Flooded Furrow), which won the Premio Municipal de Poesía. After this auspicious start in national letters, Rosenmann Taub’s path became less and less public. His father fell ill, and he took responsibility for the family. He withdrew from literary circles and began to earn a living teaching music.
In 1973, at the time of the Allende’s fall, the housemaid robbed him of many of his possessions. There went all of his sleepless nights: more than 5,000 manuscript pages, with no copies, disappeared.
According to the dictionary of the Real Academia Española, “bard” signifies “seer, prophet.” That was one of the elements that caused Kenneth Douglas, professor of literature at Yale University, to choose Rosenmann Taub for a grant from the Oriental Studies Foundation. Thanks to that, he was able to write and give lectures in New York. It was 1976 and so began his time as an “outsider.” But for Rosenmann Taub, the meaning of “bard” is broader still than the dictionary’s: “When poetry contains an element of knowledge that goes beyond immediate knowledge, where through the voice of the poet it is speaking to the totality of the human being, one says ‘bard.’”
So, settling in the United States, Rosenmann-Taub began to disappear. He did, however, cultivate friendships with poets like Alberto Rubio and Armando Uribe, whom he regards as “very talented poets, clean and consistent friends.” Few fall into that category. “In Chile, as everywhere, there were individuals who expected to fill all the places and they acted like aggressive stars. Fortunately, there existed a group, not very large, of intellectuals with generosity and curiosity. Hernán Díaz Arrieta (Alone), Mariano Latorre, Ricardo A. Latcham, Julio Arriagada, Enrique Molina, Samir Nazal: as human beings, jewels,” he said several years ago.
Today, from his voluntary exile in the United States, Rosenmann Taub, who is considered by Uribe “the most important and profound living poet of the entire Spanish language”, speaks, exclusively for La Nación.
What do you think when it’s said that your poetic work is full of “secretism”?
"Secretism? I suppose that you’re referring to “hermetism.” At the risk of appearing pretentious: Would you say to Einstein, “Is there something of ‘secretism’ in your theory of relativity?” For those who don’t understand it, of course there is. To understand, even what makes up a salad, requires attention, and attention demands education. The inattentive reader will find any text hermetic, or, worse, he will believe that he has understood it."
In your poetry, which is the most important, the sound or the content?
"I will change the question slightly: which is more important, the form or the content? Content implies substance. You could ask the same question of a musician: “Which is more important: the sound or the content?” “Well,” he would tell you, “what happens is that the content is expressed in sound.” In appearance, form and content are two things. In reality, we’re only dealing with one. What has no content is worthless and useless. Everything is for the sake of meaning. Poetry, when it is poetry, expresses knowledge in the most essential form. Poetry, for me, is to know with exactitude. To know, that is, to grow. Otherwise, what is poetry for?"
How has your close association with music affected your poetry?
"Music and literature don’t influence me. It is my daily experience, my contact, easy or difficult, with existence that motivates me to write. To read something that excites me leads me to read more, not to write. The word “influence” – as one uses it in histories of literature, of music, of painting – is a diplomatic way of saying “theft.” If something is already written, if I agree with what I’ve read, I will recommend the text that I read, but I won’t write it again."
Why have you published so little compared to what you have written?
"Although I’ve published a very limited amount of what I’ve written, it comes to more than ten books. It’s not easy to publish in Chile. Ask any Chilean writer about this. The example of Gabriela Mistral is very well known: her first book was published in the United States; the second and third in Buenos Aires and Mexico. To publish Crepusculario, Neruda received economic aid from Alone, which shows that the publishing house charged him.
"After Arturo Soria, the head of Cruz del Sur, returned to Spain, I couldn’t find another publisher. And I didn’t have the wherewithal to pay to be published. From seventeen on, I’ve paid my own way. My father, a tireless worker and marvelously responsible, didn’t achieve economic success: I had to collaborate with him, gladly, to support my family. I don’t need to tell you anecdotes about the closed doors that I found in Santiago when it came to publishing."
Did you ever feel comfortable in Chile?
"Chile is the same as France, Spain, the United States: take away the facade and people behave the same: once in a while – I’d say once in a great while – they show enthusiasm and good will, and, more often, indifference. I felt comfortable in my country the same way as in New York or in Paris. Can one be comfortable anywhere? I feel good when I am with people whom I love and who love me; that has nothing to do with the place."
What things continue linking you to Chile?
"In a certain way, it’s the same as if you asked me – although I’m exaggerating – what things continue linking you to your mother and your father? Even if Chile were to disappear, I’d still be linked to Chile. It’s the place where I was born. The block where I lived is different – there are new buildings – but, in me, the odd-numbered houses of the four hundred block of Echaurren still stand. For better and for worse, I’m a Chilean."
What do you think of the new generations of Chilean poets?
"Poetry is a phenomenon of the Earth. Chilean poetry is poetry when, beyond being Chilean, it’s poetry."
What are you currently preparing?
"País Más Allá (Country Beyond) is a book that I’ve been writing all my life. It’s not the only book that I’ve worked on in this way. I’ve been hauling all my books along practically since I became aware of my vocation.
"One of the first things that I reflected on was the reason for growing. Why must my body wear away so that my mind can open up? A gradual shutting down of the life cycle, to produce a gradual opening up of the mental cycle. One must pay the price of growing with death.
"And what is the reason to remember? Each day we carry the corpse of the day before. Each day we experience this country: one’s own inner world is already far away. Our today will tomorrow be an unreachable landscape. Each instant recedes infinitely from ourselves, and we can only keep it through a relative memory. What we call the present is the most immediate past: when one grasps it as the present, it is already past. And, inevitably, a day will come on which, for each of us, to have participated in existence will be to have inhabited a country which is beyond us.
"Not only did I want to express this through the book. I set out to express what is the reason that it is this way for me. I have carried this book like my flesh and bones."