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Review of Books
July 2, 2002

“With me, every poem has its score.”

Interview by Beatriz Berger


Eluding the dictatorship of conventional language, the author, whose inspiration has never taken a vacation, succeeds in uniting music and literary creation in his work.“Donde muere la música, otra vez las palabras.” (“Where the music dies, once more the words.”)

David Rosenmann-Taub: a genius? At least that is what one could conclude from the story of this son of Polish parents who was born in Santiago in 1927, who learned to read at the age of a year and a half, and who at three wrote his first poems. While his father, a polyglot and a discriminating reader, introduced him to the world of literature, his pianist mother taught him to play the piano when he was only two. By the age of nine, he had already taken on his first student.

“The piano and writing,” says David Rosenmann-Taub now, “are as much a part of me as my body. My parents protected what was natural in me. They didn’t set a course for me: ‘You have to do this.’ No. Exactly what I liked was what they wanted to support. My father could have thought that I was doing something secondary when one morning, very early, he caught me writing verses; but he said: ‘You don’t have to go to school if you want to write.’ And my parents never interfered in my play. My mother used to say: ‘To play, for a child, is work.’ When someone has the aptitude to do something and the possibility to develop it, is that genius? What is difficult in this world is to be able to live for what we are. Just as an apple tree cannot avoid producing apples, so I have not been able to avoid perfecting my thinking.”

And he began to write before knowing how to write:

“I dictated my inspirations to my mother; very soon I could do it alone. I’ve always written. This love of letters I would explain as a marriage. I am married to letters. I love my wife, I am crazy about her. It’s a good marriage, because my wife is also crazy about me. The influence of my parents has been very strong. From the intellectual point of view, in everything that I’ve read, I’ve found an astronomical distance between my mother’s thinking and that of the novelists and philosophers.”

In this way, music and literature become one with the body and soul of the poet:

“Until I was fourteen or fifteen, they could have been called ‘passions’. Since then? My creative world is my breath. Pedro Humberto Allende, my teacher of musical composition, said, ‘You’re going to dedicate yourself exclusively to musical composition.’ I replied to him: ‘I study musical composition for my poetry and poetical composition for my music.’ With an incredulous expression, he asked me: ‘Are you joking?’ It wasn’t a matter of choosing one thing over the other. My poetry and my music are two friends who help each other a lot. I write in music, I write in Spanish. When I studied other languages, I did it to go deeper into my musical language and into my poetic language. I can’t deny that, between the ages of ten and twelve, I was influenced a great deal by Schumann’s music. To listen to my mother play the ‘Symphonic Etudes’ and ‘Carnaval’ affected my life. It got me used to the idea that what I love most will disappear. One of my piano compositions is ‘Morir para nacer’ (‘To Die in Order to Be Born’). This is a daily experience: to be born on Tuesday, you have to die on Monday. We all carry the corpse of our past. To be tomorrow requires that I die today.”

Inquisitive by nature, while he studied Spanish at the Pedagogic Institute of the University of Chile – he graduated in 1948 – he also attended courses in astronomy, English, French, Portuguese, esthetics, and art. Subsequently, at the suggestion of a friend of Einstein, he studied physics.

“Everything has served me, including, of course, physics. Knowing physics is inescapable. Although the information it provides, up to now, has been very primitive. Besides, the physical world is replicated in the psychic world. In essence, there is no internal and external. Much of physics is basic for the understanding of psychology. I also attended anatomy and botany classes. I don’t talk about what I don’t know.”

In 1976 he was awarded a grant by the Oriental Studies Foundation to writeAjorca de Europa (Anklet of Europe) and give lectures in New York. In the midst of the vicissitudes of his life, he cultivated friendships. About Alberto Rubio and Armando Uribe he comments: “Very gifted poets, clean and consistent friends.” He says that there are writers with whom he took only brief contact but who meant a lot to him “because of their good will, their lack of envy, and their desire to help.” He mentions Antonio de Undurraga, Luis Merino Reyes, Joaquín Ortega Folch, Luis Sánchez Latorre, Augusto Iglesias... “In Chile, as in every other place,” he adds, “there were individuals who tried to monopolize everything and who acted like aggressive prima donnas. Fortunately, there existed a fairly small group of intellectuals with generosity and curiosity. Hernán Díaz Arrieta (Alone), Mariano Latorre, Ricardo A. Latcham, Julio Arriagada, Enrique Molina, Samir Nazal: as human beings, gems.”

In 1985, he settled in the United States, devoting himself to his artistic activities and to giving classes in literature, music, and art. In addition, he records his piano compositions, compiles his drawings, and writes. Since 2000, CORDA, a non-profit foundation, has been safeguarding and disseminating his work. “The preservation of my work gives me peace,” he acknowledges.

Nevertheless, it was not easy to discover the whereabouts of David Rosenmann-Taub, considered by Alone a pioneer, capable of shaking up the routine of twenty or thirty years of poetry. An almost detective-like investigation took us down one road after another until finally the poet decided to break his long, extremely long silence.

What has led you to become an outsider in our literary circle, with a “veiled identity,” as Juan Luis Martínez said?

“One of the things that I thank my country for is that I encountered a lot of difficulty in getting published there. For an artist who wants to be one in an honest way, without betraying himself, without being an internal judas, it is very advantageous not to get any response. From the beginning I’ve had an agreement with myself: I have never written for today. I have written and I write for yesterday and tomorrow, thinking of nourishing those who left and those who will come. The present is the place in which I situate myself to write for the past and for the future. From the point of view of thought, the present is the time that is least real. From the point of view of inspiration, though, the present is the only factor that moves me: I am alive.”

Behind that inspiration exists arduous labor. How does your working life unfold?

“Writing and... writing. By the time I pick up the pencil, I have already written many drafts in my head. I don’t respect improvisation: I don’t feel that what comes from it is mine. An artistic work, in order to be realized, must seem to be the spontaneous effect of a spontaneous cause, although it is the consequence of a complex natural process. For example, the extremely elaborate ‘Impromptus’ of Schubert, or the paintings of Vermeer, which seem to have been created without effort. That I call art. A pencil with a good point and, nearby, a good eraser and a lot of paper whet my appetite and get me going. The blank page seduces me – I embrace it and set it aglow through the act of writing.”

In this act of writing, are there authors you would consider indispensable?

“Immediate life is to me so strong that it eclipses other influences. How can all of culture affect me compared with the fact of walking, any day, at any hour, on any street? Study, investigation, improvement are totally different from the act of creation itself. The only author who is indispensable to me is myself.”

But I understand that the poetry of San Juan de la Cruz and Juana Inés de la Cruz have been fundamental for you.

“Fundamental for the history of poetry, not for me. In Juan de la Cruz I observe the same thing as in Teresa de Ávila: a hallucinating mind, of supreme intelligence, above the life of the planet. Juana Inés de la Cruz wrote, in her First Dream, an imitation of Góngora’s Solitudes: what in Góngora achieves plastic aims, in her achieves conceptual aims. More than a poetess, more than a woman, she is a force that beautifies anything.”

Just as music becomes a part of your verses, does poetry influence your musical compositions?

“There are elements of music, of painting, of literature, of sculpture, of architecture, of photography which move me. Literature and painting help me to further clarify my musical thought. Literature also has helped me with drawing: A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies by Bartolomé de Las Casas and Dead Souls by Gogol have awakened images in me. Certain musical works of mine have to do with Thackeray and Tolstoy, in the formal (not the conceptual) sense: I wanted, as in Vanity Fair and Anna Karenina, that one voice be distributed among different voices. As of now I have recorded some one hundred CDs of my piano works. My reaction to un-civilization and to the selfishness that predominates in human conduct, my outcry, my indignation, my repulsion do not express themselves in me with words. They appear, indeed, in some of my musical motifs. My protest against the historic world appears in some of my compositions. In my poetry, very rarely.”

What place does silence have in your work, as a part of the music?

“Silence is fundamental in poetry. The sonority of silence. Otherwise the verse doesn’t happen. The lack of awareness of what silence entails – a caesura, the passing from one line to the next, the passing from one stanza to another – has showed me the extent to which what is written in apparent poetic form is not poetry. And silence has a fundamental value in music. No less than that of sound.”

Do motifs of sound and rhythm perhaps lead you to invent words, unite some or stress others where, grammatically speaking, it’s not the rule?

“It’s not a matter of that but rather of what it takes to express oneself, and of establishing that the use of the word is not the conventional one, which is, in the language of poetry, only one aspect of the word. This is the serious problem in literature, especially in poetry: conventional language tries to become a dictatorship and impose itself as the only language. Authors from other eras are better defended from this, because they no longer depend on the conventional language of the present moment.”

Unamuno said that in order to learn to write one has to forget grammar.

“What Unamuno means is to forget prejudices: to be free. Grammars are a posteriori, not a priori. But there is a tendency in the human being to receive orders without discrimination. Grammar represents what is usually done. Language is logical and is not. If I am an artist, the language which I receive is only a minimal aspect of what I need: I must create my own language: I cannot express myself with the words of another, because in that way I lie and I lie to myself. It’s an indispensable requirement. One must learn whatever will help to satisfy this requirement. And to learn things that are useless is a great wisdom: that of recognizing what is useless.”

Hearing you recite your poetry one is struck by the importance that the vowels acquire.

“A poem is a graphic, mental, and sonorous phenomenon. In a certain way, a true poem is a score. The same as if we are going to read a musical text by Chopin or Schönberg. With me, every poem has its score. In Quince (Fifteen), a book that I hope to publish soon, I comment on some of my poems, and I include their scores. If the reader doesn’t read correctly, how is he going to understand?”

It would seem that in your verses you give more preponderance to the sound than to the content.

“Everything is for the content. If there’s no content, there’s nothing. How is form or sonority going to have more importance than the content? Does the body have more importance than the soul? To separate form and background is a pseudo-didactic theory.”

“La serpiente llamea, desafía/ la claraboya, enróscase, me silba,/ porque viví la vida, no mi vida. (“The serpent blazes, defies/ the skylight, coils, hisses at me,/ because I lived life, not my life.”) , you write in Los Surcos Inundados (The Flooded Furrows, 1951). Do you think you have found your own voice?

“My voice found me. In the line you quote is the danger of not living one’s personal life, of living a life according to circumstances, in thrall to a kind of a preeminent fashion. To be born in China in the past century or two thousand years ago, or to be born two thousand years from now in South America or in Africa ought not to alter what I am. The circumstance is one thing, and the individual is something else. That famous phrase of Ortega y Gasset’s, ‘man and his circumstance,’ can be a marvelous justification for saying that nobody lives his own life but rather lives the life of his milieu. Perhaps that is what happened to Ortega y Gasset. Not to me. However grave the circumstance, one has to be oneself. At least in one’s self-dialogue. It’s true that the Spanish language is something that I received. We receive everything. I was given the cloth, but I made the suit and it is I who keeps making it.”

In all of your poetry there’s the relevant presence of God. “Era yo Dios y caminaba sin saberlo./ Eras oh tú, mi huerto, Dios y yo te amaba”. (“I was God and I was walking about without knowing it. You, oh you, were my orchard, God, and I loved you.”) What is your relationship with the divine?

“For me the term God is of this earth. What I call divine is the expression of absolute earthliness. It has nothing to do with the concept of religions, in which I find no divine divinity. The poem that you mention was written when I was twelve. I wrote it again in Buenos Aires, after losing my family. And I rewrote it with very few changes. That which satisfies me, gives me tranquility, gives me joy, without asking anything from me in return: that is what I call God. Which is why I say: ‘I was God and I was walking about without knowing it.’ That tranquility, that satisfaction, was God. I was the orchard. Believing that I loved things, I was loving myself. Because if I love someone, what I love is the image that I have of the other. I would formulate your question: ‘What is your relationship with yourself?’”

Why, if you have you written around forty books, have you only published ten?

“Poetry is not the same as a detective novel. It is usually published not because of the quality of the work but rather because of how marketable it is. There are publishers that make a living off this: they buy the product they can sell. From their point of view, it’s reasonable. There is, also, the more open publisher, who wishes or needs to do business, but, who at the same time, having an artistic sense that is not incompatible with that ethic, wants to give a higher direction to his or her activity. Arturo Soria, who was the owner of the publishing house Cruz del Sur, lost no time in publishing me and told me, “When I go, who will publish your books?” He didn’t manage to publish either the second volume of Cortejo y Epinicio (Cortege and Epinicion) or País más allá (Country Beyond), which are still unpublished. Cruz del Sur, to announce them, issued a recording in its collection ‘The Archive of the Word,’ in which I recorded poems from those books. With the publishers in my country, I would have had to pay to publish them. For many years I had a lot of financial responsibility for my family. I couldn’t afford that luxury. Since then I have devoted myself solely to my artistic work. The fact that now in Chile Auge and the third edition of the first volume of Cortejo y Epinicio (it has four volumes) will be published shows me that the spirit of Arturo Soria continues with this project of LOM’s.”

The book that you will republish in Chile is the first that you published but not the first that you wrote, correct?

“Although in Cortejo y Epinicio there are some poems written at the age of nine or ten, my first book (still unpublished) is called Opus Uno and it contains the poems of my childhood. These poems were among the enormous number of manuscripts which were stolen from me. I have recovered a few of them and have been able to remember others. Opus Uno ends with El Adolescente, which I wrote at fourteen, and from which, many years ago, I made a new version. I turned over one of the first versions to Antonio de Undurraga, who published it, as a surprise, in the first issue of his magazineCaballo de Fuego.

Why do you think it is that Cortejo y Epinicio (1949) has resisted the passage of time?

“What led me to rewrite the first volume of Cortejo y Epinicio in 1978, in Buenos Aires, after the death of my parents, was my desire to be with them. When I originally wrote it, I knew that it had gaps that I was not capable of filling. Now I was at a point where I was able to fill them. Without having the first edition of the book with me, I wrote it over again. And I didn’t look back at the first edition until the second was published: a way to test the strength of the book’s truth. The edition of Cortejo y Epinicio that LOM will publish contains minor alterations. Time does not pass in vain. That much, at least, is good about it. I’m not talking about correcting. It is not a matter of correcting. It’s a matter of coming closer the real version.”

And what would you say has been the evolution from your first poems to those you write today?

“My poetry is the answer to that. I write what is important to me. What was important to me when I was three years old continues to be important to me still. What horrified me when I was five continues horrifying me. What attracted me when I was ten continues attracting me. What does not withstand the passage of the years is failure. What purpose does my poetry have, if it doesn’t withstand the passage of a few years?”

Let’s speak about Auge, your new book.

“Seven of the twenty-one poems of Auge are commented on by me in the book Quince. I feel myself at the height of my control. My inspiration has never taken vacations. What name to give my inspiration? Auge (Zenith).”

In conclusion, what challenges has poetry presented you with? What has it meant to you to devote your life to it?

“Poetry has forced me to deepen my curiosity, to think and to rethink and to rethink yet again until I found answers within me. Poetry is goal and pretext. In order to truly express something, one has to truly know it. To live is a challenge. I haven’t devoted my life to poetry. I’ve devoted my life to my life, which is poetry.”